There is an enemy lurking behind the scenes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has the capacity to unravel the lucrative adventures of our collective heroes without the need for an Infinity Gauntlet. That enemy is time. (Well… time and contractual obligations, but the two are very much linked.)
Time is a funny old thing if you’re a superhero in print. The Silver Age of Marvel Comics, which introduced such stalwarts as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Iron Man, started out pretty much in real-time with characters aging at the same rate as their non-fictional readers. Thus Peter Parker, introduced as a school kid in 1962, went through high school, graduated, and went to college, all within a few years of his debut.
Perhaps realizing that their stable of heroes might have a little more longevity than they could ever have hoped for, Marvel quickly put the brakes on this approach and started compressing the way time passed in their comics so that it went out of sync with real life. A multi-part storyline that occurs over several issues (and thus months) in the real world may only have been a day-long adventure for our featured hero. Timeless visual interpretation through artists’ pencils and inks keep our heroes young, and writers seamlessly incorporate the changing world into their lives and histories when necessary.
The MCU doesn’t have this luxury, because the actors that represent our heroes on screen are obviously mortal human beings. It doesn’t matter how much yoga Robert Downey Jr. does, he’s eventually going to get too old to convincingly put on the Iron Man armor. More likely, before that even becomes an issue, he will simply not wish to appear in any more Marvel movies beyond the occasional (lucrative) cameo. This is a problem Marvel will face for every present or future character in the MCU, regardless of how many films they manage to sign actors up for; compared with the comics, our celluloid heroes have a much shorter half-life.
Now with Avengers: Infinity War here, the future of most of the MCU’s most popular contract players–including Downey as Tony Stark, Chris Evans as Captain America, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor–lies in doubt. While they’re all slated to return next year for a still untitled Avengers 4, that is when most of the cast that began the MCU, and still are predominantly the faces of the Avengers, will see their contracts expire. Hemsworth has shown an eagerness to do more… but the others arguably less so. That leaves a big question mark: what comes next?
Well… there are some choices.
Option 1: Let It End
Certainly the least likely scenario, but what if Marvel has just accepted that this whole cinematic universe is finite? I mean the bottom’s got to fall out of this comic book movie thing eventually, right? Maybe by 2020, there will be so much “superhero fatigue” that what to do following Infinity War will be moot. I mean, surely making an obscene amount of money over 10 years will sate Disney, right?
Yeah, I don’t see it either.
It would take a Marvel movie to actually lose money–probably three or four in a row to avoid suggestions of an aberration–for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to close down. And I don’t think anyone sees that on the horizon, especially after films like Guardians of Galaxy and Black Panther made more obscure heroes box offices legends and cultural icons. Plus, the success of James Bond has shown there’s money to be made in a franchise that spans decades, as long as there’s an appropriate re-invention or two along the line.
So maybe we should just forget about option 1.
Option 2: Recast
The most obvious recourse is simply to replace the actors as they become too old, too expensive, or too troublesome to appear in future movies. Indeed, this has already happened in a couple of cases, and Marvel may well point to the success of re-casting both Bruce Banner and James Rhodes during Phase One as proof that this is a perfectly valid approach that the audience will readily accept.
However, these are very different examples compared to replacing a Thor or an Iron Man. In the case of the man who would be War Machine, we were dealing with a peripheral character before he became a superhero. Terrence Howard morphing into Don Cheadle was therefore a little jarring, but ultimately inconsequential–even if it reflects a troubling and sickening cynicism by some in the industry, including Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter.
The transition from Ed Norton to Mark Ruffalo benefitted not only from an inspired bit of casting, but also the fact that Banner is only half the equation for this particular character–the main attraction is big, green, and computer-generated. Arguably, whoever plays Bruce is less important to the Hulk than the actor playing Tony Stark is to Iron Man, or the person filling Steve Rogers’ boots is to Captain America.
And as much as fans embraced Cheadle and Ruffalo, I think the notion that these replacements were seamless and had no negative impact on the MCU’s interconnectivity is false. To this day, The Incredible Hulk doesn’t quite feel part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve referenced it throughout Phases One and Two, even including a cameo by William Hurt as the antagonistic Gen. Ross (now Sec. Ross!) in Captain America: Civil War, but it still feels separate from continuity, and a reason for that is because it features a different Banner and a stylistically different Hulk.
Another thing to consider is to what extent the paying audience is putting equity into the characters rather than the actors playing them. Did audiences go nuts for The Avengers due to the thrill of seeing Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor together? Or was it more the assemblage of Downey Jr., Evans, and Hemsworth?
Marvel may be grossly underestimating the recognition factor that gives crossovers their power. Can you imagine Buffy Summers showing up in her first guest appearance on Angel, but played by someone other than Sarah Michelle Gellar? Or if the producers of Freddy vs. Jason had decided not to invite Robert Englund back? There’s a reason Stephen Moffatt didn’t stick with his apparent original story idea and recast the ninth Doctor once Christopher Eccleston declined to appear in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special.
