Today's release of "Iron Man 3" marks the official beginning of Marvel's Phase Two, a new set of stand-alone cinematic adventures that will lead up to another mega-hero-mashup, "The Avengers 2." Phase One began with Tony Stark in 2008's "Iron Man," so it's only appropriate that the billionaire industrialist who occasionally suits up and saves the world is leading the second charge.
The next Phase Two film spotlights the character that was probably the hardest sell of Phase One, Thor of Asgard (Chris Hemsworth). The boisterous thunder-controlling god (or something) from another dimension returns for a new adventure in "Thor: The Dark World," and the superheroic yet brash and arrogant warrior isn't done with being severely humbled just yet.
"I would say there's a question of what happens when you're now seemingly ready for something, but don't necessarily want it anymore," said Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, referring to Thor's grappling with his responsibilities as a leader and protector. "That's part of his internal struggle."
The stakes are much higher this time around as both Asgard and the Earth are threatened by a new supervillain: Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of the Dark Elves, a deadly race from the "dark world" of Svartalfheim. The theatrical Shakespearean vibe of the original "Thor," courtesy of director Kenneth Branagh, is traded for a much more fantasy-based Tolkien atmosphere for the sequel, courtesy of "Game of Thrones" director Alan Taylor.
"Alan is bringing a grittier, more visceral, more textured patina to the designs of the worlds, and to Asgard in particular," said Feige. "It's less to chase either 'Game of Thrones' or 'Lord of the Rings' -- because you’re not going to catch up. But part of the fun of Thor over the other characters is he doesn't have to stay on Earth. We visit a few of the other realms in this new movie."
It's not all doom and gloom in that new movie, though. Thor will be reunited with his Earthling love, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) -- and will even take her home to Asgard to meet mom (Rene Russo) and dad (Anthony Hopkins). Expect some rather epic yet humorous culture clash to come from this courtship.
After "Thor: The Dark World," we'll be checking in on Marvel's fish-out-of-water, Steve Rogers, the hero of "Captain America: The First Avenger." Cap's second stand-alone adventure will find him struggling with the fact that he's a WWII soldier boy stuck in a modern-day world.
"We weren't going back to World War II,” said Feige. "Cap cannot travel in time. So while Tony can go home to Malibu and Thor goes up to Asgard and Hulk can sort of ride the rails, Cap was stuck. So [he] does stay with S.H.I.E.L.D. because he has nowhere else to go. But he's not necessarily comfortable there. As you might imagine, somebody who's spent 70 years in ice, frozen, wakes up and has to fight a bunch of aliens with a bunch of weirdos -- he is trying to figure out what his life is."
"Captain America 2" is described as a '70s-style conspiracy thriller, with Cap teaming up with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to take on the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), the persona taken by Cap's resurrected pal Bucky Barnes, who's gone bad after a bit of brainwashing. This blast from the past certainly doesn't help Rogers come to terms with the fact that he's no longer living in the '40s.
"Just as he's given permission to let go of the past and to focus on the modern world ... a ghost comes up," said Feige.
The conspiracy plot also allows for Cap's true-blue ideals and moral code to clash with the somewhat shadier ways of the modern world ... and particularly that of his superior officer, S.H.I.E.L.D. bigwig Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who's not beyond stretching the truth -- or worse -- to get the job done. The '70s thriller vibe also fits in with the casting of "Three Days of the Condor" star Robert Redford, who plays S.H.I.E.L.D veteran Alexander Pierce.
After "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," we'll move on to "Guardians of the Galaxy" and finally "Marvel's The Avengers 2," which will reportedly feature "X-Men" mutant twins Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch as new members of the team. After "Avengers 2," we'll be commencing with Marvel's Phase Three, the first chapter of which will star one of the, well, tiniest heroes of the Marvel universe, Ant-Man.
Ant-Man is the superheroic alter-ego of Hank Pym, a brilliant scientist who dons a suit that gives him the ability to size-shift at will and wields technology that allows him to communicate with insects. Even though he can become as small as, well, an ant, he still maintains the weight and power of a full-sized person -- which means even a tiny punch bears a mighty force on a bad guy's mug.
The ability to go from big to small makes for an effective combat technique as well, which Devin Faraci of Badass Digest has dubbed "Size-Fu" after seeing some test footage at last year's San Diego Comic-Con.
"Ant-Man" is being developed by Edgar Wright, who directed the cult favorites "Shaun of the Dead" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." Despite Ant-Man's small size, the main challenge right now is finding a way to fit him into the Marvel movie universe -- as Wright started developing the project even before the first "Iron Man."
"Frankly, now we have to re-write it to put it a little bit more into the [Marvel Cinematic Universe] because it was written before it existed," said Feige.
Feige also admits that the test footage -- which has of course been leaked online -- is a great way to introduce audiences to one of Marvel's lesser-known -- and weirder -- characters.
"Sometimes we take it for granted that people know what we're doing," said Feige. "Some people don’t get it: 'Ant-Man ... ? Is that goofy? What? He talks to ants? What is this ...?'"
Nothing a little amazing footage won't fix. though. "Then they suddenly go, "Ohhh ...'"
The current Marvel movie release schedule is as follows:
"Thor: The Dark World": November 8, 2013
"Captain America: The Winter Soldier": April 4, 2014
"Guardians of the Galaxy": August 1, 2014
"Marvel's The Avengers 2": May 1, 2015
"Ant-Man": November 6, 2015