Avengers NOW! and the Future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Avengers NOW art

Over the past week, Marvel Comics has made several major announcements regarding their Avengers NOW! initiative, including new versions of Captain America (the Falcon will be taking on the mantle) and Thor (now a woman), a new “superior” direction for Iron Man, and increased roles for characters such as Dr. Strange and Deathlok. Since these announcements, rumours and questions about whether these changes will foreshadow similar developments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have arisen. As such, 24 Panels offers its views on these developments and where they may—or may not—lead.

DAVE: Well Marvel, you certainly know how to get people talking.

Before we even get into the content of Marvel’s big announcements from this past week, I think we have to unpack the context in which the announcements were made, because I think this plays a bigger role than usual in indicating just what Marvel’s endgame is. The fan side of me was ready to be dismissive of how radical the announced changes are because of the history of character swapping which has gone on within the Marvel Universe and comics at large. We’ve seen Steve Rogers replaced as Captain America, or someone new in the Iron Man armour, and things have always gone back to the way they were before. Had these announcements gone through the usual channels, I don’t think I would have given them much thought.

However, Marvel went the extra mile here of making these announcements primarily on television programs catered to a mainstream audience. This audience is likely comprised of people whose familiarity with Marvel Comics stems from the feature films and NOT the comics, a point which I think is kind of hard to ignore. As such, I think it is darn near impossible to see this announcement as anything less than Marvel preparing Marvel film fans for some significant changes in the coming years, likely after Avengers 3: The Search for Spock. Strictly from a strategic perspective, this is savvy work on Marvel’s part.

Creatively, I am entirely fine with the changes, and think they are promising for both the comics and film divisions. I still think that the books are likely going to revert back to the status quo in a few years time—though I hope to God Marvel proves me wrong on that one—but putting that aside for the moment, the changes to Captain America and Thor are both exciting and rather smart. Rightfully, Marvel and DC have been taken to task for the lack of diversity in their publications, and while the creation of new characters to address these issues is still necessary, taking a legacy approach to their popular characters and using that as a way to diversify the line is pretty darn smart. And by having a beloved character such as the Falcon take on the role of Captain America, it makes the transition a bit smoother for those who have trouble with change. On that note, who wants to bet Sif is the new Thor?

With regards to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it also wisely helps to address the impending issue of the need to recast key roles in the Marvel Universe. While I am fine with simply recasting a role and carrying on, I admit the approach has potential problems, ones that can be dodged by transforming the characters into legacy heroes. Again, this is a win for everyone: fans of Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth don’t have to see the roles recast, Marvel continues to pump out films with the titles of Captain America and Thor, and Anthony Mackie and Jaimie Alexander (hopefully) get major promotions.

But perhaps I am being too optimistic. What do you think Dru?

DRU: I picked up the issue of Entertainment Weekly from which the above picture is taken this morning, and Dave, I’m sorry to tell you, they’re not planning to reveal the identity of the female Thor for quite a while: “It’s a slowly unfolding mystery,” apparently (Axel Alonso’s words). If it turns out to be Sif, I think that’s going to lend some credence to your theory; Jaimie Alexander’s been underused in the Thor movies, and by appearing in Agents of SHIELD she’s shown she’s game and committed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If this is a build-up to increase her role, I’m definitely on board.

We’ve talked a lot on the site and on the podcast about how Marvel Studios plans to proceed past the point where their major players age out of their roles (and their contracts), which is something that comic book writers never have to worry about. I strongly doubt that it’s a coincidence that the Winter Soldier and Falcon (as Cap) are present in Avengers NOW! I also strongly doubt that Deathlok, looking much as he does in Agents of SHIELD, is here. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the aforementioned ABC series introduces us to Medusa and Angela in its next season either, after which point we’ll have all of these characters represented in live-action, or on the way soon (Ant-ManDr. Strange). Whether this is merely a good example of savvy corporate synergy and cross-promotion (using the popularity of the films to sell comics) or whether they’re using the comics as a testing ground for potential film ideas… that remains to be seen.

If they were pursuing the latter, however, I think we’d see more effort to get Tony Stark out of the Iron Man suit. The films (Iron Man 3 in particular) are setting up Stark’s retirement, seems like, and if they’re going to build a narrative around the Iron Man character it seems to me that the smartest path to take would be one where Robert Downey Jr. could remain involved in a voice-only capacity. The man’s not getting any younger, he injured himself on the set of the last film, and I can’t imagine he’ll want to stick around for much longer if the role is going to take a larger and larger toll on his health. I imagine that a Superior Iron Man might find a way to upload his consciousness into the suit, Transcendence-style, perhaps after a dramatic death (in the finale of Avengers 3DD?). Let’s start an office pool!

All that said, I’m not likely to read any of these unless (a) my local library buys the collected versions and (b) reviews are ecstatic. How about you, Nuno?

NUNO: I think you’re dead on Dave. There’s just no way of looking at ANY Marvel news going forward without aligning it to its cinematic universe counterpart. We’re talking about a studio that has their portfolio planned for the next 15 years! At this point, Marvel comics are there to provide pseudo-marketing. Their movies will inform their comics, and their comics will set up potential changes, or foreshadow changes, in their movies. Actor contracts will end, actors will get into personal disagreements with the execs, or actors will die… and the Marvel cinematic universe show must go on.

