I know that some of you are just landing on this page so I'm going to give you one last chance to turn back. It's not that my speculations and deductions are spoilers, but they are based on spoilers from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and while I don't mind spoilers, I do NOT want to spoil the movie for anyone else unless they are choosing it. So, after the picture below, spoilers will fly...
Before the picture, I'd like to remind you that this is speculation. Sometimes, I'm right. I can tell you, with no evidence, that I called Ultron as the big bad for Avengers 2 LONG before any official announcement. I can submit to you evidence of how I was able to deduce some plot point of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, from the Super Bowl spot. Sometimes, I'm wrong. I can submit to you evidence of how I mistakenly interpreted that Warlock would appear in Guardians of the Galaxy. I can tell you that by speculating on things, I open myself up to some pretty awesome criticism (I'd encourage you guys to read this Reddit link...it's damn funny) and that's ok. I enjoy doing this and sharing it. It's what nerds do.
The Future of the Captain America Franchise
At the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Rogers makes it clear he's going to try to chase down Bucky. It's also very clear that Cap will be taking on HYDRA. I'm here to tell you that taking on HYDRA is going to take precedence and so, Avengers: Age of Ultron, will feature Cap in battle vs. HYDRA but that doesn't mean we'll never see Bucky again. Bucky and Cap will be teaming up at some point in the future, most likely in the third Captain America film. I would certainly not be surprised if a future One-Shot gives us an update on Bucky in the meantime. We haven't seen the last of Sam Wilson, either. Falcon will likely be back in a third Captain America film, too. With 3 pretty bad ass heroes, I'd argue more bad ass than the 3 in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there'd have to be a pretty big threat looming.
Brock Rumlow will return as Crossbones in a third Captain America film. He's in pretty bad shape at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and, once he's done recovering from the massive burns that covered most of his body, he's going to be going to prison...and then somebody is going to break him out and then Crossbones is going to set to work in taking his revenge against Captain America.
Agent 13 will return. She will be dating Steve Rogers while working for the CIA. Sharon Carter/Agent 13 has been an on again-off again love interest of Captain Rogers for a long time in the comics, but she also plays a larger role. She, while unknowingly in league with Crossbones, will kill Steve Rogers. Will they go with the Dr. Faustus story line straight from the comics? Hard to say, but following Steve's death, Bucky will take up the mantle of Captain America.
A lot of you know that I've been banging the drum about The Death of Captain America for a long time, so what did I see in this movie that actually pushed me EVEN further in that direction? What did I see that, as far as I've seen, nobody else has picked up on? It was something little, but something I know was intentional. Remember that Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have been the screenwriters for both Captain America films. Keep in mind that Kevin Feige recently revealed that they have been planning for the second film to Captain America: The Winter Soldier since before the first film. All that having been said, it's VERY clear that there are no coincidences.
So, that one, little thing...the last time we see Sharon Carter (Agent 13) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier she's gone to work for the CIA and she's in a shooting range. One thing Marvel wanted to make VERY clear to us from that scene, the one thing they zoomed in on and let sit in our subconsciousness is that Agent 13 doesn't miss. Her target had been hit dead-center by every round she fired. For those of you who don't know, while Crossbones snipes Rogers, a brain-washed Agent 13 walks right up to him and puts the finishing touches on him by shooting him in the abdomen. In the picture above, the chest wound came from Crossbones; the rest came from Sharon Carter. If you've watched Marvel movies you know they foreshadow and you know they don't have coincidental links. Everything is well-planned. With that in mind, come up with one other reason they wanted the last image you had of Agent 13 being of her as a deadshot. They could have shown literally ANYTHING else. But I'm here to tell you that scene was planted purposely.
Keep in mind, not everyone that sees these movies reads comics. In fact, in the very small theater in which I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there were several in the audience who audibly displayed their surprise that Bucky was the Winter Soldier. Those people sure as hell don't know Captain America died and they sure as hell won't expect that his girlfriend pulled the trigger.
