Marvel Studios' original lineup of Avengers, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye and the Hulk are about to wrap up ten years of storytelling in the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4. Iron Man has completed his trilogy of films, Captain America has completed his trilogy, and Thor will complete his three movies this fall in Thor: Ragnarok. Not only have these characters finished a significant amount of storytelling, many of these actors' contracts are also set to expire after Avengers 4.
With that in mind, everyone is wondering how each character will hang up their hero status. If the comics have anything to say about the future of the original Avengers, it's that death is often the most common way to conclude a character’s story. And what about a possible future line up Avengers? Will Captain Marvel and Black Panther lead the new Avengers, or will any of these legacy Avengers retire, thus choosing to hand off their shield, hammer, blasters and arrows to new versions of those legacy characters who are deemed worthy?
Pixar’s newest release, Cars 3, focuses on this issue with a rare blend of heart and clarity. The film’s lead character, Lightning McQueen, spends much of the film struggling over whether he should retire or race until he's forcefully replaced by a newer car. The rapidly transforming racing industry believes he’s raced his last, but Lightning is determined to finish on his own terms. After a near-fatal accident, Lighting is assigned a trainer, the peppy, optimistic Cruz Ramirez. Cruz has spent her whole life training other cars to race, while never becoming a competitive racer herself. As Cruz begins to rehabilitate and train Lightning, he ends up training her, inspiring him to let her race under his famous number 95. Cruz essentially becomes the new Lightning McQueen, while Lightning stays in the racing world as her trainer. Lightning wasn't killed, he wasn't replaced -- he evolved into the next level any hero or main character can become: a mentor. Like the late Doc Hudson who trained him, Lighting traded up so he could inspire the next generation of heroes, mainly Cruz. It was a beautiful passing of the torch, and an incredibly smart choice for Pixar as they concluded Lightning's Cars trilogy... without closing the door on the franchise.
What Cars 3 perfectly illustrated in that passing of the torch is that a character doesn’t have to die to finish his or her proverbial race. The film also demonstrated that a character doesn’t have to be forced into retirement to make way for a newer, younger version of him or herself, and that a hero can find joy and grace in training a new hero, even one who takes their name (or wears their number). This model should be adopted by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If the deaths or the retirement of Marvel's original Avengers is handled callously, Marvel Studios could lose a huge segment of its fanbase. Just like how a Cars franchise couldn't work without Lightning McQueen, future Captain America, Thor, or Iron Man films couldn't work without those heroes either. Do they have to be there full time? Absolutely not -- but there has to be a way to make way for fresh blood without killing off the characters who made the MCU great to begin with.
Marvel's Phase One gave us two stand-alone Iron Man films, one solo Thor film, one solo Incredible Hulk film, one solo Captain America film, and the team-up film of the decade The Avengers. Since then, three trilogies have concluded, a second Avengers film has bowed, and Marvel has begun to introduce new characters like Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, Black Panther, Vision, Falcon, the Winter Soldier, Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy. All of these characters (and more) are set to take on Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and its subsequent sequel. So what does this mean for our core team of Steve, Thor, Tony, Bruce, Natasha and Clint? Since both Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans are set to finish their Marvel Studios contracts after Avengers 4, let's start with them.
CBR recently explained how Tony Stark is being handled in the comics right now, which could ba a blueprint to the next step for Tony in the MCU. In Civil War II, Tony uploaded his consciousness into an artificial database, which is able to help him train two new versions of Iron Man, Doctor Doom and Riri Williams. With Tony in a coma, his consciousness can train Doom and Riri, as well as maneuver inside an empty Iron Man suit. While this is a fascinating way to handle a character's absence in the comics, doing it in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would essentially turn Downey Jr. into a version of the AI Jarvis. This would feel like a counter move to Jarvis being given the form of Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron. What if, like Lightning McQueen, after suffering an injury or choosing to retire in Avengers 4, Tony stays a part of the Avengers as a trainer? He could continue to mentor Peter Parker (as we've seen in the trailers for Spider-Man: Homecoming) as well as any characters who could take on the Iron Man mantle. Perhaps a young Riri Williams joins the MCU; should she learn from comatose Tony Stark, or one who, with years of experience and compassion under his belt, could train her himself?
