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The release of Ant-Man on July 17 brought phase two of Marvel's shared cinematic universe to its official conclusion. The film may have been light-hearted compared to the climacticAvengers: Age of Ultron, but the movie offered hints about what may be in store for future installments including phase three—and possibly phase four.
Fanboys, be warned. Here lie spoilers.
Analysts say Marvel is leaving itself plenty of options by introducing new heroes and gradually building its supporting cast. After adding three new Avengers to the roster in Age of Ultron, Marvel teased founding team member Wasp, and gave newcomer Falcon an unexpected cameo in Ant-Man.
With Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth unconfirmed to reprise their roles after phase three wraps in 2019, recent additions could help Marvel extend its franchise.
Marvel has not officially commented on its plans beyond 2019, but few expect the studio to call it quits if the phase three films perform. Each phase features multiple films.
The first 11 movies in Marvel's shared universe grossed more than $8.5 billion at the global box office. One week after its U.S. debut, "Ant-Man" has tracked a strong opening—hauling in $138 million around the globe, according to Rentrak.
"I presume the audiences of 2030 and 2035 will still be going to Marvel movies in a big way," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak. "They're definitely getting their slate ramped up and ready to go."
The fact that fans are already speculating over phase four shows how deftly Marvel has maneuvered its rollout strategy, Dergarabedian said. "For Marvel this is a game of chess, not checkers."
Indeed, should actor Downey hang up his Iron Man suit, Marvel has a second metal-clad hero in War Machine—played by critically acclaimed actor Don Cheadle—waiting in the wings. The studio has also introduced Captain America's brainwashed sidekick Bucky Barnes (also known as Winter Soldier) who put in time as the star-spangled Avenger in the comics.
Writer and director Joss Whedon also gave Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye more screen time in Age of Ultron, exploring the former's origin, and portraying the latter as the beating heart of the team.
This detailed strategy allows Marvel to make decisions down the road and potentially feature familiar characters, who can tie together story lines, Doug Creutz, media analyst at Cowen & Company, told CNBC.
However, the strategy also runs the risk of bogging down future installments with bloated casts and overly complicated plots, Creutz said.
"Avengers 2 felt very overstuffed with all the characters they were working into it," Creutz said. "The actual movie itself about Ultron almost seems like an afterthought at times. It wasn't a bad movie, but in my opinion, it wasn't as good as the first one."
Ultimately, analysts say Marvel is more likely to recast its most popular characters—Iron Man, Captain America and Thor—in the vein of the 007 franchise rather than sunset them. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige entertained that possibility in a 2012 interview with film website Birth. Movies. Death.
Even in the near-term, Creutz sees tougher times ahead for super hero franchises—not because fans are losing their appetite for them, but because a more crowded field of comic book movies is bound to reduce box office hauls across the board.
Warner Bros. is ramping up its DC Comics shared universe and 20th Century Fox is expanding its X-Men franchise next year.
Production and marketing costs for the biggest superhero films may run as high as $400 million, said Creutz, making it crucial for Marvel to remain dominant at the lucrative U.S. box office.