If the superheroes headlining the new Marvel movies sound unfamiliar, don't worry. You're not alone. Marvel's third phase of films stretches beyond the mainstream heroes into the stranger, more perplexing and arguably more ambitious characters.
At last week's grand unveiling, the studio laid out its plans for the next five years. By 2019, we'll have gone through a whopping 10 new films, all expanding on what came before them in the Marvel film mythos and all in service of creating a movie universe vaster than anything we've ever seen in theaters. Since Marvel wants to own every last screen worth paying attention to, it's asking us all to invest fully into what's even now an incredibly dense canon.
If any of us hope to keep up, we can't just watch the movies — we'll have to study them to even understand them. Magic, galactic warfare and multiple dimension will, if Marvel has its way, become normal topics of conversation. Basically, we're all about to become The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy.
The world is not enough
Before we start, take a deep breath. If you haven't been paying attention up until now, here is where you need to consider the current superhero movie status quo and all it has achieved. It's a lot to take in.
Marvel has an expansive universe to draw from, but most of its recognizable heroes are Earthbound. The same holds true for its movies. Our heroes, for the most part, are humans who become superhuman in one way or another, dealing with unimaginable threats in just one corner of a vast shared cosmos. Marvel has so far been assiduously strategic in building that cosmos out, giving us looks of the worlds that lie beyond our solar system while always grounding us on our home planet.
Earth is going to start feeling much smaller
In Thor and its sequel, we saw Asgard and the Nine Realms, but Midgard (read: Earth) was the key to the action. In Avengers, we got the Chitauri and our first glimpse of Thanos, the mad Titan, but New York was the battlefield — as if to say New York City is a metropolis our neighbors in the next star system over might actively pay attention to. And in Guardians of the Galaxy, while we saw Xandar and the Nova Empire, Knowhere, the Kyln, and a whole host of new alien races and important figures, the beating heart of the film itself — its soundtrack — is Earth's classic rock.
We shouldn't at all expect Earth to stop being the focal point for the action going forward. After all, we still have hyperlocal characters like Daredevil and Iron Fist that'll soon inhabit this world via Netflix. But the fact is Earth is going to start feeling much smaller as we delve deeper not only into alien worlds and cultures, but also whole other dimensions opened up by both alien science and magic.
No two characters make that clearer right now than Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange, both of whom will likely help fill out the Avengers roster after Age of Ultron. Scarlet Witch is able to manipulate reality itself by sheer will. She's done it in the comics, and while we can only guess at the extent of her powers in the films, it can be assumed that her power won't see the same limits as, say, Captain America's. Doctor Strange, a master of mysticism and the dark arts, is far from the most recognizable character in Marvel's stable, but he's also one of the single most powerful human beings on Earth, able to walk in whole other planes of existence. He's called the Sorcerer Supreme for a reason.
Their introduction only hints at what's coming ahead. Make no mistake: Ultron will present the greatest existential threat the Avengers will have faced to date, but there are far greater powers out there, even if the citizens of Earth don't have a clue what they look like. Before long, places that were once remote and walled off will be put on a collision course, and the impact will be Earth-shattering.
All roads lead to Thanos
So that gets us to mid-2015 in Marvel's lengthy release timeline. From there, Marvel's Phase 3 begins and things get more complex.
Since the very first Avengers, Marvel has been teasing that humanity is now verging on a higher form of war, the kind of war that doesn't split countries but splits whole worlds. That war is coming in the form of the Infinity War, and Thanos will be leading the charge against life itself when he finally manages to gather the six Infinity Stones, objects of reality-altering power that were created before the universe even existed. We know just a handful of them: Loki's scepter; the Tesseract; the Aether; the Power Stone. Having all of them confers godhood on the owner — which is a bad thing when you're a death-loving Titan like Thanos.
It's clear that Marvel wants to throw everything it can at a threat like Thanos. That it even can is thanks in no small part to the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, which did double duty by blowing Marvel Cosmic Universe wide open and proving that even lesser-known heroes can win big at the box office. We know by now that the Avengers roster is changing — as it must, since Robert Downey, Jr.'s contract will be up very soon. With Captain America and Iron Man taking each other on in Captain America: Civil War, other characters will need to step in after the dust settles, especially as bigger threats and more powerful allies like Ant-Man continue to debut.
Black Panther and Captain Marvel are important
With this in mind, fans should rejoice that they finally have Black Panther and Captain Marvel joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The rest of us will have to study up on who they are and what they represent, because, even taking into account the importance of diversity in its films, Marvel would have been foolish to exclude them. Black Panther is important. If Iron Man and Captain America are at each other's throats, T'Challa, one of the smartest and most capable Marvel characters, can step in to fill the void either one of them leaves behind. Captain Marvel is important. Carol Danvers derives her power from the Kree, yet another race of aliens an the ever expanding universe (that were also mentioned in Guardians), giving us a link to the far flung worlds closer to Thanos' current sphere of influence. She's one of the strongest characters in the Marvel Universe period, and even lead the Avengers against Ultron at one point.
And that's even before we reach the Inhumans, a race of technologically advanced humans mutated by the Kree to be beyond peak human potential. I'm not gonna get into them right now since their movie is so far off and because I have the sense your head is spinning.
None of this is especially easy to parse if you haven't basically lived inside a comic book shop for the last decade or spent a good amount of money on Comixology. But come 2019, all of this will be put on a razor's edge, and the fireworks will be unlike anything we've seen to date. So if you want to make it all the way to Infinity War Part 2, you're not gonna be able to miss much from here on out. If you're in, welcome to the next stage of nerddom. If not, best of luck making sense of anything ahead.