The Endgame is upon us: the fourth Avengers movie opens tonight, both the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in just over a decade and the end of an era—at least until the next era begins about three months from now, with the opening of Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Still, “The Infinity Saga” (as they’re calling it) has been one helluva ride–but there’s a whole other side Marvel Universe out there on the printed page. Much of that work has fed into the movies directly, while in other cases, the films have influenced the comics. Regardless, for every Marvel movie we’ve loved over the last 10 years, there are years or decades worth of stories that relate to it, going back to at least the early 1960s work of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, and others (Captain America’s on-the-page history goes even further back).
Since we can’t list every book that relates to every movie (though we would if we thought your browser could handle it), we’ve decided to pair one single book for each movie. In some cases, the book was clearly an inspiration for the film, while others simply offer some of the same flavor. Either way, there’s plenty to read while you’re waiting on line for seats, and then more to help you come down off of what will (hopefully) be a once-in-a-lifetime movie high.
Iron Man: The Five Nightmares, by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca
In the mainline Marvel Universe of the comics, Obadiah Stane’s been dead for some time, having essentially taken his own life following his final failed confrontation with Iron Man. Not so his son, Ezekiel Stane, created by Fraction and artist Barry Kitson in 2008. Representing a younger, faster, smarter threat to Stark, Zeke Stane’s habit of manipulating supervillains to do his dirty work pairs with his obsession with bio-hacking. In his ruthlessness and bio-tech savvy, Zeke’s sort of an evil, post-human Tony Stark in the story that kicks off an all-time great Iron Man run from Fraction and Larroca.
The Incredible Hulk
Incredible Hulk Epic Collection: Man or Monster?, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Dick Ayers
Going old-school with this one: just a few months after Fantastic Four #1 reinvented superhero comics and changed the pop culture landscape, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came up with something even weirder: an unpredictable, Jekyll & Hyde superhero who becomes trapped in the middle of his own bomb test. The (then) grey-skinned monster is doomed to be misunderstood and disliked (when angry) for decades—but it all began with these stories. The Hulk meets just about every other Marvel hero of the early 1960s in this collection, providing a good sense of the burgeoning connected universe so brilliantly recreated on the big screen.
Iron Man 2
Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread, by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto
Though often placed near the bottom in the MCU power rankings, Iron Man 2 has its virtues, chief among them is the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who manages to keep up with the gods, superhumans, and monsters of the Avengers throughout the rest of the series. This Edmondson/Noto series sees Natasha going back to Russia and to confront her past while uncovering the conspiracy behind a mysterious global threat. The book gets deep into the morally murky world of spycraft, a side of Natasha we’ve only seen in passing on the screen. (Maybe her forthcoming solo film will change all that?)
The Unworthy Thor, by Jason Aaron and Olivier Coipel
In the film, Thor is stripped of his godly powers and exiled to Earth. Much the same happens here, except in the comics, the Odinson finds himself on a quest into the stars following his mysterious disgrace. Though the title Thor now rests with another, and he can’t lift Mjolnir, there’s another hammer in the possession of The Collector which might aid in his redemption… if he lives long enough to find it. It’s a far more cosmic take than the rather earthbound film version, and a great deal of fun.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: White, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
The all-star team of Loeb and Sale have done beloved work to both celebrate and redefine several of Marvel’s heroes (much as they did for a certain flying-rodent themed hero from that other comics publisher). Here they recount the untold story of Cap and Bucky’s first mission together, with appearances from the Howling Commandoes and villainous turns from familiar names like the Red Skull, Batroc, and Baron von Strucker. (The slightly awkward title places the book in a run of color-themed books the creative team did for other Marvel heroes, each one a small classic.)
Avengers: The Origin, by Joe Casey and Phil Noto
The first Avengers movie draws quite a bit from the team’s debut appearance on the page, even if they forgot to include the Wasp. This 2010 retelling of the team’s origin story hews even closer to the source material, but expands the 1963 single issue from Lee & Kirby (with inker Dick Ayers) into a mini-series, filling in plenty of details and fleshing out Loki’s motivations.
Iron Man 3
Iron Man: Extremis, by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov
None of the movies is a straight adaption of the comic book source material, but you can draw a pretty straight line between Extremis and the third (and final?) Iron Man movie. After an updated retelling of Stark’s origin, Ellis and Granov introduces Dr. Aldrich Killian and his Extremis virus, which is intended to dramatically enhance the human body’s repair systems and which, of course, quickly gets out of control. Much of Iron Man’s look onscreen is based on Granov’s work in these comics and as a consultant on the films.
