When superhero movies finally broke through into the pop culture mainstream, movie studios were suddenly faced with brand-new logistical nightmares they needed to solve.
They needed to lock down their talent to long-term contracts in order to keep pumping out sequels. They then needed to figure out how to weave together multiple properties and storylines across different films as well as TV shows, comics, and any other entertainment format they could think of. And finally, they had to start thinking about what would happen when the day comes that their famous actors were ready to step away from the iconic roles they’d portrayed for so long.
Marvel laid the groundwork on the first two issues, figuring out what they needed to do in order to keep continuity and maintain their talent over the years, even as the stories expand and films become more epic. As for that third issue, it’s one that both Marvel and DC have seen on the horizon for some time now. Ignoring it simply wouldn’t work, not with billions of dollars on the line.
For DC, they seemed to have pinpointed a strategy that takes the focus off of continuity and world-building and instead puts it on the filmmakers behind the camera. It’s the worst-kept secret in Hollywood that Ben Affleck wants out as Batman sooner than later. When that happens, it’s really going to mess with the continuity of their Justice League franchise given how often he’s portrayed the role and how central his specific take on the Caped Crusader is to their cinematic universe.
Perhaps that is what’s driving them to swing for the fences and look at standalone franchises based on a marquee director and star, rather than put all their eggs in expanding their established mythos. It’s a bold strategy and there might be some payoff to be found there, but it hasn’t inspired too much faith in the studio just yet, especially given how poorly they’ve handled most of their franchises so far.
Marvel, on the other hand, seems to have figured out that they want to keep their continuity going, but they also need to draw a line in the sand regarding the characters audiences have come to know and love and where the studio needs to go moving forward.
Robert Downey, Jr. has been shown in eight different Marvel movies as Tony Stark/Iron Man (including credit scenes) and he will have made at least 10 appearances by the time the fourth Avengers movie is released. He’s also getting older (52) and probably doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing this. Yet, he’s one of the faces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Along with Chris Evans as Captain America, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk, it’s hard to imagine the Avengers not including at least most of them. And yet, Marvel knows the day is coming when that is exactly what will happen.
So, instead of waiting for contract negotiations and age to do that work for them, Marvel is making a specific decision to move forward without them. In a new Vanity Fair cover story, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is quoted as saying, “There will be two distinct periods. Everything before Avengers 4 and everything after. I know it will not be in ways people are expecting.”
In other words, they’re going to stop telling stories with the characters you know in order to make room for the characters you don’t (or just don’t know as well) so you can fall in the love with them the same way. In theory.
Does that mean all of your favorite Marvel heroes will kick the bucket? Probably not. While killing off some of them will add some much-needed emotional stakes to these films, which often feel numbed by their own inevitability, it’s likely that others will be kept around in some form, sealed away in an emergency case behind easily breakable glass.
The speculation is already running wild in terms of who will die, who will live, what will happen to lose who live, and which heroes will rise to take their place. The studio certainly has more than enough talent to step into these roles (Black Panther, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, the Guardians, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, to name a few). They’ll certainly need to account for certain characters if they do live, but are destined to never be seen again. (Would it make sense for Tony Stark to live but never intervene?) Then again, these movies are based on comic books and those stories are chocked full of contrivances and coincidences that try to make sense of such things.
In a way, waving goodbye to the most iconic Marvel characters in order to make room for the 2.0 versions could be a real shot in the arm to a franchise that didn’t even really need one yet. Box office numbers are still through the roof for Marvel and there doesn’t seem to be much end in sight to their dominance.
But perhaps that’s what separates Marvel from DC. At a time when Marvel is the clear winner, they’re making five moves before DC has even had a chance to make their next one. Rather than waiting for the problems to affect them, they’re hitting the problems head-on and using them to their advantage. Fans were already going to line up to see the next two Avengers movies anyway, but now you better believe that interest in what happens and where things go from there will be sky high.