Once Avengers: Age of Ultron hits, the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes into Phase Three... and possibly the beginning of the end. The studio's biggest actors are under limited contracts, and those contracts will begin to expire in Phase Three. Chris Evans, for instance, has just two more movies left on his contract, and Captain America 3 will eat one of those up. Robert Downy Jr has one more film, and Chris Hemsworth is also entering the home stretch. Renegotiations can happen, but they would be costly and go against Marvel's general spirit of keeping things cheap.
Guardians of the Galaxy is the solution for Marvel; they've proven the brand is big enough that they can keep introducing new characters to take the places of older ones, and Phase Three will see Doctor Strange, Ant-Man and maybe Ms. Marvel trying to step in for the older franchises. But how does Marvel make the most of this changeover? Will all of the current Marvel franchises come to a basic end after Avengers 3?
Not exactly. Last week a rumor hit that Marvel was going to split Avengers 3 into two movies, and this would be how they would get around the ending of actors' contracts. I explained why that isn't possible, from a basic legal standpoint, but while doing some digging on this rumor I discovered it was closer to truth than I ever imagined. Marvel isn't spltting Avengers 3 into two movies, but they are planning Avengers 3 as the springboard to... something else. And they're going to use their biggest characters in that something else, keeping them out of Avengers 3.
Imagine an Avengers 3 without Thor or Captain America, maybe without Black Widow. It's a movie where the secondary characters from the MCU get to stand up and prove their worth, possibly even setting up their own spin-offs. With Guardians Marvel has shown that their brand is the star, and by the time we get to A3 clearly people will be on board with the entire universe. Keep Iron Man - Robert Downey Jr's renegotiated contract seems to specify Avengers 3 as his next film - and you have a new launching pad for characters to take over from the current big guns.
Storywise this is all easy to do - Cap will be very busy with the fallout of Captain America 3, and I wouldn't be shocked to see Steve Rogers give up the shield at the end of that movie. Thor 3 is going to wrap up all the Asgardian drama, and could very well end with Thor forced to sit on his father's throne. Black Widow is easy to write out on another adventure. Hulk... well, Hulk's planet of residence could well be up in the air by 2018 or so.
For the actors this is all good news. Chris Evans has been living in the Marvel Cinematic Universe non-stop for the last few years. A year off to pursue other projects could help soften him up for further negotiations. And this just whets the audience's appetite for what comes next, especially if what comes next hits theaters the very next year.
This next part is speculation, but what if the big guns sit out Avengers 3 so that Marvel can bring them in for a crossover movie? A huge, all-franchise crossover that could be called Marvel's Infinity Gauntlet or Marvel's Secret War? What if Avengers 3 isn't the conclusion of the Thanos story but just the spark that ignites it in the massive crossover film that brings all the Marvel characters - TV included - together in one film? That's the sort of next-level thinking we expect from the House of Cinematic Ideas at this point.
Like I said, that last bit is speculation, but the rest comes from sources close to the actors, who have been having scheduling discussions with Marvel. We're still a ways off from any of this being official, but this is all part of the plan that Kevin Feige and the creative committee hatched some time ago. I really think they're about to redefine blockbuster moviemaking again.