During a comic book retailers-only event at New York Comic Con last week, writer Mark Waid called his new ongoing series with Humberto Ramos The Champions “Marvel’s new flagship series.”
The boast may have been a bit premature and in the realm of ‘remains to be seen’ considering the title debuted just 48 hours before his videotaped comment, but you’d hardly blame him for pitching the series as such.
Marvel Comics has launched the new ongoing with much pomp and circumstance and his clearly positioning it as the start of a new Avengers-like franchise, but focused on and clearly aimed at a younger demographic.
The revival and the shared custody arrangement Marvel has with Heroic Publishing of The Champions brand is an interesting story its own right, but a topic for another day. While of course the Defenders is now designated for the Netflix cast of characters, eschewing both the available New Warriors and Young Avengers brand indicates Marvel is looking for an air of ‘newness’ and separation from those two franchises, with the latter of course being the more interesting of the separations.
And while again it may be easy to chalk Waid’s proud father moment as merely a sales pitch, there are tea leaves to be read that signal his words may have been chosen with a higher purpose and the future of The Champions will go far beyond the world of mom and pop comic book shops…
...we may have just witnessed the subtle launch of ‘Phase 4’ or ‘5’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
We’ve detailed the symbiotic relationship between Marvel Comics and Marvel Studios many times before. While they aren’t always in lockstep, they often do work in concert, with Marvel Studios well aware they can use the built-in enthusiasm of comic book fans for certain concepts and brands to give their media properties instant built-in ‘Q’ factor.
Now The Champions could prove be another A-Force - an interesting, worthwhile spin on an existing concept with a limited shelf-life in a market that demands turnover - but there is an argument to be made they are different animals, and that the former is already part of a seeding of a long-term multimedia plan.
Let’s review the reasons:
1.) The Un-AVENGERS-ness of It
Marvel Studios has something of a problem on their hands. Now understand it’s a problem the way say the amount taxes you have to pay on a Powerball jackpot is a problem, or the 24-hour cable news networks having something to talk about these days is a problem.
It’s something of a ‘glass filled to the lip of the brim’ scenario, but nevertheless 2012’s The Avengers may have well been the franchise’s high water mark.
Now any film studio would volunteer to have the problem of making just $1-billion-dollar superhero movies (we’re looking at you, Warner Bros.), but that said Kevin Feige and crew can’t ignore the fact that despite stellar reviews, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War both trended downwards at the overall box office.
You can maybe rationalize that Civil War had the “Captain America” and not “The Avengers” prefix, but Civil War had everything but, including by the way, Spider-Man. But the film underperformed its predecessors by about $350m and $250m at the worldwide box office, respectively, again, despite enviable reviews and the superlatively-received Spider-Man.
To reiterate $1.1 billion is nothing to scoff at, but Marvel Studips is playing the long game here.
Take a look at the Doctor Strange marketing if you want proof Marvel knows what time it is. While their sales pitch no doubt accurately reflects the film, it also doubles as a subliminal message that this in fact is not another Avenger film, Marvel wants you to “expand your mind,” with no doubt a more subtle part of that messaging being to expand your mind as to what a Marvel Studios film is and can be.
Marvel knows the overarching Avengers brand has been a big key to their now almost decade-long string of successes, but they also know they’re also being policed by the law of diminishing returns.
After Avengers 4 – if the film is even titled an Avengers film at all (again a topic for another day) – Marvel will almost certainly be looking to promote a new brand, at least for a while until the market is ripe for an Avengers revival.
Which takes us to…
2.) Avengers: Age of Actors
Look, we’re not going to take credit for bringing up this point – it’s too damn obvious for any accolades, but obviously launching all the franchises they did mostly with actors in their 30s and 40s limited their half-life. Father Time may have been kicked out of the Marvel comic book universe long ago, but he still rules the cinematic one.
