After its initial success with Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America and Thor, Marvel Studios quickly realized that it had a formula for success on its hands and seemed ready to take advantage of it. To do so though required a plan, and studio head Kevin Feige soon had broken down the movies into various phases, with the most recent Ant-Man signaling the end of phase 2. Aside from the developments inside the movies, there have been some developments outside the movies which have affected the universe as well, chief among those the partial reversion of the rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel, or at least the use of Spider-Man inside the shared universe in a collaboration with Sony.
At the moment, we kn ow the entire lineup for phase 3, starting with Captain America: Civil War and continuing through two new Avengers movies and the Inhumans. What might be expected in the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The release of the newest Fantastic Four might signal some of the changes which we can anticipate ahead (there are some spoilers below).
Ant-Man and Wasp
Many expected Ant-Man to be one of the bigger disappointments thus far in the MCU, due to its ongoing problems with the direction, after it passed from Edgar Wright to Peyton Reed. It seemed as though the studio was not going to take any risks with the character as they could not even confirm his role in any future movies. This presumably will all change now that the movie has been released. Although it can’t compare to the financial success of the year’s other Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, it also is noteworthy as being a better critical success, with a better rating at Rotten Tomatoes than Avengers. With both financial and critical success it seems as though there will be more to come from these characters. As was hinted at the end of the movie, there is still a lot of story left to tell as well, as the end hinted that Janet van Dyne might not be truly lost. Furthermore Hope van Dyne was presented with a Wasp suit by her father. There could be a lot of places to take the story of the two heroes, though one in particular might make the most sense …
The Micronauts are a bit of an oddity in comics. They started out as a line of toys, who were written into comics after in the 1970s after Marvel writer Bill Mantlo saw his son open a box of the toys. The series started as somewhat of a standalone, but slowly was incorporated into the Marvel Universe, with appearances by some other mainstream characters. While the rights for the characters do not presently rest with Marvel, there is a long publication history with the characters and as the rights rest with other smaller comic companies, it would likely not be too difficult to reacquire the rights. Furthermore for the film studio that might try to replicate the runaway success of Guardians of the Galaxy, they might look smaller instead of bigger and find their next surprise hit there. There would be some hurdles, but also there might be a few benefits, as Janet van Dyne disappeared into the smallest dimension, the Microverse. This small universe is not in itself small, but the pathways to enter it are, and could give an explanation as to where the character disappeared. They might find Janet in the Microverse, but they might also be able to find some other heroes there as well…
The Fantastic Four is one of the best known Marvel properties that does not lie within the company’s grasp at the moment, instead being controlled by Fox. While Fox has managed to control the X-Men franchise strongly enough with some decent movies, the Fantastic Four has mostly been a sequence of failures. The first of the series was good enough to warrant a sequel, but this was before the wake of Marvel movies changed how fans expected superhero movies to turn out. Marvel Studios was looking to be innovative, not just rehash generic action/sci-fi plots with superheroes thrown in. The most recent attempt by Fox to revamp the Fantastic Four might have been an attempt to do the same, to get some new excitement into the mix, but it evidently did not turn out that way. Critical response (and probably financial) will mean that the characters will have to be shelved for a while before the public has forgotten enough about them. Using the Sony/Spider-Man approach, lending the characters back to Marvel Studios might be a wiser choice, one that would probably make more money for both, and one which would keep the fans happy. By this point though, with two origin movies behind them, it might make sense to jump straight into the Fantastic Four with them already established as heroes. They could exist in a similar sense to Hank Pym in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, unknown but still present. More so, one of the places that is visited by the Fantastic Four is the Microverse, and if they were stuck there then it would be an easy bridge between Ant-Man and the return of Marvel’s first family.
It is not entirely clear where the rights to Namor presently rest. Kevin Feige has indicated that Marvel, if they desired, could make a Namor movie, but that there would be some “entanglements”. Rights to the movie have rested with Universal, but seem to have at least partially lapsed. What remains is speculated to be the same arrangement with 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, that Marvel creates but Universal distributes. While it was not a problem when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still nascent, it seems moving forward that Marvel likes to create and distribute, and to get rewarded financially at 100% for its efforts. It might make exceptions for Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four but maybe less so for Namor. Another factor to consider is what DC Comics will manage to do with its own movies. The other of the big two comic companies is playing catchup, but also has the benefit of controlling the movie rights to nearly all of its characters. They have already greenlit an Aquaman movie, but it remains to be seen just how well it will do. Aquaman is after all a hero that is taken not so seriously in pop culture, but if DC can make it work, maybe it will give Marvel second thoughts about its own underwater hero.
The fact that DC Comics is playing catchup in the movie game can also be to the advantage of Marvel. Marvel has already taken its gambles and seen those pay off, as with Guardians of the Galaxy. DC Comics, who are eager to catch up, are also taking their own gambles, and chief among those is the Suicide Squad. Featuring a group of villains forced into a heroic role, it might catch on, or it might flop. Fans certainly will not be very familiar with the concept, and the concept in itself is strange enough that it might not work. On the other hand, it might work, and if yes then it could serve as a gamble that Marvel gets to witness the results of without gambling anything itself. If popular it could use its own villain-turned-heroes team the Thunderbolts and catch the wave of people wanting more Suicide Squad before a sequel to the DC movie comes out. If played right as well it could help quieten those that think that the MCU’s villains are the weakest part of the movies.
