It's something of an understatement to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown since its introduction, and continues to get bigger and bigger with each new release. On Netflix, the first episodic crossover is about to arrive in The Defenders, and on the silver screen, we’re about to get the first movie with a black superhero headline (Black Panther), the first movie with a female superhero headlining (Captain Marvel), and the first good Thor movie (OK, that one's a bit of a personal opinion). And then, there’s Avengers: Infinity War (and its untitled sequel), which promise to give audiences the biggest, most interesting, and expansive movies in the entire MCU. In short, everything’s looking up for Marvel.
Well, maybe not everything. See, after Avengers: Infinity War (and its sequel), a bunch of different actors’ contracts are going to be up, which leaves Marvel Studios with a conundrum: what to do with their characters? This is not a new problem, but proposed solutions have been few and far between. Some suggest recasting the heroes (which, admittedly, has been done before, successfully even) or killing them off in a spectacular blaze of glory. There's even the option of doing a soft reboot of the entire MCU, but there's no way that would happen (right?). The truth is, Marvel most likely won’t go with any of these options to solve its contracting woes.
The most obvious, a likely best idea is to focus on the newer superheroes like Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, the Wasp, Captain Marvel, but that doesn’t actually answer the question of what to do with Marvel’s older superheroes. You can’t just ignore Iron Man and Captain America, after all -- something needs to be done with them. And the simplest way to do that is... by not dealing with them.
After The Incredible Hulk failed to set the box office on fire, the Hulk just faded into the background. He came back as an Avenger, with an entirely different actor in the role, and he hasn’t had a solo movie since. Instead, he's a founding member of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, had a brief, non-green appearance in Iron Man 3, was notably absent during Captain America: Civil War, and will make a violent return in Thor: Ragnarok. Even without the benefit of a solo film, the hero has been kept alive, active and vital to the MCU. Not focusing on him, arguably, has improved the universe by saying, “Hey, look, there are interesting stories happening all the time, even when Character X isn't involved.” And this is, to our mind, the best way to handle the end of actors’ contracts; don’t kill them off, don’t recast them, don’t even necessarily make them legacies -- just write the films so their characters are doing other things, or re-up contracts for smaller, less schedule-consuming roles.
It can work -- it has worked. Tony Stark hasn’t had his own movie since 2013. That’s four years, but none of us have felt his absence because he kept appearing and being mentioned in other movies, even though he didn’t have his own flick. He starred in The Avengers films, had a major role in Civil War, and is appearing in Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s that last one that’s most important, though.
His role in Homecoming is the perhaps the perfect example of what to do with all of these older heroes after Avengers: Infinity War and its untitled sequel: keep them around, but in the background, and let other, newer heroes come to the forefront. That way we can get a new generation of awesome characters, which will expand the MCU, without forgetting all of the heroes who made the MCU what it is.
For example, when Chris Evans’ contract is up, just have him be a mentor to other heroes. Sure, Evans is pretty much done making superhero flicks, but considering how much Steve Rogers means to him, there's a good chance Marvel could talk him into making smaller, yet crucial appearances a la Nick Fury. After all, that's basically what happened with Robert Downey, Jr. Dealing with the actors’ inevitable exits this way would help expand the MCU even further -- instead of having one central series around which all of the other films revolve around, you could have several “families” of movies, similar to how comic books work nowadays.
There could be a Captain America family of movies, for example, featuring Black Widow, Winter Soldier, Falcon and more, with Steve Rogers as the go-between. Then there could be Iron Man-based movies, starring War Machine and Ironheart. (Make it happen, Marvel!) The films could spill outward, crossing over in Avengers films with updated rosters, in the process making the MCU larger, more diverse, and more astounding.
Marvel Studios isn’t going to stop anytime soon (and why should it?), but it needs to figure out a way to keep expanding while honoring (and profiting off of) the past. This solution -- the Hulk method -- makes the most sense. It keeps the older heroes around, allowing Marvel to continue to sell merchandise of them, and keep them around for cameos. And if Marvel plays its cards right, perhaps it'll eventually be able to talk of the older actors into returning to their tights at some point for an ultra-crossover Avengers film.
Even if this the studio goes about it in a different manner than the way we're discussing, there's some evidence that Marvel will be branching out and making "families" of films. Marvel Studios President Kevin Fiege has said, multiple times, that after Avengers: Infinity War (and its sequel) the MCU will change forever. He's also referred to James Gunn as being in charge of the cosmic side of the MCU, indicating the potential development of it becoming its own self-contained mini-cinematic Universe. But that's just a guess; we're not positive that Gunn will become the head of his own mini Universe. But if it does happen, what's to stop Marvel (other than logistics) from crafting some sort of Defenders/Avengers crossover, or even hammering out contractual details to get a massive Spider-Verse/MCU event?
Of course, there’s a chance Marvel won’t do any of this. Maybe Marvel will just send all of its heroes to a pocket dimension and give us a Teenage Tony Stark in an effort to appeal to the kids. But let’s pray that never happens... again.