Potential Marvel Spoilers Therein
Marvel Studios has, in some ways, changed the industry with their practice of signing actors to massive multi-picture deals. But they’ve also been burning through those options like crazy: the core group of Avengers signed six film deals, with Chris Evans’ appearance in the just-announced Captain America 3 to be his fifth. And after that? Evans has gone on record as wanting to step away from acting for a bit. Meanwhile, The Winter Soldier himself Sebastian Stan recently divulged that he had signed a nine picture deal. Given that the Winter Soldier character doesn’t have much of an identity or purpose in the Marvel universe without Captain America, what’s he going to do?
And what about Iron Man? Robert Downey Jr. jumped on that train before Marvel refined their hiring processes, earning as much as possible through massive back-end deals that have made him unaffordable. iron Man 3 was a billion dollar success, but why is no one talking about an Iron Man 4? This hasn’t stopped Kevin Feige from pitching a third and fourth annual Marvel offering, which have left people wondering, what will these new movies be? Really, what they should be asking is, what happens to the characters we already know?
Well, that’s simple: they all die.
At the close of the Civil War storyline in the comics, the good Captain is felled by a bullet fired by the villainous Crossbones (who shows up in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and killed (or "killed" in comics parlance). It’s the Winter Soldier, however, who takes up the mantle of Captain America and serves as the hero for a good amount of time. Why else would Stan be signed for nine movies if he wasn’t going to take over for Evans? A third Avengers would be Evans’ sixth film, by the way, and it’s also the final film Downey Jr. is contractually obligated to appear in for Marvel. Which is… ominous?
Also lingering and waiting for a third Avengers? Thanos, who doesn’t appear to be the "big bad" of Avengers: Age Of Ultron. In the Infinity Gauntlet saga of the comics, Thanos attains the six Infinity Gems (a handful of which have already been introduced in the movies) and uses them to wield the titular weapon, which he then uses to achieve unquestionable victory, mercilessly slaughtering the Avengers, and basically anyone who stands in his way.
Could this be the conclusion of The Avengers 3?
Because comics don’t have to adhere to the bigger-is-better action extravaganza of a blockbuster movie, this is eventually undone, and the heroes are restored to life, as well of the rest of the universe that Thanos improbably slaughtered. A movie probably couldn’t get away with that, but a third Avengers is going to have to try awfully hard to present a Thanos that doesn’t worship Death so thoroughly that he couldn’t end the lives of any who threaten him.
Marvel has a boatload of potential newer properties to launch, like Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel and Black Panther. But by the time we see these, they’ll be competing for attention against Warner Bros.’ DC slate, which could include movies like Wonder Woman, The Flash and a new Batman. Ultimately it’s no contest: Marvel’s C-List characters aren’t nearly as popular or well-known as DC’s A-and-B Listers. What’s going to set these companies apart is purpose: the reason movies like Ant-Man have been incubating for years as Marvel figures out what to do is because they aren’t just heroes: they’re reinforcements.
Marvel has The Dark Knight to thank for the obvious element that their superhero universe needed, and that is escalation. Trotting Thor out every year, and simply introducing a bunch of new characters in exactly the same way, was bound to get stale. They need a purpose to assemble, they need something to avenge. When you’ve got Hawkeye firing no-look arrows at invading villains, the world doesn’t need more superpowers. But whatever’s on the horizon for Marvel’s characters is going to demand an answer. It’s why Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been slowly ratcheting up the stakes with new characters from the canon. It’s why Netflix is going to be putting together the Defenders led by Daredevil and Luke Cage. Cap's got an exit plan and RDJ's got one foot out the door; for Thor, there's always Ragnarok, the cataclysm constantly teased in the comics, where Asgard falls. Everyone has an endgame, and sooner or later, the stakes have to be raised enough that we do see an end for these characters, and not a leading man like Hemsworth who might want to go on and do better things.
The onscreen Marvel universe only dates back to 2008’s Iron Man, though if you believe what you’ve heard about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it seems as if it’s already experienced some major losses. Marvel's got a 2017 May release date locked for a mystery movie -- some say that will be a third Avengers. If that marks the end of the road for these characters (and it seems to suggest the end of contracts for at least Downey and Evans, and probably Hemsworth, too), that will mean their continuing Marvel stories will have lasted nine years. A decade of stories could welcome a new batch of Marvel characters. Or it could be a prime opportunity to reboot: just ask Warner Bros., who had 10 years of Harry Potter and are now planning Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them for 2016. Even if Marvel does kill their characters, it ultimately might not be for long.
In other words, the Marvel movies would be following the formula set up by the comics: when things get dull, off someone, pretend it’s forever, then re-introduce them when you need another burst of attention. Of course, if they stay dead, the movies will simply resemble the Ultimates line, a semi-plausible rendering of the Marvel universe where, in-continuity, most of the characters have already died horribly. The Ultimates were once considered a template for the movies. If Marvel keeps it up, it might be the other way around.