It must be nice to be Robert Downey Jr.
Not least because you’re, you know, Robert Downey Jr., but because you got to be there at the start of something special. You got to be there right at the very beginning of what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the MCU for anyone not on Twitter or watching YouTube about this very topic on the regular. Seriously. That phrase, while overused online, has much less weight in the very normal, not weird, real world. Try it. Say it to your grandma and see if she knows what it means.
And if she does, give that grandmother props because, wow. Impressive.
So Loki, the Disney+ series about a time-hopping god of mischief and his many, many, MANY horned versions of himself, has come to a close. Speaking of close! Getting this blog out in time to make sure it hits all those algorithmic numbers because, hey, we’re all slaves to the big machine now. (If you want a deeper dive into how we’re playing for an audience of one and that audience is really a computer with a gross underwear fetish then check out Jason Pargin’s newest post and subscribe to his newsletter here.) The series has been a real treat, possibly my favorite out of the first three offered on the streaming network. Hiddleston is giving us a masterclass in whether a villain can really change while the music, atmosphere, and The Wilson, are all shining.
But is has got me wondering: What is all this setting up for the MCU in Phase 4?
For the uninitiated, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been broken up into various phases, each moving the needle in terms of box office numbers and story progression. Phase 1 introduced us to the main stars of the original Avengers team (Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, and Other Chris’ Thor). From there, we moved into Phase 2, which expanded the universe, bringing in more characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man, while Phase 3 was a mixture of Phase 2 (new characters) and bringing it all to a close with the massive Infinity War saga.
But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, they’re still making movies.
Iron Man is dead. Captain America is old. Thor left the Earth. So, where does that leave those left behind?
I think they’re already telling us. And I think they’ve done this before. And I think it’s fairly easy to do.
First, let me talk about where I think they’re mining inspiration for this next few years worth of films.
A few years ago, six if my math is right, Marvel published an astonishing story written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by a slew of amazingly talented artists called Secret Wars. Before publication, Hickman had been writing the main Avengers book, Avengers, and its companion book, New Avengers, for about 3 years at that point. In it, he was telling the story of two teams of, let’s call them, “heroes.”
The first (on the left) was the biggest Avengers team ever assembled. Iron Man and Captain America realized the threats they were dealing with were getting bigger and more chaotic, so they met to assemble and build the greatest team of Avengers ever. And WHOO BOY they weren’t kidding. This team was so strong that THOR and the HULK were the most balanced in terms of power. Every storyline was an Infinity War-level threat, and each issue was massive in scope and scale. Something was happening out in the universe, bringing these threats to Earth, and they wanted to be ready.
The other series (on the right) focused on a very different group of “heroes,” called The Illuminati. Originally introduced in 2005’s New Avengers series then given their very own book called Illuminati, this group of Marvel figureheads (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Mister Fantastic, Black Panther, The Beast, Namor, and Black Bolt) all meet to discuss the fate of the Marvel Universe. Literally, because they’re dealing with something even bigger than anything anyone has ever encountered:
The death of existence.
See, Earths (note the plural use) are collapsing and colliding into one another. For fans of Into the Spider-Verse, you’re well aware that the existence of other Earths is a very real thing in comic books. Except now they’re smashing into one another, completely erasing the entire reality attached to it. How do you stop something on that cosmic of a scale without losing your humanity?
Two very different books. One very real goal.
The Secret Wars.
Now, again, MAJOR SPOILERS RIGHT HERE, but they fail. They fail to stop the death of all existence and everything falls apart and dies…
… until Doctor Doom, that brilliant villain whom the movies have never treated right, grabs power, setting himself up as King Doom In Charge Of All The Cosmos. (He probably calls himself something different but we all know that’s what he’s calling himself in his head.)
With this power he sets up something called Battleworld, a mishmash of all the broken Earths and realities left over, putting himself at the very top as king, equipped with his own army of Thors he sends to handle any riots or disturbances and oh man aren’t comic books the best?!
Battleworld itself is its own kind of crazy pie, established as a world where anything can and does happen, filled with stories and realities from westerns to sci-fi to alternate futures to all the good stuff in the middle.
What does all this have to do with Loki, a series about a god falling in love with himself?
It has everything to do with it.
People like to be set in their ways. They like to have a certain sense of comfort around what they know and write off what they don’t. This is extremely true in the case of comic books, where an artist change on a book or a new person being cast in the role of an iconic character can bring on disdain, lack of interest, and worst of all, lack of spending. You have to let the audience know their invested time and emotion in these fictional characters matter.
And Robert Downey Jr. ain’t getting any younger.
Doesn’t mean he doesn’t look good for his age, but, you know, it’s hard to be 60 and still play a character getting knocked around in front of a green screen. Dave Bautista has already gone on record saying he’ll play Drax one more time because it’s getting harder and harder to stay in Drax-shape, saying, “Drax isn’t going anywhere. He just won’t be played by this dude!…by the time G3 comes out I’ll be 54 yrs old for gods sake!…im expecting everything to start sagging any second now.
And he’s not the only one. Hemsworth. Rudd. Saldana. These actors aren’t action figures. They will change with time. Maybe they’re ready to move on, fulfilled in what they’ve filmed. Or, in the case of Big Dave, don’t want to go on a low-carb diet once a year for six months to get into super hero shape. (Let them eat cake!) Unfortunately, you can’t just have the person remain the same age in a vat of embalming fluid forever. They want to do other things with their lives.
So how do you recast them? Answer: You don’t.
Not in the traditional way.
See, that’s where I think MCU Phase 4 is taking us. To The Secret Wars. Everything that Marvel’s done, starting in the early days, was to help its audience become more and more accepting of what was to come. Have you gone back and watched the first Iron Man film recently? If not, he uses his repulsor rays (the lasers that go pew-pew from his hands), like, three times in the movie. He doesn’t even use them in the film’s action-filled climax! Why?
Because when that movie came out we were still deep in Dark Knight “everything has to be real or no one will believe it” territory. They were scared of showing us everything Iron Man could do. Even the first Thor film took place MOSTLY IN NEW MEXICO because they were scared of showing us this otherworldly plane of existence for fear of losing the audience.
You have to ease the audience in. Show them you care about their feelings, their experiences, and guide them there. And getting someone else to play Iron Man feels like a crime after the performances Downey Jr. turned in film after film after film
…Unless we see a dozen other people in the Iron Man suit. Or, maybe an entire army of Thors?
I started thinking about these Disney+ series and what they were trying to tell us. First, WandaVision. Wanda rewrites reality around her, showcasing that this world we live in is not as solid as we thought.
Then, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, while grounded in a more realistic style, demonstrated that different people could wear the Captain America suit. In this case, John Walker and Sam Wilson, respectively.
Finally, Loki feels like the biggest piece of evidence for the final movie in Phase 4 being “Secret Wars.” Lots and lots and lots of Lokis. Different Lokis from across all the different timelines. It’s not just Tom Hiddleston anymore. It could be anyone.
Much in the same way Infinity War was the final product after Phase 3, I’m calling my shot now that Secret Wars is the final product at the end of this tunnel. You do a movie where the multiverse collapses. Hundreds of different versions of the characters we’ve gotten to love and know appear. Then, at the very end, when the heroes win against the threat (whatever it is) you get to do the biggest reset ever.
A year or so later, in our time, you release a new movie called “Iron Man.”
Thanks for reading,