9 Times The Marvel Cinematic Universe Elevated Its Source Material

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a knack for elevating the source material it's adapting. Here, we focus on nine examples of the MCU improving upon the stories the movies are based on...

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Hollywood franchises are tricky ventures. Having one take off is difficult enough on its own, and maintaining a franchise that has already found success is even harder. That is what has made seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s journey this past decade so special. Unlike franchises that found their footing before losing it over the years, the MCU is showing no signs of stopping.

The Marvel Studios saga has been consistently finding both critical and financial success with each one of its installments thanks to their rich stories, relatable characters and eye-popping action. One of the ways the franchise has done this is by taking its source material and making it mainstream, regardless of how “out-there” it may be on the page.

Such a dynamic has often led the MCU to elevate the comic-book stories it’s based on. With that in mind, let’s take a look at 9 times the Marvel Cinematic Universe improved upon its source material.

9. Thanos’ Motivation

There’s no denying that Thanos’ motivation to get the Infinity Gems in the “Infinity Gauntlet” storyline was creepy. The man was in love with Death and wanted to kill half the universe to impress her. While that made for a terrifying baddie, there was not much room left for nuance in his characterization (in that particular story).

In Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel Studios took Thanos' quest and put a fun spin on it. Much like his comic-book counterpart, the Mad Titan also wanted to collect the Infinity Stones to decimate half the universe. However, he wanted to do it in a (misguided) bid to give the remaining half more resources to live plentiful lives. 

This new motivation gave Thanos a more nuanced characterization that at times had audiences actually siding with the purple fella. He’s still insane, but his villainous journey is somewhat rooted in a desire to help others. Keep in mind, we’re not saying Thanos’ characterization in the comics is weak. It’s simply that, as mentioned, the films took what was in their source material and improved it.

8. Iron Man 3’s Mandarin

We know, we know. But before getting your pitchforks ready, hear us out. When Iron Man 3 was being marketed, audiences were promised a grounded version of the Mandarin, one of Iron Man’s greatest foes. He didn’t have the mystical powers of the Ten Rings like in the comics, but he was menacing, had an army at his disposal, and was played by Ben Kingsley.

When the film came out, though, it was revealed that the Mandarin (at least, the version played by Kingsley), was actually Trevor Slattery, a failed actor hired to portray the Mandarin by one of Tony’s old rivals. Slattery was shown to be an unstable individual who didn’t even seem aware of what exactly he was doing. The reveal angered many comic-book fans, who demanded to see a proper adaptation of the villain on the big screen. The thing is… the Slattery twist wasn’t bad. In fact, it was quite good.

Revealing Slattery's Mandarin to be a fraud worked not only because it was, admittedly, hilarious, but because it surprised general audiences as well as comic-book fans. Let’s face it, as comic-book readers, it’s often difficult for superhero films to take routes that actually surprise us and leave us in the dark as to what will happen next. By turning what everyone was expecting from the Mandarin on its head, Marvel Studios successfully threw comic-book readers a curveball and made the rest of Iron Man 3 an excitingly unexpected story. 

Of course, it’s understandable for fans to have been peeved by the reveal, but it was a fun twist that put a spin on the “bad guy” premise we are, by now, so familiar with. Plus, Marvel Studios eventually brought out the real Mandarin for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. With that, the Mandarin character was never wasted, but simply used as a fun surprise before his eventual true reveal.

7. Spider-Man’s Relationship with Iron Man

Tony Stark’s mentorship of Peter Parker in the MCU has been somewhat controversial, as some fans have clamored to see the young hero be more independent. That is an understandable complaint, especially given how many years we’ve had of Spider-Man having to figure out his life on his own. Here’s the thing, though: Fans' familiarity with Spider-Man’s lonesome nature is also what makes his relationship with Stark in the MCU work so well.

We’ve had many comic books, TV shows and films of Spidey struggling with his powers, jobs and relationships while having essentially no one around to lean on. The MCU, however, asked the question: “What if Peter Parker had some backup for once?”

Much like the Mandarin twist, having Peter Parker have someone to mentor him through the superhero job was special, and allowed us to see what a Spider-Man who had support would look like in live-action. Of course, that’s not to say that Spider-Man being on his own is bad. It’s a staple of the character. Having said that, it’s also fun to have the chance to look at the other side of the coin.

6. Carol Danvers’ Backstory

Much like the other entries on this list, this isn’t a complaint about the comic-book version of Carol Danvers. Her journey in the Marvel Universe has been quite a ride, and it’s been fascinating to see her evolve as a superhero over the decades. This entry is just to say that the MCU took what had been established in the comics and used it to create an even more complex and engaging backstory for the hero.

Presenting Carol Danvers as a powerhouse who’s unable to remember her past and is being used as a weapon by the Kree due to her abilities is a great concept. Such an approach made for an amazing film in 2019’s Captain Marvel, and also opened up countless storyline possibilities for Carol Danvers moving forward.

