To be excited about superhero movies is to always wonder, what's next? Even when Marvel Studios unveiled years worth of release dates and film titles in October, a series of movies forming what's known as Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we had to ask how the franchise continues afterwards.
New characters are getting their own movies (Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Doctor Strange), familiar characters are getting sequels (Thor, Captain America, and the Guardians of the Galaxy), and there's even one getting a reboot (Spider-Man). All of these stories are really just chapters in a larger long story, one that seems to culminate in Avengers: Infinity War. We don't know much about what happens after this two-part movie event outside of Inhumans, because no other films have been announced, and most of the leading actors have contracts that expire by then.
For that reason, it's becoming increasingly interesting to follow major events in Marvel Comics, a medium that seems to reshape itself to somewhat follow and somewhat setup events in the far-more-lucrative movie business. Last year alone, we met a new version of Iron Man, a mysterious female character becoming Thor, and another supporting character (Falcon) picking up the mantle (and shield) of Captain America to form a new Avengers team. It'd be crazy to think that beyond the obvious goal of boosting diversity in lead Marvel characters that some of these decisions aren't laying groundwork for Marvel's film division to have more options when it comes to continuing successful brands without the leading actors who started each series.
Chris Evans may only have Captain America: Civil War (which began production this week) and another Avengers film on his contract, but that's not going to stop Captain America 4 from happening if Marvel wants it in Phase 4. Thanks to the last decade of comics, they already have two potential replacements for who can step in as the next star-spangled Avenger: Bucky Barnes a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan who has a 9-picture deal with the studio) and Sam Wilson a.k.a. Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie who also has a lengthy multi-picture deal). Hold that thought.
For Chris Hemsworth's Thor, it's a similar deal, and like Mr. Evans, he's also done contractually after Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War. How Thor's story can continue beyond that is even more interesting than Cap's since it was only recently when a new Thor took his place in the books. The questionable transfer of the first name aside, the story for the new female Thor goes like this: Thor Odinson became unworthy as a result of something whispered to him by Nick Fury. We don't know what was said, but because Thor believed himself unworthy, he no longer could wield the mystical hammer Mjolnir and it sat, stuck on the moon until a mysterious woman picked it up.
*Warning: Reading ahead will subject you to Thor/Secret Wars spoilers including the identity of female Thor.*
The identity of this worthy hero remains a mystery, although it's going to be revealed in Marvel's Secret Wars event that began days ago (the event that will essentially end the Marvel Comics universe - all of them - as we know it). Panels from a revealing issue leaked early and so we do know who female Thor really is - and the revelation paves the path for some interesting possibilities down the road for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Whosoever Holds This Hammer
Kevin Hellions from Team Hellions posted some leaked scans of panels from the upcoming Thor reveal and guess who joined the Avengers and gained the powers of a thunder god?
Jane Foster, suffering from cancer which is worsening from her use of Mjolnir, is female Thor. In these comics where female Thor is the titular lead, old Thor - going only by the name "Odinson" now (yes, we know, weird use of names all around here) - is still around, but he simply cannot use Mjolnir. Instead, he dresses in rags and wields his old trusted weapon, Jarnbjorn (a badass battleaxe). You essentially have two leads now, each using famous, unique weapons.
That's all in the comics, so let's apply this knowledge to what could be the future of the MCU.
It's not the roles or characters that create fatigue or a perception of lack of interest in the stars of the Avengers continuing with the franchise, it's the commitment. Chris Evans for instance, made headlines not long ago for claiming he's going to retire from acting after his Marvel contract is complete and pursue directing, but that's not really going to be the case. C'mon.
For Hemsworth, he's a high in demand actor in Hollywood and desires time to pursue other projects in between his Marvel obligations, but that's not all that may make him signing for more movies a challenge. It's also the strenuous workout regiment and dietary restrictions to keep in Asgardian warrior shape. It's the endless press tours to promote a movie. And when serving as the lead, it's the long hours and months of work shooting. As we've pointed out on the site before, there's a way to solve all of these problems: rotating rosters and crossovers.
As Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige and Avengers 1 & 2 writer-director Joss Whedon have teased frequently over the years, one of the exciting aspects for Marvel about their film franchise is how dynamic its team-up can be, especially when it comes to the flagship Avengers series. Just like the comics, the movies will embrace new and different combinations of characters with every film.
We saw it with Avengers: Age of Ultron this month, with a team that grows and then changes by the end to setup the next team-up film coming next summer, Captain America: Civil War. By bringing in new and additional leads and major supporting players in upcoming movies, sequels to solo character projects become less and less necessary. And on the contractual side, that makes it far easier to entice the current faces of the MCU to stick around longer.
It's been well documented over the years but by the time Phase 3 concludes in 2019 with Avengers: Infinity War - Parts 1 and 2, the contracts are up for most of the lead characters. Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Robert Downey Jr., etc. will all be done by then. But, just like Marvel was able to convince Robert Downey Jr. to join Captain America: Civil War (and possibly, the Spider-Man reboot too), there's a good chance the studio can keep some of the others around too, which brings us to the mightiest of the Avengers: Thor.
The premise of explanation for why crossovers are not only helpful, but needed in the evolving climate of superhero movies coming every few weeks for the next several years and beyond, is that you can bring back actors for less money, for less of a time commitment and keep their characters relevant. RDJ doesn't need to spend a year making Iron Man 4 if he can become a major supporting player to help bolster the marketability of other projects for new characters, riskier stories, etc. Iron Man can still live on in the MCU and so can RDJ, just in a different way. The same for Chris Evans' Steve Rogers after passing the shield to someone else. And, the same for Thor thanks to what we now know.
What if after Thor: Ragnarok, a story that will tear apart Asgard and help set the stage for Infinity War, Marvel begins laying the groundwork for another to take Chris Hemsworth's place if he makes it clear he wants out? Just like RDJ can stick around on Earth working in the background, maybe taking over S.H.I.E.L.D. as its director on day, Hemsworth's Thor can become the new king of Asgard, letting other characters take more of the screen time, or all of it if necessary.
What if, just like the comics, Jane Foster becomes Thor? Would a more prominent, more important role and a roster spot on the Avengers enthuse Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman to take on a large role in the MCU, beyond being namedropped in both Avengers movies? A female Thor, the mightiest of the Avengers, as another new lead hero in Phase 4? Hemsworth can still play original Thor with a different weapon and a different look and he can still be involved... as much as he wants to.
We know Portman reportedly had issues with Thor: The Dark World when its original (female) director Patty Jenkins was removed from the project (she's now directing Wonder Woman for rival DC Entertainment), and she's fielded quite a few questions about female superheroes in the MCU, seemingly knowing that some are on the way. What if they let her be one too? She's already got first hand experience with one of the Infinity Stones after all...
Think of it. The Avengers 5 can still have Captain America and Thor, just with different actors (if need be).
The Avengers: Age of Ultron is now in theaters, 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.
Header image edited from art by Demiurge Studios.