Marvel's Avengers is arriving next week, and while Crystal Dynamics has created its own timeline separate from the comics and the MCU, you might as well use this as an excuse to read a mountain of comics anyway.
It's a manageable mountain, thankfully. Rather than listing every excellent Avengers comic, I've put together more of a crash course with a few places where you can start, covering each of the playable characters that have been announced so far. And MODOK. Can't forget about him.
I've also popped in links to the Marvel site, and if you've not used it before you can sign up for a week-long Marvel Unlimited trial and read them all for free. Just remember to cancel when the week's up if you don't want to keep the subscription.
I might be throwing you straight into the deep end here, but I'm a sucker for anything written by Jonathan Hickman. He likes his concepts high and his stories dense, and his exceptional run on The Avengers does not ease you in. It's still absolutely worth jumping into head first, however, as it really explores the concept of the Avengers and sets up one of Marvel's most ambitious eras.
Avengers World sees the group being rebuilt, with a huge rotating roster that centres around the classic core team of Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, The Hulk, Iron Man and Thor. Despite sporting multiple squads and lots of characters, it never loses its focus—it's ultimately still about the world's mightiest heroes tackling the world's biggest threats. But this time the threats are a lot more complicated than villains that need a good punching.
AIM is a recurring antagonist during the series, and Hickman has a lot of fun with the mad scientists, making them seem both dangerous and extremely ridiculous, so this also serves as a convenient introduction to the villains of Marvel's Avengers.
Avengers World leads up to the excellent Infinity, with Thanos once again getting up to mischief, and eventually the multiverse-smashing Secret Wars, one of Marvel's best and weirdest events.
The Death of Captain America
Marvel's Avengers quickly kills off Cap, though his resurrection is almost assured. For now, though, let's assume he's dead and read a Captain America comic where he's not even the star.
The Death of Captain America takes place after the superheroes took sides and duked it out in Civil War—also well worth a read—when the star-spangled hero is assassinated outside a courthouse. With Cap no more, his closest friends try to fill the void and Winter Soldier takes up his best friend's mantle. It hits many of the notes of a classic Captain America story, but it's also brilliantly tangled up in conspiracy-laden thriller.
While we're on the subject of Captain America comics that don't feature Steve Rogers, there's also Sam Wilson's stint as America's favourite hero. It's a brutal run that sees the new Cap turned on for standing up to a private police force and expressing a pretty muted 'political' opinion. Race is very much at the forefront of the series, with white Americans reacting very differently to a Black Captain America. These are comics filled with protests and anger and frustration, which strike even more of a chord in 2020.
Iron Man: Extremis
While there have been plenty of twists and changes since, 2005's Extremis is really where this era of Iron Man begins, with Warren Ellis and Adi Granov building a Tony Stark for the future.
There's a fair amount of introspection and redefining who Iron Man is, but it's a forward-facing run that's far more interested in setting things up than lingering on the past. It works well as a standalone or introduction to the character without bogging you down in exposition or origin nonsense. OK, there is a tiny bit of origin nonsense.
The MCU version of Iron Man owes a great deal to Extremis, especially the third (and best, sorry) film, which lifts much of the story, and it really set the tone and visual style for everything Iron Man-related going forward. Expect Marvel's Avengers version of Iron Man to be pretty similar.
Ms. Marvel: No Normal
This is an easy one. Kamala Khan only took over as Ms. Marvel in 2013, when she became the first Muslim superhero to get her own Marvel comic, so you might as well start with the first (superb) volume. And then the rest because they're awesome.
No Normal has a classic Spider-Man vibe, with Ms. Marvel juggling school, teen drama and her secret identity as an Inhuman crimefighter. She's awkward, she jokes, she's smart but sometimes makes bad choices for good reasons—it's familiar, comforting stuff, but also a lot more important than another white coming of age story.
G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona created a fun, kinetic yarn that's full of action and conspiracies, but some of the best parts are Kamala dealing with her family and faith. Though a lot of the story beats are conventional superhero fair, by exploring them through a Muslim teenager from Jersey City, this familiar tale gets a fresh perspective.
The team-ups are pretty great, too, with this ordinary kid suddenly getting to hang out with the most powerful heroes on the planet and rubbing shoulders with Inhuman royalty. Kamala is a bit of a hero geek, which makes her a good pick for reuniting the rest of the heroes in Marvel's Avengers.
