Phase One of Marvel's comic book movie plan was one of the most ambitious movie projects ever undertaken. After the success of "Iron Man," the comics company-turned-film studio, who had started financing their own films, started putting together a four-year-plan that would see an "Iron Man" sequel, as well as introductions to "Thor" and "Captain America," that would lead into team-up movie "The Avengers." And boy, did it pay off. All the films were hits individually, before "The Avengers" became a phenomenon this spring, taking nearly $1.5 billion worldwide to date, making it the third-biggest-grossing film of all time.
The studio already has work underway on their post-"Avengers" plans. "Iron Man 3" is in the midst of production, for a release next summer. But, in case you had any doubt, the company used their panel on Saturday at Comic-Con to fully unveil what they call Phase Two — their films for the next few years, which are expected to lead into "The Avengers" sequel a few years down the line (though nothing's official on that yet). After "Iron Man 3" hits next May, "Thor: The Dark World" will follow in November, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" in April 2014, new property "Guardians of the Galaxy" in August of that year, and Edgar Wright's "Ant-Man" will arrive down the line too.
So what did we learn about the projects from the presentation and unveiling in Hall H? And what can we guess and hypothesize from the bare hints on display? We've delved into all five upcoming films to tell you what the announcements mean, and what to expect from the movies between now and 2015. Read on for more.
"Iron Man 3"
Marvel's next picture, and the furthest along, has already had quite a few details leak out so far, but the biggest news came in the confirmation (long-assumed), that Ben Kingsley would be playing Tony Stark's arch-nemesis The Mandarin in the film. Hinted at since the first film, some had assumed the character wouldn't figure after director Shane Black dismissed him as a "racist caricature," but clearly a new take has been found, with Kingley's voice ominously narrating over the promo footage: "Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher. Lesson number one: Heroes. There is no such thing. As you cry out for mercy, you will be silenced."
In the comics, the character was born into a wealthy family in pre-Revolutionary China, but his parents died soon after his birth, and he was raised by a bitter aunt, who trained him in science and technology. Stripped of his inheritance by the Communist authorities, he discovered the skeleton of a long-dead alien, and studied the technology left behind, including ten rings with mysterious powers, which along with his genius and powerful strength, led him to try to take over the world, clashing with Iron Man countless times over the years.
We imagine the character will be more down to earth in the film version, and it's not yet clear how he'll fit into the rest of the plot. Black confirmed that Guy Pearce is playing the role of Aldrich Killian, and Rebecca Hall is Maya Hansen, both characters who featured in Warren Ellis' "Extremis" run in the comics, which focused on nanotechnology. But a few brief shots aside (along with a confirmation that War Machine's new armor is red, white & blue, modelled after the Iron Patriot character), that side of things wasn't really developed. We're sure more will be revealed before too long — expect a trailer around Thanksgiving to give a bit more away.
"Thor: The Dark World"
Despite it being the next film to go into production, word on the "Thor" sequel is still pretty much under wraps, with the title announcement the only part of the presentation that really referred to the film. As best as we can tell, 'The Dark World' doesn't refer directly to any existing part of the "Thor" comics, although it could be a reference to Dark Elves, a powerful race who've been recurring Thor villains since the 1980s, ruled over by the evil Malekitch the Accursed, along with his right-hand man Algrim The Strong (later transformed into a more powerful being called Kurse by super-powerful villain The Beyonder). Rumors have pegged popular villains The Enchantress and The Executioner (the latter thought to be the one that Mads Mikkelsen was in talks for before dropping out) to be the antagnonists in the sequel, but could the Dark Elves be the real villain here?
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"
Unlike with "Thor," Marvel were a little more revealing with their subtitle for the "Captain America" sequel, making it pretty clear where the plot will be heading. The Winter Soldier is an alias of Bucky Barnes, Cap's best pal, as played by "Gossip Girl" star Sebastian Stan in the first film, and last seen falling off a train to his apparent demise. In the comics, Bucky seemingly perished in the same incident which freezes Steve Rogers, but in a recent plot twist written by Ed Brubaker, it turns out, in fact, that his body (minus an arm he lost in an explosion) was found by a Soviet submarine, and taken back to the USSR, where he's rehabilitated, albeit with a total loss of memory, and trained to be an assassin.
Kept in cryogenic stasis between missions (hence not aging much), Bucky, codenamed The Winter Soldier, becomes a ruthless killer (and at one stage, has a relationship with Black Widow, suggesting we might be seeing Scarlett Johansson cropping up in the film). He finally crosses paths with his old friend after killing hundreds in a terrorist attack in Philadelphia in the present day, stealing a Cosmic Cube, and kidnapping Sharon Carter, SHIELD agent, and niece of Cap's wartime love Peggy Carter — indicating that Hayley Atwell may have another role in the follow-up. Rogers eventually confronts Bucky, bringing back his memories, and, feeling guilty for his past actions, he teams up with his old friend, and joins S.H.I.E.L.D. In the comics' continuity, he actually takes up the mantle of Captain America after Steve Rogers was assassinated, but that would be a fairly bold move for the film to take.
Either way, it seems like we're looking at an extended role for Stan in the film, although we suspect that it won't be strictly villainous, with another baddie — a returning Red Skull? Arnim Zola? Baron Zemo? — pulling the strings behind the scenes. Either way, it gives a nice emotional heft to the plot, which can only be a good thing.
