The MCU officially hits the double-digits this year, and boy are they celebrating with a bang. Avengers: Infinity War is set to release exactly ten years and two days after Marvel’s cinematic battering ram of an opener Iron Man, and it’s stacking up to be the most star-studded, explosive, expensive event film of all time.
Infinity War is also looking to reshape how the MCU works in-universe as well, with permanent deaths of Marvel mainstays appearing more and more likely to become a reality. However, there are deeper changes occurring to this universe that even the most observant fans may be missing. As such, I think it’s important that we run through how this franchise has changed over the past ten years and how the landscape might look moving forward.
(Spoiler alert for potentially any and every MCU film through Thor: Ragnarok)
OUT WITH THE OLD
We’ve all known this was coming. Fan theories about the death toll of Infinity War have dated back as far as its announcement. Chris Evans’ unabatable desire to leave the spotlight has been well documented, Jeremy Renner’s had one foot out the door for a while now, and Robert Downey Jr is getting way too expensive. That’s not to mention that the average Avenger age (even including the 21-year-old Tom Holland) is 42, which is just about double the age of the average moviegoer. I know we live in the age of Liam Neeson running around every conceivable mode of transportation with a gun, but Marvel has both the means and the talent to be better than that.
It doesn’t take a lot of deep investigation to notice that the first four protagonists of this grand cinematic universe are all about a straight white guy in (or around) his 30s fighting another probably straight white guy who’s usually somewhere in his 40s or 50s (except Loki, who’s another white guy in his 30s, but not necessarily tied down to that traditional heterosexual lifestyle). Initially, it seemed like the primary answer to this was Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow and the added emphasis to B3 (Black Best Bud) characters James Rhodes and Sam Wilson. After all, that’s been the pattern for ten years now. “Hey, come see this white guy fight evil. Oh, and he’s got a friend who’s [insert ethnic minority here], so this movie’s for you [insert ethnic minority here] people, too!” Just look at the airport line-up for Civil War. Of the twelve combatants: two are black, three are female, none are both.
I’m not here to make a big stink about that personally. I know these things take time. I’m simply pointing this out that when we look at audience reactions to Doctor Strange (see full-length cliché above), it might become apparent that people aren’t actually tired of origin stories; they’re just tired of the same origin story. They’re tired of seeing the same type of character go through the same type of trials to make the same humbling realization before resolving things with the same white love interest in the third act. Iron Man is getting especially problematic in this field, as he’s starting to do it in other people’s movies.
Looking to the future, we can see that Marvel has already started to make course corrections on that front. Black Panther (the first live-action superhero movie to give a person of color top billing in 14 years) is already building up massive amounts of hype. Ant-Man and Wasp and Captain Marvel are adding much needed emphasis on the female front. Plus, there’s the insanely diverse Guardians of the Galaxy films (of which we’re promised at least one more). Even Blade might be coming back, since the film rights have finally reverted home.
Marvel Comics have already established precedent for a black Captain America, a female Thor, and a black female Iron Man. With Evans and Downey Jr potentially looking to bow out, now is as convenient a time as ever to start telling new stories under recognizable brands. There’s a lot to be owed to the superstars who built the franchise, but I think Feige and Co. are due to start giving airtime to new voices, if for no other reason than to keep things fresh. (Also, I’m really just pulling for an Amadeus Cho Hulk sometime in the near future.)
Gonna be honest, I think Thor: Ragnarok just struck the killing blow on the very concept of a “solo” film. From now on, I doubt we’re going to see any more Iron Man 3’s where the hero comes back from the big event and has to face one of his (or her) own personal rogues gallery in his (or her) own little pocket of reality. The selling point of Marvel has always been the interconnectedness of everything (which is also the premise of my current favorite show on television #shamelessplug). I think, now, they’ve finally figured out how to make that work throughout the entire cinematic universe, not just the team-ups.
In place of the traditional solo outing, we’re likely to see more like sub-combinations of heroes who end up having to solve slightly smaller problems while the others are occupied or away or (in Hulk’s case) REALLY away.