Marvel got away with it in The Avengers because the majority of the ensemble was unaltered from previous film appearances, and because of all the main players to recast, Banner was always going to be the least impactful. When the time comes to bid farewell to Robert Downey Jr. and the two Chris’, Marvel is going to struggle to maintain the sense of cohesiveness that has served the franchise so well.
Bond is a poor point of comparison because the 007 movies–certainly when they recast–aren’t that concerned about continuity. Craig’s Bond is not the same man as Moore’s Bond; when a new actor steps into the shoes of Britain’s favorite government-sanctioned killer, the story, tone, and approach are altered to suit. The MCU can’t do this when their films and characters crossover so frequently. Everything is taking place within the same established world, and so a new actor with a new ‘take’ on Tony Stark wouldn’t so naturally work. To fit seamlessly into continuity, he’d have to do a Robert Downey Jr. impression. Who’s going to take on that kind of job? Who would want to?
Option 3: Retire
The one thing Marvel has an abundance of is unique characters. Not all of them may have public awareness to the extent of a Spider-Man or a Hulk, but Guardians of the Galaxy proved that you don’t need protagonists that are known to the average moviegoer for a film to be a hit and for those characters to become a box office draw.
Perhaps our current Avengers simply exit the stage, allowing a new generation of heroes to protect the world in future films. More tantalizingly, could Marvel actually have the balls to retire some characters permanently? After all, the transient nature of death has been a bit of a bugbear for fans of the franchise so far, and a major character meeting their end in a non-reversible way could add some real heft to whatever film the ‘unfortunate event’ takes place in.
While the originating team of Avengers has never really gone away in the comics, it’s certainly true that the roster has changed considerably over the years. A post-Infinity War Avengers film led by Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Ant-Man is certainly a possibility. But will a Marvel Universe that no longer features Tony Stark or Steve Rogers have the same draw for loyal franchise viewers? Well arguably, yes. Spider-Man is a huge acquisition by Marvel, and enough of a draw to shepherd in an all-new Avengers call sheet.
And if the Disney-Fox deal goes through, as bad as it would be for the industry, the influx of X-Men mutants and the Fantastic Four could be a source of decades of sequels for Kevin Feige. And if it’s felt that the Marvel cinematic universe just isn’t the same without an Iron Man or a Captain America, there’s always option 4…
Option 4: Pass the Torch
This is not an option for all of our MCU heroes, but it may be a potential solution if Marvel believes in the power of brand recognition over star power. Iron Man can remain part of the established universe without Tony Stark in the armor, the mantle of Captain America can be held by someone other than Steve Rogers, and the Sorcerer Supreme doesn’t have to be Stephen Strange.
This option avoids having to recast or unceremoniously bump off established characters; the original stars can even pop up in cameos or short scenes to establish continuity. “You’re Iron Man now,” says RDJ as he hands off the majority of screen time to whatever young actor (or actress!) is hot in 2021.
There’s precedent in the comics, of course: Bucky Barnes carried the shield as Captain America for a good while before Steve decided not to be dead anymore and reclaim ownership. Barnes has already been effectively introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and will continue to play a significant role in Avengers: Infinity War. A film that explores how someone with a slightly skewed moral compass carries the burden of Sentinel of Liberty whilst trying to atone for past sins is a flick I’d stand in line to see.
Anthony Mackie introduced a particularly charismatic version of Sam Wilson/The Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier too. Perhaps not coincidentally, the character who has long been considered one of Cap’s best friends also took up the mantle of Captain America in the comics, wings and all. That would certainly make for a striking visual on screen, but will the less comic-savvy public accept a new Captain America film without the character that originated the role?
Option 5: Reboot
The nuclear option: start again.
In the comics, this is a technique of which DC is particularly fond: press the reset switch and start again from scratch, re-introducing familiar characters but with contemporary twists. Hollywood isn’t shy about a reboot either, of course. And some might point to the examples of Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman as evidence that it can easily be done. But setting aside the relative successes of those reboots, the MCU is in a very different situation.
Marvel has achieved the Holy Grail of a complex, fertile, and interconnected universe that spans both film and TV. It took an awful lot of risk and investment to get it up and running, but it’s now a license to print money. Why would they risk tearing it down and starting from scratch?
Answer: they’re not going to.
But here’s a crazy idea that might still fall into this category. If, by the time Avengers 4 rolls around, there are some sticky issues with regard to contracts, casting, or continuity, Marvel could always do a ‘soft’ reboot, picking and choosing the elements of the MCU that need tweaking, and readjusting the universe as they see fit.
How? Well when you have Infinity Gems with the power to warp time, reality and space wielded by a galactic madman, you kind of have license to do what the hell you want. Perhaps the MCU that survives the Infinity War will be a very different universe from the one we’ve come to know and love.
So what do you think is the best solution? Does the thought of another actor playing Tony Stark fill you with dread? Would you be happy for a brand new roster of heroes to lead Phase Four? Or is there another solution that I’ve missed? Sound off in the comments below, but a combination of options 3 and 4 would seem the best way forward.