One of the more intriguing rumors floating around out there regarding the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the next multi-movie saga might follow Marvel Comics’ “Dark Reign” storyline from 2008. Much of this speculation, however, hinged on the upcoming introduction of Norman Osborn (aka the Green Goblin), one of Spider-Man’s greatest villains and a central figure in the arc. But, alas, with Spidey, Norman and all other Sony-owned characters now out of the picture, it would appear that particular dream is dead.
But it doesn’t have to be.
As crucial as Osborn was to the “Dark Reign” arc, the story is mostly remembered for its introduction of the Dark Avengers, a team of supervillains posing as superheroes -- while still actually being evil and acting like, well, supervillains. If we look at the larger picture then, and take into consideration the overarching premise rather than the specifics of the plot, there’s absolutely no reason why the Dark Avengers can’t go up against our real Avengers on the big screen.
The original “Dark Reign” storyline began in 2008, following Marvel Comics’ “Secret Invasion” arc. After the revelation of a decades-long infiltration of the superhero community by the shape-shifting Skrulls, Norman Osborn steals crucial information from the Avengers, kills the Skrull Queen himself and, as a result, is seen as a hero in the eyes of the public. He capitalizes on this popularity and newfound trust and takes over as director of S.H.I.E.L.D., ousting Tony Stark.
Once a bad guy, always a bad guy, though, and soon enough Osborn has formed a secret supervillain council known as the Cabal, reformed S.H.I.E.L.D. into H.A.M.M.E.R. and created a new Dark Avengers team, recruiting villains from his time as leader of the Thunderbolts, a longstanding team of criminals-turned-good guys. Osborn manipulates them all into going full-evil, even dressing them up like the real Avengers so as to pin their crimes on the heroes.
Eventually, the truth of Osborn’s nefarious intentions are revealed and the real -- now Secret -- Avengers arrive and take him down, and justice is once again served.
Well, at least until Osborn tries again with his next team of Dark Avengers.
Now, obviously, Norman Osborn’s name is all over the above, and his stepping into the role of Marvel’s Lex Luthor was a prominent part of the “Dark Reign” storyline. A villain playing a years-long con of convincing the public he’s not evil, usurping power and then going full nuclear with his supervillainy is compelling, if nothing else. So, how is the MCU going to pull that off without him?
Well, thankfully, Marvel is rife with billionaire industrialists with nefarious intentions.
The obvious answer for the MCU is Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell in Iron Man 2. The CEO of Hammer Industries and a rival of Tony Stark’s, Hammer’s already shown a penchant for recruiting bad guys to do his bidding: His hiring of Ivan Vanko’s Whiplash was the crux of the movie. He was outed and sent to prison afterwards, but if movies have taught us anything, it’s that prison doesn’t make evildoers less maniacal. And, really, who doesn’t want more Sam Rockwell in the MCU?
Of course, if Rockwell’s busy, any seemingly trustworthy but secretly evil mastermind could work. Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo has already been introduced as a vengeful genius with a penchant for brainwashing antiheroes and framing good guys, as seen in Captain America: Civil War.
A heel turn by William Hurt’s “Thunderbolt” Ross could also work, with the former general recruiting a team of villains he thinks he can control as an alternative to the current team of Avengers that constantly disregard him. Removing outward villainy from the equation would actually be a great twist, as we, the audience, mostly trust Ross as a good guy, even if we don’t always agree with him. Seeing him corrupted by power, or reckoning with himself after losing control of his faux Avengers, would add a layer of compassion and uncertainty to the proceedings.
Then again, the MCU could bring in someone else entirely to fill Osborn’s shoes. Doctor Doom and the Hellfire Club are both options now, or even a still-human-hating Namor the Sub-Mariner. Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants could easily be swapped in, or the MCU could have perennial evil corporation Roxxon fill Oscorp’s role and create a Norman Osborn substitute from whole cloth. Or, if Marvel Studios wants to wait a year or two, Wilson Fisk’s Kingpin would be back in play. They could probably even get Vincent D'Onofrio back.
So, what about the rest of the team? The comics’ initial lineup of Dark Avengers included Sentry, Ares, Noh-Varr (pretending to be Captain Marvel), Moonstone (cosplaying as Ms. Marvel), Venom (sciencing his symbiote into looking like Spider-Man), Bullseye (dressed up in Hawkeye’s duds) and Wolverine’s son Daken sullying his father’s name.
With the exception of Venom -- and Bullseye, pending his rights reverting back from Netflix -- there’s no reason any of this couldn’t happen. Noh-Varr goes on to date Kate Bishop, so introducing his character in either the movies or the upcoming Hawkeye series on Disney+ would pull double duty. Ares, meanwhile, would essentially open up the MCU to the pantheon of gods from every ancient religion, including fan-favorite Hercules.
But there’s not just one team of Dark Avengers to pick from: Osborn’s second go-round included martial artist Gorgon, Hawkeye knock-off Trick Shot, Peruvian god Ai Apaec, all-around superhuman Superia, cybernetic Thor clone Ragnarok and Hulk’s son Skaar (whose inclusion would give new meaning to the phrase “Hulk smash”). All of who are, again, ripe for the picking.
(That iteration, by the way, was also heavily backed up by A.I.M., which -- aside from most likely being introduced in the upcoming Hulu cartoon, M.O.D.O.K. -- would also give the MCU a much-needed third villainous organization, seeing as how Hydra and the Hand have pretty much been done to death by this point.)
Of course, all that said, the odds of the MCU introducing a team of brand-new villains all at once is low. But that’s the beauty of the Dark Avengers: They don’t have to.
The crux of the team is that they’re evil counterparts to our existing heroes. And it’s not like the Marvel movies are exactly known for sticking directly to the comics the films are inspired by -- never mind that the current roster of MCU Avengers is drastically different from the team of “Dark Reign.” It would be fairly easy then to pick and choose from the existing lineups, swapping out counterparts as needed.
Noh-Varr could be easily be replaced with Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, already introduced as an antagonist in Captain Marvel. Doctor Strange set up Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo as a threat, and then the MCU kind of forgot about him. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger could be brought back to life, or summoned from the multiverse.
New villains could draw on the existing history of the MCU. Is it beyond the realm of possibility that Tony Stark tried to clone Thor? And, let’s be real, Chris Hemsworth would probably be down to play an evil robot version of himself. The films have likewise already laid out the possibilities for Hulk to have sired Skaar, or he could face (the already almost-introduced) Red Hulk, or Juggernaut or any of a hundred bruisers in Marvel’s rogues' gallery.
Because that, really, is the appeal of this storyline. It doesn’t matter what the on-screen Avengers look like, how contract negotiations play out or which licensing deals fall through -- the Dark Avengers will always be there. The Marvel Comics canon is deep, and finding equally matched evil Avengers is as simple as grabbing your favorite comic.
In short, the Marvel Cinematic Universe can’t go wrong with “Dark Reign.” Even if it's not comics-accurate, Marvel Studios has already proven that it can draw from the breadth of Marvel comicdom to create an iconic live-action team of superheroes, and there's no reason it can't do that again for villains.