This is once again a change for the better. Pulling characters with established relationships together means you don’t have to waste time expositing said relationship, and you can instead leap right to the meat of it. Civil War is about Steve Rogers’ and Tony Stark’s competing ideologies. Ragnarok is about Thor and Bruce Banner recognizing and accepting their own strengths. Even Spider-Man: Homecoming shows both Peter Parker and Tony Stark having to realize that each of them has more to offer the other than first presumed. It’s these constantly evolving relationships that are really what matter about this whole “shared universe” concept. Everything else is just window dressing.
END OF THE X-COMMUNICATION
In case you’ve been living under a rock recently, Disney bought Fox (well, most of Fox). Basically, what that means for Marvel is that the X-Men and Fantastic Four can come back home. What this means for… well, for everything is up in the air still, but the projection that these properties entering the MCU proper is probable, problematic or not.
Many fans are going nuts about the possibility of Hugh Jackman coming back out of retirement or finally a House of M movie. I, meanwhile, would be very excited to see the absolute craziness the Fantastic Four will bring with them. After all, Reed Richards and Sue Storm also bring with them the prospects of Franklin Richards, a.k.a. Marvel’s own patented and trademarked metaphysical can of worms. So yeah, the possibilities just became endless. A Marvel Zombies movie suddenly sounds plausible, or a Deadpool Kills The Marvel Universe spin-off, or a Marvel 1602 series. They can literally do anything now with the perfect excuse of “Most little boys count sheep to go to sleep. Little Franklin Richards creates miniature alternate universes.”
Speaking of which, Deadpool can now cross over into the MCU, so there’s that and everything that comes with it. I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.
I think a big thing this could enable is far more time-jumping. Until very recently, every Marvel movie has been pretty much set in the year in which it’s released. With the release of Captain Marvel next year, however, that is about to change in a major way.
Oh, and let’s not totally disregard House of M in this article, as that could very easily be the entry point for these properties much in the way that Days of Future Past repaired the damage done by X-Men: The Last Stand. After all, when you break reality, nobody ever said you have to put it back exactly the way you found it. Sometimes, the McFly Rule applies.
Another thing that’s been reported is that the Marvel Universe moving forward will be a little less claustrophobically Earth-centric. With recent hyper-creative space ventures like Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 as well as Doctor Strange venturing into other dimensions, that sounds like a lot of good news. A bigger playing field means a broader range of styles and stories. It also means more creative sets and costumes, which I personally am always in favor of.
Don’t get me wrong, it was fun back in 2008 when Jeff Bridges’ Iron Monger smacked Iron Man upside the head with some guy’s motorcycle, and the original Avengers’ battle in New York was awesome, but the the drably destroyed city of Sokovia and the airport scene in Civil War kind of proved to me that Marvel’s running out of Earth-based locations for genuinely epic battles.
Meanwhile, on the cosmic side of things, you have heroes fighting living planets, Hulk smashing the actual space devil, and Doctor Strange using some super-trippy bargaining tactics on the dark side of the moon (or whatever that was). Bottom line, the crazier the production design is allowed to get, the more on-board I am.
Honestly, the MCU has always been about telling stories that are relevant to us now. From the divisiveness of Civil War to the anti-extremist message of Doctor Strange or the deeply personal family stories of Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel movies touch people in a way that no other shared universe has been able to consistently match. That is unlikely to change, because that is the most essential secret to the MCU’s undeniable success.
What will change, however, is who those stories will be about. We may have to start seriously saying goodbye to the characters we’ve loved (for better or for Thor: The Dark World) these past ten years. And you know what? That’s okay, because we have literally an entire universe of new characters to meet and love just as much, even if it’s not in the same way.
As actors age, and as characters reach the natural conclusion of their arcs, I can only hope that Marvel has the maturity and respect for the impressive storytelling machine they have constructed to allow them to rest. I don’t want to see a chair-bound Iron Man fighting an incontinent Captain America for the seventh time (wait, scratch that, bad example). I want to see what strange new worlds and new civilizations can come from this ever-expanding reality of possibilities. I want to see just how bonkers this universe can get and still feel like itself. I want to see insanely creative people say “we’re going to go do this because we can, and we think it’s cool, and we think you’ll think it’s cool too.”
There will be missteps. There will be mistakes and messes and decisions that don’t quite make any sense to anybody, but I will continue to love watching it unfold as I have these past ten years, because I’m a sucker for people who work hard to build something great.
Here’s to living up to the words of Stan Lee, “Excelsior!”