As much as fans care about the present, the future is just as exciting, if not more. The faithful watchers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have known where the mega-franchise is headed since October 2014 when Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige announced the entire Phase Three slate through 2019. We know what happens next, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4, but what happens after that?
Feige isn’t ready to show his hand just yet, focusing on the next two Avengers movies—and a handful of other Marvel movies before and in between them—to deliver the culmination of his studio’s massive 22-movie narrative. There will be a Marvel Cinematic Universe after Avengers 4, but there are no guarantees as to what it will look like and how it will be handled, as Feige explained to Upprox at this week’s Thor: Ragnarok press junket.
“Well, all I’ll say is the films we are working on now – which take us through to the Avengers Untitled in May of 19 – that’s really all we are focusing on. And we are focusing on bringing, by that point, an unprecedented, 22-movie, continuous shared fictional narrative to a conclusion in a satisfying way.
“And where we go beyond that? Of course we will go places beyond that. And, of course, we have ideas of where we go beyond that. But, really, it is all good stories. And as the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation said, ‘All good things must come to an end.’ And part of what makes them special, there is a finite quality to the best of fictional stories through history. And we wanted to do that at the end of our first three phases and 22 movies. How we start anew and wherever we go beyond that is a story for another time. This is really about 10 years on, bringing something to a head in a satisfying and unexpected way.”
Words like “finite” and “start anew” make it sound as if Phase Three could bring an end to the MCU timeline that was introduced in 2008’s Iron Man. Superhero franchises don’t typically “end” by design, with reboots happening only after a film fails so miserably that a studio feels it would be easier to start over than continue on with a troubled series. The most notable exception to this is The Dark Knight Trilogy, but that finite story consisted of only three films, not 22.
Despite the very intriguing language used by Feige, we already know the MCU is not truly ending since there are two post-Phase Three films that have already been announced. Spider-Man: Homecoming is getting a sequel that arrives in theaters just two months after Avengers 4 in 2019. The film is said to pick up right after the end of Avengers 4, or very close to it, so we know the timeline is continuing in some way.
Writer and director James Gunn is going to be back for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which he says will close out the current iteration of the Guardians that he introduced in the series’ first film. It would be pretty difficult for Gunn to end his Guardians story is someone else ends it for him in the Avengers movies. The Guardians are safe, except maybe Nebula (Karen Gillan), and we will likely see them again in May 2020.
Most or all of the new characters that have been introduced and have only just started their own individual franchises are likely safe. Marvel Studios probably won’t leave all that sequel money on the table for actual and presumed hits like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel. Money aside, it’s hard to really complete the stories of those characters in a satisfying way with just one solo film and appearances in a couple team-ups.
The characters that could see their finite stories come to an end are the veterans of Phase One. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) began this 22-movie arc with Iron Man and MCU mainstay Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) got his start there as well, so there is reason to be concerned for their safety. Captain America (Steve Rogers) didn’t need super soldier serum to prove he was willing to dive on a grenade, so it would be sad, but not surprising to see him make the ultimate sacrifice play.
Then there’s the battling buddies of Thor: Ragnarok. The upcoming film feels so much like a soft reboot for Thor (Chris Hemsworth) that it may give the franchise a new lease on life that will keep The God of Thunder safe. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), however, has movie distribution issues that keep him out of contention for another solo film and he’s getting a complete three-movie arc in Ragnarok and the next two Avengers films, so he is another one to make sure you have in your MCU “deadpool.”
Of course, death is not the only way to end a character’s story. There can be retirements and transitions into new, less active roles. Marvel can allow certain characters to step aside just enough to make room for some new faces at the forefront. There can also be changes to the narrative style of the MCU. There can still be films that are on brand and part of a collective continuity, but perhaps not assembling another massive, inter-franchise story, or at least not for a little while.
There is still plenty to look forward to over the next 18 months, so there’s no need to fret too much about what comes after Avengers 4. We’ve got six films—Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and Avengers 4—left in Phase Three and we already know the first film that comes almost immediately after (the Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel). The time will come for Marvel Studios to announce what the next era of the MCU will look like, but we have a lot of story to get through before then, so be sure to mix in a little patience with all that healthy curiosity.