As "Iron Man 3" continues to rake in the cash (it's surpassed the $1 billion mark worldwide and counting), everyone's abuzz about "Iron Man 4." Such an endeavor would seem like a no-brainer for Marvel, and the studio is completely dedicated to doing it ... whether Robert Downey Jr. is on board or not.
It's no secret that Downey Jr. has expressed reservations about returning for another stand-alone Tony Stark adventure, especially considering that it wouldn't happen until well after "The Avengers 2," which doesn't hit theaters until May 2015.
"I'd go start another one tomorrow, but it’s not tomorrow,” Downey told Entertainment Weekly, with the 48-year-old actor admitting that he's not getting any younger. "And there are a lot of other considerations. But I also don't like the idea of leaving people hanging or leaving people in the lurch."
RDJ is also anticipating a career beyond Tony Stark and Marvel, which may include a third "Sherlock Holmes" movie and even some brand-new franchises.
"My intent is to launch another franchise, independent of any that I can even imagine right now," said Downey, who's also currently attached to David Dobkin's legal thriller "The Judge" and Jon Favreau's foodie comedy "Chef." "My intent is to dominate the playing field for as long as I can, with my own challenges, with myself."
That's swell and all, though Marvel has made it clear that there will be an "Iron Man 4" (and beyond) with or without its leading man. The series could certainly be rebooted James Bond-style, despite the fact that Downey Jr. is so singularly identified with the role.
"I believe there will be a fourth 'Iron Man' film and a fifth and a sixth and a 10th and a 20th," said Marvel producer Kevin Feige. "I see no reason why Tony Stark can't be as evergreen as James Bond. Or Batman for that matter. Or Spider-Man. I think Iron Man is a character just like that."
Don't think Marvel won't do it, either -- they've already replaced Edward Norton with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, not to mention Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle as James 'Rhodey' Rhodes. Heck, don't think Marvel just won't replace everyone in "The Avengers 2" if the ensemble doesn't agree with their terms.
According to Deadline, Marvel and Disney are heading into some troubled waters with "The Avengers 2" as the upfront pay, backend compensation, break-even points and box office bonuses aren't pinned down yet for several cast members. The studio is notoriously stingy, and while they're usually successful in keeping at least the details of any tensions from the media, they still inspire some frustrated venting from actors' reps.
"Marvel has created so much animosity by strong-arming and bullying on sequels already. It's counterproductive," said one source to Deadline. Says another, "I'm sick of Kevin Feige telling me again and again how Marvel is 'reinventing the movie business.' It doesn't work like this. They're reinventing business, period."
That "reinvention" may involve just bringing in a bunch of replacements to play the superheroes we've come to know and love in "The Avengers 2." We highly doubt it will ever come to that, as public backlash would be mightier than Thor himself, but it definitely makes for an almost diabolical negotiation position ... after all, we doubt any of the "Avengers" stars would want to see someone else literally stepping into their shoes (or boots, rather).
However "The Avengers 2" works out, it will mark the end of Marvel's Phase Two (which commenced this month with "Iron Man 3") and set the stage for Phase Three. There's currently only one confirmed film set for Phase Three (though you can probably also definitely count on "Iron Man 4"), with the rest of the candidates merely speculative ... and some more realistic than others.
The tiny but rollicking adventures of size-shifting scientist Hank Pym have been in development since even before the first "Iron Man" and will finally be hitting the big screen as the official Phase Three blast-off. Pym develops a suit that allows him to shrink to the size of a certain insect ... and to communicate with them as well.
Ant-Man is one of the reasons why Marvel became its own stand-alone production entity, with Kevin Feige saying he sat in on too many pitch meetings where confused people asked if this was about a guy who was half-ant and half-man. "Do you know why we became our own studio?" he said. "Because those are the conversations we used to have with studio execs. And they were very frustrating."
"I actually made the choice to make 'Scott Pilgrim' and 'The World's End' before this one," said director Edgar Wright to EW. "And Ant-Man is such a big special-effects film, it's almost like the further it goes on, the easier it is to do, in a way. I feel more confident now, but I can't talk about it too much because I get superstitious. I just feel like I don't want to jinx it."
"Ant-Man" is currently the only definite Phase Three project and has a release date of November 6, 2015.
Stephen Strange was a neurosurgeon whose career comes to an abrupt end after his hands are damaged in a car accident. After tracking down a Himalayan hermit known as the Ancient One, Strange is taught the mystical arts and reinvents himself as Doctor Strange, the "mightiest magician in the cosmos."
"I would love Strange to be a part of [the Marvel universe] only because he's a great character. He's a great standalone character," Feige said. "He's got a great origin story, for the most part. And that world of pure magic, we haven't done yet. There's a whole supernatural/magic alternate dimension going on in the Marvel comics that we haven't ever touched on. So I think that's exciting."
A "Doctor Strange" script was conjured by screenwriters Thomas Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer a few years ago, although there's no telling whether it will be used if and when Marvel greenlights the project. For now, it's just fun to mull over wish-list casting, with both Viggo Mortensen and Liam Neeson being mentioned as potential candidates for the role -- though our first choice might be Bruce Campbell.
