If you’re a fan of the big two comic-book companies, a fan of movies in which lots of stuff blows up real good, or a fan of bombastic announcements about superhero IP’s, then congratulations. This is your time. Just in the last few weeks, news broke that Captain America 3 would co-star Robert Downey Jr. as boozehound industrialist arms dealer Tony Stark in a big-screen adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Civil War story line. Then, Warner Bros. announced its next six years of DC Comics–based films, including a Justice League movie and the solo films for Wonder Woman and Cyborg, and stealing Marvel’s thunder by announcing the first female stand-alone superhero movie and the first (Hancock counts but doesn’t really count) African American stand-alone superhero movie.
Yesterday, Marvel Studios (full disclosure: Disney->ESPN->Grantland) head Kevin Feige responded to the response at the pretend-secretive Marvel Special Event at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood to announce their full slate of “Phase 3” films: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther (!!!), Captain Marvel (!!!), Inhumans, and The Infinity War Parts 1 & 2. Afterward Feige dropped the mic, where it shall remain until whosoever is worthy manages to lift it again.
Let’s take a look “Phase 3.”
Ant Man (July 17, 2015) and Ant Man 2 (possibly never)
I’m reminded of an anecdote about the time jazz-fusion guitarist Larry Coryell tried to outdo Jimi Hendrix in a guitar duel. Coryell played about a million notes from a complex cascade of scales and Hendrix replied by turning his amp up to seared-earth levels and, with one note, wiped away everything Coryell had done. This is the difference between the way Marvel Studios and Warner/DC make their announcements. Even when DC manages to get an edge, as with their Wonder Woman and Cyborg announcements, Marvel just does its thing so loudly that no one notices the weak spots.
Which bring us to Ant Man, unquestionably the weakest-seeming point in Marvel’s upcoming slate. In May, English writer/director Edgar Wright, who was the driving force behind the picture and had been attached to the project since 2006, left Marvel Studios “due to differences in their vision of the film.” The film is currently being directed by Peyton Read after rewrites by Anchorman director Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd.
Rewrites, changing directors mid-production — these things do not bode well for any movie, to say nothing of a movie about a guy who talks to ants. Yes, he maintains his full-human-size level of strength while shrunk down to insect size, but still, he talks to ants. That’s his main thing. Aquaman can at least converse with a wide spectrum of aquatic life. It is perhaps notable that, while Marvel announced movies going out to 2019, Ant Man 2 is not among them.
But, whatever, you probably don’t care because of stuff like …
Captain America: Civil War (May 16, 2016)
A good indicator of the full-blooded box-office-billions swag juice running through Kevin Feige’s system right now, aside from reportedly winning a pissing match with Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter over having Downey Jr. in this movie in the first place, is that Feige jokingly referred to Cap 3 with the fake tagline “Serpent Society,” an allusion to the snake-themed supervillain team created by writer Mark Gruenwald and artist Paul Neary in the mid-1980s. Lots of folks, including me, thought he was serious. As Grantland’s Andy Greenwald said to me in an email, “But FOR REAL what universe is this where Serpent Society is a joke that everyone is supposed to get?!?!”
I talked about Civil War at length here. Essentially, Civil War was a Marvel Comics crossover in which the superhero community is split over the question of whether heroes should have to register themselves with the government and receive standardized training. I think it’s fair to say that Civil War was an interesting comic-book premise that ultimately disappointed. (Which, by the way, is also fair to say of roughly 95 percent of comic-book crossovers.) One interesting criticism of Civil War is that it recasts real-life Second Amendment concerns in a conspiratorial, far-right InfoWars light. This objection goes too far. In Marvel Comics continuity, the U.S. government has a long history of, clandestinely and openly, supporting mutant genocide; rogue elements of S.H.I.E.L.D. were directly involved in the illegal looting of natural resources from the Savage Land while using the native population as slave labor; and that’s without mentioning the numerous times that S.H.I.E.L.D. and the highest levels of the American government have been penetrated by the neo-Nazi terrorist group Hydra, the Red Skull, and the shape-shifting aliens known as the Skrulls. And in the movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. was in fact founded by Hydra agents. I would agree that the story line made Tony and the pro-reg side overly dickish. I still lean anti-registration because the Marvel Comics version of the government is demonstrably a quasi-criminal organization.
