Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will soon draw to a close. The first of the Netflix deluge released one month ago, Avengers: Age of Ultron came out last week, and we’ll see in two months whether Ant-Man was a good or bad idea.
The interesting bit, though, is that we won’t know if the MCU was a good or bad idea until the end of Phase 3. There’s more than likely three more years until the next Avengers film—the first of a two-parter involving Thanos and the Infinity Gems—and that is also likely to be the capstone of Marvel’s massive tertiary operation.
That’s a lot of time for a lot of things to change, and by “things” I mean contracts. But let’s back up a second. When someone says “Captain America,” you probably have Chris Evans already in your head. When someone says “Iron Man,” that will almost certainly kick out the sugar plums and bring in the Robert Downey Jr.
Marvel’s marketing as worked so well that their faces have become the brand name for the otherwise genericized mantels of heroes like Band-Aid and Kleenex. The mere visage of them and Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow are money makers beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But the problem, like I said, is contracts.
These aliases are just that: name tags shuffled about between those that are able to don them. Iron Man is just a suit that anyone can wear, as proven by War Machine. Thor doesn’t have to be Thor so much as someone worthy of wielding Mjölnir. But the faces and names under those facades are irreplaceable.
Downey 100% is Tony Stark and vice versa. It’s not that they’re kind of the same person; personality-wise, they are the same person. And to lesser degrees, after a decade and a dozen movies (almost two dozen at the end of Phase 3), these other actors have been cemented as these characters.
Captain America: Civil War is going to be the last film on Evans’ contract. Downey barely renewed into both that and Infinity Wars. By the end of Age of Ultron, the setup for a new bunch of Avengers had been laid. Marvel is carefully and studiously transitioning to a future without their core stars.
But that doesn’t mean we won’t ever see our old heroes again. Give Cap’s shield to another All American super soldier and now he—or she!—is the new Captain America. (It seems, though, that Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes could be poised for that.) It’s a classic comic book move. The question is if the general populace is willing and able to take that.
By some mysterious, perhaps supernatural instigation, they nailed casting, which is at least partially why Marvel’s “these are the faces” marketing worked so well. And they all are stars in their own right, making the willingness for ensemble work so remarkable. But then it’s a question of the ones they picked up along the way like Anthony Mackie and Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany are able to hold the same indomitable position.
More than that, there’s the visions behind each individual film to consider. While Kevin Feige might be the man holding the reins on the overall MCU, each entry is a personal statement from the writers and directors. Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, was basically a James Gunn film that happened to have MCU ties. And certainly the Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd team up in Ant-Man can only lead to one very particular perspective on the character and story.
Joss Whedon has bowed out of the game. Jon Favreau couldn’t find a middle ground to come back. What happens when Gunn, arguably the most perfect tonal match for Guardians material, and the Russo brothers can’t/won’t return either? Will it turn into a Spider-Man/Batman reboot-a-rama situation?
But like I said, we won’t find out until the end of Phase 3. We won’t know if this was just a great run, churning out an inordinate amount of high quality films in three filmic chunks, or if it was the start of an experiment that Marvel would eventually drive into the ground. It would be neither of those things or something in between. And what does it say of DC’s attempts to keep up?
It’s really just a lot of questions right now with no answers. Not even Feige could tell you if it’ll work, only that it’s worked so far. See you guys in three years, I guess.