A Movie Fan’s Guide to the Marvel Universe

Do you love Marvel movies but don't know where to start with the comics? We've got you covered...

Since the first Iron Man movie opened, something unexpected has happened. Prior to 2008, only Spider-Man (and perhaps the X-Men) had achieved the kind of pop culture ubiquity previously reserved for Superman and Batman. 

But now, thanks to an increasingly intricate, even sprawling, Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that has generated billions of dollars at the box-office, fans have a pretty good grasp on the world that characters like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man inhabit. To make things even easier, Marvel has made many of their core characters resemble, at least cosmetically, their movie counterparts wherever possible.

We’re often asked where movie and TV fans can turn for easy entry points in the comic book world, mostly because waiting years between sequels is often a little too much to bear. Consider this article a brief overview of comics that movie fans can turn to if they need their Marvel Universe fix in between movies.

In the future, each of these entries will also get its own article, so that if the one story we’ve chosen here isn’t enough, we’ll be able to give you an entire roadmap of stories that are not only accessible to new readers, but will expand and enrich the world you’ve become accustomed to on the screen. 

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You should be able to pick up each of these recommended stories with only the knowledge you gained from watching the films, and we trust that you’re smart enough to resolve any contradictions on your own. These comics aren’t in strict continuity with the films, but you’ll get the idea easily enough!

If you like the Iron Man movies…

Iron Man: Extremis

Iron Man: Extremis

by: Warren Ellis and Adi Granov

Iron Man is one of those guys who has been through an awful lot in his career. But Extremis is pretty signficant, and a definite “ground floor” access point for the character’s sometimes complicated history.

For starters, Adi Granov’s distinctive art was a clear inspiration for the cinematic look of Iron Man. He even designed the suit for the first film and you’ll see him thanked in the credits. But Warren Ellis’ story, elements of which made it into Iron Man 3 (but make no mistake, Iron Man 3 is not an adaptation of Extremis) not only helped pave the way for Iron Man as a Marvel A-lister, but it gave his origin story a much needed update.

Previously, Iron Man’s origin was tied to Cold War-era conflicts in southeast Asia. Extremis brought things forward a little bit. The “Tony Stark in a cave and held hostage by terrorists” origin story that we’ve become familiar with since the first Iron Man film had its genesis here. Don’t worry, though, this isn’t a “year one” story that rehashes the first film, either, as all of that is taken care of in flashbacks.

If you like The Incredible Hulk…

Planet Hulk, Marvel Comics

Planet Hulk

by: Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan, Aaron Lopresti

There are lots of good Hulk stories, but, let’s face it, you kind of know what to expect from them. Bruce Banner will spend most of his time trying not to Hulk out, Hulk will be misunderstood while he’s trying to help, massive property damage will ensue. You get the picture.

That’s all fine, but we’ve already seen it play out on the big screen twice, and on the small screen in the form of one live-action TV series and two better than you remember animated series. Nobody really needs another Hulk movie playing around with these themes. But if you’re looking for what the next evolution of a Hulk movie could look like, then look no further than Planet Hulk

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Planet Hulk kicks off almost as a meta-commentary on Hulk stories. Tired of worrying about the violence that ensues every time Bruce turns green, some of Earth’s most powerful minds (including Doctor Strange, Mr. Fantastic, and Professor Xavier) conspire to shoot him into space…to a hospitable planet far, far away. As expected, things don’t go according to plan, and Hulk hooks up with a rag-tag group of aliens and fights his way to planetary dominance. It’s like a really awesome John Carter but with gamma-enhanced strength and green skin.

The buzz surrounding a Planet Hulk movie seems to never die, even as there are reports that Marvel couldn’t make a solo Hulk movie if they wanted to at the moment because of distribution issues. Imagine dropping a slightly smarter Hulk into a movie with the rough visual aesthetic that was introduced in Guardians of the Galaxy, and you’re getting close. Remember the rock monster Thor takes out in the opening of Thor: The Dark World? A member of that species is one of Hulk’s buddies in Planet Hulk.

