When 2019 comes to an end, the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will look completely different. This is possibly the most important year for Marvel since the MCU was launched over a decade ago: a year of endings and beginnings, with high-profile departures and a major change in focus. Right now, the MCU's future remains a closely guarded secret. Marvel's focus is on marketing Avengers: Endgame, and Kevin Feige is going to remarkable lengths to avoid revealing what comes next. The only confirmed movie after Endgame is Spider-Man: Far From Home. A number of other projects are known to be in various stages of pre-production - including Black WidowThe Eternals, and sequels for both Black Panther and Doctor Strange - but none of them have been officially assigned dates.

Back in 2014, Marvel announced the entire Phase 3 slate in an unprecedented event. With the benefit of hindsight, this may have been a mistake; Kevin Feige has reflected that the building hype for Avengers: Infinity War meant that Avengers: Age of Ultron was viewed as nothing more than a step along the journey, rather than appreciated as a blockbuster in its own right. The relentless focus on Avengers: Endgame has probably had a similar effect on Ant-Man & the Wasp and the upcoming Captain Marvel, which frankly feel like "filler" movies rather than surefire hits. So a greater degree of long-term secrecy is likely going to become the norm for Marvel Studios going forward, with the House of Ideas carefully avoiding the same kind of mistakes.

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That doesn't mean it's impossible to say how 2019 will change the shape of the MCU, though. Kevin Feige is like a Chess grandmaster, always planning countless steps ahead, and by looking closely at his every comment it's possible to make general predictions and work out what Marvel Studios has in store. So here's what we know for sure is coming.

Many Major Avengers Will Be Gone

The most dramatic change, of course, is that at least three major MCU stars are expected to bow out in this year's Avengers: Endgame. The most high-profile departure will probably be Robert Downey, Jr., who's essentially served as franchise lead for the last decade's worth of superhero movies, but seems ready to move on. Meanwhile, Chris Evans has also indicated Endgame will be his last movie. When Evans completed his reshoots in October, he signed off with a touching tweet in tribute to everyone he's worked with. "Playing this role over the last 8 years has been an honor," Evans reflected. "To everyone in front of the camera, behind the camera, and in the audience, thank you for the memories!" Chris Hemsworth's contract has been fulfilled as well; while Hemsworth loved Thor: Ragnarok, and would likely agree to return if given the option, it's entirely possible Thor's story is about to come to an end.

Only three members of the original Avengers look set to stick around after Avengers: Endgame. Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner originally signed up to six-picture deals. In the case of the Hulk, Marvel don't look as though they're ever going to make another dedicated Hulk film, and as a result Bruce Banner has only appeared in cameos and team-up movies - meaning Ruffalo has one last appearance on the cards post-Endgame. The same is true for Jeremy Renner, whose character Hawkeye was entirely absent from Avengers: Infinity War, meaning he too still has one last film on his contract. As for Scarlett Johansson, she's on board for her first solo MCU adventure, with reports she's due to enjoy a $15 million payday.

An End To The 11-Year Infinity Stone Story

Avengers: Endgame brings an end to a single overarching narrative that's been running through the last 11 years' worth of MCU movies. The first three phases of the MCU have been all about Thanos and the Infinity Stones. The Infinity Stones have been introduced one at a time, with Marvel usually choosing to dedicate at least one entire film to establishing the capabilities of each Stone. The Space Stone was featured in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers; the Mind Stone in The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron; the Reality Stone in Thor: The Dark World; the Power Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy; and the Time Stone in Doctor Strange. The exception was the Soul Stone, which was introduced late in the game in Avengers: Infinity War; although this has been described as the most dangerous of all the Infinity Stones, its true power has yet to be hinted at. Meanwhile, Thanos remained a shadowy figure in the background, manipulating cosmic affairs to his own inscrutable ends. Everything came to a head in the cliffhanger ending of Avengers: Infinity War, when Thanos succeeded in acquiring all six Infinity Stones and used them to erase half the life in the universe with a snap of his fingers.