Thor: The Dark World
Thor, Vol. 1: The Goddess of Thunder, by Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, and Jorge Molina
Dark elf Malekith the Accursed, antagonist of the movie, leads an invading army of Frost Giants as part of his latest plan to conquer the realm of Midgard. In the book, the Odinson we know and love is out of the picture and a new Thor has claimed Mjolnir and taken up the defense of Earth. Not even Odin knows who has taken up the mantle of the Goddess of Thunder, but her identity, when revealed, will certainly be familiar to fans of the movies.
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Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: Winter Soldier, by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, Michael Lark
Perhaps the most direct translation from book to film, particularly in tone, this story, which kicked off Brubaker’s long run on the character, begins by ramping up elements of mystery and globe-spanning spycraft. Cap is called on by S.H.I.E.L.D. to help investigate the murder of his greatest enemy, the Red Skull, as well as the theft of the Cosmic Cube (which movie fans will know as the Tesseract) in the villain’s possession. The trail leads to the Winter Soldier: a near-mythical assassin operating since the days of the Soviet Union. If you’ve seen the movie, you know some of the story—but things actually get much worse for Steve on the page.
Guardians of the Galaxy
All-New Guardians of the Galaxy: Communication Breakdown, by Gerry Duggan, Aaron Kuder, Ive Svorcina, and Marcus To
This recent run on the cosmic Marvel series offers a lot to fans of the film, not least of which is a sense of pure fun. There’s also a familiar cast–the team roster has changed several times over the decades, but Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Groot, and a now-pacifist Drax are all assembled here for a heist that quickly goes wrong, landing the team in the middle of a fight between the Collector and the Grandmaster.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Vision, by Tom King, Jordie Bellaire, and Gabriel Hernandez Walta
There’s a lot going on in the second Avengers movie (too much?), but perhaps its most important additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are the new heroes, Scarlet Witch and Vision. King, Bellaire, and Walta’s self-contained series sees the Vision settling down to the suburbs with his new synthezoid family. Their obsession with normality leads to some very unpleasant consequences, including murder. Wanda puts in an appearance, as do the rest of the Avengers. For Ultron action, there’s alsoBrian Michael Bendis’ Age of Ultron. It’s a cool story of a conquered Earth, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t have much in common with the movie other than the name.
The Astonishing Ant-Man: The Complete Collection, by Nick Spencer, Ramon Rosanas, Brent Schoonover, and Anapaola Martello
The characters and their backstories don’t 100 percent sync up with the comics, but Scott Lang is the same lovably down-on-his-luck hero in this collection that you met on the screen. The former criminal has started a new business while trying to raise his teenage daughter, herself a one-time Avenger. The smart-alecky, capering tone will be very recognizable to fans of the film version.
Captain America: Civil War
Civil War, by Mark Millar, Steve McNiven, Dexter Vines, and Morry Hollowell
The other quite close translation from page to screen, Civil War sees the Marvel heroes split apart after a team of amateur vigilantes accidentally destroy a Connecticut town and the government proposes registering heroes due to the resulting public outcry. Tony Stark leads the pro-registration side and Steve Rogers leads the anti-. Many of the film’s conflicts—and even some of the visuals—are lifted directly from the book, which set the tone for at least a decade of Marvel comics.
Doctor Strange: The Oath, by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin
It’s not an origin story like the movie, but this standalone classic is written by one of comics’ biggest names: Bryan K. Vaughan, of Saga fame. Wong arrives at the after hours clinic of the Night Nurse (a partial inspiration for Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple character in the Marvel Netflix shows) with the dying body of the Sorcerer Supreme, who, in his astral form, has discovered that Wong is suffering from terminal cancer. In addition to solving his own attempted murder, Strange commits to finding a way to save Wong.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Avengers by Jason Aaron: The Final Host, by Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness
We’re cheating here, though the intent is not to steer you away from some of the very cool Guardians of the Galaxy comics out there, but toward a story related to one of the most intriguing parts of the movie—when Kurt Russell’s Ego teased the existence of the mysterious and ancient Celestials, who may or may not have a bigger role to play in movies to come. So no, this story doesn’t involve the Guardians, but it does begin with a literal rain of enormous bodies that the newly reformed Avengers have to deal with. It seems that Celestials are dying, killed by others of their kind who have ties to the first, prehistoric Avengers team.
Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man—Into the Twilight
by Chip Zdarsky, Adam Kubert, Michael Walsh, and Jordie Bellaire
The easy thing to suggest would be one of the Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collections that gather together some of Spidey’s earliest tales from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, including the introduction of the Vulture. And that’s still an A+ way to go. But for something a bit more current, the recent Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man run lead by Zdarsky and Kubert is pretty great: the humor, heart, and action that make up the best Spider-stories are blended perfectly in a story that sees a crime ring with ties to Wilson Fisk closing in on Peter. To tie it just a bit closer to the movie, it also features Adrian Toomes (formerly the Vulture), who reinvents himself and becomes an even more imposing threat.
