Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
We know … we know. Read the headline.
The odds of a secret, fourth Captain America big-screen installment hitting theaters in the first week of May (or the last week of April these days) in 2020 are long. Crazy long. Like Steve Rogers’ lifetime at the end of Avengers: Endgame looooooong. That a major film studio could essentially sneak in the production of a whole feature film under the noses of the entertainment press is straight out of the extreme corners of the YouTube conspiracy-verse.
But man, would it go a long way to answering some Marvel Cinematic Universe questions that have been nagging for a while now (that Marvel Studios is intentionally maintaining radio silence on) along with answering some brand new questions raised by Endgame. In particular, questions stemming from its closing segment focused on Cap/Steve and the lifetime he spent with Peggy Carter after returning all the Infinity Stones to their rightful timelines.
As we’ve detailed before, Marvel Studios’ silence about their release schedule post-July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home isn’t just out of character for them, it’s practically the mirror opposite of their successful playbook up to now. More than any other studio (we’re looking at you, Warner Bros.), Marvel Studios has managed to build excitement just by smartly identifying their schedule to make it easily digestible so fans to know what’s coming and how it all fits together and by using their trademark credits kickers and ‘Will Return’ title cards to build momentum.
We’ve been writing off Marvel not officially revealing anything past 2019 as backdoor marketing for Endgame - them wanting to maintain a sense of mystery and to not promote any indirect spoilers. But now that Endgame is out, something doesn’t seem to be immediately adding up. Because we do know something about the future.
By various industry reports, Eternals is gearing up for production later this year. As a new-to-the-MCU and by any standard obscure Marvel property, it was always something of an unlikely fit for Marvel’s premiere, tent-pole May-April release. That’s been populated by established ensemble franchises each of the last five years. But that could maybe be interpreted as confidence in the material (it is an ensemble), and/or an increased tolerance to risk in a box office world in which Endgame may wind up being the #1 film of all-time.
But Marvel films usually begin production close to a year or more before release, and Eternals doesn’t seem on that course. The November, 2020 or February, 2021 release seems like a more organic fit for a number of reasons.
The other seeming candidate is Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow solo/presumed prequel film. That seems like it might be close enough to a production start to make a late April, 2020 release, but that’s not quite an obvious fit either.
Perhaps they’re banking on the poignancy of Johansson’s ‘return’ to launch Black Widow into a Captain Marvel-like box office mini-monster (maybe). Perhaps Marvel is banking on fans turning out for what they consider a long-overdue opportunity for the original Avenger (better). Perhaps they just have a narrative trick up their sleeves to make a Black Widow set in the past essential to the future of the MCU (yes, please).
But it still doesn’t ‘feel’ like the summer-opening blockbuster.
Remember, the last time Disney spun a (and this is the key here) beloved-but-recently-perished member of an iconic ensemble into a “solo” prequel, it didn’t quite work out as planned.
And not for nothing, but fans have known about it (and Eternals) and the fact Black Widow is likely a prequel for some time now - and nothing in Endgame really alters those dynamics.
So by holding out until the 13th hour to announce the May film; by not offering any credit teasers; by not even offering any ‘X Will Return’ title cards, Marvel Studios is just increasing the anticipation and is running the risk of the news feeling somewhat anticlimactic/underwhelming when finally revealed.
Wait for it... we’re not there yet.
We thought we understood why there were no credits teasers or title cards in Endgame. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo seemed determined to make this a true finale and not just a finale-slash-infomercial for the future of the MCU.
This was Black Widow’s goodbye. Sort of.
This was founding father Tony Stark’s goodbye.
There was little to no exposition about the future of the Avengers.
This was all about the original six’s signatures on the screen without stepping all over it with a future tease immediately following.
But a funny thing happened on the way to making it a pure finale. They did open a few new doors.
Sam as Cap was one, with an in-tact shield being a key.
Whether Thor was just hitching a ride (as he called it) in search of his own path or whether he’s going to be a presence in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was another and remains to be seen. However, his and Peter’s comical exchange about leadership and the work Chris Hemsworth and Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi put in rewriting Thor’s vibe suggests he could very well be part of the cast. But that's neither here nor there.
The third, of course, was how the movie ended - Captain America’s surprise reveal that he stayed in the past after returning the Infinity Stones and lived an entire life with Peggy Carter.
And the Russos didn’t stop there. As opposed to leaving it to interpretation by fans like The Sopranos finale did, they’re answering questions about the scene’s implications, and not exactly shying away from raising new ones.
“If Cap were to go back into the past and live there, he would create a branched reality,” Joe Russo explained to EW. “The question then becomes, how is he back in this reality to give the shield away?
“Interesting question, right? Maybe there’s a story there. There’s a lot of layers built into this movie and we spent three years thinking through it, so it’s fun to talk about it and hopefully fill in holes for people so they understand what we’re thinking.”
Maybe there’s a story there?
Yea-ah there’s a story there.
That's not even mentioning the story of Cap putting all the stones back. How does one even put the Soul Stone back so it’s there for Thanos to gain in Infinity War if not by preventing Black Widow’s sacrifice? The manner in which you earn it doesn’t seem to lend itself to just returning it like a library book.
It isn’t like renting a car with a living soul being the safety deposit.
And lest we forget, any which way that trip went down it would have involved Cap running into ... the Red freakin’ Skull (!!!), another implication begging for follow-up the Russos invited by them choosing to surprise-insert the Skull there in the first place.
So yes, definitely a story there.
Mix in Steve’s slyly keeping the details to himself when Sam asked about his wedding ring and that oft-cited tease by Joe Russo that Chris Evans isn’t “done yet” playing Cap, and a case begins building for there maybe being more going on here than we know…
… maybe much more than we know.
Infinity War began production in January of 2017 and Endgame concluded production in January 2018, with just about a month break in-between.
With a budget that big and a production schedule that long is it technically possible to secretly plan for, finance and conduct the principal photography for the meat of a third film, a fourth Captain America perhaps – especially if it involves revisiting some of the same locations used in the concurrent films?
A year’s time would also give it plenty of time from now for extensive 'reshoots' to do scenes that couldn’t be planned during Infinity War/Endgame.
And perhaps even more relevant to the year 2019, could NDAs keep it all under wraps?
As we admit in the headline, all the answers are almost certainly ‘hell to the no’ - the theory is legitimately crazy.
But then the Russos sure seem to be stoking the idea there is a story to be told.
Finally, all we think we know about Black Widow is it’s a prequel. Could Cap have gained a partner and started a new Widow-centric story on his first stop on Vormir? And/or found the time to return the favor as the supporting partner to Black Widow in a reversal of the Captain America: The Winter Soldier dynamic for a story steeped in her past this time around?
A little less crazy, maybe, but probably still not qualifying for sane.
But then Marvel Studios seems to be rewriting the rules for movie franchises.
It's their world now, we're all just living in it. Would anyone be that surprised if they pulled something like that off?