Quite a week for Marvel Cinematic Universe news my fellow fanboys and fangirls. Black Panther got an earlier release date. Ant-Man and the Wasp is officially happening. Avengers: Infinity War might have a $1 billion budget! And Inhumans might be dead (take this with a big grain of salt—I’ll explain later why I predict this to be hogwash). Needless to say, with the line-up of Phase III more or less set, we have before us a golden opportunity to critically analyze the upcoming MCU slate. Shall we do so? Yes. Yes we shall.
There are countless ways to examine the Phase III line-up (and with 29 weekly columns until Captain America: Civil War, we’ll probably be indulging quite a few metrics of analysis before we get our first taste). In this column, however, I’m going to focus on one topic in particular: What needs to happen to not just win Phase III, but effectively set up Phases IV, V, and beyond? And how does the recent news and finalized slate of films comment on this challenge?
First things first, I’ll just say it—a Marvel character has to die in Phase III. If I were given the chance to indulge my own particular preference, I would even go so far as to say Steve Rogers needs to die (though this seems unlikely to happen when it should happen—Captain America: Civil War—because Chris Evans is already contracted for Avengers: Infinity War – Part I). If not Steve Rogers though—someone else. And not a cliché, backwards, damsel-in-distress-dies death, or a tertiary-character-dies death. We need a real death. A major character’s death—I’m talking an Iron Man, Black Widow, Nick Fury, Captain America, Hulk, or Thor death.
The reason for this is simple. We need some emotional development in these movies to keep us engaged and plugged in. True, people like me are going to go see them no matter what (probably multiple times). Heck, I’ll keep seeing them even if the Avengers roster only suffers as much as a paper cut. But it’s been too long in the world of the MCU without a real substantive death to provide emotional resonance and a feeling of loss and suspense (Quicksilver, as much as I liked him, doesn’t count). Not to mention, having a major character killed off is one of the quickest, sure-fire ways to solve the MCU’s villain problem. What better way to make us all hate Thanos’s guts than have him crack Steve Rogers shield in half and whack him over the head with it (yes, hollering nerds, vibranium can be broken by Thanos). God bless Steve Rogers’s soul (he’s my favorite character after Cosmo the Seafaring Spacedog), but a sacrifice is needed to remind the audience that the stakes are real.
The MCU also needs to continue developing unique characters to carry on the mantle. There’s only so long before RDJ, Renner, ScarJo, Ruffalo, and the Chris Triumvarate (Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, and Chris Hemsworth) say goodbye to these roles. If age or preference doesn’t preclude them, the financial cost to Disney eventually will. Grooming a replacement generation of actors and actresses to carry the torch forward is priority number one to keep the MCU humming along. With this in mind, Phase III is set to rock the house by introducing three new titular players: Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel (Spider-Man doesn’t count as he’s been done to death). Not to mention the introduction of the Inhumans and further development of Ant-Man and the debut of the Wasp. Say what you want about Marvel movies, but they’ve demonstrated a nigh-infallible track record of casting (Edward Norton aside). Consequently, I have high expectations for Benedict Cumberbatch and Chadwick Boseman. Not to mention the continued inclusion of key-players beyond just Caucasian males will better capture Marvel’s diverse history, expanding the scope of potential movie audiences.
Phase III also has to prove that the superhero genre is here to stay. Haters have been caterwauling for some time about its downfall (the great Steven Spielberg most recently). Now I will openly acknowledge that we are in a heyday of superhero movies, fanboys and fangirls. I’d even go so far as to say we’re in a bubble. The golden age will come to an end. The bubble is going to pop. Look at this calendar. If you think it’s going to continue at that rate indefinitely, you’re kidding yourself. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m not.
Nonetheless, I remain an optimist. There’s a difference between extinction and evolution, and the superhero genre can and will evolve. Rather than go the way of the Western, as Spielberg predicted, there’s no reason superhero movies can’t become a mainstay the way Rom-Coms or Biopics are today. They might not be as multitudinous as they are presently, but superhero movies can become a staple. On this front, it’s crucial the genre continue to adapt, something Phase III gives every indication will happen. Mentioned already is the expanding diversity of the actors and actresses in the genre, but experimentation with style is also coming to the fore. It has been rumored this week that Thor: Ragnarok will be the darkest Marvel movie yet. Ant-Man was a good movie and an okay extension into the heist genre. Ant-Man and the Wasp presents an opportunity to try out a superhero-romantic-comedy-buddy-cop film (or, if the other Ant-Man and other Wasp, a Cold War thriller). Guardians of the Galaxy will further explore the space opera. And Doctor Strange is, by all accounts, just going to be weird. The need to expand the superhero genre is also why I predict Inhumans will be sticking around, as it provides Marvel with a palette of potential directions to choose from (and is the closest thing Disney has to the X-Men universe, if still very different from it). Finally, let’s not hate on DC in this regard; while individuals, if they must, can choose to champion Marvel over DC and vice versa, there’s no denying DC is taking a different approach to its movie slate, and this will (hopefully) result in a further expansion and edification of the superhero genre.
Phases I and II of Marvel have been an unmitigated financial and critical success. Fanboys and fangirls everywhere have rejoiced that the superhero genre has gotten the attention it deserves. The idea of a shared universe has not only been systematically proven, but studios have tripped over themselves to copy the concept. But Phase III is the largest existential stepping stone the MCU has yet to traverse. In winning Phase III by successfully setting up the MCU for the long-term, Marvel Studios will have the chance to prove the adaptability and longevity of these movies for decades to come. With the Phase III slate finalized, I predict they pull it off.