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Marvel has the blueprints to keep its mega-franchise going for 100 years

Slowing down was never an option for comics, and that spirit will keep the MCU alive

Source images: Marvel Studios | Illustration: Will Joel/Polygon

To celebrate Polygon’s 10th anniversary, we’re rolling out a special issue: The Next 10, a consideration of what games and entertainment will become over the next decade from some of our favorite artists and writers. Here, Douglas Wolk, a pop culture critic, teacher, and the author of All of the Marvels, Reading Comics, and 33 1/3: Live at the Apollo, lays out why the grand Marvel movie experiment is here to stay — for the next 10 years and beyond.

How long can the Marvel Cinematic Universe keep up its juggling act? Thirty films, over a dozen live-action TV series, and almost 15 years in, it’s had one massively successful release after another — and every new one is accompanied by thinkpieces that ask when audiences will tire of them.

But that’s not a new question for Marvel as a company. Along with movie skeptics, there are also always people insisting that comic books are about to die; they’ve been singing that tune since new issues cost a dime.

Marvel Comics has been around, in one form or another, since 1939. The company has survived the sudden collapse of its distribution systems in 1957 and in 1997; the slow disappearance of newsstand sales that began in the 1980s; the creative brain-drain when its most popular artists left to form Image Comics in 1992; the Chapter 11 bankruptcy for which it filed in 1996; the popping of more than a few comics investment bubbles; and being shunted from corporate owner to corporate owner for decades before ending up under Disney’s umbrella. And Kevin Feige, overseer of the MCU, has learned more than a few things from Marvel’s comics division, not least of which are long-term survival strategies: balancing yearslong master plans with immediate agility, being willing to experiment, and connecting all of the individual stories it’s telling into one enormous narrative.

The next decade of the MCU is somewhat easy to predict; Marvel Studios has already scheduled most of the next four years’ worth of tentpoles, and hinted at what lies beyond. The recently released Wakanda Forever concluded what producer Kevin Feige calls “Phase Four” of the MCU, the introductory act of the “Multiverse Saga” that will run through 2026. Feige has suggested that the mercurial time-traveler Kang (played by Jonathan Majors, and first seen in the Loki TV show) is going to be a major presence in that sequence—the next Avengers movie, planned for May 2025, is subtitled The Kang Dynasty.

Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) in his red hero outfit without a helmet stands opposite of Kang (Jonathan Major) wearing purple armor and a green cape
Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Kang (Jonathan Majors) square off in February 2023’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Photo: Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios

Meanwhile, there’s a blitz of MCU material coming in the next two years: seven movies and at least another seven Disney Plus serials. Some of them are closely linked — 2024’s film Captain America: New World Order will follow up on last year’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And at least two of the TV series (Agatha: Coven of Chaos and Echo) are spinoffs from earlier shows, focused on characters who have appeared in comics but never headlined them.

The climax of the multiverse sequence, as it stands, is 2026’s Avengers: Secret Wars, a title that has a lot of resonance in Marvel’s comics. The handful of stories called “Secret Wars” over the years tend to involve big changes to familiar characters, as well as a more-or-less omnipotent being called the Beyonder, a place called Battleworld, and significant roles for Fantastic Four villains Doctor Doom and the Molecule Man. (The title, according to Marvel’s former editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, originated from Mattel putting together a line of Marvel action figures in the mid-’80s and telling him that “kids reacted positively to the words ‘wars’ and ‘secret.’”)

Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) in her purple uniform kneels on the ice of an ice skating rink while holding her bow, while christmas lights illuminate her from behind Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

And beyond Secret Wars? Where might the cinematic story go after expanding to infinite universes? It’s pretty evident that Marvel Studios is setting up some version of the Young Avengers, a team that’s appeared in comics intermittently since 2005. Eight of the characters associated with that group have already turned up in the MCU in some form: Kate Bishop (in Hawkeye), Eli Bradley (in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), America Chavez (in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), Cassie Lang (in the Ant-Man movies), Wanda Maximoff’s children Billy and Tommy (in WandaVision, and based on recent casting, its spinoff Agatha: Coven of Chaos), and Iron Lad and Kid Loki (both in Loki).

The only significant Young Avenger missing is the half-Kree/half-Skrull shape-changer Hulkling, and Secret Invasion and The Marvels will both present easy opportunities for him to debut. The Young Avengers, though, might not last long as an ongoing MCU franchise. The team’s members have to be, well, young, and actors age a lot more quickly than comic book characters. (Tom Holland, 25 years old when Spider-Man: No Way Home came out, was already looking a bit how-do-you-do-fellow-kids to play teenage Peter Parker.)

Meanwhile, outside the MCU proper, Sony is doing its damnedest to milk movies out of the Spider-Man extended cast, to which it still has film rights. Some of them have been sublime (if the Spider-Verse sequels are half as good as the first one, they’ll still be extraordinary); others have been ridiculous (it was never actually Morbin’ time, I’m afraid). Next year will see, in theory, both Kraven the Hunter and Madame Web lead their own tentpoles. But a lot of proposed Spider-adjacent projects have already run out of web-fluid — Silver & Black, Nightwatch, Jackpot — and others sound pretty iffy. If that El Muerto movie, starring Bad Bunny as a character who has appeared in two comic books ever, makes it as far as a screen, I will wonder what alternate timeline I’ve accidentally fallen into. There aren’t a lot of notable characters left for Sony to build solo vehicles for, either: Man-Wolf? Toxin? A gangster movie about Hammerhead, perhaps?

