These days, comic books are synonymous with summer blockbusters, with box office records constantly being broken and high-profile names in the film industry vying for a chance to be a part of major cinematic universes and perhaps cementing a legacy akin to Tony Stark, aka Robert Downey Jr.
That’s right. RDJ’s performance as billionaire playboy with a heart, Tony Stark, has merged with the actor and for the public eye become a single persona of the larger-than-life hero that he plays. He’s not the only one–comic book fans around the world now see these actors embodied by the characters they portray and it is simply because they were able to bring to life the stories that they have grown up with.
Stories have molded many a reader from the shy, unpopular kid who can relate to Peter Parker and Spider-Man to the person who feels out of place in society because of their appearance or sexual orientation who empathize with the trials of discrimination in the pages of X-Men.
Many comic books represent the most important topics affecting contemporary society. It wasn’t always this way though. Comics started as a way for struggling writers and artists like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to make a living by coming up with characters with funny names and weird backstories and placing them in the most ridiculous outfits they can think of. A perfect example would be the original costume for Batman, who first started out wearing red tights with black underwear and bat-like wings. It wasn’t until his revolutionary creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, decided to take these stories and make them mean something more.
Today you can look to Captain America for moral high ground, Batman for discipline and dedication, or the many female characters leading the charge for all young women seeking equality, recognition, and empowerment–including Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Supergirl, and She Hulk, to name a few.
The recent renaissance big-budget comic book adaptations and the performances of perfectly cast actors, paired with years of character development in the pages of comic books are now truly amazing cinema audiences.
Take the upcoming film, Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck,is a failed comedian spiraling into insanity, who eventually becomes the titular homicidal clown. The film generating so much buzz before its release that it is already an Oscar contender, and broke October box-office records in its first weekend of wide release.
No longer are comic books regarded as silly pulp magazines for kids to entertain themselves with. They now represent the individual reading them, they connect emotionally, and inspire generations of people who strive to tell the stories that can impact people and change their lives. Together, comic books and the film industry has become a juggernaut–with no slowing down in sight.
[warning: SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home]
This summer saw the end of an epic run of films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), that began in 2008 with Iron Man, and finished with the epic crossover Avengers: Endgame and its follow-up, Spider-Man: Far From Home. The 22 MCU films ended with a goodbye to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, coming full circle.
But of course, like any good comic book storyline, the end is never really the end. While for the first time in a very long time Disney’s Marvel Studios currently doesn’t have another movie in the can and ready to go, it does have multiple projects in pre-production. It won’t be long before Phase 4 and Marvel dominate the box office once again, with both brand new characters as well as some familiar faces…
The long-rumored solo film for Scarlett Johansson’s original Avenger, Black Widow, is finally coming to pass. A key difference between Phase 4 and the first three MCU phases (besides a lack of Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans) will be the clear push to bring more diversity to a franchise that saw 20 out of 22 (that’s 91%) of its films helmed by and starring white men. Black Widow was one of the major casualties of the war against Thanos in Endgame, but it’s presumed this film, co-starring David Harbour (Stranger Things), Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), and Florence Pugh (Midsommar), will be a prequel about how Black Widow was originally trained as a Russian spy and first earned all that red in her ledger. The film will be one of the first for Phase 4, expected to release sometime next year and continue a streak the MCU hasn’t broken since 2009.
Another of Phase 4’s earliest projects is Eternals, which is based on one of Marvel’s more obscure cosmic, space-based properties. The last time the MCU announced they were making a big budget adaptation of weird space creatures no one ever heard of, many assumed it would end in dismal failure—however Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be one of Disney’s greatest hits. This film may prove the same, and fills the star power vacuum left by Robert Downey, Jr. by putting Angelina Jolie front and center. Jolie will be joined in the cast by Richard Madden, Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, and Kumail Nanjiani. The lineup isn’t just racially diverse and full of women—rumor has it the film will also feature the MCU’s first openly gay superhero.
Thor: Love and Thunder
One of the most beloved films of the first three phases was Thor: Ragnarok, written and directed by New ZealanderTaika Waititi. Waititi will return for Thor 4, along with Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, and Natalie Portman, who hasn’t prominently featured in the MCU since 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. Portman is rumored to be playing the Jane Foster female version of Thor, wielding Mjölnir in a plotline from the comics. And while, because of confusing rights issues with Universal,there’s still no second solo Hulk film in the works, here’s hoping Mark Ruffalo and Professor Hulk will return to the MCU to re-form The Revengers with his old pals Thor and Valkyrie.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
That’s one kooky title but we’ve come expect the unexpected from one of the MCU’s trippiest franchises, Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumerbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme had a great run in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame arguably saving the day by saving Tony and showing him how to beat Thanos, so it’s no surprise Doctor Strange 2 is a priority for Marvel. He won’t be alone either—Elizabeth Olsen will be joining him as the Scarlet Witch, another powerful superhero whose powers defy conventional science. As for the Multiverse in the title? That opens up a lot of possibilities—Mysterio’s claims of a multiverse turned out to be a ruse in Spider-Man: Far From Home, but if parallel universes do exist in the MCU, maybe we’ll even get to see an alternate Earth where Tony Stark still lives and breathes…
Speaking of a multiverse… While the Netflix MCU-adjacent shows have all come to an end, you’ll still be able to find Marvel on the small screen when the release of Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, comes out later this year. One of these shows will be anthology series What If…?, which will show one-off alternate versions of the MCU. It’s not yet known if the animated series will simply be “what if” fantasies or if they will be actual alternate dimensions that co-exist within the MCU—but with Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) voicing the all-seeing Watcher, the latter is certainly a possibility. So far the series has lined up many familiar names to reprise their roles in alternate versions; the pilot will featureHayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and ask, “What if Peggy had taken the super soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers?”