Anyway, as I wrote in my previous piece, Civil War is the perfect framework for introducing new characters (Black Panther has been confirmed for Cap 3) and sunsetting old ones. Plus, depending on what happens with Ant Man the previous summer, Marvel could always kill him off here by having the Hulk step on him or whatever.
Doctor Strange (November 4, 2016)
No mention of Benedict Cumberbatch, which I take to mean that (1) he’s still in negotiations for the role, or (2) the Sherlock star is not as firmly attached to the project as previously reported. Grantland’s Alex Pappademas wrote our definitive Doctor Strange take, which touches on the complexities of casting for the character.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (May 5, 2017)
With Dancing Groot becoming one of the hot gifts of Christmas 2014, this is no surprise. In the comics, the Guardians frequently tussle with much-hinted-after-but-little-seen Marvel Cinematic Universe big bad Thanos, and the team also played an important part in the 2007 Annihilation Conquest crossover, in which a malevolent AI by the name of Ultron ends up in space and sparks a galaxy-wide war. With Marvel’s Infinity War 1 & 2 looming, it’s clear that Guardians 2 will be the bridge that brings Thanos and his all-powerful glove to Earth. Ultron in space for Guardians 3?
Thor: Ragnarok, July 28, 2017
OK, two ways to read this title, one of which, I admit, is semi-insane but plausible. First, semi-insane. In the Civil War crossover event, one of the plot twists used to paint Stark as the bad guy is the reveal that, after the initial meeting of the first Avengers team, Stark combed his couch for hair and skin samples and used said samples to make a clone of Thor named “Ragnarok” (referred to ever after as “Clor” by people who hated the introduction of Thor’s clone, which is pretty much everyone who read the story at the time).
Much more likely is that Thor Ragnarok is based on “The Surtur Saga,” the highest point of a string of continuous high points that make up Walter Simonson’s legendary 1980s run on Thor. (Simonson’s Thor is up there with Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men and Frank Miller’s Daredevil as perhaps the best run on a single title by any Marvel writer ever.) Simonson began hinting at “The Surtur War” in the opening pages of his very first issue, Thor #337, from November of 1983, which depicted a mysterious figure, wreathed in darkness and flame, forging an ominous sword. Simonson would punctuate his story arcs by returning to the image of a rancorous force hammering out some dark weapon, but readers had no idea what was coming until the end of Thor #348 11 months later, which revealed that the fire demon Surtur was behind the events of the intervening issues. Surtur’s fresh-forged greatsword “Twilight” is, according to Norse prophecy, capable of bringing about the end of the world (“Ragnarok”) if it is dipped in the eternal flame of Asgard. So, as fire demons are wont to do, Surtur raised a gigantic host with which to storm the gates of Asgard to begin the end of everything. Only the combined power of Thor, his half-brother Loki, their notoriously somnolent father Odin (seriously, Odin might be my favorite Marvel character; he is enormously powerful and spends most of his time sleeping), and practically the entire population of Asgard can stop him.
Black Panther (November 3, 2017)
And it’s about damn time. Debuting in Fantastic Four #52 from July of 1966, Black Panther is the first black superhero in mainstream comics and plays an important role in Marvel lore. T’Challa is the (now-former)1 king of Wakanda, a fictional country located in northeast Africa that is a world leader in technology. He is one of the richest people in the Marvel Universe as well as one of the smartest, a polymath in the fields of computer science and electrical engineering, with a PhD in physics from Oxford. He has peak-human/near-superhuman strength and agility augmented by a high-tech panther suit made of woven vibranium of his own design, and he can call on the accrued knowledge of all the Black Panthers through the ages. In his time as ruler of Wakanda, he’s had to defend his nation against neo-colonial governments looking to exploit Wakanda’s supply of vibranium, rapacious corporate interests trying to steal proprietary Wakandan technology, and invasion by Atlanteans.
