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Where does the Marvel Cinematic Universe go in Phase 4?

Over a decade of setup finally pays off next year with the fourth Avengers film, closing out the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and opening the door for the fourth. With everything coming to a head in Avengers: Endgame, that means the MCU will be starting with a relatively clean slate. With actor contracts ending, the current slate of Avengers will retire or – gasp – die by the end of Avengers: Endgame. Where does the MCU take its multi-billion-dollar show moving forward?

It’s time for the New Avengers

The Avengers will be gone, soon. At the very least, Cap and Thor will be gone when two of the MCU’s three Chrises are free of their contracts. But maybe the Avengers team doesn’t have to die. There’s a whole slate of Marvel heroes that could step up. The Avengers team was initially formed by The Wasp in the comics, and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is coming into his own as a confident hero. Meanwhile, in the real world, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is too profitable for the company to overlook him as a major part of any new team-ups.

I wondered briefly if Marvel might retire the Avengers name, but the truth is that most of the great Marvel teams are already in use or otherwise unavailable. The company can’t use the Inhumans or the Defenders. The Illuminati and Eternals are right out, too. The X-Men are going to be a tantalizing possibility for Marvel, but with the MCU already looking to the cosmos, the time doesn’t seem right for Professor X and his team. The Champions are a good next step, and the only other team name I could see the company using, but we’re still waiting on a few heroes of that team to join the MCU.

Heroes. In. Space!

That’s the next step of the MCU. While the Guardians of the Galaxy have been out floating around in space, it’s Thanos who actually brought the cosmos to Earth. The greater galactic part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has just closed in around the planet, and that opens up a whole new realm for heroes to visit. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is going to be the primary bridge. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) had to use that super pager to contact her because she’s been up in space since the 1990s fighting all manner of space warriors, and she has access to power beyond what even Thor can bring. It seems likely that Brie Larson’s hero will end up becoming the MCU’s moral center when Captain America fades away – swap one Cap for another – and that will help move the MCU out into the cosmos. We’re already starting to explore the quantum realm and magic, so space is the next logical step. That will let Marvel introduce characters like Nova, Quasar, and Beta Ray Bill.

Now that the Disney-Fox merger is all but completed, that also opens up an opportunity to bring in the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s “first family.” The Four have always been a very cosmic-focused team, and exploring space would be a perfect way to integrate them meaningfully. Right now they – along with Marvel favorites like the Silver Surfer, Galactus, and Doctor Doom – are in the hands of Fox.

Spidey sticks around

This is some wishful thinking, but stick with me. Sony’s been struggling to make good Spider-Man movies for a while, between Spider-Man 3 and two cruddy Amazing Spider-Man movies. Finally after a decade of headaches, Spider-Man is a hero moviegoers can look forward to again thanks to Spider-Man:Homecoming and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Tom Holland was a blast in Captain America: Civil War, an energetic moral center in Avengers: Infinity War, and he held his own against one of cinema’s first superheroes, Michael Keaton, who ended up being the most compelling version of the Spidey villain Vulture to date. Holland’s contracted for another Marvel Studios Spidey movie, but that’s it – for now.

I think Sony will work out some longer-term licensing agreement with Marvel to give the studio access to make whatever Spidey flicks it wants to make with some kind of profit-sharing thing. Between Marvel’s proven ability to make likable, profitable, and critically-successful superhero movies, it’d be silly not to.

Live the fantasy with me. Close your eyes and just imagine it.

More unlikely heroes

Not once or twice but four times in the last phase or so, Marvel has surprised me with its ability to make an unlikely hero stick on the big screen. I was sure Guardians of the Galaxy would be Marvel’s first big flop.

I was sure Ant-Man would be Marvel’s first big flop.

I was sure I’d hate Bananadad Cucumberface as Doctor Strange.

I was wrong about all three. And then Black Panther blew us all away.

Phase 4 is Marvel’s chance to start introducing new characters. MCU boss Kevin Feige has suggested that Ms. Marvel, a younger character given powers by Captain Marvel, is in the works. She-Hulk, Wonder Man, and Moon Knight could be fun. Marvel could explore countries other than the United States of New York City and Wakanda with characters like Captain Britain or the Canadian character Guardian.

We could see Marvel replace some of its existing heroes with younger versions. Jane Foster could take over as Thor. Shuri would make a great Iron Man (or Iron Heart). If Scarlett Johansson is done playing Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, she could be replaced by an actress playing Jessica Drew. Drew is Spider-Woman in the comics, but she’s disconnected enough from Spider-Man that her rights might just with Marvel. Certain incarnations of Drew have also been Black Widow in the comics. I once worried about moviegoers accepting this recasting, but I think I was wrong about that – people are ready to see new takes on previous characters.

Marvel’s first flop

It’s gotta happen eventually. We’re already at 10 years of MCU – 13 or 14 before a true flop would be a pretty good run.

Tony Stark is the new Stan Lee

We lost Stan Lee this year. I have a feeling Tony Stark is going to make it through Avengers: Endgame, after which point he’ll become the standing chairman of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He consults, he passes out tech, and he does witty banter cameos. I feel like RDJ is down for this.

What we know

Following next year’s Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, we do know some of what’s planned. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man will get Spider-Man: Far From Home. Marvel would be painfully stupid not to squeeze another billion or two out of Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, and we’re expecting another Doctor Strange movie at this point, too. Paul Rudd’s contract has been described by Rudd himself as a “three-plus-plus” deal, and he’s only had two standalone movies so far, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see a third Ant-Man movie. Those last two are unconfirmed, but assumed.

Marvel has the next decade to plan out. Kevin Feige probably just threw out two of the three whiteboards in his office – the ones reading “what if Comcast gets Fox,” and “What if the Fox merger doesn’t go through.” Now it’s all a matter of figuring out how to bring some of Marvel’s core characters back into the fold now that they’re coming home. Marvel’s not going to leave the Fantastic Four sitting for long, and the X-Men can’t be far behind.