For as long as the Marvel Cinematic Universe lasts (and probably for some time after) fans will be wondering “What happens next?” That question has only become more pressing since the release of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, when Thanos, first introduced in 2012’s Avengers, finally met his doom (twice).
And now that the dust has settled on Eternals, which connects some major dots by way of (what else) two post-credit scenes, it’s time to ask the question again: Who is the next Thanos? Do we have any idea where this is all going? What happens next?
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Eternals.]
The nature of Hollywood — or at least of Hollywood hype — is that we have a pretty good idea of which heroes will carry on the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s all the heroes who’ve already debuted, of course, plus those who’re on their way. When you ask “What happens next?” about the MCU, the biggest unknown is in the villains.
And after a good seven years of build-up, culminating in the deaths of half of every living thing in the universe, it’s hard to see how Marvel ups the stakes from Thanos the Mad Titan.
But not impossible! And the Marvel films and television shows of 2021 have introduced their own candidates for the villain who could not only step into Thanos’ shoes, but exceed them.
Arishem the Judge
More than any other of Marvel’s Phase 4movies, Eternals feels like it’s laying groundwork for the future of the MCU as a whole, not just its own main characters. Marvel hasn’t announced a sequel, and it’s possible that it won’t. Eternals bucks the MCU formula of anchoring a franchises around actors without a lot of contract negotiating clout. Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek and all those other folks? It seems more likely we’ll see a series of cameos or supporting roles in other Marvel movies instead.
But the Eternals character who has the most potential for crossover is Arishem the Judge, the Prime Celestial. Now there’s a threat that’s bigger than Thanos, and not just in a literal sense. Thanos had to seize the power over time, space, and reality to enact his whims. But Celestials are born with it. Also, even in Marvel’s comics, the Celestials became more of a thing than the Eternals ever managed to be.
To top it all off, Eternals has already set Arishem’s return to judge humanity on Marvel’s future timeline.
Kang the Conqueror
But the MCU has other options for a bad guy so powerful they can threaten not just living creatures but the fabric of reality itself. This spring, the Disney Plus series Loki brought Kang the Conqueror into the Marvel Cinematic Universe fold.
Kang, or some incarnation of him (he only has — let me check my notes — one million of them) is a prime temporal threat to Marvel’s heroes in the comics. We also know that he’ll appear again, not just in the next season of Loki, but also in a future Marvel Film.
Ant-Man: Quantumainia, with Kang’s actor Jonathan Majors along for the ride, currently sits at the very most edge of Marvel’s announced lineup, a place ripe for a villain to ascend to a setting-wide threat.
Despite a prominent role in 2021’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Adam Warlock remains one of Marvel’s more esoteric characters. And while he might be a long-shot for a Thanos-level threat, the potential is still there.
James Gunn was gung-ho to bring Adam into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but has said that he eventually dropped him from the script for lack of time (references to Adam remain in the film’s credits sequences). Will Poulter has been cast to play him in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, so we know he’ll definitely appear.
And where there’s an Adam Warlock, there’s a Magus, Adam’s equally-if-not-more-powerful evil self, an immortal being capable of manipulating matter itself. That may not be on par with a galaxy ending threat like a Celestial, or a timeline shattering nasty like Kang — but, hey, we’re covering all our bases here!
We can’t say for certain who the next Thanos will be in the MCU, and it’ll probably be some time before we find out. But in the meantime, maybe we can enjoy some MCU movies that don’t all eventually point towards the same big purple weirdo.