Spoiler alert: The following mentions significant plot points in "Avengers: Endgame." Beware if you haven't seen it yet.
SAN DIEGO – Marvel Studios has a habit of not only taking over San Diego Comic-Con, the annual pop-culture festival of geek fandom, but invading with stars aplenty.
In 2010, the entire cast of “The Avengers” – including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth and Scarlett Johansson – had 6,000-plus people erupting in cheers when they appeared on stage together for the first time. Tom Hiddleston “crashed” the 2013 Marvel panel in character as Loki. And three years ago, Brie Larson was introduced as Captain Marvel alongside dozens of fellow superhero thespians.
After taking last year off (mainly to keep people in the dark about “Avengers: Endgame”), Marvel returns Saturday to cavernous Hall H at the San Diego Convention Center with one of its most important presentations ever. Why? Because while the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still chock-full of stars, the galaxy needs to be reloaded.
Avengers vs. X-Men? How Marvel can maintain its super mojo after 'Endgame'
“Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” capped off Marvel’s Phase 3 films in satisfying fashion, but left two gaping holes: Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, who appeared in 10 of the 23 Marvel movies, sacrificed himself in “Endgame” to save the day, and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, formerly known as Captain America, pretty much aged out (thanks, time travel!) and passed his shield to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).
Here’s the other thing: There are no movies officially on Marvel’s slate, a far cry from 2014 when the studio announced its entire Phase 3 lineup. Now we're in the unusual position of knowing there's a path forward but a rather nebulous one.
Listen to this week's episode of USA TODAY's podcast, The Mothership, on all things Comic Con and a special MCU update from our guest Awkwafina.
A Black Widow solo project may (or may not) be filming right now with (or without) Johansson. (“I don’t even think I can say a single thing!” she told USA TODAY in April when asked about Hollywood's worst-kept secret.) Marvel has nothing concrete to say about reports that Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani will co-star in the myth-heavy “The Eternals,” James Gunn and Taika Waititi are on tap to direct the third "Guardians of the Galaxy” and fourth “Thor” movies respectively, “Doctor Strange” and “Black Panther” sequels are in development and the apparent debut of Shang-Chi in an Asian-led solo movie featuring Marvel Comics' resident master of kung fu.
If we asked one of those Magic 8 Balls about Marvel’s future, it would read “Reply hazy, try again Saturday night.”
Comic-Con is a perfect spot for announcements, surprises and an epic superhero info dump because, as much as these films have become the mainstream, comic-book fans were the first worshippers at the Marvel altar. They’re the true believers who are dying to know when (not if) the X-Men and Fantastic Four will be coming to the MCU as a result of the Disney/Fox merger, and definitely the only people who could name at least one of the Eternals. (Probably Sersi.)
But that’s why, especially in a landscape sans Downey and Evans, Marvel needs its next wave of A-listers for the masses to get psyched about as it digs deeper into its vast canon of comic-book personalities. Jolie sounds like a pretty good choice to lead a group of god-like superbeings and she’s going to be key to making casual movie fans care about “The Eternals” the same way Downey did 11 years ago for “Iron Man."
It’s not like things are dire. Chadwick Boseman (as Black Panther), Tom Holland (Spider-Man), Larson (Captain Marvel) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) are poised to be the main Marvel heroes going forward, plus Hemsworth presumably still playing Thor, Mark Ruffalo punching in guest spots as Hulk, and Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana holding down the “Guardians” movies.
New blood is key to the success, though, and not just really famous names. British actress Florence Pugh (“Midsommar”), who’s been attached to the officially unofficial Black Widow movie, seems like the kind of up-and-coming actress who could take over the leather-clad mantle from Johansson following her character's “Endgame” fate. If a star departs, just reload – that’s the sort of mindset that will keep Marvel fresh and relevant as Hollywood changes and generations grow up with these movies.
While you can heap a bunch of accolades on the Marvel brain trust, the most deserved has to be for their uncanny skill at casting these characters, many of whom are less iconic than a Batman or Superman when they’re introduced.
Downey was the gift that kept on giving. Evans matured from being a somewhat recognizable actor to being a cultural sensation and arguably the face of the MCU. Boseman and most everyone involved with "Black Panther" was absolute perfection. And Holland has left all the other movie Spideys in his dust. With that kind of track record, whoever they pick to be, say, in a new Fantastic Four will probably be awesome.
Marvel has earned our collective trust in that regard, and it might be more crucial than ever heading into a hazy new phase of our favorite superhero franchises.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Marvel needs to fill some important, A-list holes at Comic-Con