Both Peter Parker and Riri Williams are similar to Cruz from Cars 3. Cruz is optimistic, she's intelligent, and she never displays any arrogance or pride. In the MCU, Peter is a humble young man in need of mentoring, and in the comics Riri is a bright young woman with a genius-level intellect (just like Tony Stark). If Peter takes on any of the Iron Man armor, he could easily become the Iron Spider. If Riri takes on the Iron Man armor, she could portray her comic book persona of Ironheart. Both Peter and Riri would make great versions of Iron Man, and with Tony Stark still alive, Downey Jr. could return any time to make a cameo or an appearance. James Rhodes could also take on the Iron Man name. Currently played by Don Cheadle, Rhodes is best known for being War Machine. He played a significant role in rescuing President Ellis in Iron Man 3 and as a decorated Colonel, he would be a fantastic liaison between the military and the Avengers (a la the Sokovia Accords,) something that the Avengers desperately need.
What about Captain America? In the comics, two main characters have taken up the shield and name of Captain America: Bucky Barnes (currently played by Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson (currently portrayed by Anthony Mackie.) Stan currently has a nine-movie deal with Marvel, only three of which have been fulfilled in the Captain America trilogy. That leaves six films on his contract -- two will be Avengers 3 and 4 -- which leaves another four films where he could play a redeemed version of the Winter Soldier, or a newly christened Captain America.
If Marvel went this route with Stan or Mackie (who plays the hero Falcon,) this would closely mirror what Cars 3 did with Lighting and Cruz. In Lightning's last race of the film, he knew that he couldn't win, so he put Cruz in the pit, gave her racing tires and a fresh coat of red and gold paint, gave her his number and let her finish (and win) the race. This wasn't something Lightning was coerced to do -- he wasn't dead somewhere with his number rubbed off -- he saw Cruz's potential and gave her the chance she was hoping for. Perhaps there will be a defining moment where Steve lets Bucky make the hero play, thus cementing his transition from Hydra-programmed villain to bonafide Avenger. Steve could then stay on as a mentor to Bucky, helping him adjust to his new life, his new freedom, and the new century in which they both live. The same could happen with Falcon, but since Falcon is already an Avenger, it seems fitting that the shield would pass to Bucky next.
In the comics, Bucky was only given the Captain America name after Steve Rogers died. Should this happen the same way in Avengers 3 or 4? Hopefully not, and since Steve Rogers did not die in Captain America: Civil War, unlike his comic book counterpart, it would seem that the MCU is taking a different approach to the character. In Captain America Vol. 7 Issue 25, Steve lost his superhuman strength and passed the Captain America name down to Falcon. Should this happen to the Steve Rogers we know and love? Again, it's not wise to kill or strip a hero of what makes him heroic. A disempowered Steve Rogers could be a scary thing to see in the MCU -- would he shrink back down to his original size? Would he rapidly age? He should be able to choose to pass down the shield, like Lightning McQueen's number, in a way that he's not weakened or emasculated, but empowered in his choice. The same way Tony Stark could cameo in future films, so could Steve. This would satisfy Evans' contract, but still keep his character and spirit alive in the MCU.
The same could be said for Thor, Hulk, Natasha, or Clint. They should all get the choice to step down and pass on their legacy. Not killing the core Avengers would also prevent the classic overuse of resurrection. Characters should be able to live out long lives and, if and when they do pass on, they should stay dead. Following the Cars 3 model solves all of these problems, keeps heroes heroic, and maintains an audience connection to both the new and legacy heroes.
What do you think? Should the MCU's original Avengers go out in a blaze of glory? Should they retire and go their separate ways? Should they stay on as Avenger mentors? If you saw Cars 3, do you think Lightning McQueen did the right thing in giving Cruz his number?