Back in 2008, Marvel took a chance. They released Iron Man, the film that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I doubt anyone could have anticipated what a watershed moment in cinema that would be. Now, nine years later, the franchise has made over $10 billion in the global box office. It has expanded to include a breathtaking range of superheroes, from Captain America to the Vision, and now it even includes your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man!
Phase 3 of the MCU will draw to a close with the explosive action of #InfinityWar and the as-yet-untitled Avengers 4. The question now is: Where does the MCU go from here? What's next for #Marvel Studios?
So far, the MCU has been divided into three "phases": three clusters of movies with the same narrative structure. Each phase has involved a series of solo movies or sequels, with an overarching narrative thrust that builds towards a tentpole Avengers movie. That, it seems, is what's set to change.
Asked about the future of the MCU, #KevinFeige was pretty honest that he's considering some pretty radical changes.
"Certainly as we get to Infinity War there is a sense of a climax if not a conclusion to, by the time we’re at untitled Avengers 4, the 22 movies that will have encompassed the first three phases of the MCU. And what happens after that will be very different. I don’t know if it’s Phase 4, it might be a new thing.”"
Right now, Marvel Studios is dealing with their biggest challenge to date. The slate for the next few years is jam-packed, and both Infinity War and Avengers 4 present huge logistical challenges. Marvel originally planned to film these two movies side-by-side, but plans were changed due to complications with scheduling and cinematography. Given the enormity of the undertaking in Phase 3, Marvel's resources seem to be focused on the present rather than the future. For now, it seems planning for "Phase 4" is (at least as far as Marvel want us to know) at an early stage.
Still, Feige's comment suggests he's considering a radical change. The MCU has been a phenomenal success, but he's actually considering some sort of relaunch. It fits with an observation he made last year:
“I think there will be a finality to moments of Phase Three, as well as new beginnings that will mark a different, a very different, a distinctively different chapter in what will someday be a complete first saga made up of three phases.”
At the time, Feige pointed to the success of comic book relaunches; although titles get relaunched or rebooted, the overarching narrative exists in a single continuum. That's why he can talk about starting "a new thing" so soon after James Gunn has been signed up for Guardians of the Galaxy 3!
No More Phases?
As much as we love the idea of MCU's phases continuing ad infinitum, the changes proposed by Feige make sense. The Avengers films are simply become too unwieldy; fans expect all their favorites to play some kind of role, and the MCU is ever-expanding. The logistical challenges behind Infinity War and Avengers 4 have already forced Marvel to abandon their original plans to film the movies simultaneously, instead moving to a back-to-back approach.
Many of Marvel's biggest names — including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Pratt, and Scarlett Johansson — are in massive demand, making scheduling alone something of a challenge. Plus, with the universe continuing to grow, you run the risk that these tentpole films will lose the ability to focus in on core characters. Instead, they'll become nothing more than a parade of cameos.
What's more, Phase 3 looks set to prove that non-tentpole films can draw just as much attention as the central Avengers movies. Take Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; it's currently tracking to make $160 million in its opening night, cracking the all-time Top 10 in cinema history. Spider-Man: Homecoming has the potential to be another blockbuster hit, starring the MCU incarnation of the world's most well-known & most profitable superhero.
Another benefit is that this approach frees the studio up in terms of continuity. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is set only a couple of months after the first film, allowing James Gunn to continue the character beats. Because the franchise has stood apart from the rest of the MCU, set in a distant corner of the galaxy, there's been no problem with continuity. By all accounts, Marvel intend each of their Spider-Man movies to be set in Peter Parker's next school year, after the pattern of Harry Potter; that approach will be much easier if they're not having to worry about the character's next appearance in a tentpole film set ever further in Spider-Man's future.
The Relationship With Marvel Television
It looks as though the next stage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could well be a lot more flexible than the phased approach we've seen so far. Ironically, from a strategic viewpoint, this could be the only way to save the MCU as a whole; with Marvel Television releasing an ever-increasing slate set in the MCU, the chronology is getting pretty awkward.
Abandoning the phased approach and loosening the demands of continuity would make the relationship between the movies and TV shows much easier to maintain. Right now, there's a real demand for the TV shows to somehow tie into those tentpole films. What's more, fans keep wondering where their favorite TV characters are during the major events; witness the clamor for the Defenders to appear in Infinity War, for example. If the films move away from the phased structure, the pressure on both Marvel Studios and Marvel Television will lessen a little.
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Right now, Kevin Feige is either unable or (far more likely) unwilling to spell out his thoughts on the future of the MCU. He's preparing the ground for a major shift in strategy, though, happily talking about a mysterious "new thing." It seems most likely to refer to a new approach, one that abandons the exhausting demands of the 'phases' and that gives filmmakers more freedom in terms of continuity. Personally, I think that sounds like a sensible idea, and I'm fascinated to see whether this is indeed the direction Marvel take...