Thor: Ragnarok comes out in a couple weeks, and is being called ‘the most anticipated movie of the fall,’ and I must agree it, looks awesome. This puts us at about the half-way point of the MCU Phase 3 (I believe Avengers 4 is the final film slated for this phase). What is going to happen with this phase has largely happened, and so I want to turn to speculation for Phase 4.
The phase one movies were largely introductions. We got the Avenger anchor characters (Thor, Cap, Iron Man, and Hulk) setup, and it culminated in The Avengers. Phase two was about expansion, in phase two we had movies like Guardians of the Galaxy who were the Avengers in space, and Ant-Man who is a West-Coast Avenger, as well as filling out the world-building of 3 of the originals (no Hulk movie for so many reasons). And so far Phase 3 has been letting our toys play together. We’ve had Captain America: Civil War (which is really an Avenger’s movie in many ways except they’re split) and Tony Stark is almost a secondary protagonist in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok looks as if it could be called Thor and Hulk against the universe. These mash-ups have been great, and Thor and Hulk look like they’ll be the up there as well.
Here is the thing you need to understand about Marvel’s process (as best as I can understand it): they started us off with characters that may have been B-list to the masses, but they knew wouldn’t require much to make them appeal to people who don’t give a shit about comics (while staying true to the comics), then as time as progressed, as the audience has become more hooked, they’ve brought us into a cinematic comic-book world unlike anything else. They started introducing us to less traditional movie-going experiences, but more traditional comic book experiences. Things are weird, and overall the audience is loving it—can you imagine when Iron Man came out in 2008 if someone had told you Marvel would make a movie about a talking raccoon and a sentient tree that you would have been excited? Maybe if you’re reading on this site I guess, but overwhelmingly I think the answer would be no for those of us not delving into the weird world of comic books.
For Phase 4, we’ve had the cross-overs, we’ve had the mash-ups, we’ve had the weird, now it’s time to get to ‘the replacements.’ By the beginning of Phase 4, the franchise will be ten years old, many of the actors will have been in for 6 or more movies, and it will be time to start changing the line-up. It’s not necessarily what many want as a viewing audience, but it is what the business will begin to dictate, and honestly, I think there are some great potential options for it.
Comic books, unlike movies or TV, don’t have actors they need to replace, and yet they often do replace the characters. Right now in the movies Steve Rogers is Captain America, but both Bucky Barnes (aka The Winter Soldier) and Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) have both ascended to the role of Cap. Most of the superheroes in comic books have been multiple characters, and it can rejuvenate them, it can change perspective, and I think it can do that for the MCU.
You might be thinking, “I don’t want anyone but Chris Evans playing Captain America,” but just because he doesn’t play Cap doesn’t mean he can’t return as Steve Rogers, or even later to return as Cap if the storyline allows it. This option frees up the actors a lot, because while the paychecks are nice, for the Chris’s (Evans and Hemsworth, and maybe even Pratt) it’s a lot of physical work to keep in their superhero conditions.
As it is, in Homecoming, we basically get Tony Stark having outsourced many of the Iron Man duties to autopilot, and so I think there is nothing that says they have to kill off the characters, or recast, just replace. We need an Iron Man, and a Cap on the team, but do we need Steve Rogers or Tony Stark?
With Ant-man, we’ve already seen the second iterations introduced, largely because Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) is too close of a character to Tony Stark, whereas Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a much different character.
The richness of comic books in adaptation is that there is so much source material much of it conflicting, but all kind of co-existing, and it allows the filmmakers to do whatever they want. It solves a couple of problems that I think are going to occur, one is that inevitably if these films continue going, there will need to be recasting, but this could allow a buffer space, and a shifting of the world/tone to allow new actors in. The second issue it solves is it uses fatigue on the part of actors playing the same characters to further world-build. It also allows different kind of conflicts, the conflict between characters not trusting a new Cap, or a new Thor, or whomever needs to be replaced creates conflict, and this has been Marvel’s strength is the conflict between protagonists, not the conflict between protagonist and antagonist.
Clearly, Kevin Feige knows what he’s doing, he’s been slowly sucking us all into a far less generic cinematic franchise, one that does resemble comic books more than traditional films in a lot of ways. So perhaps this will be the eventual route he takes, and if it isn’t I’ll be along for the ride, because on the whole he’s been getting it right, but I suspect if the audience keeps going along as he pushes us further and further, we’re going to see these kinds things happening, and I personally look forward to an MCU in which characters are replaced and not actors (for as long as possible).