It’s easy to forget just eight or nine years ago the world scoffed at the idea of Marvel having the success they did with their B-list roster (meaning not the X-Men or Spider-Man), but no doubt Feige and Marvel Studios know now that despite the contributions of names like Downey, Johansson, Whedon and the rest, the real star of the show is the MCU itself. While Doctor Strange and Black Panther demanded actors with some of the gravitas of years (Benedict Cumberbatch is 40 and Chadwick Boseman a maybe-older-than-you-thought 40 next month) and the now-47-year-old Paul Rudd was an interesting choice for Ant-Man, it’s no surprise Marvel went genuinely young instead of Hollywood young for Spider-Man (Tom Holland is 20) and younger than you might expect for Captain Marvel (Brie Larson is 27).
An overarching Champions phase, featuring both solo and team movies with a roster of younger stars would not only give this new set of franchises a longer tail and more breathing room inside the schedule margins, it also adds something of a Harry Potter-quality to the MCU, where fans could follow along as actors and their characters mature in real time, adding a fresh element to new installment.
Marvel has already signaled they don’t plan on trying to replace Downey Jr., Evans, et al. in their iconic roles, but we’d argue that rules probably applies to direct, immediate replacement.
A Champions-led phase would kill two birds with one stone. It could easily give the MCU two decades worth of characters to focus on before what it likely an inevitable reboot and revival of the classic franchises, with of course, new actors.
3.) The More Subtle Hints
Admittedly, neither of our first two points are smoking guns, they’re simply piecing together available info and a little common sense, but we’ve also noticed a few other more subtle clues.
As already well established, last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron introduced Dr. Helen Cho, a Korean scientist of considerable skill who created the Vision’s body. Helen is also the comic book name of mother of genius Korean teenage Amadeus Cho, who is currently the Hulk, a member of the Champions.
It would seem odd for Marvel to have made that connection without a purpose, making the future addition of Amadeus to the MCU at least a distinct possibility.
We’ve also previously argued three of the other Champions – Miles Morales, Sam Alexander, and Kamala Khan – are some of Marvel’s most ripe characters for movie adaptation in the publisher’s entire catalog, with Ms. Marvel leading out most recent countdown on the topic.
But what really caught our attention was the final pages of The Champions #1, where other young Marvel characters hear Kamala’s call to action, including future member Cyclops, the new Falcon Joaquin Torres, Moon Girl, and the new Wasp. You have to believe if the series turns into the hit Marvel thinks it will, some/most/if not all those young heroes the publisher has so diligently introduced over the last few years will eventually be added to the cast
But it was Riri Williams, a.k.a. the new Iron Man a.k.a. Ironheart, that begs some follow-up and dovetails into our thoughts on the future of the MCU.
You’ll have to take our word for this, but from the beginning, the Captain America: Civil War scene in which Tony Stark shows off his new technology that creates 3D holograms of memories to engineering students struck us as a little disjointed from the rest of the film.
The scene seems to exists to 1.) establish the exposition that he was no longer in a relationship with Pepper Potts (or more accurately, Gwyneth Paltrow’s contract ran out); 2.) provide an opportunity for the mother of the young student killed in Sokovia to confront him (we’ll overlook how she’d know they find him at that elevator at that moment) and establish his frame of mind for promoting the Sokovia Accords; and 3.) to put a cool Marvel/Stark-spin on what otherwise would have been a flashback or dream sequence to set up the Bucky-Stark’s parents reveal later on.
None of those things required an entire scene of its own to establish, however. And why would Tony reveal such a personal moment in front of an auditorium of engineering students, and what did the research grant he offered the students en masse have to do with the rest of the film?
The answer is it did not. The subsequent confrontation with the mother is what established his frame of mind for the rest of the film. The grant offer just sort of hung there without purpose, and in fact it felt even more out of place when later in the film Tony visits Peter Parker under the guise of offering him a scholarship.
Yes, Tony Stark is an MIT graduate in the MCU, so the setting is perfectly explainable, but the research grant still seemed like a superfluous detail… until …
…you remember comic book Riri Williams is in fact an MIT engineering student on scholarship.
So did Marvel Studios slip in the beginnings of the origin of Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr.’s eventual MCU replacement and future member of the big-screen Champions? Will a movie Riri create her armor with the research grant established in Civil War?
Tony tells the students to ‘reframe the future.’
Maybe from the Avengers-to-the-Champions was exactly the reframing Marvel Studios had in mind.