Marvel Studios is always planning aheadfar head. It’s why ever since Iron Man proved that the young production house could do right by moviegoers by honoring the comics, they’ve been bringing in actors and actresses and signing them to lengthy multi-picture deals, setting precedents in the industry for growing talent while building a shared cinematic universe. Now, rival studios who also own Marvel characters are rushing to emulate the formula, with both Sony and Fox recently announcing multitudes of sequels and spinoffs that are all connected.

The reason why Marvel succeeded and why Disney boss Bob Iger was interested in acquiring the company boils down to one man and his small committee of creatives and executives with a background in Marvel Comics. Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios president of production and producer on all Marvel Studios films, is responsible for what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, home to the world’s third largest box office success of all-time in The Avengers.

Feige was put in charge of the new Marvel Studios, the first major independent studio since DreamWorks, in 2007. He was only 33. But his ideas worked, ideas that all came down to honoring comics and serving their fans first. If the “hardcore” loyalists didn’t approve, the idea is that mainstream moviegoers might not as well. It had to honor the comics, and it took Feige a lot of battles to get his way. It’s because of him that Captain America and Thor got their own films before joining The Avengers. That was crucial to him, just like it was extremely important that The First Avenger take place during WWII and that Thor show the Asgardian hero come to Earth during modern times just like Stan Lee’s comics. The films needed to faithfully adapt the source material and focus on character beats first.

Marvel Studios President of Production – Kevin Feige

That logic had Feige recruiting writer and director Joss Whedon (Firefly, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) to take on their most ambitious and risky project to date. Whedon’s television and comics work were consistent in one major way – that the characters were always the most memorable pieces of the puzzle and that’s exactly what The Avengers – a film that brought together disparate characters for a common cause – needed to avoid becoming a mess of mostly-CGI action. The build up and success of The Avengers erased any doubts Disney’s high-ups had about the studio or their unique process, and Feige and his team seemingly now have more control than ever to continue bringing the Marvel Comics (that they own the film rights to) to life on the big screen. Maybe that’s why Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy – obscure properties that executives would scoff at years ago – are now becoming a reality.

And again, it comes down to planning ahead. In an interview with Wired last year, Feige (read our on-set Cap 2 interview with him about building the MCU) made headlines when mentioning that Marvel Studios had planned out films leading up to 2021. The truth of that was remarkable but unsurprising considering what we already knew was coming at the time:

  • 2013: Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World
  • 2014: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy
  • 2015: The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man
  • 2016: Two unannounced films with release dates
  • 2017: One unannounced film with a release date (a second one is coming)

Fill in the blanks and there’s at least two films coming per year for the foreseeable future. Following the current release pattern of the studio, we can expect The Avengers 3 in 2018, followed by the beginning of “Phase 4″ which would conceivably conclude with The Avengers 4 in 2021. There’s no shortage of characters and properties Marvel Studios can draw from to bring to the big screen, alongside sequels to established properties – the only limitation is really the talent and their contracts.

Kevin Fiege and Robert Downey Jr. on Marvel Studios Comic-Con Panel

It’s because actors like Robert Downey Jr. only signing on for The Avengers 2 & 3 (sorry, no Iron Man 4) and because Captain America star Chris Evans is done after his sixth movie that we’re going to see a rotating roster of members when it comes to the big team-ups, and that means the forward-looking schedule is rather open in what characters it could feature – we already have a few names that frequently bubble to the surface, heroes like Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, Doctor Strange, etc.

Business Week ran a feature on Kevin Feige and the rise of Marvel Studios and in it they discuss the long-term potential of the franchise, leveraging the established brand and shared universe to continually introduce more and more characters from the 8,000+ they own from the books. Where before we had heard from Feige that they had a pretty good idea of what’s in the pipeline up to and including 2021, that roadmap of upcoming films – literally pasted on the office wall of Kevin Feige’s office –  is substantially larger now, just seven months later.

“It’s like looking through the Hubble telescope. You go, ‘What’s happening back there? and I can sort of see it. They printed out a new one recently that went to 2028.”

It’s 2014. There are 14 years of Marvel Studios movies potentially mapped out and we know that involves at least two per year, with Feige recently going on record saying it’s possible they can do three in a given year depending on the circumstances. Do that math. Comic book films aren’t going anywhere, and when you throw in the imminent annualization of Fox’s and Sony’s Marvel franchises, and knowing what Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment are planning to launch their own shared universe with Batman vs. Superman, and we’re going to have big budget comic book films every few months for the long-term. Don’t forget the multitude of DC and Marvel based television programs in the works…

It’s a good time to be a fan of comics.

The roadmap of projects doesn’t necessarily mean that specific films are locked in with potential dates or a strict release order. We’d expect that some plans can easily change and the order of films can be altered depending on how certain upcoming projects are received critically and at the box office, but it does mean there’s an overarching thread of major events, major character arcs, etc. that are in place, and it probably goes beyond big, bad Thanos, who was introduced after the credits of The Avengers.

For those wondering about the potential of Marvel Studios crossing over with the cinematic universes from Fox and Sony, or Marvel getting back the film rights to the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man or the X-Men, Iger explained to Business Wire that such a thing won’t happen anytime soon. And it doesn’t need to.

More: Will Marvel Studios Release 3-4 Movies Per Year?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier hits theaters April 4, 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy on August 1, 2014The Avengers: Age of Ultron on May 1, 2015, Ant-Man on July 17, 2015, and unannounced films for May 6 2016, July 8 2016 and May 5 2017.

Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes for your Marvel movie and TV news!

Source: Business Week