The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a sprawling, living, ever-evolving film world that grows with every film added to its canon. And while the movie universe continues define itself as an individualized take on iconic Marvel characters, it is a film world inspired by numerous comic book storylines, which will serve as the basis for new films for years to come.
Whether you are a devotee of the MCU or a casual fan looking to delve deeper into the world of Marvel Comics, there are decades’ worth of comic books that deserve your attention. Both longtime comic book readers and new arrivals alike can find something to love within the comics that inspired the Marvel film world. The following 12 comic books have deep ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and will help you find new takes on beloved characters, new versions of favorite stories, and the inside track to the future of the MCU.
Iron Man: Extremis by Warren Ellis
Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, takes on a terrorist whose body has been enhanced by the technovirus known as Extremis. After being nearly-fatally injured in a battle, Tony injects himself with Extremis, upgrading his body and allowing for a biological interface with his Iron Man armor.
Why You Should Read It: While there are some differences between the Iron Man of the comics and the Iron Man of the movies, this is one of the seminal modern stories featuring the character. Ellis’ narrative not only repositions Tony Stark for the 21st century, but stands as one of his defining development in comics.
How It Relates to the Movies: While Extremis was used to a different extent in Iron Man 3, the film look of Iron Man is the direct result of artist Adi Granov’s work within this comic book storyline. In addition, Ellis’ Extremis was seen as the modern relaunching of Iron Man, springboarding into his modern comic book popularity and his eventual film birth by Robert Downey, Jr.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker
A series of attacks leads Captain America to discover the mysterious Russian assassin known as The Winter Soldier, who he soon learns to be Bucky Barnes, his friend and partner during World War II who he though long dead. His fight to restore Bucky collides with the plans of the evil Red Skull.
Why You Should Read It: Simply put, this may be the greatest Captain America story ever written. Not only does Brubaker successfully walk the tightrope of bringing back a character who has been dead in comics for decades, but he creates a thrilling, emotional, and spectacular story for Captain America. Any fan must read this.
How It Relates to the Movies: The basis for 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Brubaker’s story is the reason why Bucky is alive in both comics and film. The modern espionage tones of this comic storyline and the threat of The Winter Soldier combine to form a large part of who Captain America is today in both film and comic books.
Infinity Gauntlet by Jim Starlin
The intergalactic despot Thanos takes possession of The Infinity Gauntlet, a weapon that can control all aspects of existence. After Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe, a team of heroes led by Adam Strange looks to stop the madman. But what chance do they have against their omnipotent enemy?
Why You Should Read It: Most comic book events trade character and emotion for bombast and spectacle. Starlin’s cosmic battle has both in equal measure. With a main antagonist who is deeply fascinating and a chess match whose stakes are the fate of the universe, Infinity Gauntlet satisfies on every level. Good luck adapting this to a film that can match up.
How It Relates to the Movies: This is the big one that they are building up to in the MCU. With the villain Thanos being slowly teased out until Infinity War Parts 1 and 2, it’s clear that Infinity Gauntlet is the main inspiration for what is to come. While the film story may end up far different, this is one of the great Marvel Comics events and should inspire many great moments to come on film.
Civil War by Mark Millar
A tragedy involving a superteam causes the death of dozens, leading to a piece of U.S. federal legislation that would force all costumed superheroes to register their identities with the government and work as agents. The controversial law causes the hero community to split into two, with the pro-registration side led by Iron Man and the anti-registration side led by Captain America, leading to a massive clash.
Why You Should Read It: Civil War is, admittedly, an incredibly flawed comic book event, most specifically concerning its resolution. However, it is still one of the most crucial storylines within modern Marvel Comics. At its core, the ideology and thrill of seeing hero against hero is tantalizing, even when the portrayal comes up short.
How It Relates to the Movies: Clearly, this is the basis for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. While there are differences, the central conflict of Cap versus Iron Man over government registration is here, and should serve as a satisfying read for anyone intrigued by the idea and wishing to see it play out in the larger world of Marvel Comics.
Thor by Walt Simonson
An epic journey spanning more than 50 issues, Simonson’s run on Thor sees The God of Thunder make new intergalactic allies, battle fiery demons, journey into the underworld, be turned into a frog, and fight mounting enemies on all sides as he protects the nine realms.
Why You Should Read It: If the Thor movies left you intrigues but unsatisfied, this is the Thor story for you, Simonson crafts a massive story that explores nearly every possible aspects of the character, using both classic myths and science fiction to full effect for an adventure that is truly worthy of The God of Thunder. Few Thor comics can match up.
How It Relates to the Movies: Everything from Thor’s relationship to Loki to Malekith to the nine realms that make up the World Tree can be found in Simonson’s epic run in Thor. While there is no direct adaptation within the MCU, there are many elements here that make up the best of Thor in any medium.
Planet Hulk by Greg Pak
A group of powerful heroes deem The Incredible Hulk as a danger to the Earth. As such, they banish him to a faraway planet that they thought peaceful. In truth, it is a violent, war-torn world, which leads to The Hulk turning into a gladiator and rebel who works to topple the evil kingdom with help from his warbound partners.