Planet Hulk, by Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan, Aaron Lopresti, Juan Santacruz, and Gary Frank
The single most significant comic inspiration for Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t involve the God of Thunder at all—it’s a Conan-inspired story of alien gladiatorial games. After his latest freak-out, Bruce Banner’s bosses (Marvel’s Illuminati) didn’t like him so they shot him into space. They were aiming for a quiet, peaceful world where Hulk could chill. Instead, he winds up on Sakaar, where he is forced to fight in the violent games of the Red King (a job taken by Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster in the movie). You’ll recognize fellow gladiators like Korg as Hulk gathers allies and plans to make the Red King regret ever putting him in chains.
Black Panther: Shuri—The Deadliest of the Species, by Reginald Hudlin, Ken Lashley, Paul Neary, and Paul Mounts
As much as T’Challa himself, Shuri was a breakout character in Black Panther, more than holding her own as a princess, a technical genius, and a fighter. None of that is a reimagining of the character: her co-creator, Reginald Hudlin, saw her assume the mantle of protector of Wakanda within just a few years of her first appearance on the page. When T’Challa is left comatose, Shuri assumes his title in defiance of the Panther God, making her a Black Panther with none of the superpowers. She does just fine. (We also recommend preordering Shuri: The Search for Black Panther, the start of a new run penned by award-winning novelist Nnedi Okorafor.)
Avengers: Infinity War
The Infinity Gauntlet, by Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim
An easy recommendation for fans of the films, this book is very much the source material for the film, though also quite different in terms of plot and execution. Thanos, who courts Death (literally—he’s in love with her), seeks out the infinity stones in order to bring about the type of devastation that might convince a massacre-lovin’ gal to give him a second look. If his motivations are a bit less complex, the overarching struggle is much the same. Just don’t expect any clues about the fate of the Marvel U on the screen—the ending of the comic is a bit more permanent.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
The Unstoppable Wasp: Unstoppable!, by Jeremy Whitley, Elsa Charretier, and G. Willow Wilson
The second Ant-themed movie gives at least as much screen time to the Wasp as it does to Ant-Man, and is all the better for it. The comics’ Nadia spent most of her life in the same Red Room that birthed the Black Widow, but she’s still the daughter of Hank Pym. In her solo book, she’s on the run from her former keepers while assembling a team of Marvel’s best and brightest girl geniuses to help her.
Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero, Vol. 1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Chris Sebela, Dexter Soy, Emma Ríos, and Felipe Amdrade
It’s tough to overstate the importance of this 2012 series to the present-day popularity of Carol Danvers: Kelly Sue DeConnick and company took a powerful, semi-popular B-lister and moved her firmly into the top tier of Marvel superheroes through sheer force of fun, in much the same way Marvel Studio’s first Iron Man movie made Tony Stark a household name. She’s been A-list ever since, and this reboot is unquestionably the reason she’s the first woman to headline a movie in the MCU (which, granted, is something that should have happened years ago). The series opener sees former Ms. Marvel Carol finally assuming the “Captain Marvel” name while teaming up with Captain America, Iron Man, and the World War II-era Banshee Squad for a time travel adventure.
Avengers Forever, by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Carlos Pacheco, and Jesus Saiz
Avengers: Endgame might, it’s been suggested, involve time travel. It’s possible, even, that the Avengers will somehow revisit their earlier adventures. In a similar vein, Avengers Forever finds the team’s pal Rick Jones pulling different Avengers from various (iconic) moments in comic book history to build a lineup ideally positioned to battle the villain Immortus across time. If the creative team behind Endgame is indeed going the time travel route, it would be hard to imagine them not drawing inspiration from this influential story.
BONUS: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man Noir: The Complete Collection, by David Hine, Fabrice Sapolsky, Roger Stern, Carmine Di Giandomenico, and Richard Isanove
Though this 2018 Acadamy Award-winning animated film isn’t officially a part of the MCU, its multi-verse plotline certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t occurring within the same continuity. And also, it’s perhaps the best Marvel movie of them all, so we’d be remiss to leave it off this list. Aside from giving an A+ treatment to the origin of Miles Morales as Spidey, the film also features the unforgettable participation of webslingers from alternate dimensions, none more memorable than Nicholas Cage’s hilarious Spider-Man Noir. In this forthcoming reissue of Hine, Sapolsky, et al’s take on the character, the black & white Spidey faces down a very different Vulture: a creepy, murderous, cannibalistic character who’s incredibly hard to defeat. Noir is likely less funny and more serious in the context of his own ‘verse, but this one is still a must for fans of the film.
What’s your favorite MCU movie and book pairing?