With ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ the MCU Decisively Breaks with Comics

Marvel owns characters and its profits come from comics sales, film tickets, lunch boxes, etc. As such, character identification fluctuates easily between media.

Note: this column containers spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

I was reading a recent issue of Uncanny X-Men when a panel featuring Maria Hill, complete with S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier in tow, prompted me to pause and re-orient my reading. This was the first Marvel comic I had read where S.H.I.E.L.D. played a featured role since seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier and finishing up season one of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), which includes TV and film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been formally disbanded and many of its agents have been forced underground (sometimes literally) and Maria Hill has taken a a job with Tony Stark. Until opening up Uncanny X-Men, it had not occurred to me that these events also represented the first major disjuncture between the comics and the company’s growing film and television franchise.

There have always been differences between the film and comics versions of the characters and stories adapted from the comics for the screen. Iron Man’s origins are relocated from the war in Vietnam to the war in Afghanistan, for example. While Nick Fury was the S.H.I.E.L.D. director on film and TV, in the mainline comics Nick Fury is “retired” and Maria Hill is director. In the comics, Jane Foster is a nurse and then a doctor, while Natalie Portman’s movie version of the character is an astrophysicist.

There are undoubtedly many of these differences that could be cataloged, but they seem mostly trivial or at least don’t constitute fundamental differences between the stories being told with different media. Clearly the films were conceived to be parallel to the comics, but not overlapping.

At the same time, up until Captain America: Winter Soldier, if anything, creative decisions at Marvel had seemed aimed more at smoothing out the differences between the worlds of the comics and the MCU. Phil Coulson, for example, has been integrated into the books from the films. The comics profiles of certain superhero characters, notably Black Widow and Hawkeye, have clearly been raised in response to the success of The Avengers (2012).

Publishing plans and schedules have also been affected by the movies. The new Guardians of the Galaxy and Rocket Raccoon comics, for examples, are transparently timed to the further development of the MCU.

From the outside, it’s easy to assume that corporate decisions would be in favor of seamlessness across media for a company like Marvel. Read the comics. See the story develop in a movie. See the narrative fallout on TV the next week. Pick up the threads again on new comics day.

Of course, these connections have never been that smooth. Outside of a few comics published specifically to promote the MCU, the stories in the films and the stories in the comics have had enough broad similarities that long-time readers of the books would be able to recognize characters and certain narrative elements and also to attract new readers to the books (although entry points when going from movies to the comics is always a question), but have never been exactly the same.

This is partly due to historical context. The characters have comic book origins going back to the ’60s, while the films are being made now, but such narrative differences also stem from the differences between media. Both TV and comics allow for more extensive storytelling, while films are more intensive. Timing and pacing are different across narrative forms as well. Perhaps most importantly, the markets for TV, film, and comics, not to mention video games, don’t necessarily overlap and where they do, there is probably very little to be gained, commercially or creatively, from a fully integrated, transmedia Marvel Universe.

The decision to, essentially, blow up S.H.I.E.L.D., a major narrative element that was a constant across the comics and the MCU, signifies the maturity of the film, and maybe also the TV, versions of the publisher’s characters. When someone claims to love Iron Man or to be a fan of The Avengers, they could mean from the films or the comics or both. The MCU is building a history, a history that has now clearly been separated from the comics.

What Marvel owns are the characters. From a business perspective, it doesn’t make much difference if the profits generated from the characters comes from lunch boxes, film tickets, or comics sales. Character identification also doesn’t depend on narrative continuities between media. For many girls and boys, their first attachments to these characters maybe non-narrative, taking the form of pajamas or wallpaper, rather than a book, a film, or a TV show.

The fact that my moment of disorientation occurred while reading an X-Men title underscores the already existing fragmentation of Marvel properties. While Marvel’s current business model involves maintaining full ownership over their characters, the company is living with the legacy of an older plan that allocated different “regions” to different corporate partners in film and television. I could not have encountered an alternate history of S.H.I.E.L.D. while watching the latest X-Men film (although the casting of Quicksilver for both X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron is a notable testing of the limits to this fragmentation).

I don’t think that any of the media currently available for telling stories about Marvel’s characters are inherently superior. At present, I mostly read books featuring mutants and X-Men. My primary engagement with other characters is through movies. I don’t play video games, although I’ve been peering over my daughter’s shoulder while she plays LEGO Marvel Superheroes. The comic book roots of Marvel’s characters still means something, as evidenced by the way the films continue to draw on the comics for marketing purposes, but it doesn’t mean everything.

The decisive narrative break between the comics and the MCU as a result of Captain America: The Winter Soldier indirectly underscores a fundamental dimension for understanding American superheroes: comics is a medium, not a genre, and as a medium it has allowed creators with fantastic ideas to tell their stories that, until recently, no other form would. Rather than seeing the crossing of Marvel characters into new media as a loss, maybe this crossing over will actually lead to more interesting and ambitious comics.

Matt Fraction’s and David Aja’s Hawkeye ongoing and the new Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona represent post-Avengers titles that are doing something different in one way or another, from the way characters are used and how they are identified to experiments in style and form. If Marvel keeps putting out books like these, I’m happy for them to do what they want with S.H.I.E.L.D., especially in other media.