“I’m sure the comic was better.” That’s what my friends finish with when they tell me what they thought of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. That’s what they say when they talk about every superhero movie. Usually, I have to explain that the films are more inspired by the general idea of a character rather than actually adapting any specific storyline. There are exceptions. But they’re equally difficult to present.

These are assemblages of storylines, visuals, with composite characters and shuffled moments. Not adaptations in a strict sense, but remixes. Movies like X2: X-MEN UNITED, BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and, now, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.  In what follows I want to look at which comics and which moments the film used as “samples” and how. Not just pointing out references. But looking at how is the mixing and matching changing the meaning behind what the characters are doing. And maybe divining what is to come for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Where Does Ms. Marvel Belong Post-INFINITY WAR?

Broad Strokes

Confusingly, the comic titled INFINITY WAR has little to do the eponymous movie. Instead, there are two principal sources of inspiration for the blockbuster. Jim Starlin, Ron Lim and George Perez’s THE INFINITY GAUNTLET (as well as its prequel THANOS QUEST); and Jonathan Hickman and Jim Cheung’s 2013 INFINITY event series. Both have Thanos at their center, albeit with very different interpretations of the character.

Starlin Comics

Thanos gazing into the abyss.
THANOS QUEST, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Some viewers leveled the opinion that Thanos was actually the main protagonist in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. Not because he was right. Of course he wasn’t. But because he had a character arc, was prominently present on-screen, and actually achieved his goals. This is precisely what happens over the course of THANOS QUEST and by the end of the first issue of THE INFINITY GAUNTLET.

Over the years Thanos was an elusive antagonist for Starlin’s heroes, either Captain Marvel or Warlock. He often seemed behind the scenes, as was the case for the prior movies. He sent his minions to do his bidding. And he always escaped fights by teleporting, even though he’s a formidable physical opponent. Then came THANOS QUEST and THE INFINITY GAUNTLET. There, the Mad Titan takes center stage. He confronts the Elders of the Universe with both cunning and brute force. He collects the Infinity Gems and uses them to pay tribute to his mistress, Death. And by the end of THE INFINITY GAUNTLET the Titan will understand that no matter how much power he wields, his greatest enemy is himself.  More than anyone’s, these are Thanos’ stories.

Hickman’s AVENGERS

Thanos on his throne in composition similar to that of the end-credits scene in Avengers.
INFINITY, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Marvel published INFINITY shortly after the success of the first AVENGERS film. As an event, it had to keep many plates in the air. It had to function as a stepping stone in Hickman’s three years long AVENGERS run. It had to set-up the new status-quo for Inhumans. And it had to establish a new vision for Thanos. One that was much more in line with what we saw in the end-credits scene in THE AVENGERS.

As such, Thanos becomes much more of a space tyrant. He rules over worlds, he demands offerings from their leaders and helms an armada. His goals aren’t as much metaphysical and romantic, like literally courting Death. Instead his quest becomes political, by assuring his continuing reign through the death of his son.

It’s easy to see how the much more prosaic Thanos of the INFINITY comic informed the Thanos of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. He becomes something more akin to the villain of a space opera. What’s interesting is that he didn’t replace the nihilist cosmic villain. He is doing the things he did in the Starlin comics. But filtered through Hickman, Opeña, and Cheong’s sensibilities. The same could be said of his motivation. They remain anchored in deep, if misguided, philosophical convictions.

Bringing issues into focus

Thanos’ henchmen

The Black Order. Many of the characters known as Thanos' Children from Infinity War.
INFINITY, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

INFINITY introduces the Black Order. They are a group of immensely powerful aliens serving as Thanos’ lieutenants. Corvus Glaive, the apparent leader; Proxima Midnight, his lover; Black Dwarf, the muscle; The Ebony Maw, the trickster; Supergiant, the telepath. In AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR they are included as the Children of Thanos. For the most part, their appearance and powers are similar. And they lead Thanos’ armies as they do in the comic.

But there are a few slight differences. Supergiant is missing from the cabal. Then, the different name suggests how the relationship between Thanos and the unit is subtly shifted. This is best seen through Ebony Maw’s adjustment. He loses his powers of persuasion, gaining instead a very strong telekinetic ability. More importantly, he seems to genuinely believe in Thanos’ cause and in Thanos himself. He acts as an enthralled herald for his master. This is a service and a bond that the titan seems to enjoy; we see this when he regrets the loss of Ebony Maw at the heroes’ hands.

On the other hand, in the comic, there’s a domineering relationship between Thanos and the group. And the group resents Thanos for that. By the end of INFINITY Ebony Maw betrays his master; in the 2017 THANOS series, penned by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Mike Deodato, Corvus Glaive seats himself at the head of the Black Order while the Mad Titan is absent.

The Black Order: Who Are They and What Can They Do?

