What Will The Marvel Cinematic Universe Look Like in Twenty Years?

By  · Published on May 9th, 2016

Here’s why succession planning might be the future of the MCU

Like the rest of you, I spent part of my weekend in a movie theater watching Captain America: Civil War. I’ve always been something of a moderate when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; while I find most of them to be a great deal of fun, there are also clear boundaries on where a Marvel movie can and cannot go. This means that even a big tent-pole crossover like Civil War is sorely lacking in surprises. So while I largely enjoyed Civil War, I also came out of the movie with two distinct realizations about the future of the franchise. The first is that these movie have maxed out their potential and are probably incapable of getting any better; the other is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is set up to run almost indefinitely.

Since so many people are weighing in on the quality of Civil War, let’s focus on the second point. Up to now, I’ve assumed that the biggest obstacle faced by the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the advancing age of some of its cast members. While Marvel mainstays such as Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson have plenty of good years left onscreen action figures – the two actors are thirty-four and thirty-one, respectively – the clock is ticking on actors like Robert Downey, Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson. Downey in particular presents something of a problem for the MCU; at fifty-one years old, it’s anyone’s bet as to how long Downey can (or even wants to) play Iron Man. And that’s even assuming that Marvel can keep their actors under contract for the next decade. What happens if Chris Hemsworth decides he wants to chase an Oscar or dedicate himself to independent cinema? Or Johansson gets tired of being the odd woman out of the stand-alone franchise game?

Until Civil War, I assumed that any plans for the core Avengers in the future would involve either retiring the characters completely – an unappealing option given their importance to the onscreen Marvel universe – or recasting them and shifting the timeline of the movies backwards. Sure, there was also the idea of succession, but the last handful of characters introduced in the Marvel universe – Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and the Vision in Age of Ultron — were more superhero filler than future building blocks. If the big Marvel team-up movies weren’t able to introduce interesting secondary characters, how would they replace the core players with new talent and maintain their momentum? For better or worse, the MCU seemed locked into these actors and these characters, and when the party was over, we’d turn off the lights and all go home.

Civil War changed my mind. Watching Tony Stark play mentor to a young Peter Parker – and seeing how well Marvel addressed the idea of legacy between T’Challa and his father – made me realize that the Marvel Cinematic Universe truly is a perpetual motion machine, one that can retire old characters and introduce new ones until we’ve all foregone 2D cinema for immersive 3D environments. What’s more, this might actually be the best-case scenario for the franchise. With familiar faces comes unfair expectations, arguments about what race or gender preexisting superheroes could and should be, but the possibility of succession wipes every slate clean. Unlike in the comics – where no character remains dead or retired for more than a few months at a time – these changes in the MCU would be made permanent, and fans would be allowed (or, if you prefer, forced) to embrace the new Captain America or Iron Man without reservation.

It might be a strange touch-point, but I found myself thinking of the animated Batman Beyond series during most of Civil War. Set decades after the events of the Batman: The Animated Series, the Bruce Wayne of Batman Beyond is an old man who has passed the mantle of Batman on to college student Terry McGinnis. While McGinnis spends his nights patrolling the streets of Gotham, Wayne guides him remotely, providing research and combat techniques through his headset. In a nice piece of continuity, the show cast regular Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy as the elder Bruce Wayne, making Batman Beyond feel less like an alternate universe version of the character and more like a true continuation of the animated series. The writers walked the line between introducing new and interesting characters while also keeping the look and feel of a Batman television series.

Batman Beyond offers a perfect solution to the Tony Stark problem. Rather than requiring Robert Downey, Jr. to suit up and engage in the action sequences indefinitely, you can allow him to age naturally and pass the suit of armor along to some new protégé. In this manner, each of the MCU actors can transition naturally from the role of action lead to the older mentor figure. The inherent tension of having Stark or Rogers bark orders at someone unwilling to listen to their advice – and perhaps a scene where a villain makes a move on the elder character, forcing him or her to jump back into action one last time– frees these characters up to be a significantly lower time investment for the actors as well. Would you rather spend weeks held up by wires in front of a green backdrop or a few days in front of a prop computer station, pretending to remotely direct a firefight?

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So maybe it’s time to stop thinking about the MCU in terms of phases and start thinking about what the franchise could be like in twenty or thirty years. What happens when we move the main actors back into mentor roles and open the doors for new Captain Americas and Iron Men of all genders, race, and sexual orientation? Disney has already run this grand experiment with its new characters and the the reveal of old man Skywalker in The Force Awakens; what might the Marvel universe look like when it’s no longer tethered to storylines from the comic books and can create its own heroes and villains as it sees fit? The actors we love may not be around forever, but if the groundwork being laid in Civil War is any indication, characters like Iron Man and Captain America will be, and maybe that’s actually something worth getting excited about.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)