The big-screen adventures of what many consider to be the first African American superhero continues to elude Marvel execs, who for some reason think a gun-crazy raccoon and talking tree (two characters in the Phase Two film "Guardians of the Galaxy") are an easier sell than T'Challa, the masked man who defends the fictional African nation of Wakanda from those who would try to exploit its most valuable natural resource -- Vibranium, that rare and ultra-strong metal from which Captain America's shield is made.
In 2011, Marvel commissioned a "Black Panther" script from Mark Bailey, who has made such socially charged documentaries as "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" and "Pandemic: Facing AIDS." This had many speculating that "Black Panther" would be a Phase Two movie, which ended up not being the case.
Marvel currently doesn't have a stand-alone "Black Panther" film in active development but there's a strong possibility we might be seeing him as a supporting actor in another Marvel film ... or on the upcoming television series, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
"The Punisher" / "Ghost Rider" / "Daredevil" / "Blade"
All of these properties had films produced by other studios in the past decade but have since reverted back to Marvel territory. However, none of them seem to be priority for Phase Three.
"So Punisher, Ghost Rider, Blade, all those characters are back," Feige told EW. "They all have potential, but I think we need to find the right time."
Daredevil came closest to staying with its former studio, with "The Grey" director Joe Carnahan pitching a gritty new vision of the Man With No Fear, a stark contrast from the watered-down 2003 film starring Ben Affleck. However, Fox passed on the project, allowing the rights to go back to Marvel.
Blade's last big-screen adventure came from New Line in 2004 with the much-reviled "Blade: Trinity," and the "Crank" team of Neveldine & Taylor failed to inject new life into Johnny Cage with last year's not-quite-gonzo-enough "Ghost Rider" Spirit of Vengeance." Director Lexi Alexander's curious but ultimately too strange and uneven "Punisher: War Zone" (2008) also failed to impress longtime Frank Castle fans ... and gain any new ones.
No one really liked "The Incredible Hulk" (2008) starring Edward Norton very much, but Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner -- and subsequent green goliath -- really clicked (or, rather, smashed) with fans in "The Avengers." So a stand-alone "Hulk" movie starring Ruffalo is a major possibility ... and Feige doesn't share the 45-year-old Ruffalo's concerns that he'll age out of the role if the studio doesn't jump on it shortly after "The Avengers 2."
"If anyone could be a great 55-year-old Hulk, it's Mark so I'm not worried about that," said Feige.
Any "Hulk" movie isn't going to be an adaptation of "Planet Hulk," though, as was previously rumored. The storyline that involves the Hulk being banished to another planet is missing the key elements that Marvel wants to focus on.
"What we're excited about exploring and expanding is Mark -- and Banner's not in 'Planet Hulk' at all,” explained Feige. "The fun of the Hulk is his interaction with humans."
If you think the Guardians of the Galaxy are weird, wait until you get a load of the Inhumans. The Marvel team, introduced in 1965, consists of a royal family of super-beings who evolved from alien experiments on primitive humans and were dispatched to a remote world. Led by Black Bolt, whose very voice can destroy a city, members of the Inhumans face a trial when they come of age, which involves journeying into the mutating Terrigen Mists and emerging as some new advanced form.
"'Inhumans' is cool, they're really great characters,” said a clearly excited Feige. "The most powerful guy is the king who doesn't say a word and if he does -- look out. That's awesome. And the notion of the Terrigen Mists, this notion that you go through and don't know what you're going to be on the other side, is incredibly compelling dramatically."
And Feige thinks the weirdness of "Guardians of the Galaxy," which hits theaters on Aug. 1, 2014, would serve as a great warm-up to "Inhumans."
"In other words, all the craziness that comes with 'Inhumans,' we've done in the other movies already," Feige said. "But this would have some of the social drama that we haven't really done yet. [Fox's] 'X-Men,' obviously, has been touching on that stuff for a while."
"Runaways," created by Brian K. Vaughn in 2003, centers around a group of super-powered kids who rebel against their parents upon discovering that they're actually diabolical villains. Vaughn wrote a screenplay in 2011 though production was put on hold as Drew Pearce was brought in to do a re-write, keeping the project from being a part of either Phase One or Two.
"It's a matter of where it fits," Feige said. "The way the business is working now, you either have really inexpensive, sort of surprise movies that can come out and be hits, but don't cost much. Or you have the big giant summer blockbusters that really swing for the fences. Right now, we're just swinging for the fences every time. 'Runaways' sort of falls in-between those, in a way. We just haven't found where or how to do it ... right now."
A big-screen adaptation of the 2005 five-issue mini-series in which Marvel superheroes turn into flesh-eating zombies will probably never happen ... though with the popularity of things like "The Walking Dead," does it stand a chance of at least being ... something some day?
"I know ... 'Zombies' is such a funny thing because it's such a cool comic and it's such a cool idea, but the bigger profile becomes what starts to happen [with fans]," said Feige.
The main concern would be why spend so many years and dollars on building a giant Marvel movie universe only to destroy it with a zombie apocalypse tale. Another concern is that some of the most popular "Zombies" characters, such as Zombie Wolverine, are owned by other studios.
It's also easy to do something like "Marvel Zombies" for grown-ups as a comic book series, but it's not exactly a kid-friendly premise for the PG-13 world of the movies.
"Are you going to draw figures in chalk with your 3-year-old with Hulk eating someone? Or Captain America with his brains coming out of the top of his head? Probably not," said Feige.