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Hey! Haven't done one of these in awhile, and now is as good a time as any. We're between Marvel Cinematic Universe movies right now, and while it's possible that ANT-MAN is going to drop some kind of important Universe-altering plot point, I wouldn't call it likely. Whatever really got between Edgar Wright and Marvel, everything about the production of this I've heard is that a big part of Marvel's solution to "what do we do with what pieces are already assembled from this movie?" will have been to frontload it with Continuity-Lover Cookies relating to the backstories of the other franchises; the gamble being that making this film/character "essential" to a completist's understanding of The Lore will overshadow any potential letdown feelings among the core fandom; whose inter-film chattering (yes, like pieces like this) the generation of is part of the MCU's long-term marketing aparatus.
And with the "things to come" tease from AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON being effectively the same as the one from AVENGERS ("That beefy purple guy is up to something!"), that effectively leaves the "where is everything going?" stuff up to rampant speculation until the trailers start hitting for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. But! These things are planned both long-term and with a lot of wiggle room for potentially go-nowhere threads (where's The Leader right now, again?), and with that plus a working knowledge of Marvel Comics history, it's occasionally been possible to work out where things are going.
So let's try some of that out. Obviously, everything from this point on (i.e. "after the jump") is chock full of **SPOILERS** for the existing Marvel movies and potential-spoilers for the ones that don't exist yet:
Okay! In list form:
1. CIVIL WAR WILL NOT BE VERY SIMILAR TO THE COMICS:
If there's a working comics-to-screen adaptation "formula" for the Marvel movies thus far, it's this: Silver Age style/theme + Title/noteworthy character/macguffin from recent modern "event" book + original/"re-imagined" story = $$$. See: AGE OF ULTRON, which is as nutty as the nuttiest Lee/Kirby joint (killer robot exists for a few days, makes "logical" plan to levitate a country and drop it on Earth to simulate an extinction-level asteroid impact, this can be solved via men and women in Halloween costumes punching robots) and shares a name (and only a name) with a popular recent Ultron-centric comic miniseries but is otherwise a story original to the Cinematic Universe.
Thusly, I'd say it's fairly unlikely that CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR will follow the storyline of the "Civil War" comics event very closely. I imagine there will be marketing-friendly similarities (good guys fighting good guys, I bet they'll do some variation on the infamous "Who's Side Are You On?" campaign with the licensing - do you want Cap's Pizza Hut deal or Iron Man's!!??) mainly centered on Cap and Iron Man as enemies; but it won't be about a superhero version of gun control and I can even imagine there not being two "teams" of heroes arguing over whether or not to register their secret identities. Hell, it wouldn't surprise me at all if the "teams" are Captain America as leader of "all" superheroes versus Iron Man and The Government/Military.
That said: There's a wild-card here: AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D, which has introduced three Big Ideas to the MCU (1. S.H.I.E.L.D is reborn, but now they're operations are even more secretive, 2. Coulson is building a "Secret Avengers" of superhumans, 3. An unknown but substantial number of humans on Earth are actually Inhumans whose latent powers can only be unlocked by exposure to crystals, a cache of which is unaccounted for and a rogue batch of which has accidentally been released into the world's oceanic food/drug supply) any one of which could be a tie-in to CW's plot if the positive reception for the series' second season means the Marvel TV/movie wall is about to come down.
2. CIVIL WAR WILL ALSO NOT BE "AVENGERS 2.5"
The handwringing about the CAPTAIN AMERICA series' own storylines being derailed by what feels like a chance to squeeze an extra AVENGERS midquel is justified, theoretically, but I've yet to see/hear anything that convinces me that many/most of the "cameo" characters will be just that.
I can see the New (as of AGE OF ULTRON) Avengers team - Widow, War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Vision and Falcon - being main support-players, but Black Panther? He's a head of state in addition to being a hero, so it's sensible he'd have a presence for a scene or two in a movie about an "international incident;" but he doesn't need to be a featured player. Spider-Man? Well, they'll want him onscreen for at least one or two BIG pops, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's mainly there to share an exchange with one of the Big Guns and maybe relate a quickie version of his basic origin to somebody so they don't have to do it in his own movie... But! I can easily imagine "Peter Parker, nosy freelance news photographer" being a major side-character. Also: A storyline about things breaking down between the government/military and the superhero community would be a fine place for an Officer/Agent/whatever Carol Danvers to either acquire (or turn out to have always had) the powers of CAPTAIN MARVEL.
3. CAPTAIN AMERICA WILL "DIE" IN CIVIL WAR
Why is there a new Avengers team at the end of ULTRON? Because most of the Original Six are almost done with their mandatory-appearances under the original contracts, and Marvel wants two AVENGERS movies before they say goodbye instead of just one - so the various storylines (allegedly) are conspiring to ensure that said O.G. Avengers sit out INFINITY WAR: PART I so they can make an epic One Last Ride return in INFINITY WAR: PART II.