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
The first MCU series debuting on Disney+ will be The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, who have become close buddies since the events of Captain America: Civil War. The question is if this show be taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, when—just like in the comics—Steve Rogers retired and gave Sam Wilson, the Falcon, the mantle of Captain America, along with his vibranium shield. One thing we do know is that supervillain Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl) will be returning from Civil War in one form or another.
Another returning character getting his own Disney+ series will be Tom Hiddleston’s fan favorite Loki. The trickster god and brother of Thor has alternated from good to bad several times within his several appearances in the MCU, so it remains to be seen what exactly the series will be about, especially considering Thanos strangled Loki to death in the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War. But considering the time travel shenanigans in Endgame led to Loki escaping with the Tesseract Space Stone, there’s a good chance an alternate Loki is still alive, and, if set photos are to be believed, possibly living in the 1970s!
WandaVision is perhaps the most perplexing of the announced Phase 4 titles. We know Wanda, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), will be appearing in Doctor Strange 2, but her artificial lifeform lover Vision was one of the major casualties of Avengers: Infinity War, and was never resurrected by the end of Avengers: Endgame. So what will this show about the pair be about? The title, a very weird pun with a 50s style logo, gives nothing away.
1998’s Blade, starring Wesley Snipes as the half-vampire, half-human swordsman, is considered the first modern superhero movie and which kicked off the Hollywood comic book fascination that is still burning strong today. So it was a big surprise at this year’s Comic Con when Marvel head Kevin Feige announced that a rebooted Blade will be joining the MCU, with Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as the title Daywalker. Ali is no stranger to the MCU—he played the villain Cottonmouth in the first season of Luke Cage. But when you have an actor as good as Ali, you can’t blame Marvel for using him as much as they can.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shang-Chi is a lesser known Marvel superhero, but that’s about to change. The film will be the first from the MCU to be directed by an Asian American and star a mostly Asian and Asian American cast, including Simu Liu, Awkwafina, and Tony Leung. Leung will be playing the Mandarin, a supervillain teased since the very beginning of the MCU when a terrorist with ten rings first imprisoned Tony Stark and inspired him to become Iron Man, and who Ben Kingsley very famously turned out not to be in Iron Man 3.
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye came back from the brink as the murderous Ronin by the end of Avengers: Endgame, but he may not be the focus of this Disney+ series. Lila Barton, his daughter, became Hawkeye in the comics, and as the MCU pushes to bring in more diverse and female superheroes, she may end up taking the mantle of her father. The very first scene of Avengers: Endgame shows Lila’s amazing archery skills, no doubt inherited from her dad, before she was snapped out of existence for five years by Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet.
And then what?
These have all been announced and are all in some form of pre-production or production, but there’s other projects we can safely assume Disney will produce as long as Marvel keeps making them billions and billions of dollars. These include sequels to smash hits Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain Marvel. And since Disney recently bought Fox and most of its properties, eventually we may see the Fantastic Four and even a new version of the X-Men join the Franchise That Tony Built.
Everybody’s talking about what’s on Marvel’s docket after they released their slate of upcoming movies for the next five years. The core of their cinematic universe of course is the Avengers Trilogy (or Tetralogy since they’re splitting Infinity War into two movies). Sequels to Captain America, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy are no-brainers, and the addition of new heroes Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel aren’t just icing on the cake—they’re a whole extra cake, with icing.
But what about the Hulk? He was the second superhero introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, right after Iron Man way back in 2008, and unlike every other character since, he hasn’t gotten a sequel. It’s agreed by most that The Incredible Hulk was weaker than its compatriots, and like 2003’s Hulk, underwhelmed audiences despite making its money back and then some.
But Incredible Hulk starred Edward Norton and pre-dated the Hulk’s scene-stealing role in The Avengers. Mark Ruffalo is universally adored as Bruce Banner, and with Marvel seemingly making new movies out of thin air, it’s more than conspicuous that he hasn’t earned another solo blockbuster adventure. Gone is the argument that a CGI Hulk in every scene of a movie would simply cost too much money—after all, two of Guardians of the Galaxy’s lead characters are a CGI raccoon and tree. And if the new Avengers: Age of Ultron is any indication, the next Marvel movie will have a supporting cast of about ten thousand computer generated robots.