This leaves Bucky in a tough spot. If they follow the comics, Falcon will go after Bucky first before learning the truth and then the two of them will team up for vengeance. Will this all be in Cap 3? Hard to say...it could be. It could be in Avengers 3. Could it be in Cap 3 and still have Chris Evans fulfill his contract by appearing in Avengers 3? Sure...here's ONE of several possible way:
Just a what if based on nothing but speculation. What if the Steve Rogers that dies, whether it be in Captain America 3 is a Skrull? Just what if? That's where crazy guessing begins and actual ideas stop. Steve Rogers is a dead man in the MCU. Like I said before, the when is just a matter of how death better serves the larger narrative.
If you haven't seen the film or been on the internet ever, you don't know that the mid-credits' scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier features Thomas Kretschmann's Baron von Strucker in his bad ass secret lair (if you read this December article about the news von Strucker would appear in the MCU or read this article the day we learned about Kreschmann's casting in January, you wouldn't be surprised at all that he showed up in this film.)
In the scene, it is revealed that von Strucker and his team of HYDRA scientists have acquired Loki's scepter from The Avengers. The scepter, if you recall, is uniquely able to control people's minds. Further exploration of the secret lair shows a pair of super-powered twins who we learn are likely the sole survivors of some sort of "volunteer" program. It's pretty clear that Strucker and HYDRA intend to turn the twins loose on the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a continued effort to take over the world. That's what is explicitly revealed in the scene, but there's more to it than that.
The twins, who are revealed to be the Maximoff twins, Wanda and Pietro, are clearly being kept prisoner. What is also clear is that they twins' power is new to them. Pietro seems barely able to control his super-speed and while Wanda seems a bit more comfortable with hers as she levitates some blocks, she also destroys the blocks, though it's indeterminate if it was intentional. If I had to guess, I'd say the "volunteers" were genetically altered somehow. To be fair, that guess if influenced by the set photos from Avengers: Age of Ultron, but that influence only served to make me lean more in the direction I was already headed. What sort of genetic manipulation was done is up in the air, but I'd say the twins, who we'll probably learn were not well-to-do, took some money up front to "do some science." It seems pretty clear that von Strucker will be using the scepter to control them early on, likely as weapons against whatever crew Fury sends at him.
Obviously the twins won't stay on the bad side, most likely they'll be "cognitively recalibrated" like Hawkeye was in The Avengers before joining the good guys as all rumors point to von Strucker being out of the way by the end of the first act. While I used to be inclined to see the original meeting with the twins as a rescue mission, it seems to make more sense now that it's something put together by Fury while he's scouring Europe. I imagine he'll locate von Strucker and call in some help. Having said that, I also think the twins will provide enough of a distraction to allow von Strucker to escape, only to be seen again in the third Captain America film.
The Zola algorithm that was used for Project: Insight will be tied to the origins of Ultron. Remember, Ultron didn't come into existence with hatred for humans. He developed his hatred. Now I'm not necessarily sure that Ultron and Zola are the same thing, but I do think that the overall idea of how Zola stayed alive as an A.I. and used an algorithm to detect threats probably has a lot to do with Ultron. Too much coincidence, don't you think? With HYDRA having a presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, it borders on silly to think that there's no connection between Ultron and HYDRA/S.H.I.E.L.D.
Ant-Man's Role in the MCU
Let's keep in mind that we are talking about a studio that has worked feverishly to make a cohesive cinematic universe replete with cross-overs, cameos and call-backs and has even worked incredibly hard to connect their TV show to the events of the films even going to far as to use that recent tagline, "It's All Connected" as of late.
