While we all wait semi-patiently for the Avengers: Infinity War trailer, fans and media alike are filling the time with speculation about the future of the MCU post-Avengers 4 (still untitled). We know that Avengers 4 marks the end of Marvel’s Phase 3, which includes the upcoming films: Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Based on a litany of recent Marvel remarks, we know that the storylines of several key Marvel heroes will be concluding (and likely some major character deaths too).
Marvel has been extremely tight-lipped about its Phase 4 movies and whatever new, overarching narratives it will entail. During a recent Thor: Ragnarok press event, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige shared his thoughts about the status of the MCU and the (possible) contents of Phase 4:
Well, all I’ll say is the films we are working on now – which take us through to the Avengers Untitled in May of 19 – that’s really all we are focusing on. And we are focusing on bringing, by that point, an unprecedented, 22-movie, continuous shared fictional narrative to a conclusion in a satisfying way.”
It’s amazing how good Feige is at saying a lot without revealing anything too specific. Fortunately, he continues:
And where we go beyond that? Of course we will go places beyond that. And, of course, we have ideas of where we go beyond that. But, really, it is all good stories. And as the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation said, ‘All good things must come to an end.’ And part of what makes them special, there is a finite quality to the best of fictional stories through history. And we wanted to do that at the end of our first three phases and 22 movies. How we start anew and wherever we go beyond that is a story for another time. This is really about 10 years on, bringing something to a head in a satisfying and unexpected way.”
It’s interesting that Feige mentions Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG), which ended its extraordinary seven year run in 1994. Star Trek represents the first shared or connected universe, which continues to this day with CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery. It’s arguable that ST:TNG was the high-water point of that particular franchise; after ST:TNG each subsequent Trek series was slightly less popular than the last. Marvel would be wise to consider this dilemma, as it’s hard to sustain continuity and audience interest over a long stretch (the MCU is already a decade old).
Let’s deconstruct Feige’s remarks, as best we can…
Continuing with the Star Trek metaphor, Deep Space Nine (DS9) launched near the end of ST:TNG‘s run, revealing an entirely new corner of the galaxy for exciting storytelling possibilities. DS9 extending the timeline and continuity of its predecessor, extending and reintroducing several ST:TNG characters. Voyager launched a couple years later, but largely existed outside major franchise continuity, before eventually handing the baton to Enterprise and ultimately Discovery. The reason I mention all of this is that each of these series established their own narratives and timelines, but remained connected to every other Trek series, including the original series (TOS) from 1966. Marvel’s MCU faces the same set of conditions (and issues) as it moves into Phase 4.
Feige alludes to the Star Trek phenomenon when describing the MCU’s Phase 4, which he says represents an opportunity to, “start anew.” So what does this mean? Consider that James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy introduced Marvel’s ‘cosmic’ realm, akin to DS9‘s endeavor. Additionally, the MCU’s major MacGuffin, the coveted Infinity Stones — granting its bearer control over space, time, power, reality, and mind — enables Marvel to literally shift or change anything within their continuity. However, as evidenced by Voyager and Enterprise, initiating too-severe changes to canon and continuity could alienate mainstream audiences, who by and large have invested in the 22 films leading up to Phase 4.
More likely, Phase 4 will be a soft reboot (or a reimagining) of the MCU that includes not only character deaths and new character debuts, but also the transferring of mantles. For example, Steve Rogers could pass his shield to Sam Wilson/Falcon or Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier; Tony Stark could retire and nominate a new Iron Man (possibly even to his Jarvis AI personality).
Phase 4 allows Marvel to gracefully close the doors on many of its legacy cast members for younger and cheaper actors (if we’re being cynical). This could also be an opportunity to change timelines too — Captain Marvel is going to be set in the 90s. Regardless of the specifics, which we clearly do not possess, Marvel is positioned to shake up their connected universe while still acknowledging its past in a way that’s very parallel to the Star Trek model (and Trek‘s still ticking 50 years later, after all).
Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters on May 4, 2018.