Planet Hulk is such a safe recommendation that it almost feels a bit low-effort chucking it into this list. But it's just so damn good. It strips out his superhero buds, takes him away from Earth and plonks him on an alien world where he knows—almost—nobody. Away from all that baggage, we get a gut-punching tragedy that focuses purely on the big green guy.
Taking cues from Spartacus and The Gladiator, Planet Hulk is an an epic that follows an enslaved warrior's rise to power. Hulk is a fleshed out, complicated person this time, instead of a wrecking ball, and Banner only makes a brief appearance. He carves out a life, friendships, romance and gets to actually have some growth, but of course it can't last.
The action is spectacular and frequent, with epic battles to match the lofty drama, but it's the more intimate character moments that leave the biggest marks. If you prefer your Hulk with more smashing, however, the follow-up has you covered. World War Hulk is all about revenge and carnage, and while the story doesn't quite reach the heights of Planet Hulk, it's still a great conclusion.
Thor: God of Thunder
Jason Aaron really put Thor through the ringer. Starting in Thor: God of Thunder and continuing through multiple series, including The Mighty Thor and The Unworthy Thor, the beefcake Asgardian gets stripped down, ripped apart and experiences multiple major transformations, with Aaron really digging into Thor's history, beliefs, relationships—every aspect of him.
This spans lots of volumes and arcs, including a cosmic adventure to hunt down a divine serial killer, several brutal wars, a surprising amount of corporate espionage, a depressed Thor and a completely new Thor... which probably sounds pretty intimidating if you're just dipping your toes into it now. Take the plunge anyway, as nothing will give you a clearer picture of who Thor is and why he loves swinging that hammer.
Crystal Dynamics also based its Thor on this version, at least mechanically. The way he fights is drawn from the pages of the comic. There's a dash of God of War in there too, however, and smiting things with that boomerang hammer was a highlight of the beta.
Black Widow: Deadly Origin
Rather conveniently, Marvel published a four-part Black Widow origin series just before she appeared in the MCU. Deadly Origin packs a bunch of history into a new story, and it's the easiest way to get clued into Nathasha's turbulent life as a super spy.
Marvel hasn't always done right by Black Widow, who's often been pushed off to the side or playing second fiddle to another character, despite being involved in so many important storylines over the decades. Deadly Origins shows some of the breadth of her career, filling you in on her long and tangled history, as well as establishing her relationship with Daredevil, Wolverine, Winter Soldier and Captain America.
While she's a key Avenger, and Deadly Origin does explore her time on the team, her life often puts her on the outside, working solo or bouncing between allies, doing shady jobs that would make Captain America feel a bit uncomfortable. She's one of the team's most complicated members, even if both the movies and comics often forget.
Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon
Until Matt Fraction and David Aja stuck Hawkeye in a crummy apartment and gave us a look at what the archer gets up to when he's not mucking around with SHIELD or the Avengers, I'd never really thought much about him. My Life as a Weapon changed that pretty quickly.
It remains one of the best solo comics Marvel's released, though Hawkeye isn't entirely out on his own. He's got his protege, Kate Bishop AKA The Other Hawkeye, and a cool dog. And all of his exes, who occasionally take pity on the dishevelled hero and lend a hand.
He's a bit of a mess, frankly, and while that's responsible for some great slapstick, it also leads to a lot of pathos. It's a pulpy noir thriller about a wise-cracking archer who's depressed, but Fraction manages to juggle all the conflicting themes and tones effortlessly.
MODOK is a weird but perhaps inspired choice as the antagonist for Marvel's Avengers. He's a down-on-his-luck (especially in love) floating head that exists to be foiled over and over again. He might be a super-genius and boss of AIM, but he's mostly played for laughs.
In MODOK's 11, though, he's finds himself out of AIM and instead planning a heist with an assortment of crappy villains. There's backstabbing, side-swapping and—because why not?—super MODOKs from the future. It's a ridiculous caper with no bearing on anything else, so it serves nicely as a standalone.
There's also an Elvis MODOK, though sadly he doesn't feature in MODOK's 11.
Sorry, this recommendation is a PlayStation exclusive.