If it’s not the CGI, and it’s not Ruffalo’s undeniable charm, then just why isn’t Marvel producing another Hulk movie? Maybe they can’t think of a decent plot—The Incredible Hulk’s storyline was basically Hulk Smash. But that’s not a good excuse either. Here’s five ways to make a solo Hulk movie drawn from fifty-plus years of comics backstory, and five directors who could potentially bring these films to life. Get on this, Marvel, before you make us Hulk fans angry.
You wouldn’t like us when we’re angry.
1. Grey Hulk
If you haven’t noticed, Bruce Banner has a bit of a split-personality. What many casual fans don’t realize though is that he doesn’t just have one extra personality, he has several. Besides the big green, savage manifestation of his anger that likes to smash and talk in the third person, Bruce can also turn into the Grey Hulk.
The Grey Hulk is a little smaller and weaker than the Incredible Hulk, and his skin is, well, grey. But he still towers over the average-sized man and has muscles that would make Thor drop a Mjölnir in his pants. He’s also a little smarter than the savage Hulk, able to have conversations and drive a car. In fact, he holds down a job as a mob enforcer in Las Vegas as alter-ego Joe Fixit. He makes a great living actually. If you’re a bookie who’s owed some money, who better to scare your debtors into paying than a big grey monster packing heat.
A Vegas-set mob movie would be a great way to do a Hulk movie different from the previous two. And who better to direct a mob movie than Martin Scorsese? His talent behind the camera has been begging for a superhero to shoot, and he’s worked with Ruffalo before. It’s a match made in heaven.
2. Planet Hulk
Why isn’t Hulk helping out Cap and Thor in their respective sequels? How about because he’s in space? Like, deep outer space. The Planet Hulk storyline from the comics finds Earth’s superheroes fed up with Hulk smashing their stuff all the time and banishing him to a far away planet, Sakaar.
The planet is filled with aliens from a multitude of races, forced to battle one another in a gladiator arena for the amusement of the evil Red King. Hulk fits right in, and leads a revolution from the ground up after smashing some space heads. The Guardians of the Galaxy could even make a cameo, helping Hulk overthrow the Red King and bring freedom to Ancient Rome, er, the planet Sakaar.
Ridley Scott has proven adept at directing space movies and gladiator movies, but he hasn’t tackled a superhero pic yet and this would be the easiest way for him to make that transition. With Scott at the helm, how can we not be entertained?
[editor’s note: Three years after this article was published, Marvel did a version of the Planet Hulk story in Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi]
3. World War Hulk
World War Hulk is technically a sequel to Planet Hulk, but since when has continuity ever been an issue in the MCU (cough, Don Cheadle, cough.) The Hulk has made his way back from the planet Sakaar and is more than a little pissed that he was banished in the first place (and that his gladiator girlfriend was killed in the space revolution.)
Hulk takes his revenge on New York City, fighting Iron Man and Doctor Strange as the super-angry, super-strong, super-huge World Breaker Hulk. It looks like he’ll be duking it out with Iron Man already in Age of Ultron but honestly, shouldn’t that be its own movie? Plus, with Doctor Strange in the mix, it could be Benedict Cumberbatch vs. the Hulk, which honestly is an even better title for the movie than World War Hulk.
This sequel would be loud, filled with mindless action and the borderline-offensive leveling of an American city. Michael Bay would be perfect.
She-Hulk is one of Marvel’s most underrated characters. Her alter-ego is Jennifer Walters, and unlike her cousin Bruce Banner, she is always big and green, but not nearly as mindless and angry. In fact, she’s extremely smart, and works by day as a lawyer.
If Marvel wants to introduce a new hero, they could give her origin in a Hulk movie, having the two team up before She-Hulk sets out on her own. Currently, She-Hulk is one of the most entertaining series in the Marvel line, with a fun, youthful energy that also knows how to have badass battles with fellow heroes like Daredevil and Captain America.
The Kids Are Alright director Lisa Cholodenko, who’s worked with Ruffalo before, could balance the witty courtroom repartee with the sweet kickass brawls She-Hulk isn’t afraid to back down from.
5. Guilt Hulk
When Bruce Banner is angry, the green, savage Hulk lets out his rage by smashing. When Bruce is full of guilt and regret, in many ways, a much more dangerous emotion, he becomes The Beast, a.k.a. the Guilt Hulk. The Guilt Hulk is a terrible monster, larger and stronger than usual and makes the standard Hulk look downright cuddly. He’s got long, sharp claws, is covered in spikes, and on occasion, breathes fire. This ain’t your Daddy’s Hulk.
The Guilt Hulk is so scary the sequel would be more horror than action film, and Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro would be perfect to direct and design the cinematic look of the Beast. At his most contrite, the Guilt Hulk can tower over sixty feet tall and level buildings with a single swipe of his arm. After Pacific Rim, is there any doubt del Toro isn’t the right person for the job?