You're welcome in advance
You know me, Henry Gilbert, as a respected, highly talented, and very modest member of the gaming press, but there's more to my life than that. For one thing, I consider myself a comic book expert, and right now I see a public that desperately needs my vast collection of useless knowledge. You especially need my assistance if you plan to see any major motion picture over the next three or so years.
Who are the Guardians of the Galaxy? Who's on the Justice League other than Batman and Superman? What the hell is a Thanos? These are the answers people are looking for as each film release approaches, and I can make sense of it all. Read on to get some much needed background on all the upcoming superhero films, along with a small list of must-read comics for further information. You'll be a bona fide fanboy by the end (sorry about that).
The Guardians of the Galaxy
What the hell is this? The Guardians are like the Avengers, only more dysfunctional, and they tackle threats on every planet other than Earth. Led by Star-Lord (who isn't nearly as cool as he thinks he is), the Guardians includes Gamora, a green super-assassin, the furry weapons-expert Rocket Raccoon, a hulking tree-man named Groot, and Drax, a genetically engineered killing machine. When they aren't arguing, the group prevents cosmic catastrophes wrought by the likes of Thanos and Annihilus.
What to read first? Skip any pre-2000s Guardians books and start with Annihilation: Conquest, a storyline that features the formation of the team as we know it. You could also pick up the preceding Annihilation series, a stupendous book that lays the groundwork for the cosmic setting the film uses. Or you could just read the more recent Guardians reboot by Brian Michael Bendis, a fun book that has the characters behaving very similarly to their filmic counterparts.
Further Guardians of the Galaxy reading
Were you confused by that purple dude that appeared at the end of the first Avengers film. Well, that large man is Thanos, and he'll be pretty important in future films, so you'd do well to read the original Infinity Gauntlet series. It and the brilliant tie-in Thanos Quest are why some comic nerds still speak of him in hushed tones to this day. And if you'd like to see both the Guardians and the Avengers take on Thanos in the same book, pick up the inaugural Avengers Assemble collection, which envisions a battle the films won't likely see for at least another few years.
There are also the recent Nova books, which work as a bit of a Guardians spin-off. The Nova Corps appears to be key to the Guardians film, so it's probably useful to get to know the character early. And if you seriously can't get enough of Rocket Raccoon (I know I can't), check out this collection that digs up some of his earliest appearances.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
What the hell is this? I think I'm safe in assuming you've heard of the Avengers, but the upcoming film goes a bit deeper than Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. The 2015 movie introduces team mainstays like Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver (not to be confused with the most recent X-Men film's Quicksilver), along with archenemy Ultron. That human-hating android will lead an army of robots against the Earth's mightiest heroes in what might be the biggest comic book movie ever--at least until Avengers 3.
What to read first? Don't read the Age of Ultron comic, because the film seems to have zero in common with that lackluster crossover. A better starting point for Ultron awareness is Avengers: Ultron Unlimited, a late 1990s comic that sees the super team battle an army of Ultrons, just like in the film. The Mighty Avengers: The Ultron Initiative is another interesting take on the villain that showcases just how outmatched the Avengers can be against the killer robot.
Further Avengers reading
Beyond the essential Ultron works, you'll likely want some background on the other new faces in the film. This run on The Mighty Avengers will introduce you to Vision and Quicksilver working on the same team, as well as their connection to both Loki and Scarlet Witch. This more recent Uncanny Avengers arc also explores the Scarlet Witch's connection to the team of heroes.
Additionally, there's the aforementioned Infinity Gauntlet books and Avengers Assemble to give more context to the bigger picture that's going on in Marvel's shared universe. Age of Ultron also promises some Hulk vs. Iron Man action, something you can see right now in the excellent Ultimates series of comics. Lastly, one of the film's props is a broken version of Captain America's shield, which can also be seen in the Fear Itself miniseries.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
What the hell is this? They may have teamed up in countless cartoons and comics, but Batman and Superman have been pretty estranged on the big screen. That's changing with 2016's Dawn of Justice, a film that centers on Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent facing off for the first time in live action. But don't be too surprised if the fight ends in a draw, because the film also promises the formation of the Justice League under the two, including appearances by JL members Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and Aquaman.
What to read first? Director Zack Snyder has made it clear that he's drawing a lot of inspiration from the iconic Batman miniseries The Dark Knight Returns. In 1986, that comic introduced the world to the idea of Bats kicking some Kryptonian ass, but the pair are superfriends once more in the eventful Superman/Batman series. And check out how that dynamic changes when Wonder Woman teams up with the heroic duo in Trinity.
Further Justice League reading
Dawn of Justice is just the start for DC's movie strategy for the Justice League, so you'd do well to read the team's most recent origin in volumes one and two of Justice League by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. You'll see how Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman first meet, along with Green Lantern, The Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman joining the newly formed team.
