Marvel Studios has been very vocal about how Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers:Endgame will end not only Phase Four of the MCU, but wrap up many of the stories they have been telling since Iron Man, which kicked off the grand project in 2008.
Some Marvel mainstays have been making noises about hanging up their tight-fitting suits and retiring too – most notably Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans – and Thanos wouldn’t be much of a terrifying threat if he didn’t manage to bump off at least one of Earth’s superheroes, would he?
But what does this mean for the future of the MCU? Marvel Comics has never had this problem, because its heroes never need grow old or retire. Take Cap, who has been going for 77 years and – apart from some specific stories about him temporarily returning to his proper age – is as young as he’s always been.
The MCU is entering uncharted territories, and with all the current stock of superheroes likely to retire sooner or later, could they possibly run out of characters?
Send in the Eternals
An odd report is doing the rounds that Marvel are working on a movie starring the Eternals. Haven’t heard of them? They were created by Stan Lee’s frequent collaborator (and co-creator on the Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four and most of Marvel’s best known characters), Jack Kirby.
The Eternals were a race of long-lived superbeings that the race of space gods called the Celestials (who have featured in the MCU already) created by experimenting on pre-historic humans. Kirby was never able to complete his grand story about the Celestials returning to judge mankind, and the characters were later rolled into Marvel mythology – with the villain Thanos even being retconned into being one of their number.
The thing is, the Eternals are a weird footnote in Marvel history which even long-term fans might not be very familiar with. They are a very peculiar choice for a movie. But with Iron Man and Captain America presumably out of the picture, Disney might have to look to strange and obscure corners of the Marvel Universe to find subjects for new movies.
(Interestingly, Ava DuVernay is developing a movie based on DC’s The New Gods. This was a story Kirby wrote for DC before returning to Marvel to create The Eternals – both share similar themes and concepts. The New Gods and its related comics were also cancelled before Kirby could complete his story.)
Scraping the barrel?
While Marvel could never possibly run out of characters to bring to the screen (thousands upon thousands have been created in its half-century of existence), it certainly has brought a majority of its best-known characters to the screen already. Well, the characters it retains the movie rights to (so not anyone X-Men related), anyway.
But of course, Marvel hasn’t stuck to its A-list heroes. When Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, you could practically hear the mutters of ‘What the crap is that?’ whispering around the globe. And despite a very good comics reboot that had happened some years early, it was another property that wasn’t a big name among many fans either.
But that film was of course a huge success, proving that Marvel is quite capable of taking unknown characters and transforming them into our new favourites.
The film division is yet to make any major missteps, but it’s worth remembering that the wider company hasn’t been so successful. Marvel’s TV arm completely failed to make Inhumans a hit (and they are far better established than the Guardians or Eternals), and Marvel Comics received similar push back for their perceived attempt to promote the same characters ahead of the X-Men.
We’ve been talking about the Guardians and Eternals as not-very-well-known characters, but if we’re honest Marvel Studios doesn’t control the rights to many characters that would have traditionally been thought of as A-listers. Its biggest star is Spider-Man, who despite his new MCU role is still controlled by Sony, and the X-Men, who ’90s kids got to know through the cartoon, belong to Fox (for now – Fox is merging with Disney).
The Hulk was probably a household name, but what about Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow and Black Panther? Not to mention Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. Non-comics readers probably only had the barest awareness of them, if they had heard of them at all.
Out of necessity, Marvel has been working with obscure pop-culture figures from the beginning, and under the leadership of Kevin Feige they have made it work.
A new model
But what does the future hold? As we’ve already noted, Marvel Studios is heading into unknown waters.
The comics have increasingly played around with replacing their biggest heroes – turning Jane Foster into Thor, Falcon into Captain America and having African-American teen genius Riri Williams taking over for Iron Man – but it is always understood that, sooner or later, the original status quo will be restored.
But in the movie world, swapping back in Scarlett Johansson, Downey or Evans after a few years is unlikely to be an option. They could certainly promote other actors into the superhero roles – Sebastian Stan (Bucky) is a favourite for the new Cap – or swapping in new faces with timey-wimey/reality-altering explanations. But how many times can they do that without diluting the property?
It’s worked for Doctor Who and James Bond for years, but one has replacing its star built into the concept, and both centre around one character instead of many. To give us an Avengers film featuring half old faces and the other half new faces pretending to be old would be a mess. (A bit like that sentence.)
These problems could be avoided by sticking to introducing new characters instead or reinventing the old. But will Marvel be willing to let go of the properties it has built up from almost nothing? In terms of telling this long-term, joined-up movie stories, Marvel is really paving the way, so they’ll have to do what they think is best. We have no doubt its been discussed at length – in Feige we trust.
Of course, when Disney’s buyout of 20th Century Fox goes through, they could just start again from scratch with an MCU2 that includes the X-Men. That would buy them another decade before they have to introduce the Power Pack and Great Lakes Avengers as the newest favourite heroes you’ve never heard of.