As of now: The Hulk is MIA (we'll come back to that). Iron Man is semi-retired and likely to be further ostracized after CIVIL WAR. Hawkeye has (literally) been sent away to live on a happy farm somewhere upstate. Black Widow was partially ready to bolt in ULTRON, could easily do so post-CW. Thor can always be easily sidelined by "He's busy. Asgard stuff," and the title of his next movie refers to the literal Apocalypse for the Norse Gods. That leaves Captain America, and if there's one Big Deal thing to keep from the "Civil War" comics apart from Steve vs. Tony it's that Cap ends up taking a bullet for his stand.
Furthermore: I'd bet that the "search for Bucky" part of this story ends more quickly than many are expecting. We know from the end of WINTER SOLDIER that he's at least somewhat "better," so it's not outside the realm of possibility that he shows up in CIVIL WAR long enough to complicate things (or maybe he and/or Daniel Bruhl's Baron Zemo are at the center of the "incident" that starts the war?), have it out heart-to-heart with Steve and then take his first step to becoming the new Captain America after Steve dies. Hell, the setup there writes itself: Cap and Bucky find themselves in other scenario where he (Bucky) is in mortal danger, and this time it's Cap who makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his buddy. Boom. Bucky becomes the new Cap, joining whatever The Avengers are post-WAR. Steve Rogers, of course, will still come back for INFINITY WAR: PART II. How? Well...
4. DOCTOR STRANGE WILL BE A MOVIE ABOUT DEATH
THOR did an adequate job introducing the one-sentence version of how mystical/magic stuff works in the MCU: "Magic and crazy comic-book super-science? Same thing." But apart from establishing that the Norse Gods were real but actually a race of super-strong, long-lived interdimensional aliens it didn't really go into any of the bigger questions that raises: What about ghosts? Demons? Other religious/supernatural things a lot of present-day people believe in? If Odin is (was?) a real guy, what about Zeus? Vishnu? Yahweh?
It makes logical sense that DOCTOR STRANGE (the next release after CIVIL WAR) will be the movie to answer (or at least visualize) that stuff. Oh - I don't think the religious stuff will be addressed: Marvel is cautious when it comes to "real world" potential offense (look how much time the first CAPTAIN AMERICA spends making sure HYDRA and Red Skull can exist as bad guys with as little Nazi/swastika presence as possible) and the presence of supernatural stuff explicitly tied to currently-practiced world religions could be problematic in the Red States and render the film potentially unreleaseable in, say, China, which has strict rules about portraying mysticism and religion in film.
But! With the more D&D/LOTR/Potter-esque fantasy/magic stuff already being all over THOR and GUARDIANS now primed to handle the various space-beings and starchildren, Stephen Strange is going to need to need a unique Cosmic Marvel "niche" to set himself apart. Paying lip-service to the fact that he can also keep company with Asgardians and the cosmic-personifications of Infinity and Eternity (and Death, but we'll get to that) but mainly focusing him in the direction (at least for a debut) of the Marvel Universe's less-explainable (outside of "Magic, okay?") phenomena - two major aspects of which have already winked at the camera over on DAREDEVIL, incidentally.
Basically, I think they'll pitch Strange as an exorcist, but a non-denominational, more "wizardy" one; and that his first adventure will involve establishing (in safe, broad strokes) a non-denominational, possibly "everyone sees what they want to" MCU-version of The Afterlife as yet another plane for these stories to exist on... and a way for killed-off characters to still pop up as ghosts or even straight-up come back to life without needing half a season of a TV show to explain how.
Million dollar question: What does this mean about Thanos? For those who still haven't had a comic fan talk their ear off about this, the "to court death" line in AVENGERS is meant literally: In the Marvel Universe, sufficiently powerful/cosmically-aware beings can actually perceive and interact with personifications of esoteric concepts up to and including Death. Thanos is not only "aware" of Death, he has a literal romantic fixation on "her" and wants to massacre the universe as a token of romantic affection - that's, literally, his entire "thing." Do I imagine we'll see Death "herself" in this movie? Sort of... but only as a tease for a more important role later.
5. NOTHING LONG-TERM IMPORTANT WILL HAPPEN IN SPIDER-MAN
Whatever reputation-solidifying (for Amy Pascal) niceties are on paper, the new SPIDER-MAN solo movie (the next "canon" Marvel movie after STRANGE) is a Marvel Studios production being undertaken "offsite" by Sony but still under orders from Kevin Feige and company.
Even still, given that they'd already started production on several subsequent Disney-branded Marvel movies before adding this one to the roster, I doubt this will connect to the "big doings" other than through references and guest-appearances (the prominent rumor is that the title is "SPIDER-MAN: THE NEW/NEXT/YOUNG AVENGER" and that the plot involves the high-school aged hero bugging Tony Stark for an "official" tryout) and if so I think that's for the best. Spider-Man is a street-level hero, he has no business involved in Thanos/Infinity/End-of-The-World level stuff unless it spills into his area and he becomes the "stand when others won't" guy. I'd be surprised (and disappointed, frankly) if Norman Osborn is walking around with an Infinity Stone in his lapel or something.
Honestly, though? The only "bigger MCU" person I'm really aching to see Spidey meet is The Kingpin. D'Onofrio is Marvel's new best villain, and he needs to meet the hero he originated with just once.