On the other hand, there’s one massive, still-untapped-by-the-MCU wellspring of characters and stories that’s now in Marvel Studios’ hands, and even She-Hulk made a point of asking about it on screen: the X-Men. It’s coming, and soon — the theme from the 1992 X-Men animated series has been worked into the soundtracks of several MCU projects when mutants have been mentioned, and there’s a persistent rumor that one of the antagonists in next year’s The Marvels is the X-Men’s Rogue.

Promo art for House of X #1, Marvel Comics (2019) with Professor X in a new futuristic helmet, a white Magneto, Jean Grey in a green dress, Wolverine, and Cyclops emerge from bramble on the mutant island of Krakoa
House of X #1
Marvel Comics

If you only know the X-Men from Fox’s movies, you may not suspect how deep that catalog gets, and how many characters it involves. Marvel Comics currently publishes 11 monthly X-Men-related titles, and that’s not even a record. 2019’s simultaneous miniseries House of X and Powers of X — the former about mutants establishing a nation of their own called Krakoa, the latter showing the X-Men’s secret past and what might become of them 100 and 1,000 years in the future, each triggering bombshell revelations in the other — set up seemingly endless story possibilities that have been playing out ever since. The current era of X-comics, focused on Krakoa becoming a global political force, could easily turn into a cluster of movies and TV shows and specials bigger even than the MCU in its current form.

I can easily imagine a late-2020s and early-2030s period where Marvel Studios mostly just focuses on mutants as they exist right now in comics. House of X and Powers of X movies released simultaneously in theaters would blow everyone’s minds. There could be epic Inferno and Here Comes Tomorrow and X of Swords movies, an X-Factor detective film, a Magik Halloween special, a gritty X-Force series, a Gambit and Rogue rom-com, a SWORD sci-fi show, an X-Terminators grindhouse flick. Back in 2018, Fox was planning a Kitty Pryde solo movie with the code name “143,” and the teenage X-heroine’s adventure from Uncanny X-Men #143, in which she’s on the run from a Xenomorph-ish demon, would make a hell of a 90-minute thriller.

Beyond the X-cast, though, there aren’t a lot of A-list protagonists who haven’t already turned up in the MCU. Adam Warlock is finally arriving next May in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, after 10 years of hints. There are a host of supernatural characters who might appear in contexts like this year’s Werewolf by Night Halloween special: the Living Mummy, Ghost Rider, Son of Satan. Amadeus Cho, aka the Totally Awesome Hulk, has yet to be seen on screen, although his mother, Helen Cho, briefly turned up in Age of Ultron. Squirrel Girl and Gwenpool and Moon Girl are delightful on the page, but no more suited to live action than, say, Bugs Bunny. Beyond those... Well, I suppose it’s possible that someone could make an incredible Skull the Slayer or Deathlok movie, but I’m not holding my breath.

If the MCU period leading up to 2032 has to culminate in another huge boss fight, the easy route to go would be to find an even more imposing villain. Fantastic Four and its associated characters joining the cinematic universe means that Galactus, an ageless, infinitely powerful entity who’s planning on devouring the Earth, is in play, and so is his angsty alien herald, the Silver Surfer. But the premise of the just-concluded Judgment Day comics event, which teams up the Avengers, the X-Men and the Eternals, could be the basis for a better movie. Despite its enormous action set-pieces, it’s less about its Big Bad (one of the giant robot space gods from Eternals) than about its characters evaluating their own lives in the shadow of annihilation.

Red light from above vaporizes agonized human figures into skeletons, as the small figure of Captain America futilely raises his shield to protect another in AXE: Judgment Day #4 (2022).
AXE: Judgment Day #4
Image: Kieron Gillen, Valerio Schiti/Marvel Comics

Meanwhile, the comics that spawned all of those stories have been pressing onward, and the industry around them has emerged from pandemic chaos in remarkably good shape. Besides, even if Marvel Comics wasn’t profitable, it’d still make sense for Disney to keep funding it for its value as an R&D division. Compared to the nine-digit budgets of movies — the last three Avengers films are three of the four most expensive ever made — comics are outrageously cheap to produce. (If 29 out of 30 new titles flop and the other one is Ms. Marvel, that’s still a worthwhile investment in intellectual property.) X-Men editor Jordan D. White noted in a recent interview that Marvel Studios’ attitude toward the comics group is “[w]e want you to stay 5-10 years ahead of us because we want you to be doing fun and interesting stuff that we can do down the line.”

Print comics aren’t going away anytime soon — their readers are deeply devoted to them as physical objects — but digital comics are continuing to grow, too. (Marvel is currently releasing half a dozen or so new stories created for the Webtoons-like “vertical scroll on your phone” format every week.) I also bet that the recent success of Miles Morales: Shock Waves means we’re going to be seeing a lot more middle-grade and young-adult original graphic novels, and fan enthusiasm for adventurous artists like Peach Momoko and Jeffrey Veregge suggests that the range of visual styles in mainstream comics will be widening further.

As for whether there will be more new breakout characters like Miles or Kamala Khan, that’s less certain: They’ve been notoriously hard to establish for a few decades now. Nonetheless, the writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Valerio Schiti are currently working on a secret project that Hickman has described as “Sandman for the Marvel Universe.” Given Hickman’s record as the cleverest long-term planner of Marvel’s past decade, it’s likely to set at least some of the comics line’s direction for the years to come.