Marvel Phase Three and the Path to Avengers: Infinity War

With Avengers: Age of Ultron out of the way, we look at what could be in store for the Marvel Universe over the next five years.

This article contains Avengers: Age of Ultron spoilers and potential Marvel Phase Three spoilers.

Whether you loved it or didn’t love it (did anyone really hate it?), Avengers: Age of Ultron planted the seeds of serious, lasting change in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It may have done a little too much seed-planting for one movie, but that’s another story. Comic book fans were certainly able to spot the moments that will lead to bigger things in future Marvel Phase Three movies like Captain America: Civil War or Thor: Ragnarok

With that in mind, we’ve decided to take a broad look at Marvel Phase Three and speculate on what’s in store. Since Marvel is quite adept at throwing curveballs, this is just educated speculation, but we can safely discern a few things.

A look at Marvel’s release schedule for the next five years reveals a neat little pattern. Almost without exception, the films alternate between introducing new characters (and potential new franchises) with sequels. There’s a similar duality in the big “Marvel Universe” stories that need to be told to get us through both Avengers: Infinity War movies. 

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There are two major threads that must then converge before Marvel Phase Three completes. We’re going to have to deal with the dissolution of the current Avengers roster (and the formation of a new one) and the revelation of Thanos’ grand plan. Don’t worry…they’ve got eleven movies to get all this work done.

The first thing we have to deal with is Ant-Man. While Ant-Man is technically the first film of Marvel Phase Three, that’s more a convenient matter of scheduling than by design. Ant-Man predates the concept of Marvel’s “phased” approach to things. However, it was a pronounced desire to make Ant-Man play more like a member of the Marvel Universe that prompted the last round of rewrites that ultimately drove Edgar Wright off the film, so anything is possible.

We also already know that Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man makes an appearance in Captain America: Civil War, and I wouldn’t be too shocked if the post-credits sting in Ant-Man is some kind of comedic reflection of the now historic Nick Fury/Tony Stark/Avenger Initiative moment from the first Iron Man movie. Nevertheless, Ant-Man remains a bit of a wild card, and a movie that, so far, looks like a holdover from an earlier age.

If I’m wrong, we’ll find out soon enough, as Ant-Man opens in July.

Avengers: Age of Ultron, on the other hand, laid its Civil War cards on the table. It did plenty to sow the seeds of resentment between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. The two had a number of tense conversations, with the most revealing resulting in Tony’s “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a dark side” line. That, right there, is the crux of Captain America: Civil War.

The desire to protect the world through non-Avengers means is what drove Tony to create Ultron. That same desire, along with his ability to even distrust Captain America (who everyone, including Tony, already saw is very nearly worthy to wield Thor’s hammer!) is what will make Tony a proponent of legislation that requires superhumans to register with the government. Needless to say, this won’t sit well with everyone.

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Captain America: Civil War will open with an Avengers team that includes Cap, Natasha, War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, and Vision, by film’s end, they’ll likely be scattered to the wind, quite likely with Tony Stark as a pariah. Or perhaps as head of SHIELD. You never can tell with that guy. Whether Steve Rogers makes it out of this film alive or as Captain America is another matter entirely, and not one I’m ready to speculate too heavily on…yet.

But if Tony Stark is going to find himself as an outcast amongst the extraordinary folks of the Marvel Universe, who will be the charismatic center of Marvel Phase Three? My guess is Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

The timing of the Doctor Strange movie makes absolute sense. It’s the first of the true Phase Three movies that doesn’t have to rely on set-up from previous films. It’s also the first truly “new” potential franchise starter since Guardians of the Galaxy, with one of the most sought-after stars in Hollywood taking top billing.

From a comic book perspective, Doctor Strange was a key member of the New Avengers team that arose around the time of the comic book Civil War (a team that also had Spider-Man in its ranks). He was also one of the first to detect the threat of Thanos in the Infinity Gauntlet story, in a “great disturbance in the Force” type of moment, so we may even see hints of that here in order to help set up Thanos. Perhaps it’s Strange who ends up forming a new team of Avengers when the time comes.

But then we’re quickly back on the sequel track with Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I imagine that Guardians of The Galaxy 2 is the last chance that we’re really going to have to truly establish Thanos’ plan for Phase Three in any meaningful way. So far, he’s just been a giant purple presence, and we’ve had a vague idea that he’s collecting all of the Infinity Gems for some purpose or another.

There have been rumors that Marvel’s first Spider-Man movie will also feature Tony Stark. Perhaps the solo Spidey flick will help illustrate the first steps towards Tony’s redemption after the events of Captain America: Civil War. But more importantly, like Doctor Strange, Spider-Man is a card carrying member of the New Avengers team. He’s also thoroughly ill-equipped to take on the likes of Thanos. But if Doctor Strange is going to have Thanos visions, then perhaps a Spider-Man dealing with a New York City that no longer has an Avengers team that calls it home is the right call.

