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Top 10 Stories That Inspired the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The stories that inspired the MCU helped usher in a new era of movie madness.

They all had to come from somewhere. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the "Top 10 Stories that Inspired the Marvel Cinematic Universe."

For this list, we’re looking at the iconic comic book storylines that laid the groundwork for the movies of the MCU.

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#10: “Planet Hulk” (2006-07)

While the Hulk’s film distribution rights may be tied to Universal, that wasn’t going to stop Marvel from adapting some of the green guy’s most prominent story arcs. One of his most popular sees him being launched into space by some of his super-powered friends after running amok in Las Vegas. While in the movies Hulk voluntarily left after the events of Age of Ultron, his destination was the same. He landed on the planet Sakaar where he was forced to become a gladiator for entertainment. A more light-hearted version of these events plays out in Thor: Ragnarok, with the Hulk achieving super-star status before deciding to escape with the God of Thunder. 

#9: “The Invincible Iron Man: Extremis” (2005-06)

If Extremis sounds familiar, that’s because it was the biology-altering virus Tony Stark went up against in Iron Man 3. The film version works similarly to the comic version, as it grants its hosts volatile fire powers and healing abilities. But it is also used by Tony to bond mentally with his suit. It even features Maya Hansen and, briefly, Aldrich Killian, but actually contains more important links to the first film than the third. Extremis retells Iron Man’s origin story down to nearly every detail seen in the movie, including Stark’s creation of the Arc Reactor. His life-changing experience made readers care more about the character, and nowhere in this story is that ridiculous Mandarin twist. 

#8: “Ultimate Spider-Man” (2000-11)

After hitting a creative slump and nearly going bankrupt in the 1990s, Marvel decided to create a new universe to reintroduce their most popular characters in a modern setting. And the first character to be revamped in the Ultimate Universe was the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. While there aren’t any specific storylines the MCU has adapted so far, it had more than enough to go off just by studying Peter Parker. The Ultimate version of the webhead was characterized by a young and energetic spirit. This fresh take on the character is more in line with the MCU’s Spider-Man than previous live-action adaptations. And Tom Holland’s portrayal as the eager and excited young Peter matches flawlessly with the Ultimate version. 

#7: “Black Panther” Volume 3 (1998-2003)

While 2016’s A Nation Under Our Feet offers a similar struggle to that seen in the 2018 film, it’s this run starting in the late 90s that cemented the character and elements of his world. Featuring first appearances of characters popularized by the movie, such as Zuri, Nakia, Okoye, and the Dora Milaje, this run showed that King T’Challa had some strong allies to rely on. Though just like the movie, he had to deal with an outside invader in the form of Erik Kilmonger. It also explored T’Challa’s dueling roles as King of Wakanda and a hero of the outside world as an Avenger, a problem touched on in his live-action character arc. 

#6: “Captain America: Winter Soldier” (2005-06)

It’s a rare thing when a comic book movie is as highly regarded by fans as its source material. But that’s what happened when Marvel adapted this seminal Ed Brubaker story. It challenged Steve Rogers with the return of something he regretted most: the loss of his friend and sidekick, Bucky Barnes. Now brainwashed and used as a Soviet Assassin (and with a shiny new metal arm), the return of Bucky confronted Cap with a tough decision unlike anything before. Gone were the morally black & white days of fighting Nazis. The film only enhanced Cap’s difficult choices while also providing some fierce and thrilling action sequences. 

#5: “Avengers: Ultron Unlimited” (1999)

While Age of Ultron shares its name with a different storyline, it’s Ultron Unlimited that it takes the most inspiration from. This wasn’t the first time the Avengers had to deal with the psychotic robot, but it’s regarded as one of Ultron’s most dangerous appearances. The storyline begins with him wiping out a nation just to get the attention of the Avengers. From there, he tries to wipe out the rest of humanity and replace it with his own race of super-robots, much like in the film. This storyline highlights just how threatening Ultron can be. And though the live-action adaptation had some problems, one thing that was spot on was James Spader’s menacing performance. 

#4: “Guardians of the Galaxy” Volume 2 (2008-10)

When this galactic team was first introduced, it featured an entirely different line-up of characters. It’s was the second incarnation of the team that served as the basis for the big screen version. First formed during the Annihilation: Conquest storyline, the Guardians would go on their own cosmic adventures soon after. It was this run that gave us the team dynamic we know and love today, featuring the snarky Starlord as the team leader and Gamora as the team’s fiercest warrior. And it was Volume 2 of the series where the team began to grow together, playing off each other’s unique personalities, which has been wonderfully represented by the franchise’s cast.

#3: “Civil War” (2006-07)

This 2006-2007 storyline saw half of the Marvel universe fighting the other. While the MCU couldn’t include every character from the comic, it could capture the overarching themes and tone. And it did so beautifully. Both stories start similarly, with a villain causing an explosion, and blood on the hands of the heroes, forcing government intervention. Known as the Sokovia Accords in the films, the Superhero Registration Act is created by the government to keep a list of all superpowered people and their secret identities. This leads to a fallout, with most heroes siding with either Captain America or Iron Man. It’s a polarizing story as both sides have strong arguments for their cause. And both stories end in heartbreak. 

#2: “Infinity Gauntlet” (1991)

This classic storyline is what the entire MCU has been building to. 2013’s Infinity focused on Thanos collecting the Infinity Stones and features the Black Order. But it’s 1991’s Infinity Gauntlet that featured Marvel’s heroes coming together as one force to stop him. The storyline starts off with Thanos already having accomplished his goal of wiping out half of existence. The remaining heroes are led by the cosmic warrior Adam Warlock. Though he was teased in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it seems like the role of the savior will be Captain Marvel. And we can’t wait to see what she and the rest of Earth’s mightiest have in store for the Mad Titan. 

#1: “The Ultimates” (2002-04)

If you’re looking for the Avengers team line-up that inspired the MCU, you should look no further than Mark Millar’s The Ultimates. Just like Ultimate Spider-Man, this run on the team sought to reintroduce Marvel’s strongest in the modern world. It blended otherworldly elements with a realistic approach, replacing a silly tone with darker and grittier storylines. A perfect example is the Chitauri invasion, replicated in 2012’s The Avengers. How The Ultimates juggled the conflicting personalities of its characters would also fit right into the MCU. With members like Iron Man, Cap, Black Widow, Ant-Man, and even a Samuel L. Jackson inspired Nick Fury, it’s easy to see where Marvel drew inspiration from. 

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