If a more earthbound Hulk story is your thing, you might also dig Hulk: Agent of SHIELD by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu, which tells you what happens when Bruce Banner offers his services to SHIELD as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s awesome, and just as easy to pick up…but it doesn’t have the utterly bonkers alien appeal of Planet Hulk!

If you like the Thor movies…

Thor: God of Thunder Volume 1 - The God-Butcher

Thor: God of Thunder Volume 1 – The God-Butcher

by: Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic

(but really…just read every volume of this series, because it’s ridiculous)

I’m cheating a little with this one. While there are other Thor comics out there that hew a little more closely to the tone of the films, or even feature characters from them, the massive “God-Butcher” storyline is the one that feels like the Thor movie we’re all waiting for. Look, I’d love to point you at the stunning work of Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson, but there’s some baggage that comes along with those comics, and if you’re just looking for something that reads like the continuing adventures of the guy you see on the big screen, well…here you go.

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This one spans centuries and leaves the Avengers and the vast majority of earthly concerns out of it. In other words, it’s set entirely on Asgard and in space, and the tone is more akin to Peter Jackson’s more perfect Lord of the Rings moments than the bubbly light comedy on display in the Thor movies. It’s violent, operatic, really violent, beautiful (Esad Ribic’s art looks like watercolor paintings), genuinely scary, and really frakkin’ violent. More importantly, though, it introduces the single scariest villain in Thor’s history, and it toys with the line between the Asgardians (and other mythological figures in Marvel continuity) as “gods” or as cosmic beings. 

The God-Butcher story spans two volumes, and it’s well worth both of them. Stick around for volume three for a story by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney that features Malekith the Accursed, the villain of Thor: The Dark World. He gets much more to do on the comics page than he did on the screen.

Honorable Mentions go to Thor: The Mighty Avenger, a criminally short-lived, out of continuity Marvel comic by the ridiculously good creative team of Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee that feels a little closer to the overall tone of the films, and Avengers: Disassembled – Thor by Michael Avon Oeming and Andrea Di Vito, which may become the basis of Thor: Ragnarok when that hits screens in 2017.

If you like the Captain America movies…

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection Volume 1

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection Volume 1

by: Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting

Let’s count the ways in which Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s work on Captain America influenced the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, no…let’s not. It’s too much.

But let’s just say for a moment that all you knew about Captain America was what you saw in the events of Captain America: The First Avenger and its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Starting at the beginning of Brubaker and Epting’s run and following it all the way through to its conclusion will not only give you a new perspective on the stuff you saw on screen, the periodic flashback sequences will fill in the gaps in Captain America history that The First Avenger glossed over in its hurry to get Cap to the modern era. These are some of the most impressive Captain America comics ever produced, and if you like the visual aesthetic of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’ll find plenty to like in the artwork of Steve Epting and Butch Guice. 

Don’t be fooled by the fact that the recommended volume shares a name with the second movie. While there are obvious similarities, there’s more than enough to keep you guessing. Follow Ed Brubaker’s entire run on Captain America if you really want to be prepared for some of the goodies that will be stashed around the margins of Captain America: Civil War (and any future Captain America movie, for that matter).

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If you like the Avengers movies…

Avengers Assemble Vol. 1

Avengers Assemble Vol. 1

by: Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley

Here are a few indications of just how new-reader friendly Avengers Assemble was intended to be. It launched just as the first Avengers movie hit theaters. It’s the only Avengers book to ever feature the exact same lineup as its movie counterpart. It features Thanos as its main villain (the better to capitalize on excitement after that first post-credits scene). And the Guardians of the Galaxy show up to help out (the better to raise awareness of them in advance of their own big screen debut).

Avengers Assemble is written by Brian Michael Bendis, whose “snappy patter” style of dialogue was a clear influence on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and who wrote the iconic Nick Fury cameo in the first Iron Man movie). Mark Bagley’s art is clean and smooth, and this one looks like a bit like what you’d wish an animated series spinoff of the films would be. With Thanos coming along for the ride, this one can also serve as a bit of a primer on that character if you aren’t quite ready to dive into the sometimes headache-inducing world of the cosmic Marvel stories that will influence Avengers: Infinity War.