If you're looking for deeper exploration into the Justice League, check out Grant Morrison's approach to the JLA, Mark Waid's interesting twist on Batman's distrust of the godlike Justice League, and Alex Ross' Justice, one of the team's most gorgeously painted outings. Also, if you still think Aquaman is a loser, you'll change your mind after reading writer Geoff Johns' impressive run with the character.
What the hell is this? It's hard to imagine a comic book film getting any bigger than Age of Ultron, so that may be why Marvel's following film gets really small with Ant-Man. The microscopic hero is Scott Lang, a man that steals a special helmet from brilliant inventor Hank Pym, and uses the headwear to shrink down and communicate with ants. I have to think the shrinking will be more useful to him than talking to insects, but the film could change my mind.
What to read first? The list of important Ant-Man books is pretty small, but the funny Irredeemable Ant-Man is a good place to start--special bonus: It's written by Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead. There's also the totally alright Ant-Man: Season One, which is a good introduction to Hank Pym, as well as Yellow Jacket and Goliath, all three of whom will be important in the movie.
Spider-Man: The Sinister Six
What the hell is this? I'll be the first to say that the Andrew Garfield-led Spider-Man films have been satisfactory at best, but that doesn't mean the franchise will stop any time soon. As Spidey fans wait for the inevitable Amazing Spider-Man 3, villains like Green Goblin and Rhino (and maybe Venom) will team up to form the Sinister Six in their own film. I'm not sure how well a Spider-Man film can do without actually featuring Spider-Man, but I am intrigued that Drew Goddard will be directing, because he did a fantastic job with The Cabin in the Woods.
What to read first? If you want to learn about the darker side of Spider-Man's world, The Ends of the Earth is a great story arc starring the Sinister Six. If you want to go more old-school, The Return of the Sinister Six is a radical '90s take on the squad of bad guys. However, if you'd prefer to see the contemporary version of the group that likely inspired the film, check out Ultimate Six.
The Flash (TV series)
What the hell is this? While it's full steam ahead for the Justice League in movie theatres, DC Comics also has small-screen plans for lower-profile heroes like The Flash. After the success of Arrow, the speedster is the next icon to come to TV, with most of his powers and origin seemingly unchanged from the comics. The first episode also has some impressive special effects (by TV standards anyway), and the show has a promising future ahead if it can follow the example of Arrow.
What to read first? The Flash has a complicated history, but there are a few good starting points, many of which written by Geoff Johns. Your best gateways are the collections Blood Will Run, The Dastardly Deaths of the Rogues, Ignition, and Move Forward. All of them showcase clever storytelling that mixes real-life science with superheroic spectacle, as well as spotlighting Flash's rogues gallery, a surprisingly strong collection of villains almost rivals Batman's.
Gotham (TV series)
What the hell is this? If you were hoping to see Batman return to the small screen in a live action series, you're getting that this fall--kind of. Gotham takes viewers back to the very beginning of the caped crusader's career, starting on the night Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered. The story follows policeman James Gordon, as he searches for the Waynes' killer, a search that introduces him to the people that will some day become Catwoman, Penguin, and The Riddler. Setting a police procedural on the gritty streets of Gotham is a clever idea, but I'm not so sure about waiting a decade for Batman to grow up.
What to read first? James Gordon as supercop has its roots in Batman: Year One and the follow-up Long Halloween, stories that are also home to this extra gritty interpretation of Gotham. Then there's Gotham Central, a stupendous, underrated gem that examines what it's like to be a cop when Batman is doing your job for you. And if you want to really dig into Batman's relationship with Commissioner Gordon, check out Turning Points.
Daredevil (Netflix series)
What the hell is this? After successfully assembling the Avengers, Marvel now aims to do the same with some of its more street-level heroes, starting with Daredevil. Consider the Ben Affleck film null and void, because the Netflix original series of 2015 starts fresh with the red-suited hero cleaning up New York City while spending his days as blind lawyer Matt Murdock. Expect appearances by characters like The Kingpin and Elektra, as well as some setup for future Netflix series Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Defenders.
What to read first? Daredevil has starred in a number of great comics over the last decade-plus, so there are a lot of entry points for new readers. Pick up the first volumes of runs by Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and/or Mark Waid to see some of ol' hornhead's modern classics, while Frank Miller's Man Without Fear remains a timeless origin story. And if you want a hint of Marvel's future with Netflix, check out Alias and The Pulse to get an early look at Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist.
Face front, true believer
Feel about ten times geekier now that you've reached the end? Then I've done my job! But if you have any other comic favorites you want to suggest looking up, tell me all about them in the comments. In the meantime, I'll be arranging my collection of Spider-Man books (chronologically, then alphabetically, if you must know).