In the current comics continuity, his sister is the ruler of Wakanda
It’s Wakanda’s role as the Saudi Arabia of vibranium that will most likely bring the Black Panther into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Vibranium, because of its ability to absorb vibrations and deflect energy, is for all intents and purposes indestructible. It’s the metal of Captain America’s shield, and the metal from which Ultron’s chassis is made. Some clues from the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer point clearly to Wakanda being the location for at least part of the action. The trailer opens with a shot of the Johannesburg skyline; there’s a short clip of Ultron running his robot hand under a spout of liquid metal that is probably vibranium; and images of cargo ships cut to motion-cap superstar Andy Serkis wearing the signature Donegal beard of comic-book villain Ulysses Klaw, the traditional big bad of Black Panther. In the books, Klaw is a Dutch scientist who murders T’Challa’s father, setting the youth on the course to become the Black Panther.
T’Challa will be played by 42 star Chadwick Boseman.
Avengers: Infinity Wars Part 1 (May 4, 2018) and Part 2 (May 3, 2019)
The beginning of the end of the story line started when Thanos was revealed as the offstage mastermind of the alien invasion in The Avengers. I would not be surprised to see the Guardians of the Galaxy involved in one or both of these movies in some way. Irresponsible speculation: The Hulk doesn’t appear in the Civil War comics crossover because a coterie of earth’s leading smarty-pantses — including Tony Stark — decided he was too much of a loose cannon and therefore had to be dealt with for the good of Earth’s property values. So said heroes trick Bruce Banner into entering a spacecraft that is promptly launched into the void. If this happens in the movies, Hulk will need a ride home.
Captain Marvel (July 6, 2018)
Very exciting! Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, is one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe, capable of interstellar flight and energy absorption, and possessed of super strength that puts her among the elite of Marvel superheroes. She’s a former Air Force pilot and NASA astronaut whose genetic structure was altered after a brush with a blue-skinned alien race known as the Kree. Probably not at all coincidentally, one of the running subplots of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show has been the existence of a blue-skinned alien corpse from which certain chemicals were synthesized, chemicals that were then used to bring Agent Coulson back to life after he was stabbed through the chest by Loki in The Avengers.
Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel is one of the highlights of Marvel’s current offerings, but my favorite Carol Danvers Avengers moment is the New Avengers supersize final issue from 2010, which might be the best single issue of any Marvel comic in the past five years. Great plan, fun dialogue, with a worthy opponent in the immortal Count Nefaria and Captain Marvel right in the middle of things, opening copious cans of ass-whoop. Great addition to the cinematic universe.
Inhumans (November 2, 2018)
This is interesting. As Marvel’s film arm has become the dominant moneymaker for the company, the comics side has increasingly moved toward properties that are owned by Marvel Studios and away from others. Sometimes the changes are subtle, sometimes not. Marvel Comics is preparing to cancel Fantastic Four, a series that has been running continuously since 1961. Meanwhile, the company’s various X-Men titles are, according to former X-writer Chris Claremont, under an edict from on high to not create any new mutant characters, and licensing for X-Men–branded cartoons and toys has been noticeably curtailed. That’s probably because those are properties whose film versions are owned by 20th Century Fox instead of Marvel. When asked about the lack of mutant-related licensed toys on his blog, Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort answered in part:
If you had two things, and on one you earned 100% of the revenues from the efforts that you put into making it, and the other you earned a much smaller percentage for the same amount of time and effort, you’d be more likely to concentrate more heavily on the first, wouldn’t you?
Say no more. Marvel Comics has been trying to position the Inhumans, a race of superpowered humanoids genetically engineered by the aforementioned Kree race, as a kind of alien-based replacement for mutants. In other words, Marvel can’t join them, so they’ll beat them.