Why You Should Read It: Utterly unlike most Hulk comics and vastly different than most Marvel films, Planet Hulk is easily one of the character’s greatest stories ever told. No need for foreknowledge of The Hulk’s history of Marvel Comics in general, Planet Hulk is a visceral and epic adventure that showcases the best of the character.
How It Relates to the Movies: While there is no direct film ties here outside of the title character, Planet Hulk has long been rumored to be the basis for a future Marvel movie. With The Hulk costarring in Thor: Ragnorok, it’s possible that some elements of the story may make their way on screen soon.
Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Following superhero Carol Danvers, long known as Ms. Marvel, who takes up the new mantle of Captain Marvel, DeConnick’s run on the character sees her push herself farther than she has ever gone. With adventures ranging from time travel to space-faring battles, this is the series that saw Captain Marvel become a preeminent Marvel hero.
Why You Should Read It: If you are interested in seeing more female superheroes or simply want to understand Captain Marvel, this is the comic for you. DeConnick’s work inspired the creation of the Carol Corps, the loyal legion of modern fans who love the character. If this doesn’t make you a fan of her, nothing will.
How It Relates to the Movies: The modern popularity of Carol Danvers is the result of DeConnick’s work on the character in Captain Marvel. And that popularity is the cause of the upcoming Captain Marvel film. This is a must for anyone interested in the character and her future film debut.
Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
In the wake of two intergalactic wars that decimated countless solar systems, a group of heroes known as The Guardians of the Galaxy are formed, consisting of Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Groot, Rocket Racoon, and more. The group is dedicated to stopping threats before they erupt into greater disaster.
Why You Should Read It: Abnett and Lanning’s work on Marvel’s cosmic comics in the 2000’s was a massive success, utilizing long-developing plot threads and fascinating characters to create more satisfying narratives. GotG is just one piece of the puzzle, but works for anyone who loves these characters.
How It Relates to the Movies: While a team known as GotG had previously been used by Marvel, this is the version that directly inspired the film version. While there are many differences, any fan of Star Lord and his teammates will find something to love here.
Black Panther by Christopher Priest
T’Challa, also known as The Black Panther, is the ruler of the sovereign African nation of Wakanda and a world-travelling superhero. Here, we see him navigate the complex political structure of both his own nation and the world as a whole while taking on threats of all kinds. Using both his mind and body as weapons, Black Panther is one of the greatest heroes on the planet.
Why You Should Read It: Black Panther has long played as a supporting member of The Avengers and Marvel Comics in general, with only a few solo series to his name. Priest’s series is well regarded as the defining work on him and is needed reading for anyone who wants to see why Black Panther is one of Marvel’s strongest and most fascinating heroes.
How It Relates to the Movies: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Black Panther looks to be a character whose political responsibilities take equal precedence as his superhero adventures. The same can be said of Priest’s run, which put both equally in the spotlight for a one-of-a-kind superhero adventure.
Ant-Man by Nick Spencer
Second-tier hero and replacement Ant-Man Scott Lang looks to be both a hero and a better dad to his daughter, but just can’t catch a break. Moving to Florida from New York to follow his daughter and her mother, Scott quickly gets into trouble after founding a security systems company.
Why You Should Read It: Full of quirky humor and relatable characters, Spencer’s Ant-Man is a hard break away from many of the more classic superhero stories to be found at Marvel. But that’s perfect for anyone looking for a story that is brave enough to do its own thing. The result is a one-of-a-kind superhero comedy.
How It Relates to the Movies: Started close to the same time as the debut of the Paul Rudd-starring Ant-Man, Spencer’s series has even more of the irreverent humor and relatable humanity that made the film a hit. With Scott Lang front and center, this is the Ant-Man for fans of the film.
Black Widow by Nathan Edmondson
Following SHIELD agent and former Russian Spy Natasha Romanoff, also known as the Black Widow, this series delves heavily into the heroine’s guilt over her lethal past and how it haunts her present. When the secrets of her past are made public, Black Widow looks to fight back and atone for what she has done.
Why You Should Read It: Black Widow has been a supporting character in comics for decades, but has rarely gotten the chance to shine as the star. Here, Edmondson shows readers why she deserves the spotlight through a complex and enthralling espionage tale that shows her many flaws and strengths.
How It Relates to the Movies: Black Widow has been a Marvel mainstay for decades, but Edmonson’s run has the most ties to the film version of the character while still remaining faithful to the comics. Focus on the “red in her ledger,” this Black Widow is haunted much like the version played by Scarlett Johansson, with a story that balancing both spy action and heroics.
Dr. Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan
When he is shot by a burglar, sorcerer supreme Dr. Stephen Strange is closer to death than he has ever been. But his near-death experience brings him into a journey that will have him seek out ways to save both himself and his loyal friend Wong, who is dying of cancer.
Why You Should Read It: Dr. Strange is often overlooked when it comes to the greatest Marvel heroes, but he’s starred in some of the publisher’s best stories. Here, Vaughan casts him in a more human light than most, giving the character a greater depth that will make most readers quickly fall in love with him.
How It Relates to the Movies: With Dr. Strange premiering in 2016, there are a multitude of comic books that could inspire the big screen adventures of The Sorcerer Supreme. Vaughan’s The Oath is considered one of his best and is one of the more recent classics for the character, with both the human side and power of Dr. Strange showcased for anyone new to the hero.