When Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) was introduced by Joss Whedon in The Avengers as a high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. officer it became rather evident that she was being setup as the eventual successor to Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury. Hill's role as Fury's right hand has since been expanded upon with appearances in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Hill will be back as a key character in Avengers: Age of Ultron this summer. She's loyal to Fury, Captain America and The Avengers - at least, so far, so it's a natural progression for her to step up when the time comes.
And that time could be sooner than you think.
After Samuel L. Jackson famously came in on a weekend to shoot the post-credits button for 2008's Iron Man - the film that put Marvel Studios on the map and launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe - Marvel had a somewhat tough time signing the actor to a long-term contract (Marvel is notoriously tight when it comes to talent salaries). When they did, it was for nine pictures and he's been a key figure in the MCU ever since. He's the man who put together The Avengers after all, and he returns from hiding after his fake "death" in Captain America 2 this summer in Age of Ultron - a film that will mark Sam L's seventh appearance.
"I've done six of them, and I’m about to do seven, so I’m running out of Marvel pictures – unless they extend my contract."
Jackson isn't ever shy about letting fans and interviewers know the details of this contract length or interest in re-signing for more. The above quote is from a year ago and even this week, he told IGN the same:
"I only have two more movies in my contract (laughs). That might be the end unless I get an extension."
He followed up by saying he "hopes" he can stick around so now it's up to Marvel and deciding which characters they want or need back for Phase 4 and more importantly, which actors are willing to sign potentially lengthy contract extensions. It's sadly a common impending reality for many of the stars Marvel Studios has worked with to date. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth and Jeremy Renner all only have a few appearances left and could be out of the picture after The Avengers: Infinity War in 2018-19.
With many new characters being introduced on Netflix TV shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist) and in upcoming films (Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Inhumans) - not to mention, a new Spider-Man - Marvel is expanding the MCU with major roster changes in mind.
Assuming Fury is on his way out, his last two appearances will likely be in Captain America: Civil War and in the next Avengers. The question then is on how that transition takes place. In the comics, and initially in early drafts of The Avengers screenplay, Maria Hill was meant to be a character who conflicts with Nick Fury. The movies however, have painted her in a different light so there's room for her character to take some turns going forward in the near future, depending on how events in Age of Ultron and next year in Captain America: Civil War play out - events that will pit heroes against other heroes in a battle of ideals.
In the meantime, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) was given Fury's old job as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and runs what remains of the organization covertly on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC. What happens with the TV characters and whether or not Coulson shows up in the movies again remains a mystery.
When it's all said and done, Infinity War may eradicate many of the characters moviegoers know and love as a way of concluding Phase 3 with a bang. And Nick Fury is a symbol of that old guard who may already be on his way out. It's still possible Marvel does resign Jackson though if they want his help as a high profile star assembling future versions of The Avengers team... only time will tell.
Excited to see The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. undergo more radical changes in a few years? Share your thoughts in the comments and let us know who you'd like to stick around through Phase 4!
The Avengers: Age of Ultron releases in theaters on May 1 2015, followed by Ant-Man on July 17 2015, Captain America: Civil War on May 6 2016, Doctor Strange on November 4 2016, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 on May 5 2017, Spider-Man on July 28, 2017, Thor: Ragnarok on November 3 2017, Avengers: Infinity War - Part 1 on May 4 2018, Black Panther on July 6 2018, Captain Marvel on November 2 2018, Avengers: Infinity War - Part 2 on May 3 2019 and Inhumans on July 12, 2019.