Marvel is already a long way along in its development of the Doctor Strange movie, and holds the exclusive rights to the Hulk as long as he is not the featured character in a movie. A Namor movie could be forthcoming depending on the success of Aquaman, and if Fox sees the benefits of doing so, a collaboration might be in the works to return the Fantastic Four and associated characters to the MCU, which would include the Silver Surfer. Those four make up the original four members of the Defenders. For those that are getting a bit tired of seeing the Avengers over and over again on the big screen, it might be an excuse to feature this other Marvel team (although Marvel is working on a street level Defenders television show as well.) One interesting aspect about this team is that as opposed to the Avengers that the original team is made up of all non-street level characters, meaning that the stakes could be higher and that bigger things might happen as a result, such as …
World War Hulk
This has been a long rumored development in the MCU, but also not one that has not yet come to fruition. Marvel has been careful to include in story arcs from the comics, and it has made for some great connections for fans of both mediums. Although World War Hulk is not necessarily the best all time Hulk story, it is up there, and would be a better vehicle for putting a new spin on the Hulk stories, more so than what we are seeing at the movies, with both Hulk movies fitting the same general pattern of the Hulk being hunted by the government after smashing up a bunch of stuff. It would also allow the character to move beyond the Avengers, which is a connection that is not as strong in the comics. Also if all the pieces fell into place, it would mean that a lot of the major players from the crossover might be able to make it into the movie, save for the X-Men.
Rumors abound that another major character will die in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War (especially that there are pictures from the set of a funeral sequence), and without any other way to verify this other than by seeing a movie that will not be released until 2016, it still seems likely that one of the characters that might be easiest to kill off would be Hawkeye. He is among the less popular of the main characters in the MCU, and has been almost a footnote to the movies series, appearing to provide fans with another superhero, but also one that doesn’t really do much. Even if he does not die in the movie, it is also worth noting that the character is one which is on the verge of retirement, being somewhat older than the other heroes and with responsibilities to his family. This could leave open the possibility for a Hawkeye movie except not as we might expect. As the movies expand in popularity it makes sense to be closer to four quadrant movies, and one way to do this is to introduce more female characters. If Clint Barton were to retire on screen, it could open the door for Kate Bishop to step up, providing the MCU with another superheroine, and one with a lot more of an edge than Clint.
She-Hulk and Spider-Woman
On that same note, if Marvel is looking to keep its female fans happy it might look to develop these characters as well. Most of the main Marvel superheroines would be tied up elsewhere, with most of the major heroines being members of the X-Men, and other such as Sue Storm or Medusa mostly only operating as parts of teams. Others such as Elektra and even Hellcat are tied to the television series, which mean that only a few major female characters would be left to get the big screen treatment. She-Hulk and Spider-Woman could both be strong contenders to hold down their own movie, especially if Marvel did something unexpected and went off the script with the Spider-Gwen version of Spider-Woman. It would also help to fill the ranks of the Avengers, a team which needs to be mixed up a bit from time to time to keep the roster fresh and the fans intrigued.
Ka-Zar is one of the longest running Marvel characters, but also one that has not had a very solid fanbase in modern years, although unquestionably popular among many. Although Marvel is keen on taking risks, could it make the Savage Land work the same as it made Guardians of the Galaxy work? The Savage Land is the source of many stories within the Marvel Universe, though most of them with the X-Men. Why might the MCU be interested in the Savage Land? It is a fantasy setting, and while it does not match up with other heroes, could still serve as an explanation for the re-appearance of some characters who also happen to be Avengers – Hercules, Tigra or even the Black Knight. It might be a stretch, but Marvel will be looking for new blood for its Avengers as it moves forward, as is evident from the new roster after Age of Ultron. Tigra especially might be interesting, as she not only is her own character, but is also indirectly responsible for the development of Hellcat, whose non-superpowered version is already set to be introduced in the Marvel television show Jessica Jones.
Iron Man 4
This is perhaps the biggest question to solve in phase 4. A big part of what made the MCU so popular is that it based its hopes on the initial movie, Iron Man. If this movie had failed so too would the plans for the shared universe. Success would probably have still come the way of the studio, but it would have been a longer road. Part of the runaway success of the original Iron Man was that Robert Downey Jr. was perfectly cast as Tony Stark, what some might say is not even really acting as he seems to be mostly playing himself. That having been said, superheroes never really age but actors and actresses do. While the studio can get a few more years out of Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson (all in their early to mid 30s), and even a lot more out of Paul Bettany (whose character the Vision wears so much makeup as to be ageless) and Elizabeth Olsen (who is in her mid 20s), it can probably expect less out of Robert Downey Jr, who is now 50. They might push him for a couple more movies, but eventually he will need to be replaced, and the biggest question would then be by who, as the character is one that is of highest importance to the MCU. There might be no bigger question heading forward in the MCU than who will fill this role.