Aug 5, 2019

The MCU Is About to Get Nerdy

I used to make the two-mile ride on my white Huffy BMX bike to Campus Comics several times per week.  Sometimes several times a day on the weekend if a back issue I absolutely needed to have came in, prompting me to race back home in search of loose change or comics to trade in for credit.  The first comics I ever read were Transformers, but it was Spider-Man and the X-Men that made me a comic book fanatic.

Like most fanatics, you get hooked by the popular acts before eventually digging deeper into the more obscure gems.  At some point, when you’ve run out of money for the big names, you’ll try anything that might satisfy your craving for fictional adventure.  Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are about to experience that same progression.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe Is About to Get Nerdy
Ben Smith

Fans of the ever expanding Marvel movie universe started much like many of us longtime comic book readers did, with superhero A-listers like the Avengers.  Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor may not have been household names when the movies began, but they’ve been mainstays of the comic book universe since the very beginning.  They have very much been the same gateway type of characters for many a comic book fan, as they became for movie fans.

Alongside those Avengers, Hulk and Spider-Man are the biggest pop culture icons Marvel has had pretty much from the very beginning of the company.  They’re as mainstream as superhero characters can get.

A character like Doctor Strange was a bit more of a stretch in the eyes of comic book fans, but not really that much more than Captain America was.  Strange was created by Steve Ditko, one of the legends of the industry, all the way back in 1963.  He may never have been front and center in the Marvel comic universe, but he’s been around ever since then. The real big swing of the first ten years of MCU movies was Guardians of the Galaxy, at least from a comic fans perspective.  The few of us that knew about them, knew they’d be perfect for a larger audience, and that was proven to be true.

But you can only read Avengers or Spider-Man or X-Men so much before you start getting interested in even more obscure characters.  For me, that meant discovering Micronauts, Iron Fist, and Ghost Rider in the back issue boxes.

In that same vein, the next wave of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to get pretty weird.  Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision have primarily only been supporting characters in the comics and the movies.  In the comics, they’ll occasionally get their own limited series, which is the equivalent of what these streaming shows will probably be.  Loki is a villain, so to stick with my analogy, you probably weren’t getting any comics with villains as a lead character until you were fully a comic junkie.

The Eternals is a comic that most hardcore comic book fans have likely never even read.  It involves a race of immortal humanoid beings created five million years ago by super powerful godlike beings named Celestials.  The Celestials created the perfect Eternals, and the monstrously grotesque Deviants.  Hijinks ensued.  Even though the Eternals was created by the legend Jack Kirby in 1976, they’ve had less than 50 issues of comics published since then.  They are about as obscure as mainstream superhero comics get, which is why the cast is absolutely loaded with big name talent.

Thor is the biggest name in the announced slate of projects, but the reception to Ragnarok was polarizing online (even though the naysayers are definitively incorrect, it’s a top 5 MCU film).  It was also revealed that Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster will become Thor, which is based on a comic storyline that was arguably even more polarizing among online fans (again, the naysayers are dead wrong; those comics are fantastic).

I don’t think anyone could argue against the first Doctor Strange as one of the middle tier MCU movies in terms of success.  But it looks like he’s going to be one of the centerpieces in this phase of movies.  It’s something we see in the comics from time to time, if a character can make the leap fully onto the A-list.

Last but certainly not least is Shang-Chi, a character that has gone long stretches without published comic book appearances, and has been hampered by a connection to the racially offensive Fu Manchu.  Not to mention the stereotypes involved with the first Asian superhero lead character being a martial arts master.  Despite all those roadblocks, I don’t doubt that if you strip the character to his core, he could be a great vehicle for an entertaining movie.  And if it can appeal to an underserved demographic the same way that Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians did, it’s sure to be a smash success if they can execute it properly.

The obscure comics may never have been as successful as the popular superheroes, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t as entertaining.  The next phase of the MCU may be the most challenging yet for Marvel Studios in terms of name recognition (both character and actors) idea execution, and marketing unknown or supporting heroes to the audience, but I have full confidence they can do it.  Not every movie they’ve made has been great, but they haven’t really let me down yet.

But I’m a mark for Marvel already, the true test will be to see if the movie fans are ready to get nerdy with us.  I believe they will.

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