By Dr. Mike ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Time is an illusion, comic book time doubly so. In the stories of Marvel Universe, events flow at a strange pace in relation to our own world. For example, when I was starting my comics fandom, Spider-Man was about twice my age. In a few years, I will be twice his current age. That’s not a huge problem for comics. Oh, dedicated fans will spend a lot of time trying to figure out how all of those events fit into Spidey’s or some other character’s fictional life, but these superheroes are images on paper. They age at a rate their creators impose. The live-action Marvel stories face a greater challenge.
Since its official debut in 2008’s Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has more or less paralleled our own times. Narratives may get a little ahead of now or behind now, but except for some deliberate flashbacks, they mostly take place now. That’s an important choice because the actors playing the roles are going through real time.
This is not an argument about aging. If the functionally immortal characters like the new Eternals really catch on for a few decades, there may be some CGI tricks or narrative changes needed to preserve that idea. Some characters like Rocket and Groot or the Hulk do not have to age at all. Human actors may age as gracefully as they like.
What I’m more interested in here is what happens when an actor moves on from the part. Real time brings real desires to take up new roles. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Robert Downey, Jr. were crucial to the first three phases of the MCU, but they have gone on to other things. Sadly, we also lost Chadwick Boseman to cancer.
It’s fairly obvious that Marvel has no plans to reboot the MCU. The collective narrative momentum is too strong to risk the kind of audience frustration that happened when Sony rebooted the Spider-Man series in 2012 after only a five-year gap.
After the COVID pause, Marvel’s Fourth Phase began with WandaVision. Since then, the MCU has been carefully making plans to continue on after some of its major actors left. Replacements have proven to be a success. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier series saw Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson assume the role of Captain America. The flashback movie Black Widow gave us another Black Widow with Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova. No definite plans have been announced for Black Panther 2 yet, but everyone is hoping Letitia Wright’s Shuri will assume the mantle of the protector of Wakanda.
Soon we will meet another new character. The Disney+ Hawkeye series will introduce us to Kate Bishop, who is also a superheroic archer. She debuted in the comics when the original Hawkeye was dead as part of a team book called The Young Avengers. Of course, comic book death is never lasting death, so Clint Barton returned. Amusingly though, both characters have kept operating under the name Hawkeye in the comics. Their interactions make for a comedic double act. I am hopeful that Haley Steinfeld and Jeremy Renner will capture some of that magic.
Greater challenges lie ahead for the MCU. At some point, the X-Men and Fantastic Four properties will come home, so to speak. My sense is that audiences are okay with an FF reboot. But there is a lot of love for the X-Men, particularly Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Jackman has retired from the role. So, somebody, somewhere has to recast Wolverine. That won’t be easy, bub.