This following column trades in spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War, and the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you are one of the few who waited to see the latest feature in the MCU, stop reading now, and come back after you have checked it out.
Joe and Anthony Russo's Avengers: Infinity War was every bit the epic that Marvel Studios has been promising. Massive in scope, yet balanced by its dramatic stakes, the movie brought the full weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the brink, and left fans reeling from a cliffhanger that we know will take roughly a year to pay off. Infinity War, in my humble opinion, is the best Marvel movie to date, the feature that shows everything that the MCU can (and should) be attempting in its staggering cinematic world-building. It's unlike anything that we have seen before and -- given the full commitment of its current 10-year run -- we probably won't see again.
The bar has been raised by Avengers: Infinity War. A new standard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been set. My concern is, after this... how on Earth does Marvel Studios top it?
The Avengers movies, by design, have escalated the expectations for a traditional Marvel movie. Joss Whedon's first Avengers film gets proper credit for finally uniting Earth's Mightiest Heroes for a battle against Thor's step-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), though it was in that movie that we got a tease of Thanos, pulling strings from afar. Age of Ultron added several key figures who are still important to this day in Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) -- core Avengers since the team's earliest days. By the time we reach Avengers: Infinity War, we're at a ridiculous point where Spider-Man (Tom Holland) collaborates with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the Guardians of the Galaxy to fight Thanos (Josh Brolin) on Titan.
We've come a long, long way.
And Infinity War earns its heft. We have dutifully followed the MCU through 18 movies before this epic team-up story, and the magnitude of multiple plotlines all converge beautifully in Joe and Anthony Russo's saga. Thanos and his Black Order truly are the world-destroying threats that require the collaborative might of all the MCU heroes we have met to this point. The fact that Thanos defeats them -- fairly easily -- set up a rematch in Avengers 4 that, in all likelihood, will post a crucial "L" in the Mad Titan's Loser column.
But where does Marvel Studios go from here, after the sheer scope of Infinity War? I ask this as a concerned fan who, without question, wholeheartedly trusts in the creative process of the braintrust at Marvel. Which villain in the Marvel Comics canon commands the respect that Thanos does? Who else could the MCU roll out for a future Avengers movie that summons the fear and fortitude of Thanos?
Doctor Doom's an easy answer... except, until that deal with Disney and Fox goes down, Marvel doesn't have the rights to Victor von Doom. Same goes for similar Fantastic Four villains like Annihilus or Galactus. They'd be mighty enough to warrant a large-scale collaboration to match Avengers: Infinity War. But they are not in the MCU stable... yet.
The Skrulls also could be a viable option, especially if Marvel Studios wants to lay the foundation to be able to do the Kree/Skrull War, or the Secret Invasion storyline. The Skrulls are an alien race that mirror a race's appearance for the purpose of infiltrating them, and tearing them apart from within. There have been rumors on MCU message boards that it could be revealed that SOME key heroes have been Skrull clones for years, having infiltrated the MCU at the start of the story. More of this might be explained in either Captain Marvel or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. And certainly, the Skrulls could be a large enough threat to unify the MCU heroes on the same scale as Avengers: Infinity War.
The concern, right now, is that Infinity War -- and Avengers 4, once it drops -- will be a tough act to follow for years to come. Even if we accept the reality that the solo adventures will pale in comparison to this massive film -- I wouldn't want to be Ant-Man and the Wasp right now -- I'm also thinking it's going to be difficult for other AVENGERS movies to live up to the accomplishments of Infinity War. As I mentioned at the start... in Marvel Studios, I currently trust. But their greatest achievement to date might in time become their biggest obstacle to overcome.