Come 2019, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it could be over. If, that is, you take recent comments made by Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige at face value.
"What happens after [Phase 3] will be very different," Feige told Collider. "I don’t know if it’s Phase 4, it might be a new thing.” Some are taking this to mean that Marvel could be bringing its grand, interconnected universe to an end, or possibly rebooting it. But Marvel's films have been printing money in the billions for Disney, so that's never going to happen. Besides, Feige has proven himself far too savvy to make any colossal mistakes with his enterprise.
It's more likely that the overarching Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue, but "Phase-less." That is, without blocked-out sets of movies that make up specific Phases of the overall Marvel plan.
Even though the contracts of main stars like Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) run out after 2019's untitled Avengers 4, there is no shortage of characters already being set up to carry on in their stead. Will they be killed off, or merely retire and pass the torch? We'll have to wait and see. Just as the Avengers have gone through countless iterations over the years in the comics, it's hard to imagine Marvel won't continue the film franchise by bringing newer heroes together to form a "New Avengers," if you will.
At present, there are still eight films to come in Phase 3, which kicked off with Captain America: Civil War and continued with Doctor Strange. Next up are:
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - May 5, 2017
- Spider-Man: Homecoming - July 7, 2017
- Thor: Ragnarok - November 3, 2017
- Black Panther - February 16, 2018
- Avengers: Infinity War - May 4, 2018
- Ant-Man and the Wasp - July 6, 2018
- Captain Marvel - March 8, 2019
- Avengers 4 - May 3, 2019
Marvel has committed to only two films after Phase 3 ends: a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming, tentatively set for July 2019, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which director James Gunn has signed on to write and direct for an unknown release date.
Sony will keep churning out Spider-Man movies for as long as audiences have an appetite for them; there's always the possibility of the Black Widow solo flick fans have been begging for since her introduction,;and it's almost a given that sequels will be in order for heroes newer to the franchise, like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel. There's also the infinitesimally tiny chance that small-screen heroes like Daredevil and Jessica Jones could move on up and join their big-screen friends, but face it: that's never gonna happen.
There's plenty of room for new characters to be introduced with their own top-level films; Marvel has thousands of comic book superheroes to choose from. The comics have seen big successes from characters like Kamala Khan, America Chavez, Nova, Miles Morales, Amadeus Cho, She-Hulk, and many more. Any of them could be waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
There's also the possibility that the "big three" — Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor — could hand off their titles and responsibilities to newer heroes, just as they've done multiple times over the years in the comics. There are already replacement candidates in place for most of them, in the films, like Rhodey and Bucky Barnes. Currently in the comics, a young woman named Riri Williams has taken over for Tony Stark as "Ironheart," Sam Wilson is Captain America, and Jane Foster is Thor.
So whatever Marvel cooks up, will it fall under the umbrella of "Phase 4"? Or will Marvel do away with Phases altogether in favor of something different? That's the question.
The "Phase" model has been such a mammoth success for the studio that every other film studio in Hollywood has been scrambling to assemble its own connected cinematic universe. So there's the school of thought that says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But Feige's comments seem to acknowledge that every film Marvel Studios has released thus far has been connected by a single thread: the buildup to Thanos' assembling of the Infinity Gauntlet and subsequent attack on the universe. After that buildup has been paid off with Infinity War (and maybe whatever's planned for Avengers 4, too), where does that leave things?
Marvel could start the cycle anew, with another big villain scheming just out of view, plotting a major future attack. There are plenty of baddies the studio could choose from, like A.I.M., Kang the Conqueror, Korvac, the Masters of Evil, etc. But would fans really be satisfied with Marvel following the same blueprint as before?
This is probably what Feige was referring to in his statements. What if the universe remains interconnected, but greater focus is placed on each characters' distinct arena, giving them their own flavor and sensibility? Doctor Strange, for example, is all about magic and the multiverse; he could continue to guard that realm while introducing more heroes to it. Captain Marvel is set to examine the militaristic and possibly cosmic side of the Marvel Universe. And the highly advanced African nation of Wakanda in Black Panther opens up possibilities for international heroics.
But instead of these heroes converging at some point in the future, perhaps they won't, and that's what will set apart Marvel Studios' post-Phase 3 slate. What would be the point of calling it a "Phase," after all, if there's no grand, Thanos-sized plan to eventually pay off? Plus, this way of doing things has the added benefit of the newer films being more sustainable in the long-run if there's no climactic deadline looming down the road.
That's not to say there couldn't be team-ups or crossovers. Fans love that stuff because it reinforces how connected this universe is. There could even still be Avengers movies, starring this newer generation of superheroes, but bringing them together might be a different and unique threat each time that can be resolved in a single film.
The one thing that's certain is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn't going anywhere after Phase 3 concludes. It may not be called Phase 4, but whatever shape it takes, you can expect Marvel to keep doing what it does best by entertaining us with a wide variety of fascinating, flawed superheroes.