With the first explosive trailer for Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” having finally been released, the world is buzzing with excitement, rumors and predictions about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes assembling to face the long-awaited Thanos and his Infinity Gauntlet. The film’s 2018 release date comes 10 years after the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first prodigal son, “Iron Man” was released. In “Iron Man,” Captain America’s shield was included in the background of one scene, and Nick Fury appears in another to discuss “the Avengers Initiative”; both were just Easter Eggs at the time, but what became of them has taken the world by storm to become the highest grossing film franchise of all time, a cultural icon for our generation and a reason to consume a lot of popcorn.
As the future approaches, great change lies in Marvel’s horizons; many of the longtime veterans like Chris Evans have contracts that are almost up, and with new heroes being brought in every year, the MCU is shaking things up both on and off the camera to adapt. Marvel plays a dangerous game in continuously expanding their universe without growing stale. They were the first ones to do it and, in many measures, have been the most successful in doing so; DC finds itself with another dud in “Justice League,” and Universal’s takeoff of movie monsters with “The Mummy” never left the ground. Marvel’s success does not leave it invincible from its own flaws, but instead of being deterred by them, the MCU shows incredible amounts of promise for the future in its upcoming films. There are a few common denominators between them all, and they all seem to have worked — or will work — in the films’ favor.
The first is the individuality each film strives to have within the bigger picture. While Phase One of the MCU was aimed to introduce each hero’s qualities, the films themselves all ran similar courses. In Phase Two, Marvel risked growing stale as their sequels failed to equal the prospects set forth by the original films — even though newcomers Ant-Man, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and the Guardians of the Galaxy were warmly welcomed. With Phase Three, Marvel has found a better balance of delivering quality content that works with each other, but as we unpack each upcoming film, the future projects all seem to be trying harder to be unique and independent. Their past two efforts have succeeded at this balancing act between consistency and uniqueness. July’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” brought the web-slinger back to his high school roots, tackling a smaller-scaled villain with big success, and “Thor: Ragnarok” nailed its zany ‘80s aesthetic with greater reliance on comedy and candid dialogue. At the same time, they have expanded upon the crossover heroes and villains, whose appearances give more legitimacy to the MCU’s sense of continuity and togetherness. While Phases One and Two featured no more than cameos from other characters, Phase Three kicked off with “Captain America: Civil War,” which was essentially an “Avengers 2.5,” handling numerous heroes clashing with one another. Part of “Thor: Ragnarok”’s success came from the Hulk’s return, pairing together the two heroes absent from “Civil War.” This isn’t a key component to every recent film, but it keeps the solo outings fresh..
With seven upcoming films confirmed and in development, Marvel is certainly busy, but they have not yet suffocated under their own ambition. Marvel almost started outrunning itself as the onslaught of announced sequels seemed to eclipse the present: the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War” in October 2014 came before “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was even released in May 2015, thus spoiling not only details to “Ultron,” but causing intense speculation over “Civil War”’s details amidst a disappointing Avengers outing. We continue to find out details about future MCU projects, but Marvel has done a better job of keeping us in the now. Meanwhile, the DCEU has seen many projects get announced only to have stalled development, and now, only three DCEU films have release dates. Other projects like solo films for “The Flash” have seen directors and release dates come and go, all while under the public eye.
The last thing each recent or upcoming film has in common is the top-tier talent. Marvel has hired a wide array of directors and writers, from superhero newbies like “Spider-Man”’s Jon Watts and “Iron Man 3”’s Shane Black to established directors like “Black Panther”’s Ryan Coogler (of “Creed” fame) and “Thor”’s Oscar-nominated Kenneth Branagh. Many different people have helped create the MCU, but they all have worked well with Marvel in balancing creative control with fitting into the big picture. At the same time, the stars on screen are all reliable actors that fit into their superhero identities well. Recently, Marvel has shown a greater preference for award-caliber actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Brie Larson and Chadwick Boseman, but the public’s familiarity with stars such as these has not stopped the heroes we have already seen from diving into their roles and having fun.
