Today's Marvel Cinematic Universe "Phase 3" unveiling resembled an Apple product launch, with the studio's honcho Kevin Feige stalking around on stage in front of a black background, naming the titles of nine upcoming films stretching to 2019 to oohs and aahs from the audience. No doubt Marvel's films are supreme commodities, each release carefully spaced to maximize interest without ever overloading cinemas. One day, the tipping point between hype and backlash will be reached, but it's hard to know if that will come in the next round, which will include the first solo hero film for a person of color (Black Panther) and a woman (Captain Marvel).
Marvel's plans are overwhelming and somewhat ludicrous—it's easy to roll one's eyes hearing that the second part of the third Avengers movie will be ready five years from now, with no director or stars yet attached. But Marvel's forward thinking and careful planning has been crucial to the success of its universe. These films have likely been in the works for years already—one reason Feige is revealing their titles is there's a whole industry of reporters online devoted to uncovering news and spoilers for future superhero projects. There's also the need to stay one step ahead of DC, who announced its own massive slate of films a couple weeks ago.
Following the close of "Phase Two" in 2015, which includes the release of a second Avengers film (Age of Ultron) and the long-gestating Ant-Man (starring Paul Rudd and featuring a more irreverent tone), "Phase 3" begins on May 6, 2016 with Captain America: Civil War. The film will have Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man alongside the titular Cap (Steve Rogers), and will focus on internal strife over some sort of superhero registration act. It's smart, as I have already written, to turn the battle inwards, especially since Marvel has struggled to find compelling villains for a lot of its films. It also seems like a logical progression after Age of Ultron, which, from its trailer, looks pretty dark.
In November 2016, we get Doctor Strange, which is probably-but-not-officially going to star Benedict Cumberbatch as an arrogant surgeon who loses the use of his hands and gets drawn into the dark arts of mysticism in an effort to regain them. For all his overexposure, Cumberbatch is good casting for Strange, who has a Sherlock-y imperiousness to him. Its director, Scott Derrickson, has a handle on the horror elements required for Strange (who tends to battle very demonic enemies). He made the decent Sinister in 2012 and the less-interesting Deliver Us From Evil this year. But Doctor Strange still has a big hurdle to clear in that its hero's powers revolve around magic, a force that the Marvel movies haven't really engaged with yet. Getting the audience on board with that will be the most crucial part.
Then, in 2017, we get three movies (for the first time), including two highly anticipated sequels. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 drops in May, with director James Gunn and the whole gang all aboard. I'm spitballing at this point on plot details, but one imagines big purple cosmic villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) will get plenty to do that time around, and we'll get some more info on hero Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) unknown alien father. In July, there’s the fantastically titled Thor: Ragnarok, which will bring back the much-loved Loki (Tom Hiddleston), last seen plotting mischief on the throne of Asgard. Be warned: In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is basically the apocalypse for its deities, so we'll see what's left of our hammer-swinging chum after that.
Then, in November, comes another new superhero: Black Panther, who will be played by Chadwick Boseman. It's Marvel's first film centered around a hero of color, and Black Panther is one of the oldest and best: the ruler of a fictional African nation called Wakanda and one of the first black superheroes in comics when Marvel introduced him in 1966. Black Panther will apparently make his first appearance in Captain America: Civil War, and rumor has it Wakanda will be a plot point as early as next year's Avengers movie.
In 2018, the train keeps rolling on, with part one of Avengers: Infinity War, which judging by the title will see Thanos taking all his Infinity Gems (those all-powerful glowing plot MacGuffins) and probably trying to blow up the universe. That's a big enough deal to get spread out over two films, with the later installment coming in 2019. Two other titles in 2018 are much more interesting, though. Captain Marvel will be the first Marvel film headed up by a woman, a cosmic hero named Carol Danvers who will zap between earth-bound and outer-space heroism, according to Feige. There's also Inhumans, another cosmic batch of magic weirdoes who live on the moon and are ruled by the silent Black Bolt, a man whose voice can level a city.
I'd call some of these films a tough sell, but Marvel has so far done incredible work bringing audiences on board for its stranger properties (Guardians of the Galaxy is the highest-grossing film of the year, after all). That's partly because it has an eye for good directors who won't shake things up too much (as Edgar Wright, the original director of Ant-Man who abruptly departed the project, knows well). It's partly because Feige and the studio maintains a high level of control over each film's budget, tone, and visual approach without totally sacrificing artistry (although, of course, some disagree).
If you're a longtime comics fan or just a devotee of the films, the news here is all good: Marvel is branching out with new projects and heroes, seemingly folding them into the healthy core it's established, and always thinking well ahead. As mentioned earlier, the oversaturation point will come eventually, but if there's a studio that can be trusted to remain on brand, it's this one. Superhero enthusiast or no, one thing's for sure: You're going to be hearing about Marvel movies for a long, long time to come.