6. THE GUARDIANS WILL MEET THE HULK
I feel much, much less confident about this than anything else in all this speculation, but I'm putting it here anyway. AGE OF ULTRON ends with The Hulk shooting himself... somewhere on a Quinjet. Supposedly, the plan was originally to make it clear that he's shot himself off the planet Earth itself to allow for PLANET HULK sometime down the line, but that plan changed and it's now unclear if Marvel has yet re-acquired the rights to solo HULK movies. That all seems fishy, and either way the possibility for Hulk to be in space is still right there.
So call this one a Hail Mary guess: Marvel knows that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is, however unplanned-for, it's second hottest solo property outside of IRON MAN, and they know people love Hulk. It makes sense to have them cross-over as a way of getting halfway to a solo HULK feature, at least for now. I doubt it'd be the plot of the entire GUARDIANS 2, but since the first movie used Sakkarans (natives of the planet "Planet Hulk" took place on) the door is already open for Starlord etc. to find themselves in, say, a Sakkaran gladiatorial arena and forced to fight... The Hulk!
People would go nuts - you know they would, especially if they kept it a secret - and it would only take one quick narrated flashback for Banner to explain that he crashed on this planet. There's also a more pertinent reason for them to meet up: Banner has information The Guardians will want - there's an Infinity Stone on Earth, which means Thanos is going there. Remember, if you're Marvel your top priority should be figuring out how to the mega-popular Starlord etc onto the same screen-space as The Avengers.
7. THOR: RAGNAROK WILL BE THE MOST IMPORTANT PRE-INFINITY WAR MOVIE
THOR's main job in Phase I outside of introducing its title character was kick-starting awareness of the "cosmic" side of the MCU. It's roll as the hub of cosmic worldbuilding in these films has likely been passed to the (unexpectedly) much more popular GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), but the big strokes of this project were mapped out long in advance: Marvel wheeled out the full prop of The Infinity Gauntlet at SDCC a year before THOR or CAPTAIN AMERICA came out and then stuck it into Odin's vault as a background detail, for example (apparently it's not the same one Thanos has at the end of ULTRON), which suggests that Thor was originally going to be the vessel through which Big Cosmic Evil fell onto the rest of The Cinematic Universe... and I think it still will be. Partially.
"Ragnarok" is classical Norse mythology's version of The Apocalypse - a combination of wars, betrayals and natural disasters that will result in the death of most of the important gods (including Thor, Odin, Loki and Heimdall) and the destruction/rebirth of the human world. In the Comics Universe, Ragnarok is (generally, they've retconned this a few times) a prophecy that hasn't come true yet, but they keep coming close: A Godzilla-scale demon called Surtur nearly pulled it off in the middle of New York during Walt Simonson's legendary 80s "Thor" run, ultimately turned back by Thor himself leading the combined forces of Asgard and the U.S. Army against him. Surtur is slated to turn up in THOR: RAGNAROK, so... do the math: Whatever happens in the third THOR installment is going to be really big and really bad.
However! Thor's series also has plenty of loose threads to handle already: "Odin" is actually Loki in disguise, which (along with its own obvious problems) could mean that Odin is dead. In AGE OF ULTRON, Thor has a vision of himself (and others) in either a literal or metaphorical "Hell;" and though cut down to the point of incoherence in the theatrical release, it feels like Thor's return to the death-world "vision" to become the first (non-Guardian) MCU figure to know that the MacGuffins they've been chasing are actually Infinity Stones was meant to tie the two together.
Why is that important? Because in Norse mythology, Hel (single "l") is the Realm of The Dead - The Afterlife - for pretty-much anyone who isn't fit for Valhalla. And the god-figured tasked with ruling over it - "Hela" - is both a big recurring villain for the Marvel version of Thor etc... and also happens to be female. Get the picture? Marvel has gone pretty far in getting the weirdest parts of their Universe onscreen, but Thanos making goo-goo eyes at a vaugely female-looking black-robed skeleton is probably the one step too far. But a female Asgardian equivalent to the same basic idea... a "Goddess of Death" instead of an esoteric personification of the same (with some semantic "rose by any other name" handwaves courtesy of DOCTOR STRANGE if she does a walk-on in his movie first)? Audiences would probably swallow that much more readily.
So yeah - that's my Big Guess here: DOCTOR STRANGE confirms that there's an Afterlife/Beyond/whatever in the Cinematic Universe. THOR: RAGNAROK will involve Thor having/choosing to go to Hel - possibly to retrieve or converse with the presumed-dead Odin and opening the door for other "dead" characters to remain in the mix somehow - and meeting/clashing with Hela (traditionally she's Loki's daughter, by the way) who will turn out to be the MCU version of the paramour Thanos is scheming to woo by collecting Infinity Stones and doing... something bad with them; which will lead us right into AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR - PART I.
Agree? Disagree? We'll all find out over the course of the next few years... but I think when all is said and done I'll have more of this right than wrong.
NOTE: This piece brought to you in part by The MovieBob Patreon. If you liked it and want to see more, please consider becoming a Patron today :)