The big surprise up Marvel's sleeve, cunningly aided by some smokescreen tweets from director Edgar Wright claiming he was in London, was the official announcement of their long-in-the-works "Ant-Man" movie, and the debut of the test footage that Wright shot a couple of months back. Exciting stuff indeed (and the footage was apparently pretty swell), but it feels like the one point of the Marvel presentation where the studio dropped the ball — it was only clear that the film had been announced when a press release appeared online after the presentation, and it still doesn't have a release date.
Wright gets underway on "The World's End" in October, so he could theoretically be ready to move onto "Ant-Man" by October 2014, and the script (co-written with Joe Cornish) seems to be good to go, but would he be happy to go straight into a second, even bigger shoot without a break in between? The director's generally left three years between films. It also remains to be seen whether this a priority for Marvel pre-"Avengers 2" — if "Guardians of the Galaxy" is anything to go by, they seem to be going for a bigger, intergalactic scope for the second "The Avengers" flick. Could "Ant-Man" fit into those plans? Our gut says that "Ant-Man" will be the direct lead in to "The Avengers 2," probably landing in April/May 2015 before a team-up movie sequel in July. But of course, that leads to whether or not Joss Whedon will return, which is still unclear.
As for "Ant-Man" himself, it's not certain which exact take on the character Wright is aiming for — although there've been indications in the past that he'll include both the original Henry Pym and the more modern Scott Lang. We're also likely some way off from any casting announcements; don't expect anything until "The World's End" is in the can.
"Guardians Of The Galaxy"
Although the cat was out of the bag a little while ago, Marvel officially set their cosmic "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie for August 1, 2014, (which was all but confirmed before). But the bigger revelation was the unveiling of the first concept art from the film, which confirmed the line-up of the characters, which leans towards the 2008 reboot of the comic, rather than earlier incarnations. And that shit is cray.
Given that these characters include a talking racoon and a plant person, we're looking at the literal polar opposite of Christopher Nolan's grounded superhero movies, and Marvel's most out-there film to date. And while there's as yet no announcement of a filmmaker taking on the project (take a look at some of our guesses here), the reveal of the characters does give a little something away.
Star-Lord (center, with masks and guns), a character who dates back to the 1970s before forming the new "Guardians of the Galaxy" more recently, has the real name of Peter Quill, a human orphan from a troubled background (his father died trying to kill him, his mother was murdered by an alien) who grew up to be an astronaut, stealing the position of intergalactic Star-Lord from a colleague. He's a combat expert with a wide knowledge of alien races and societies, a special suit that lets him travel through space, an 'Element Gun' and a psychic link to his sentient space-ship, entitled Ship. In the modern era, he wears a battle suit given to him by alien race the Kree, and uses their sub-machine guns in combat.
Then there's Gamora (far right, with the big-ass sword), who should have a personal connection to the story, as the adopted daughter of Thanos, the purple-skinned villain unveiled in the credit sequence of "The Avengers." The sole survivor of the genocide of her species, she was found and raised by Thanos, who trained her to become an assassin. However, she later discovered that her adopted father was a terrible threat, and turned against him, becoming a companion of Adam Warlock, as well as entering a relationship with another space-faring character, Nova, before later joining the Guardians of the Galaxy. She's a martial arts expert, a gymnast, and carries a dagger that can kill god-like beings. At one stage, she could control time, but that just seems unfair at this point.
On the far left is Drax The Destroyer, who started off as a human, Arthur Douglas, who was killed alongside his wife by Thanos, while his daughter was taken by Thanos' father Mentor, who along with another god, Chronis, reincarnated Arthur in a new green-skinned body, as Drax, although he initially doesn't remember his life on Earth. Created in order to kill Thanos, he's capable of sensing Thanos's presence across space, can travel through space unaided, has super strength and can blast energy from his hands. At one point, he died and became mentally disabled upon resurrection, but again, let's hope the script avoids that.
Next to him on the left is Groot, who is a plant monster from an alien race, who originally came to Earth to capture humans, but was himself captured, and forced to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. He's died a number of times over the 50 years since first appearing, but he is able to regrow as long as there's a sprig of him left, and eventually joined the Guardians. He survives by absorbing wood, which lets him rebuild himself, and enhance his strength, and can also control trees. He's resistant to fire, which is helpful for someone made of wood.
Finally, there's Rocket Raccoon. Yep, he's an anthropomorphic raccoon, who hails from the Planet Halfworld, where he and other animals were genetically engineered to be caretakers for the mentally ill. Swear to god we're not making that up. After curing their charges of their mental illnesses, Rocky and his pals, including his first mate Wal Russ, headed into space, and became the Guardians of the Keystone Quadrant. He's loyal, fearless and a skilled tactician, pilot and marksman, who also has a great sense of smell and hearing.
So clearly, unless Marvel are sinking their "The Avengers" profits into actually genetically modifying a racoon, we're looking at some very heavy CGI components to the film, which is likely to be almost as pricey as "The Avengers." The easy route would be to make the film animated, but as the characters are expected to return for "The Avengers 2," it'll have to be live-action, which means we're only a few years away from seeing Mark Ruffalo sharing screen space with a talking raccoon. It's pretty clear that the plot will involve Thanos, although it's yet to be seen if we'll be out in space, or if the characters will come to Earth for budgetary reasons. It's worth noting those star-shaped spaceships in the concept art: any ideas what they might be, fans?
This is easily the biggest risk the company have yet taken, especially given the lukewarm reaction to the cosmic "Green Lantern" from rivals DC last year. But with the right director (we still think this could be Andrew Stanton's chance at redemption…), and Marvel's might behind it, we certainly wouldn't count it out, as bonkers as the film sounds.