The Fights

The two major confrontations between the Avengers and the Children of Thanos happen during the INFINITY event. In NEW AVENGERS #9, by Hickman and Deodato, the Black Order concurrently attacks New York, Wakanda, and Atlantis. They achieve their goals in New York by infiltrating the mind of Doctor Strange. They defeat the forces of Atlantis. But they suffer a crushing defeat in Wakanda. We see these fights in a truncated fashion, almost as through a highlight reel

While in the main series we don’t actually see the kind of destruction we’ve watched in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, there is a comic that fits the bill — the first arc of Al Ewing and Greg Land’s MIGHTY AVENGERS, which ties into INFINITY. It’s there that we see a more “blockbustery” and more action-packed follow-up to the fight in New York. The heroes and the villains throw each other through buildings and cars causing mayhem and damage.

Thanos’ use and misuse of power

Thanos spanning his fingers.
INFINITY GAUNTLET, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

A very interesting “sample” is the erasure of half of the universe’s population with just a snap of the fingers. In INFINITY GAUNTLET the moment comes a bit after the midpoint of the first issue. Visually it doesn’t measure up to an earlier moment when, on a double splash page, Thanos shapes the earth itself to claim him as a God. Death herself isn’t all that impressed.

Neither are we. That’s because, in the comic, all the characters disappear at the beginning of the story. The shock isn’t as great. The emotional impact is lessened. The reader doesn’t have much of a chance to build up a rapport with them, even if she’s their fan. She knows that there are five more issues for order to be restored as swiftly as it was disturbed. In the comic, this is an early critique of Thanos’ misguided quest for power. In the film this becomes the shocking finale, rendering useless all the heroes’ stratagems and sacrifices.

The Infinity Stones shattering.
NEW AVENGERS, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Thanos’ burned-out gauntlet with dull stones is another element that gives more weight to the sequence in the film. Its state suggests that such an awesome feat might have expended their power. This removes the option for an easy undo. The situation is reminiscent of the use of gems in NEW AVENGERS #3. There, the Illuminati uses the Gauntlet to prevent two Earths from collapsing. But the gems shatter afterward.

This doesn’t mean that the sequence in the film is superior to that in the comics. Taking an event from one moment in a story and placing it in another, changes it, reshapes it, shifts weight from one event onto another. That is, after all, the nature of the remix.

The End

Thanos content.
INFINITY GAUNTLET, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Both INFINITY WAR and INFINITY GAUNTLET end in a similar fashion. In the comic, the titan realizes that his quest for power is foolish and self-defeating. So he resigns to spend a tranquil life inside the Soul Gem, in a pocket universe created by Warlock. We see this pocket world in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR as well. It is the orange tinted vision of Thanos and the child Gamora. But Thanos doesn’t appear to retire there, instead exiting from a cave in the normal world. Yet, the final image in both INFINITY GAUNTLET and INFINITY WAR is similar. They have Thanos content. He is slightly smiling and gazing towards the sunset.

Stormbringer

While Hickman and Starlin’s runs are the main sources of inspiration for INFINITY WAR, they aren’t the only ones. A key moment in the film, the forging of the Stormbreaker hammer, comes from Walt Simonson’s THOR run. More precisely, from THOR #339. There, it was forged by Etri the Dwarf out of Uru metal, imbued with magiks by Odin and given not to Thor, but to the alien Beta Ray Bill.

Miscellanea and coincidences

Those are not the only recontextualizations. There are many other imports from various comics that don’t play as big of a part in how the story goes. But they are neat signifiers of what the scriptwriters, designers, or directors were using as inspiration. Or if they were merely coincidences, they nonetheless show that the filmmakers were in the same headspace as the comics creators.

Iron Man’s suit

Iron Man’s suit is a neat example. It’s slimmer and curvier than in previous movies. But it’s also stronger than ever — something suggested just by looking at the multiple repulsor nodes needed to power its various subsystems.

Tony start suiting up.
INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

The design, as well its almost fluid nature, is reminiscent of the Bleeding Edge suit. This suit was the one Tony Stark used in Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s INVINCIBLE IRON MAN run. On the other hand, the way it can morph into various weapons and tools is closer to the suit used in Brian Michael Bendis’ run. Both suits require Tony Stark to alter his biology. So we might have a few surprises in the next film.

Spider-Man’s suit

Spider-Man’s Iron Spider costume is, again, a composite of two other suits from the comics. It is combining a suit from a mid-aughts run with a very recent one. In the comics, Tony Stark gave Peter Parker the Iron Spider in the JMS run. It was a way to gain his loyalty in the superhero civil war that was to come. In the movie, he’s giving it to the young hero to protect him from an atmospheric fall.

