After nearly a decade and 17 films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the stuff of legend in Hollywood, seemingly incapable of faltering at the box office. Filled with some of the biggest stars in film, many who have Marvel to thank for their fame, the most successful film franchise in movie history sits at a crossroads.
Summer 2019 sees the release of the fourth "Avengers" film, and the end of an era. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told Vanity Fair that the film will "bring things you've never seen in superhero films: a finale." But he also promised there were 20 more films lined up and 20 years worth of ideas to come. How can that be?
The Marvel Comics library has 7,000 characters, so it's all about choosing the right ones. It's a real challenge, because even in the comic book world the likes of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) have been front and center with "The Avengers" for decades. But that's easy to do in the comic books, because you can ignore the passage of time. The MCU doesn't have that luxury.
So how does a film franchise move on without its principal characters? One notion is that the next wave of the MCU will explore the "Marvel Cosmic Universe," something we've already begun to do in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Thor: Ragnarok." Stepping away from the Earth to explore the vastness of space for the next decade is a huge gamble, but when everything from "Ant-Man" to "Doctor Strange" turns into box office gold despite their unorthodox approaches to superheroics, it seems Marvel can get away with gambles.
Feige also hinted that they may explore across time as well, meaning there could be more flashbacks in the works a la "Captain America: The First Avenger." Throw in Marvel Comics' well-established multiverse and a whole world of intellectual property still tied up with Fox and there is a lot of potential. If Disney buys up 21st Century Fox, as they have been exploring, that would return the X-Men and Fantastic Four to the MCU -- just like the Sony deal brought in Spider-Man -- and with them would come instantly recognizable characters for the next wave.
Here's a look at 13 Marvel superheroes (or groups of them) who are ready to take the lead in the next generation of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Now it's just a matter of how many handsome guys named Chris they can find to portray them:
We know she's already part of the MCU, but we're still ready for Scarlett Johansson to step up and lead her own film. If the Avengers disband in "A4," maybe she could get back to her espionage ways and give us a "James Bond"-type adventure. If they feel the need to have a guy in the film, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) would make a decent sidekick.
In the comic book world, the next generation of heroes came together because of all the fighting within "The Avengers" to form their own super-team, the Champions. Led by Muslim Inhuman Ms. Marvel, this team could step in to fill the void, stumbling their way to success like Spider-Man did in his recent film, giving the next generation of fans heroes to grow up alongside.
Many have worn the Iron Man armor, but Riri Williams is one of the few people who was able to make her own. A brilliant engineer at a young age, Tony Stark found her after she'd already made the armor. In his absence, she's taken up his mantle on the page, and could do it again on the screen, bringing some much-needed diversity to the MCU in the process.
Like Tony Stark, many people have been the Hulk over the years (including Korean-American Amadeus Cho), but the most tragic connection is with his cousin Jennifer Walters. She received a life-saving blood transfusion from Bruce but then found herself trapped with his powers. Jen has gained better control than Bruce ever did, but this brilliant lawyer-by-day could take the Hulk mythos in bold new directions.
Marvel's late answer to Superman, The Sentry was styled as a golden age hero with all of the classic powers. But the tragedy was that within his broken mind also lived his greatest foe. With psychological complexity on a nuclear scale. "The Sentry" could be a bold exploration into the risks of dealing with that much power contained in one body.
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur
Still in grade school, Lunella Lafayette is the smartest person in the Marvel Universe. A genius in almost every area, except social ones, she also has the ability to swap her mind with a giant, red tyrannosaurus rex that she keeps as a sort of pet ... only she can't completely control when the swaps happen. The potential for humor and fun in this character is through the roof.
Ghost Rider got a test drive in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," but "Doctor Strange" proved its time for the MCU to dive deep into its supernatural roots. So why not go all in with this team made up of G.R., vampire-hunter Blade, and "Son of Satan" Daimon Hellstrom. There's room for the likes of Man-Thing, Doctor Voodoo and all the denizens of the weird underbelly of Marvel, just ready to be exposed.
One of the most brilliant deceptions in comic book history, this team of superheroes was revealed to actually be a team of supervillains led by Captain America nemesis Baron Zemo. In the wake of whatever happens to The Avengers after "A4," the stage would be set for a new group to rise and fool the American public for as many films as Marvel wants to let it ride, while others slowly seek to reveal the truth. The Winter Soldier even led later iterations of this team, creating an even stronger connection to the MCU.
Namor: The Sub-Mariner
One of Marvel's first superheroes has been lurking beneath the waters throughout the entirety of the MCU thus far, but maybe the right cataclysmic event would give him reason to emerge. The ruler of the lost city of Atlantis and its people, his presence would dramatically alter the landscape of the world. Plus, Namor has never played completely by the rules, putting the needs of his kingdom over whatever the surface dwellers deem is right or wrong, meaning he'd be the ultimate anti-hero.
Feige suggested alternate times and realities for the future of the MCU, so why not go to the most popular future and discover a corporate-controlled America and the heroes that world demands. Foward-thinking when it was created in 1992, Miguel O'Hara's Spidey adventures seem even more prophetic today. He's only the tip of the iceberg as Marvel created an entire superhero universe for their near future comic line, including a cyberpunk Ghost Rider, new X-Men and even Dr. Doom.
If the plan really is to head out into space, then there's no better ambassador than the Nova Corps, as seen through the eyes of its first Earth recruit, Richard Rider. Spinning out of their appearance in the "Guardians of the Galaxy," the film could expand on the Corps' role as an intergalactic police force and explore the heretofore unmentioned Nova Force that powers and informs them.
This novice hero gains his abilities from a pair of quantum bands that are fused to his wrists, making him a reluctant hero at best. He barely knows how to use them but they are incredibly powerful making him a cosmic-level version of "The Greatest American Hero." He could save they day, but he could just as well destroy everything. Let the fun begin!
The most recent iteration of this Canadian super-team put them on a space station as protectors of Earth, under the guidance of Captain Marvel. This is a fun team, like "GotG," and would work best as a light-hearted film about a superhero team that's looking for a purpose and seeking the respect of their fellow heroes. Unfortunately, their rights are tied up with the X-Men, so this might depend on Disney coming to some sort of arrangement with Fox.
The Fantastic Four/X-Men Situation
The most ideal conclusion for fans would be for Marvel to work something out with Fox so that their first superhero team could be at the forefront of the next wave of MCU films. Even better, Fantastic Four fans might actually get a good movie out of the characters, who have always had an intergalactic bent. They're really a group of scientific explorers more than classic superheroes, meaning they often accidentally cause as many problems as they fix.
Plus, with the "FF" comes the shape-shifting Skrulls and the world-devouring Galactus, both of whom serve as fantastic ways to bring our attention back to Earth with a major crisis there that the new wave of Earth-bound heroes would have to find a way to deal with.
The X-Men seem to be doing quite well for Fox, so unless a merger happens it seems unlikely they'd join the MCU. If they did, though, these two properties would be the foundation of the next wave of films as Earth deals with the emergence of mutants and the cosmic forces that are making their way back to destroy us all.
That might hold our attention for another 20 movies or so.