The Marvel Cinematic Universe is exploding, and it shows no signs of stopping

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With the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 last weekend, Marvel is now 15 films into its grand Cinematic Universe experiment. The studio is only a third of the way through Phase Three, a planned 10-film cycle scheduled to end with the fourth Avengers movie in 2019. But Marvel’s efforts keep expanding, becoming more ambitious and wide-reaching across different media and genres. Not every studio can turn a movie like Captain America: Civil War into both a superhero free-for-all and a thoughtful examination of ideologies. And now that it’s gifted with directors like Doctor Strange’s Scott Derrickson and Thor: Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi, its newest movies and TV spinoffs can be bigger, odder, and more visually distinct than the franchise experiments studios like Warner Bros. are trotting out.

And there’s every reason in the world to expect things to get bigger across all Marvel’s content platforms. New TV projects are being announced at an alarming clip. Producer Kevin Feige recently hinted that the next step in the MCU will be “very, very different.” Even the plentiful Easter eggs in the new Guardians are proof that the Marvel universe still has so much more to explore.

So what’s the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Let’s take a look:

Spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ahead.

The Power Cosmic

Back in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark, still shaken by the Chitauri invasion from the original Avengers movie, decides to build a “suit of armor” around Earth to protect it from interstellar threats he could scarcely imagine. “A hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space, and we’re standing 300 feet below it. We’re the Avengers,” he says. “We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day, but that up there? That’s the endgame.”

He’s right, but he has no idea how right. The Cosmic Marvel Universe has been creeping steadily toward the forefront of the MCU for years, thanks to Thanos, Thor, the Infinity Stones, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, with Doctor Strange in the fold, Hulk on a planet of alien gladiators in Thor: Ragnarok, the discovery of the Microverse in Ant-Man, and the promised arrival of Captain Marvel in 2019, it’s clear that Earth is just one location in a far grander reality.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did a lot of heavy lifting in this area, hinting at stories that are sure to play out during and after Infinity War. First, Sylvester Stallone’s turn as Stakar / Starhawk and the appearance of Aleta Ogord (Michelle Yeoh), Charlie-27 (Ving Rhames), Martinex (Michael Rosenbaum), and Mainframe (Miley Cyrus) all point toward the future debut of the original Guardians of the Galaxy. Back in 1969, Marvel’s Guardians were superheroes from the 31st century. Director James Gunn recently told the Toronto Sun that Vol. 3 of the Guardians franchise will complete the story following Star-Lord and his crew, but that Stakar will have a place in the MCU. What that will look like remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Guardians 2 teases the arrival of galactic messiah Adam Warlock, which could mean major things for the post-Infinity War MCU. Warlock is one of the most powerful beings in the Marvel universe, and he’s an integral figure in the battle against Thanos in the original Infinity Gauntlet comics storyline from 1991. Gunn recently told IGN that he’ll play a role after Infinity War, but introducing a being who can reshape reality itself suggests that the Marvel Cinematic storyline is going to continue to increase in scope, far past the level of the heroes’ previous adventures.

Smaller Stories for Smaller Heroes

None of this is to say that Earth’s heroes don’t matter. On the contrary, Earth is still the crux of Marvel’s storytelling. However, fans are starting to see more stories featuring street-level superheroes at the movies, and especially on television. Spider-Man: Homecoming will feature Marvel’s flagship superhero taking his first solo outing in the MCU, but with the trailer teasing Spidey taking on the Vulture instead of someone like Galactus, it’s easy to expect that Homecoming will be more about preserving one metropolitan area than saving the entire world. Meanwhile, this summer’s The Defenders crossover on Netflix will finally bring Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist together in one miniseries, giving them the chance to save New York City from corporate overlords and their undead ninjas.

An Avengers-style team-up event on TV is already a big deal for Marvel. Even bigger than that, though, is the fact that each of these shows has introduced one or two beloved characters that could wind up getting their own spinoffs. The first side series, a Punisher series spun off of Netflix’s Daredevil, is already planned for a 2017 debut. But there are boundless other possibilities on Netflix. Diehards could get a Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat miniseries starring Rachael Taylor, who already showed how badass she was in her supporting role on Jessica Jones. Luke Cage’s Misty Knight and Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing certainly deserve a Marvel Team-Up-style event. Hell, a Heroes for Hire team-up featuring Luke Cage and Iron Fist might be the best thing to happen to both characters.

That’s all hypothetical, though, based entirely on where these characters have been over the course of decades of comics continuity. What’s already scheduled for the small screen is no less exciting. In 2018, Hulu is getting Runaways, based on Brian K. Vaughan’s Eisner award-winning series of the same name. Also in 2018, Freeform is getting both the superhero / teen romance series Cloak and Dagger and New Warriors, a full-fledged comedy starring fan-favorite Squirrel Girl. And this fall, ABC is getting Inhumans, which promises to not only bring one of the weirder corners of the Marvel universe to television — we’re talking space royalty living on Earth after being mutated by aliens — but also expands on storylines established in Agents of SHIELD.

A Changing of the Guard

All this comes at a time when Marvel’s core stars are approaching the tentative end of their contracts. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth together make up what might as well be Marvel’s Holy Trinity in Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, and they’re all coming up on the end of their respective duties. Right now it isn’t clear where any of them will be beyond the fourth Avengers movie. RDJ’s contract currently extends through Homecoming and Infinity War, so it’s unclear whether he’ll appear in the fourth Avengers movie. Evans made headlines by saying that, after Avengers 4, his contract is up, though he’s open to more movies as Cap. And Hemsworth’s final three movies are Ragnarok and both Avengers follow-ups.

Contracts can always be renegotiated, and Marvel has yet to announce who will appear in any of the post-Infinity War films. But if the MCU does lose its original three pillars, that means big changes are coming, and new superheroes will have to fill the voids they leave behind. Questions like “Who will take up Cap’s shield?” will need answering. The comics offer plenty of options: Rogers’ successor could be Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) or Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Will Stark be replaced by Riri Williams? Will Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) return to take up Mjolnir? There’s no way to know yet. But newly added MCU heroes like Black Panther, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Scarlet Witch all present new and fascinating story opportunities going forward. It’s possible we’ll see the New Avengers at some point, with underexplored characters like Scarlet Witch and Vision teaming up with the likes of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Feige has also hinted that the TV shows and movies will finally begin to cross over in more powerful ways in the years ahead. We just don’t know, but the future is wide open.

There’s also the hope that Marvel might someday reclaim the film rights to some of its other major superhero properties. 20th Century Fox isn’t likely to let the lucrative X-Men rights revert to Marvel anytime soon, but the two studios are now working more closely on TV projects like Legion and the upcoming mutant series The Gifted. And given how poorly its Fantastic Four films have been received, its execs might be tempted to let those rights slide, if enough money was involved.

Marvel has seven more films on the way in Phase Three, and time is giving fans a clearer picture of what to expect from those films, and from the further adventures of the House of Ideas. The studio is attempting to dominate on the big and small screen, and it’s now confident it can do so with an ever-growing cast of loosely connected characters. It’s already hard for savvy culture-watchers to avoid Marvel’s sprawling properties, and after 2019, it may be even harder. But, if Marvel keeps creating content broad enough to please newcomers, yet specific enough to make fans happy — in other words, if its output is strong (barring a few notable exceptions) — the vast majority of audiences probably won’t mind. All of which is to say, the studio needs to get moving on that Black Widow movie already.

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