Perhaps you were expecting Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates to occupy this slot. To be sure, that comic is a virtual template for how Marvel ultimately approached many of their film properties, and it certainly has that widescreen, cinematic look to it. The thing is, it’s an origin story that spends most of its time getting the team together, it veers into some mean-spirited jabs at the characters, and it’s full of cultural references that are more than a little dated.

Also worth noting: avoid the comic book version of Avengers: Age of Ultron at all costs. It bears no relation to the film other than a title, and it’s a rather convoluted time travel story that won’t mean much to you without some intricate knowledge of Marvel continuity. Even then, ummmm…it probably won’t have much impact.

If you like Agents of SHIELD…

SHIELD Vol. 1 - Perfect Bullets

SHIELD Vol. 1 – Perfect Bullets

by: Mark Waid and a revolving door of awesome artists.

There’s lots to like about Marvel’s new SHIELD comic. Agent Phil Coulson has proven such a popular character in the films and on TV, that it wasn’t long before he started popping up in the pages of the Marvel Universe in titles like Secret Avengers.

But SHIELD takes it all a step further, not only giving Phil Coulson center stage in his own title, but giving other characters from Agents of SHIELD their first comic page break. So you can say hello to comic book versions of Agents Simmons and May, for example.

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The best part about all this is that unlike the TV series, SHIELD doesn’t have any budgetary restrictions, and each issue (which is pretty much self-contained) focuses on Coulson and Co. dealing with a different corner of the Marvel Universe, allowing easy introductions for characters like Ms. Marvel, the world of Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man (not that he needs any introduction). 

If you like Guardians of the Galaxy…

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 - Cosmic Avengers

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 – Cosmic Avengers

by: Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven, and Sara Pichelli

Brian Michael Bendis strikes again. While Mr. Bendis is an occasionally polarizing writer with fans, mostly because of his decompressed, dialogue-heavy approach to storytelling, there’s no denying the influence he has had on the tone of the Marvel movies, and that’s plenty apparent in both the page and screen versions of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Mostly, though, despite the fact that the Guardians have been hanging around the Marvel Universe for over forty years at this point, most comics that feature them wouldn’t come across as particularly recognizable to movie fans. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but when the Guardians of the Galaxy comic relaunched in 2013, it’s no coincidence that the core team consisted of Star-Lord, Gamora, Groot, Rocket, and Drax for the first time in the team’s history.

The series is a little more self-referential than some of the others in this list, and might require a little more research for new fans to get into, but it’s far and away the best bet if you want more Guardians in your life. You can figure it out.

We also have an in-depth reading guide for fans of the movie who want to dig into the world of Guardians of the Galaxy comics.  

If you like Agent Carter…

Operation SIN: Agent Carter

Operation SIN: Agent Carter

by: Kathryn Immonen and Rich Ellis

This one is tricky. We have an entire article about Peggy Carter stories from the Marvel Universe if you’re looking to dig deep. The thing is, the Peggy Carter in those stories usually isn’t the main character, and she really bears little resemblance to the character we’ve come to know and love in the movies and on TV.

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Operation SIN, on the other hand, was very much conceived with fans of the TV show in mind. It’s loose ties to a big Marvel Comics crossover aside (Original Sin…don’t worry about it), Operation SIN has all the elements you’re looking for if you’re just coming to the comics from the show. It’s set in the days after World War II, features a mystery sci-fi problem to solve, a trip to Moscow, and an appropriately smartass Howard Stark.

Operation SIN: Agent Carter won’t be available as a collected edition until August, but the individual issues are readily available if you poke around at comic shops or on the web.

If you like Daredevil Or Any of the Others…

Daredevil: Born Again

Daredevil: Born Again

by: Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

I’ve written a lot of articles about Daredevil for Den of Geek over the last few months, and I feel like I mention Daredevil: Born Again in every single one of ’em. But with good reason. It’s fantastic.

