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It was a borderline tragedy to Marvel fans this weekend, as the company only announced one film on their upcoming film slate (Guardians Of The Galaxy 2) despite eight release dates hovering on the horizon. Fans know to expect Doctor Strange given the recent hiring of director Scott Derrickson, and there's certainly room for a third Avengers, with writers hired for Thor 3. That leaves four release dates without titles. Why weren't they confirmed? The issue is a simple one: Marvel doesn't know what these movies are either.
In some ways, Marvel has revolutionized blockbuster filmmaking. All it takes is a small last-minute addition to a movie and suddenly the Marvel world spiderwebs even further. Samuel L. Jackson's end-of-credits cameo as Nick Fury in Iron Man was an afterthought. By 2011, the Red Skull would control the Tesseract, just the first in a series of magical MacGuffins teasing the arrival of Thanos, spread out over multiple films. Marvel has mastered release date schedule management, striking early and often by nabbing the best available weekends with just the promise of another Marvel blockbuster that adds another piece to the larger Marvel mosaic.
That's led to the eight-film mystery bunch that everyone expected would be revealed (or slightly clarified) at Comic-Con. Admittedly, it is a surprise that more titles weren't announced – specifically the July 2016 date, which would have to be for a film soon to enter the pre-production phase – though believing Marvel would give up their whole plan is foolish.
Let's say you're a regular studio like Fox, and you want to map out the next four or five years. You've already got scripts for five random movies, and you select release dates for 2016, 2017 and 2018. This is great and all, but it can only be temporary – let's say movie #4 of those five is a mid-budgeted cop film starring a less-than-A-List cast of up-and-comers, set to be released in the fourth quarter of 2017. But movies #2 and #3 on that schedule were not the huge successes you were hoping for, which means you need more of a sure thing in the fourth quarter of 2017. You want to postpone the shooting of movie #4, but now you've lost the availability of your lead actor, who has committed to another project. Your second-billed actor, meanwhile, was a lot hotter when you entered preliminary negotiations with them in 2015 than he is in 2017. So now, you're looking at moving movie #4 and replacing it with a not-ready Movie #5, and moving ahead without your ideal talent. You planned ahead, and it backfired, and now the entire industry knows that Untitled Cop Movie is being moved to another date. This is the beginning of "bad buzz," and suddenly Movie #4 becomes a "troubled production."
Now imagine the same situation, except that every movie costs $300-$400 million to produce and distribute. And the movies can't be switched out for each other, because they all follow the same linear outline – you can't swap Movie #5 in for Movie #4, because Movie #4 builds up Movie #5 plot-wise. Also, some of these movies are going to need the same actor to pop up multiple times, so good luck negotiating and re-negotiating their busy schedule.
Such are the problems Marvel currently faces.
Marvel thus far has gotten incredibly lucky, as none of their films were outright bombs necessitating a change in schedule. But if the tracking was not great for this weekend's Guardians Of The Galaxy, Kevin Feige would have a hole to fill in July 2017, where the sequel is ostensibly going to arrive. Marvel's strength, so far, has been in schedule management, and its that skill that has placed them atop the movie world. Marvel started a bit too ambitious, planning Thor for 2010 and The Avengers for 2011. It's very possible those early changes ruffled a few feathers in the then-fledgeling production company, and they've sought to avoid problems since.
It's not just the quantity of the release dates. It's the quality. The single best release date on the calendar is the first weekend of May, acknowledged by many to be the unofficial start to the summer movie season. Since 2002's Spider-Man, which had a then-record opening of $114 million, that first May weekend has been the biggest of the year on five separate occasions, and every year since then (save 2005, when Kingdom Of Heaven was released), the weekend has produced one of the top ten openings of the year. Marvel has since monopolized those three days, grabbing the slot for all three Iron Man movies, Thor and The Avengers. In fact, the only ones that can beat them are Marvel themselves: Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 swept in to grab the weekend for this year, while The Amazing Spider-Man 4 originally nailed down the date for 2018.
Of course, it was only hours after Sony backed out of that '18 date that Marvel again reclaimed it, locking up that first May weekend for every year until 2019. Kevin Feige claims he's got a Marvel outline up until 2028, and some of those movies are much bigger than others – you can be sure he's got some big ones slotted for those dates in the next few years, like a third Avengers, a third Thor, possibly a fourth Iron Man. But the rest of those slots? Most likely fluid. For the next couple of years, in fact, the list of possible Marvel films will feature movies that go from slight maybes to hard-definites within weeks.
This comes from Marvel's collaborative style, one that likely rankled Edgar Wright upon his exit from the universe. Marvel's always willing to listen to suggestions, keeping an open-door policy that allows input from all areas of Marvel, whether it be an easter-egg cameo in a post-credits sequence to a very-concrete plot development that is minor in one film, major to the next. Inserting the Eye Of Agomotto in the trophy room of Asgard in Thor was a sly reference to Doctor Strange. But mentioning his actual name in Captain America: The Winter Soldier basically means they'll have to develop that character next. Unless someone is name-dropped in Guardians Of The Galaxy more prominently. Or if the Avengers: Age Of Ultron screenplay contains a nod towards a character that absolutely has to be paid off.
So far, Marvel has been able to combine this lax, collaborative filmmaking style with a relentless scheduling attitude; their 2019 film is the first movie announced by any studio for that year. But it's innately risky – for one, you'll have events like Comic Con, where some fans will be expecting announcements that just won't come. And on the other hand, Marvel pulled this trick with an unannounced film slated for the first weekend of May. Calling their bluff, the WB announced Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice on the same date. Suddenly, Marvel's "untitled project" became Captain America 3.
Would Cap's third solo adventure have been the film selected for that date had DC's World's Finest not moved in on primo Marvel real estate? It's very possible the fall of that domino is one of many events that have kept Marvel's release schedule still in flux. You wanna know what those movies are? You're just going to have to wait, because we think Marvel's waiting to see how things shake out, as well.