Any other movie studio would just re-cast and move forward with production. Money is money is money. But, what Marvel has proven to do differently, is to actually give a crap about who they can sign on for three to six movie deals. For the most part—considering the sheer size of their character cast—they’ve succeeded. What they’re creating is a fully living and breathing fictional universe, and the longer they can maintain that immersion by using the same actors, the longer they’ll ensure their general audience numbers continue to grow. Because, let no one be fooled: the comic fan is not Marvel’s target audience anymore… not with their cinematic work… and not with their comics. Alonzo and Co. may have finally embraced what it takes to invigorate the stagnant market. Their business model no longer requires them to keep the status quo in their books. The aging fanboy is becoming voiceless. Embrace the change with the company, or move on to something else, or somewhere else.

The first of these Avengers NOW announcements that reached me via Twitter was the one regarding the female Thor. Immediately, I thought: Okay, so that’s why they brought Angela into the Marvel U via thte Guardians of the Galaxy comic? But as the image above shows, that hypothesis went out the window early. Like Dru points out, the cinematic universe has positioned Lady Sif to be a major player. I was shocked she didn’t have a much bigger role in Thor 2 to be honest. The next thought to take over my mind over the next two days was: And see, THIS is how you do Wonder Woman right—warrior maiden who doesn’t need to fight in her underwear! (Alas, then there’s Angela’s Victoria Secret getup that hasn’t evolved from its male-fantasy inspired cheesecake fashion shop of the early ’90s… but whatever.) Which leads me to my one and only true hope about the Lady Thor unveiling (oh sorry… just Thor.. uh huh… got it) is that (Lady) Thor 4 hits theatres before DC’s Wonder Woman.

Thoughts on Captain Flacamerica? Makes total sense from the cinematic perspective. Chris Evans is on record as not being fully committed past his current contract, so letting Anthony Mackie glide (heh) into that lead role only makes sense. I really enjoyed The Falcon in Captain America 2. It also helps increase the diversity mandate—which I think is the one truly phenomenal aspect of Marvel’s corporate move with these announcements and line-wide changes. It’s worth pointing out, the “true” characters didn’t go away. They’re still in continuity. They’re now free to evolve beyond the alias that constrained them to corporate recycling tactics.

I don’t have any strong thoughts regarding Iron Man’s angle. Appending “Superior” to the title carries with it the dark edge that was inherent in the Doc Ock Spider-Man run. What then? Tony Stark is like a good Norman Osborn in San Francisco? What? He’s a single man (Warren Ellis) Authority figure? If anything, this news just makes me give the rolling uuuugghhh sound because of the upcoming, numbing, use of the “Superior” adjective on Marvel comics. Superior Punisher, Superior Venom, Superior X-Men, Superior Avengers, Superior Spider-Man—oh wait that already happened—and Superior Superior Spider-Man…

Here’s what I believe… Guardians of the Galaxy will succeed. Or, it really should succeed, as there’s no doubt it’s intrinsic to the Marvel cinematic universe grand plan. This grand plan will lead to a massive cinematic Infinity Gauntlet super-crossover of all their movie properties. Such an elaborate endeavour won’t be touched again by any other studio for the next two decades. Then some epic event reset switch will reboot the entire franchise—while ensuring that everything that came before still matters. When current fans have their own children, they’ll be able to take them to share in the Marvel cinematic tapestry world-building experience all over again until they die. By then Marvel will have retained all the remaining movie rights (Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four), and then we’ll see a New Avengers movie in 2030 featuring Brian Michael Bendis’s Avengers team.

That’s a lot of nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again and changes-that-will-have-lasting-effects announcements from now until then.

DAVE: Regarding Iron Man, I think Marvel is still trying to figure out what to do about the Robert Downey Jr./Iron Man situation. Strictly from a character perspective, trying to replace Tony in the suit isn’t as easy as it sounds. While Thor has a built-in mechanism for having a new character take on the mantle, and Captain America is more of a symbolic ideal which can pass from one person to another, Iron Man really is the expression of one man’s sense of self. Factor in how people now associate Iron Man with Downey, and Marvel is going to have their work cut out for them.

That said, if Superior Iron Man is a darker character and harder to root for than Tony has traditionally been, then perhaps Marvel’s cinematic division is looking to steer right into the negativity surrounding recasting the role. Imagine it: people are going to call foul on Marvel no matter who they cast, so why not recast the role figuratively and literally in a manner in is supposed to be unlikeable? Unlikely, yes, but pulling a Colin Baker would be a great way to distinguish the new actor in the role from what Downey has done as Stark.

Regardless of what actually happens over the next few years, I think we can safely say that neither Marvel Comics nor Marvel Studios is settling into a comfortable rut, and that is reassuring to see. Will all these risks pay off? Hard to say at this point. But damn if I’m not curious to find out.

The Avengers NOW! initiative begins this fall. 



Dave is the co-host of 24 Panels Per Second.

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