If you don’t mind spoiling plot elements from future seasons of Marvel’s Daredevil Netflix series in this read, and want to see exactly how he relates to some of the bigger concepts in the Marvel Universe, you simply can’t do better than Born Again. If you’re just looking for an excuse to check out a lesser known (but no less awesome) comic from the same creative team that brought us Batman: Year One, then this is your book. Maybe you just like good superhero comics, and aren’t particularly partisan about it. Guess what? You’re in luck.

All you need to know here is that the Kingpin is sick and tired of Daredevil meddling in his affairs. When someone close to DD sells out his secret identity (and if you’ve watched the Netflix series, you probably have a pretty good idea of who it is), Kingpin decides to ruin Matt Murdock. Not kill him. Ruin his life. 

It’s even crazier than it sounds.

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If the origin story angle is more your bag, then I suppose you could check out Daredevil: The Man Without Fear by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr, which not only fleshes out the bits of backstory we saw on the Netflix series, but was the visual inspiration for Daredevil’s black ninja look. But really…you’re much better off with Born Again

Ant-Man Vol. 1 - Second-Chance Man

Ant-Man Vol. 1 – Second-Chance Man

by: Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas

If you liked the style of the Ant-Man movie starring Paul Rudd, your best bet is to find an Ant-Man comic that stars the film’s protagonist: Scott Lang. That’s harder than it sounds, because most Ant-Man comics are all about Hank Pym, played by senior citizen Michael Douglas on the big screen. Also, there aren’t that many memorable Ant-Man comics out there.

But this one sure as hell is. Written by Nick Spencer, who was one half of the creative time on the hilarious Superior Foes of Spider-Man,with wonderful art by Ramon Rosanas, the first volume of the current Ant-Man series is a perfect example of how you create a series that can elevate a previously little-known character.

Scott Lang is trying to maintain his relationship with his teenage daughter while balancing life as a shrinking crime fighter. He also has to make a living, something his criminal past occasionally makes difficult. While the idea of a guy who can shrink and talk to ants might not sound like the most exciting concept on the surface, the pacing, heart, and sense of humor on display in Ant-Man are second to none.

We’re not done! While we haven’t seen these upcoming movies and TV shows just yet, if you want to be ahead of the game, here are a few easy ways to bone up… 

AKA Jessica Jones, Marvel Comics

AKA Jessica Jones (Alias Volumes 1-4)

by: Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos 

If you can track these down, do so immediately. While Marvel’s AKA Jessica Jones Netflix series, about a plainclothes (but superpowered) private eye may not sound quite as colorful as a superpowered urban ninja or hordes of killer robots taking on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, trust me…it is. Alias (for this is the name of the comic that AKA Jessica Jones is based on) is a masterful exploration of the seedy underbelly of the Marvel Universe.

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Jessica Jones drinks, smokes, swears, and screws at a rate that would make Wolverine nervous. But she’s also one of the most sympathetic, realistic, and original characters to grace the pages of Marvel Comics in decades. The dialogue and pacing of these comics always read like the very best of cable TV drama, so the fact that she’s coming to TV seems long overdue. 

If the Netflix series is half as good as this, we’re in for a hell of a ride.

Doctor Strange, Marvel Comics

Doctor Strange: The Oath

by: Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin

The adventures of Doctor Strange have delighted stoners for decades, but few are as immediately accessible as Doctor Strange: The Oath. Even fewer boast a creative team like Brian K. Vaughan (currently clearing space on his shelf for yet another Eisner Award, I’m sure) and Marcos Martin. And I assure you, this is the only one that also features recent TV star, Night Nurse.

You want Doctor Strange 101 while you wait for Benedict Cumberbatch’s handlebar mustache to grow in? This is your book. This one gives you a note-perfect Doctor Strange origin story threaded through a story with an already well-established Sorcerer Supreme doing his thing with a minimum of explanation.

With indications that Doctor Strange will play a major role in Marvel Phase Three movies, don’t be surprised if the upcoming film takes a page or two out of this book, mostly in how it grounds the often lofty aspirations of Marvel’s premiere magic user with lively dialogue and an atypical sense of humor. 

Mike Cecchini promises he’ll try to get to more recommendations for upcoming Marvel movies in future installments of this series. Send him suggestions on Twitter.