The next solo film for Marvel is February’s “Black Panther,” starring Boseman as the titular hero. With a predominantly African-American cast and crew, the film is the first lead minority hero since Wesley Snipes’ “Blade,” whose film series concluded in 2004. The cast, along with the setting of the fictional African country of Wakanda, brings a welcome sense of diversity to the MCU and superhero movies altogether. At the same time, the trailers and press releases have focused on the Black Panther’s struggle as both king and superhero; this change in perspective is fresh and more intimate than the usual apocalyptic threat from whoever-it-may-be. As Black Panther has already been established from “Civil War,” his own film can skip the boring origin story that has plagued other modern superhero films, but his conflict of royalty and power still serves to develop him as a character, instead of just an all-powerful force that doesn’t quite grow, like Superman’s character arc in recent DC outings.
Three months after “Black Panther” comes “Avengers: Infinity War.” The close positioning of the two is juxtaposed by their very noticeable differences: “Infinity War” holds more traditional traits, like an ultra-powerful bully as the bad guy and the fate of the world at stake. However, Marvel seeks to one-up both the competition and themselves in its scale, assembling together over 20 heroes to combat Thanos. With this accumulation, they’re also mixing up the bag with who interacts with whom; it’s nostalgic to see Steve Rogers run alongside The Winter Soldier and Black Widow, but it’s almost more exciting to see Thor aboard the Guardians of the Galaxy’s ship or the leaked footage of New York City dwellers Spider-Man and Doctor Strange spending quality time saving the universe together.
Not long after that comes probably the smallest film in Marvel’s future: “Ant-Man & the Wasp.” Leading man Paul Rudd is a comfortable and reliable presence who was funny in his own film and a solid player in “Civil War,” and this time around he has more help. The Wasp, or Hope van Dyne, played by Evangeline Lilly, is the first woman in the MCU to have her name in a superhero film’s title. Other details will hopefully come soon, but a robust cast featuring MCU newcomers Michelle Pfeiffer and Laurence Fishburne show promising signs.
The next film is Marvel’s boldest move yet: “Captain Marvel.” Described by Marvel producer Kevin Feige as the most powerful hero in the MCU and played by Brie Larson, this space-set adventure has three incredibly unique traits. First, it’s set in the ‘90s; it will be interesting to see how this throwback timeline fits into the greater universe. It also features the long-dormant Nick Fury, and his presence in space 20 years before Tony Stark became Iron Man raises more questions than answers. Lastly, early concept art revealed that Brie Larson would be squaring off against the Skrulls, whose signature trait of disguising themselves is the most dangerous ability in a Marvel villain so far. While other army-like villains have been nothing more than an empty punching bag — like The Avengers against the Chitauri or the Justice League against the Parademons — the Skrulls look to break this trend as an army with personality, and whose power can equal that of their enemies.
Beyond “Captain Marvel,” not much is known just yet, which contributes to Marvel staying grounded in the present and near-future. The biggest details speak to the finality of everything Marvel has worked hard for these past 10 years. “There will be two distinct periods. Everything before “Avengers 4” and everything after,” Feige told Vanity Fair this past November. This also means the subsequent “Spider-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequels will also remain under tight wraps for the time being, which I think is a smart move: both films are a long ways away, and by not releasing any details, the greater public stays focused on what we’ll see in May’s “Infinity War” before even considering 2019’s “Avengers,” let alone their next solo outings.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe changed the way people think about franchises and blockbuster movies, and they have refused to stop there. The greatest thing that has worked for the MCU has been its innovation, and they have bravely kept this tradition alive as they shoot into the unknown, trying new things and balancing unique stories with consistent blending into the bigger picture. Before long, their “coming soon” will be “out now,” and with their constant ambition leading the way, I can’t wait to see it all happen.