That backstory also gave Carol’s heroic nature an added level of excitement, as audiences got to see her embrace her identity and come to terms with her life as a human-Kree hybrid.

5. Killmonger’s Family Ties

Imagine this: A villain who is a killing machine with a genius-level intellect and strong enough to beat the Black Panther himself in hand-to-hand combat. Is there a way to make him even more awesome? As Marvel Studios showed with Erik Stevens (a.k.a. Killmonger) in 2018’s Black Panther, there is.

In the comics, Erik Killmonger (born N’Jadaka) has a complicated backstory that has gone through a few retcons, but it boils down to him being a Wakandan who was kidnapped from his country by criminals and taken to the United States. There, he became hell-bent on getting revenge on Wakanda and the Black Panther for turning his back on him. When adapting the villain for Black Panther, Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios established Killmonger as T’Challa’s long-lost cousin, who was abandoned in the United States after King T’Chaka killed his father.

Making T’Challa and Killmonger blood relatives made their interactions powerful and heartbreaking. It was clear that, if things had gone slightly different between T’Chaka and his brother, Killmonger could have gone to Wakanda and become T’Challa’s partner. That “What if?” scenario is compelling, and shows once again how good of a grasp Marvel Studios has on its characters’ comic book backstories.

4. The Vulture

Adrian Toomes, a.k.a. The Vulture, has been a foil for Spider-Man for decades, and there have been quite a few compelling stories centered around the villain. With so many years’ worth of backstory, it can be tricky to properly reinvent a character for the big screen while also maintaining his essence. That is, however, exactly what Marvel Studios did when it adapted Toomes for Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The film established Adrian Toomes as the father of Peter Parker’s first love, Liz Allan, putting him in a direct and very personal conflict with the Web-Slinger. He was no longer only a criminal desperate for power. He wanted to provide for his family, and crime was the only way he had found to do so. His motivation was strong, and his characterization even stronger thanks to Michael Keaton’s charismatic performance.

Yes, we knew Toomes was a bad guy, but it was also clear that there was a (somewhat) good man underneath the costume and violent antics. The Vulture has often been a joke in comics due to his colorful costume and peculiar abilities, but Marvel Studios cemented him as both a formidable foe and likable presence in the Spider-Man universe.

3. Black Widow’s Sisterhood

Black Widow recently introduced general audiences to Yelena Belova. In the comics, Belova is an adversary of Natasha Romanoff. The film, however, took a different approach that elevated both the character and her relationship with Natasha. 2021’s Black Widow made Belova and Natasha young Russian spies, who were put together in a fake family to steal information for a bad guy known as Dreykov. While the family was a lie, Yelena and Natasha effectively became real-life sisters that were, sadly, eventually torn apart.

The characters’ relationship gave Black Widow a warm dynamic, as both former assassins reconnected after years apart and gradually accepted their love for each other. The way Marvel Studios approached Yelena and her relationship with Natasha avoided making the new Black Widow just an evil/more violent version of Nat, and instead introduced a version of the character that audiences could easily get behind.

2. Hank Pym’s Relationship with Janet

In the comics, Hank Pym is… well, quite unstable. While he’s had his fair share of heroic moments in his different comic-book incarnations throughout the years, he’s also done some despicable things. The character’s most infamous characteristic in both the 616 and Ultimate universes is the fact that he is an abusive partner to Janet Van Dyne.

In the 616 universe, he infamously hit Janet, and in the Ultimate world, he was a serial abuser, subjecting Janet to both physical and emotional pain. Fortunately, when it came time to adapt him for the big screen, Marvel Studios decided to omit Pym's abusive nature from the comics.

In Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp, Hank Pym was depicted as a loving husband. Janet and Hank were best friends, and there was no indication that Hank was, in any way, abusive. The way Pym was handled in the MCU was smart, because it allowed a character that’s been so recognizable for so many years to not have the despicable characteristics that have made his comic-book counterpart so problematic.

1. Bucky and Captain America's Dynamic

In the “Captain America” comics from the ‘40s, Bucky Barnes was introduced as a Robin-like figure for Steve Rogers. He was a young child who idolized his adult partner and accompanied him in his adventures. Their relationship was a staple of the Captain America mythology for many years, but Marvel Studios decided to put a spin on their dynamic in Captain America: The First Avenger. In the film, not only was Bucky the same age as Steve, but he was also bigger and stronger than him before Rogers received the super-soldier serum.

Seeing Bucky defending and somewhat mentoring Steve before he became Captain America gave the pair a fun, younger-brother-older-brother dynamic and made their interactions a joy to watch. The fact that they knew each other since childhood also gave gravitas to the scenes in which Rogers had to fight Bucky as the Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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