In Doctor Strange 2, the multiverse’s most pompously named superhero team, the Illuminati, reveal to the Bleeker Street magician the name of his native dimension. They tell the Master of the Mystic Arts that he is from Earth-616 while they come from Earth-838. To most people watching this line probably felt pretty innocuous. After all, they’re just naming Strange’s dimension. What’s the big deal?
Well, the deal is that the MCU isn’t Earth-616, and it never has been. You see, within the pages of comic books, the prime Marvel universe is Earth-616. This is the dimension which you follow if you pick up new books on a Wednesday or read trade paperbacks. Almost everything that happens to The Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man, and the other Marvel characters in the comics happens on Earth-616.
Meanwhile, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is actually part of the comic book multiverse and is designated Earth-199999. Now you might think I’m getting in a fury about nothing here. It was just a cute reference for comic fans and wasn’t meant to imply that the MCU was superseding the comics as the true Marvel canon, but as a fan of both the films and the source material, I think it’s part of a worrying trend.
More and more, we see the comic books being brought in line with the MCU. Shang-Chi, in his movie, uses mystical magic bands? Well, comic book Shang-Chi needs them as well. Thor’s using Stormbreaker in the films? Best get rid of Mjolnir in the books. Spider-Man’s got another movie coming out? Well, Doctor Octopus can’t be Spidey anymore, it’s time to bring back Peter Parker.
It’s something comic books fans have started to call brand synergy. The idea is that all of a corporation’s ducks must be in a line and part of a recognisable continuity. You can see the logic in it, to be fair. If my introduction to Moon Knight was the TV series, I’d be shocked if I picked up a comic and found that the character doesn’t actually have superpowers and is actually more like Batman than the avatar of a god.
Basically, the people who sell comic books, and these movies, think they’ll be able to make more money by bringing the films and the books in line. Yet this forgets a critical thing, comic books and film are not the same medium, nor do they necessarily share the same fan base. Films, especially Marvel movies, enjoy mass-market appeal, with everyone and their mums loving to go and watch the latest blockbuster.
Comics, on the other hand, have a niche audience. The highest selling comic book in a year makes less than the worst-performing Marvel movie (Morbius). When you bring a comic in line with the MCU, all you do is potentially alienate an existing customer. To use an earlier example, there was a run of books where Doctor Octopus stole Peter Parker’s body and became the new Spider-Man.
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It was bold, daring, and reinvigorated the Amazing Spider-Man series critically and commercially, and yet the story was allegedly wrapped up early because Sony was releasing The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and we couldn’t possibly have a comic out at the time without Peter Parker. Why? On the off chance that the comics become wildly popular again? It’s not going to happen. All that did happen was we went back to Peter, and I stopped buying the book because the stories became dull again.
Of course, this is just a pet peeve of mine, but it does pose a potential threat to the future of the MCU. You see things like Civil War, The Infinity Saga, and even to an extent, Doctor Strange 2 (Incursions anyone?) are drawing inspiration from some of the most ambitious comic book stories ever told. If the source material is forced to become a shadow of the movies, where will future MCU movies draw inspiration from?
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This works the other way as well. James Gunn essentially redefined the Guardians of the Galaxy with his bold science fiction movie. Comic book writers then made the team in the book into a version of Gunn’s Guardians, undoing years of characterisation. Why? Surely the point of the multiverse is to have these different concepts both exist simultaneously? Why would we limit ourselves to one interpretation of a character? It’s self-defeating.
Like the characters in Doctor Strange, the good folks at Disney should work hard to stop the MCU and Marvel comics from crashing into each other. The multiverse is far better when we allow for infinite possibilities.