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Avengers: Endgame is the end of that story. It will see the Avengers do everything in their power to either avert or undo the snap, and it's safe to say the heroes will win - albeit at a cost. It's impossible to say what this will mean for Thanos and the Infinity Stones, of course; will Thanos be killed attempting to stop the Avengers, or will he be forced to realize the foolishness of his goal in the face of new threats? Will the Infinity Stones remain in play, or will they be destroyed? Whatever the outcome may be, the story of Thanos and the Infinity Stones will come to an end.

Will Marvel choose to launch a new overarching narrative, with another threat taking Thanos' place? Or will the House of Ideas cool it a little, allowing their individual films to stand in isolation and giving their writers and directors a break from having to wrestle MacGuffins into their plots? Only time will tell.

Page 2 of 2: A New Wave Of Superheroes

A New Wave Of Diverse Superheroes

The OG Avengers may be leaving, but that doesn't mean the MCU will be bereft of superheroes. When the dust settles from Avengers: Endgame, it's safe to assume that every hero killed during the Decimation will be returned to life. That means the future of the MCU belongs to heroes like Tom Holland's Spider-Man, Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther, Brie Larson's Captain Marvel, and Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange. And here's the interesting thing: the future of the MCU looks a lot more diverse. Tom Holland's Spider-Man is still in high school, making him by far the youngest superhero in Marvel's roster. Black Panther is monarch of a fictional African nation, and his first hugely successful solo film was a celebration of Afrofuturism that will surely play a major role in the MCU going forward, and Captain Marvel has been described as Marvel's most powerful hero to date.

This is hardly a coincidence. Kevin Feige has openly admitted that Marvel has learned important lessons from the success of DC's Wonder Woman and their own blockbuster hit, Black Panther. He's described Marvel as being "emboldened" by these successes, and is imagining a time when the MCU will come to have more female heroes than male ones. Marvel is also looking to introduce explicit LGBTQ characters; Feige seems to have subtly hinted that Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie will be one prominent example.

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The MCU Will Become A Cinematic and TV Universe

Disney is currently working on a new streaming service, Disney Plus, that's intended to launch in late 2019. For Marvel, Disney Plus is an opportunity to completely transform the MCU by launching a series of six-to-eight-episode studio-budget TV shows, starring characters straight from the big screen. So far, there have been reports that these series will feature heroes and villains like Tom Hiddleston's Loki, Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, and Anthony Mackie's Falcon; they could even conceivably be used to introduce whole new characters into the MCU.

In theory, there's nothing new to the idea of TV shows set in the MCU; Marvel Television has been making them since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched back in 2013. The key difference here, however, is that these Disney Plus TV shows will be intimately bound to the movies. They'll feature the stars of the big screen, some of them will spin out of the movies, and others could even potentially set up some of the films as well. This is a radical change to the shape of the MCU.

A Possible End To Three Movies A Year

The MCU TV shows will probably come at a cost; it's highly likely that 2019 will be the last year with three MCU movies. The truth is that there's only so much content that even a studio like Marvel can produce and release in a single year without quality beginning to suffer. It's no coincidence that Marvel stopped their one-shot program back in 2014, just as they started planning an ambitious slate of films that would see them release three movies a year. The studio knew they were dangerously close to their limits, and Marvel Studios co-president Louis D'Esposito has explained that they've simply become too busy to sustain the one-shot program.

The live-action TV shows are a major strategic priority for Disney, and so the House of Mouse will definitely want them to be a regular feature - likely with one or two seasons dropping in every 12-month period. If Marvel is to pull that off, something will have to give; and, logically, the most sensible solution would be to reduce the number of films coming out each year to two rather than three. There are already signs that's going to be the case; Disney has booked just two dates for Marvel releases in 2020 (expected to be for The Eternals and Black Widow). It's reasonable to assume that 2021 will be similar, and that this will become the norm.

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Key Release Dates