Iron Spider.
CIVIL WAR, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

But aside from the iconic, and extremely cool, tentacles — three in the comics, four in the film — there is little visual resemblance between the two. The comics’ Iron Spider has Iron Man’s red and gold color schemes. And although it’s armored and computerized, there’s little graphical indication of that. It’s a beautiful costume, but it consumed Spidey’s visual identity. Which was precisely the point in the context of the CIVIL WAR comic and its spin-offs. Iron Man was using Peter Parker.

In INFINITY WAR there was no such conflict. In order to maintain Spider-Man’s overall look and to quickly communicate the new suits enhanced capabilities, the designers seem to have looked at the suit used in the “Worldwide” arc of Dan Slott’s run on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. That’s a costume of Peter Parker’s own design. It is almost identical in appearance to the normal Spider-Man suit, with a few notable differences that appear in the film like the teal glowing eyes which signify its high-tech nature and it’s visibly armored boots, gloves, arms, and torso.

Combining the Worldwide suit with the CIVIL WAR Iron Spider one gets us very close to the costume in INFINITY WAR.

Other references

Since wiping out half the life in the universe wasn’t enough to gain Death’s affections, Thanos starts toying with Nebula and Starfox. He turns his niece into ribbons and breaks his brother apart into blocks. This is like the way he deals with Mantis and Drax after gaining the Reality Stone.

Mephisto trying to take the gauntlet from Thanos' hand.
INFINITY GAUNTLET, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

In both INFINITY GAUNTLET and in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR there’s an all against one confrontation where the heroes and their allies try to wrestle the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos’ hand. This becomes almost comedic in the comic, suggesting how futile is the physical struggle against Thanos. In the film, the heroes almost manage to pull it off.

Thanos punching the Captain America shield.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

In Wakanda Thanos clashes briefly with Steve Rogers. He is surprised when the human attempts to match his strength. We see that in a reaction shot that became emblematic ever since the trailer. This is a moment reminiscent of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2008) #25. There, a newly resurrected and amok Mad Titan faces Major Victory. Thanos pummels on the shield the hero wields but is similarly surprised that Major Victory withstands the attack. This marks the second time the movie takes a strong moment from a newer character to give it to a classic one.

What have we learned about AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR?

What’s very interesting is the way Marvel constructs its movies and uses the comic book sources. An MCU film rarely adapts a story directly. Nor do they reinvent characters completely. Instead, they use the aesthetic of a new series or interpretation of a character to dress up an older one. This is abundantly clear in the case of INFINITY WAR.  But it true as well for the original AVENGERS, which owed its aesthetic to the ULTIMATES, without actually having its cynical streak.

Where Were These Characters During AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR?

MCU as remix

This makes the movies function much more as collages or remixes. They pick and choose designs, costumes, stories, and moments, then they play with them. By doing this, we also see how important an event’s context and place in a narrative is. We see how a similar action elicits a completely different reaction if it’s made during the first act or the third. We can notice that there’s a bit of a conservative streak here; the movies, not just INFINITY WAR, but also SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, take moments, settings, secondary characters and so on that worked extremely well for newer (sometimes minority) heroes and gives them to the original characters.

Thanos crying.
THANOS QUEST, image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

The remix approach is also a shield for spoilers. Even considering that the broad stroke inspirations will remain the same. Maybe the filmmakers will just go further on in Starlin’s cosmic work with the rest of INFINITY GAUNTLET, THE INFINITY WATCH, and the BLOOD AND THUNDER event. Maybe they’ll go backward with the CAPTAIN MARVEL and WARLOCK runs. Probably they’ll use some more of Hickman’s AVENGERS runs. But we know that they’ll mix and match elements from those comics in recognizable, yet ultimately novel ways.

The movie will have composite characters; actions taken by a hero will be taken by others; set-pieces that were footnotes will take center-stage and be expanded, while central conflicts will be ignored or relegated to the background. We can expect the familiar, just not the downtrodden.

Much deserved credit

It’s important to note and acknowledge the writers and artists without whom INFINITY WAR wouldn’t have been. People who not only created characters and provided “samples”, but whole stories and visuals, with powerful moments of their own. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, of course, but also Jim Starlin, George Perez, Ron Lim, Jonathan Hickman, Jim Cheung, Steven Epting, Walter Simonson, Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier, and Keith Giffen. All of whom created and contributed to stories that were complete in and of themselves and which we shouldn’t regard as just building blocks for the latest summer blockbuster.

INFINITY GAUNTLET Review: Why You Can Recover From INFINITY WAR

Conclusion

The way AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR invites comparison with the comics is more complex than just wondering if the comics are better or not. And the way it puts them on the screen is more interesting than mere ecranisation. What’s to be appreciated about its approach is that whether you liked the film or not, it makes us re-engage with the comics. It can make us look at everything, from big alien invasions to costume changes, and think about what they mean. It doesn’t fail to capture what was good about a comic, nor does it supplant as the superior version of that story. Instead, by borrowing, mixing and matching from multiple comics it highlights what was unique about them in the first place.

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