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I fully expect the events of Thor: Ragnarok to keep the big guy off the board until Avengers: Infinity War – Part II. While the Thor films haven’t exactly been the crown jewels in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, Thor 3 has the potential to really shake the walls if done right. I wrote about some of that here. But in short:

Thor is due for a final showdown with Loki, a character who is the closest thing to a truly great villain Marvel has managed to deliver us. Loki currently sits on Asgard’s throne (disguised as Odin), and it’s possible that in order for Thanos to make his way to Midgard, he’ll have to pass through Asgard first. The issue here is that Kevin Feige recently clarified that the Infinity Gauntlet seen at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t the same one seen in Odin’s throne room.

Now, here’s where things get tricky. I have to assume that we’ll be seeing a new Avengers team at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War – Part I. Black Panther will be introduced in Captain America: Civil War, (which may remove Steve Rogers from the equation, leaving the door open for the Falcon or the Winter Soldier to pick up the shield for at least one film) while Doctor Strange and Spidey get their own movies to get acclimated to life in the Marvel Universe. Whoever the Avengers are in Infinity War – Part I, it’s a safe bet that Thanos is going to hand them their asses by the time the credits roll.

Assuming for the moment that the Infinity War movies will take broad strokes of inspiration from the Infinity Gauntlet comics, it means that two crucial characters are tied up at other studios and can’t make appearances. The noble Silver Surfer was a key figure in the resistance against Thanos, while Mephisto was Thanos’ “adoring” second in command. However, the Vision is cut from similarly alien/pure of heart cloth as the Surfer, and the Mind Gem he wears on his forehead gives him immense power. Loki, on the other hand, would slot nicely into the Mephisto role.

But remember what I said about the Avengers of Infinity War probably not faring well against Thanos? Well, when he comes looking for the Mind Gem to complete his collection, he’ll probably go right through the Avengers to take it off of Vision’s head. It won’t go well for the good guys. Just a hunch.

So does that mean that the Black Panther solo movie, which is scheduled to come out two months after Avengers: Infinity War – Part I will take place earlier chronologically? If not, how much world-building can Black Panther do if it’s essentially a solo mission that bridges the gap between both Infinity War movies?

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It does, however, bring up the duality of Marvel Phase Three once again. Black Panther would have to be a more grounded film than the more cosmically-minded Doctor Strange or Avengers 3. It could also lead towards a re-formed team of Avengers, perhaps one that reunites Cap, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk. If Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is intended to be the charismatic and arrogant Tony Stark of Marvel Phase Three and the New Avengers, then Chadwick Boseman’s noble Black Panther is certainly going to be its Captain America.

But then who fulfills the powerhouse Thor role? That would be Captain Marvel.

If there’s any solo movie on the Phase Three slot that is the most pivotal in the entire Marvel Universe, it’s almost certainly Captain Marvel. Even setting aside the crucial importance of Marvel’s first headlining female superhero movie, Captain Marvel’s origin story is the one that will probably unite the two threads of the Marvel Universe in a way that no other film on the slate could. Even if Marvel chooses to gloss over the story of how Carol Danvers gets her immense powers (and make no mistake, on the big screen, she’s got a power set that rivals Superman’s, and will make Thor look positively timid), this is where “cosmic Marvel” has the best chance to meet “superhero politics Marvel.” 

Carol Danvers has a military background (which I imagine will translate as a SHIELD connection of some kind) who gains cosmic powers. Expect the Kree glimpsed on Agents of SHIELD and in Guardians of the Galaxy to play a role. I’d say it might turn out that we’ll meet Carol Danvers in a small, non-powered role in Captain America: Civil War, see her take a more prominent supporting role in Avengers: Infinity War – Part I (and possibly gain her powers at the end of that one), and then take on the Captain Marvel mantle in her own film, before helping to lead the charge against Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War – Part II.

In terms of story, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what’s going to go on with those Infinity War films other than “Thanos whups the Avengers, before the Avengers come back to deliver the feel-good ass-kicking of the year,” but our own Gavin Jasper did a helluva job of trying. However, since The Inhumans is currently the final film on Marvel’s schedule (for the moment), I have to assume that Thanos will end up triggering a massive Terrigen bomb that brings out mutations erm…I mean, Inhumans, across the Marvel Universe.

The problem with the Inhumans as they currently exist in this version of the Marvel Universe is that they’ve only been presented as dull X-Men stand-ins on Agents of SHIELD. But a key component of a recent comic book tangle between the Avengers and Thanos was designed specifically to make Inhumans a more widespread phenomenon in the Marvel Universe, then that seems like a suitable prelude to The Inhumans movie, as well.

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But Inhumans, perhaps because of the relative inaccessibility of the concept or the remoteness of its 2020 release date, seems like a difficult sell as part of Phase Three. The fact that it takes place after a set of Avengers movies makes it at least look like the beginning of whatever Marvel Phase Four will be. Whatever it ends up being, I hope it’s less earthbound than what’s been shown on Agents of SHIELD, and more in keeping with Jack Kirby’s visionary ideas.

It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure. I’m also quite possibly wrong about a good chunk of this. We’ll get a much better idea the closer we get to Captain America: Civil War next year. Until then, please add your own theories!