Guardians of the Galaxy is only going to be, for the time being, tangentially connected to the rest of the MCU; however, down the road there's going to be a bigger payoff. But what about the first film of Phase 3, Ant-Man. What role will Hank Pym and Scott Lang have to play in this web? We know very little at this point, but one thing that seems pretty set is that we are getting an older Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, who was going up against the Commies when you were crapping green. What if Hank Pym, as it turns out, may have been an original member of S.H.I.E.L.D. and may have been working with Howard Stark Peggy Carter and even Arnim Zola (edit: I guess Alexander Pierce will be there too!). You don't really think there was a genius of Hank Pym's caliber, one of the 7 smartest men on the Earth, running around in the 60s without S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA knowing about him, do you? Not in a cinematic universe where everything is connected.
Does that mean that somehow Pym will have had a connection to the beginnings of Ultron? Possibly. But for the time being I'm inclined to believe Whedon and Feige when they tell me Pym won't be involved in the origins of Ultron, though some evidence is certainly starting to mount in the contrary. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have deep ties to a lot of the things we're seeing now. I've long been a huge proponent of the Ant-Man film, but given the shape of things in the MCU now, I've arrived at an all new level of anticipation for this film. While Scott Lang's going to be a great character as played by Paul Rudd, Pym's character takes on another level of depth with the revelations of all the behind-the-scenes douchebaggery that has been going on at S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Big Picture
While S.H.I.E.L.D. is entirely destroyed, it seems HYDRA is still running on most cylinders.
I'm beginning to be more and more certain that the 2018 Avengers' film is not going to be the ultimate Thanos/Infinity Stone payoff we've long thought it would be. By the end of Phase 2 there will only be 3 stones. That means that in 5 Phase 3 movies they'd have to introduce 3 more stones AND have Thanos collect them all. That's an awful lot to put into 5 movies. I'm not certain it won't happen, but I will not be surprised if it's revealed that the third Avengers' film is NOT the Infinity payoff.
Now, could it be something Cosmic? Absolutely! We now know that Marvel Studios' has partial rights to the Skrulls. We know they have the Kree. We know Carina Walters, a huge player in the Korvac Saga, is a part of the MCU. I'm pretty sure Avengers: Age of Ultron will see Bruce Banner sent into space and that, eventually, he's going to come back. I think it's even possible it still involves Thanos. While everyone knows about the Infinity Gauntlet story, most people have either forgotten about or never knew about the first time Thanos invaded Earth, a story that involved the Cosmic Cube and a HEAVY dose of Captain Marvel. This type of story would be much more doable for 2018 and give Thanos a great reason to gather the Infinity Gems for a return engagement in 2021, 2024 or 2027. This may sound silly, but remember Kevin Feige has said they have the films planned out until 2028. Having an omnipotent, omnipresent Thanos take on a VERY tiny band of Avengers and almost no Cosmic heroes in 2018 would be a lot. They just need more firepower.
And what of a world with no S.H.I.E.L.D.? What will take it's place? H.A.M.M.E.R.? S.W.O.R.D.? I'd bet dollars to donuts S.W.O.R.D. turns up eventually (been saying it since September). But S.W.O.R.D. doesn't have much to do with the terrestrial threats. I know some of the essential parts of H.A.M.M.E.R. are missing in the MCU, but we do have a few and for arguments' sake, almost anyone could replace Norman Osborne. I know we haven't see the last of Agent Victoria Hand and, as bad as it looks for her now, I'm still not 100% sure she turns out all bad. Remember despite her shortcomings, she had a VERY redemptive comic arc as a part of the New Avengers, a group I will not be at all surprised to see on screen soon in this very Bendis-esque MCU.
Studio executives were not lying to us when they told us that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a game changer for the MCU. I wasn't lying when I said, via Twitter, that the game changer would simply be the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. We're going to see the fallout from the film beginning in Avengers: Age of Ultron and then throughout Phase 3.
As for Phase 3, I'm only sure of 4 films: Captain America, Thor, Ms. Marvel and Avengers. I'd like to think Doctor Strange will be a part of it, but as Feige has recently stated, they're not as close to being ready to go as we all think. In order for a 2017 release date, Marvel will want EVERTYHING in place by mid-2015 at the latest. As I've pointed out in the past, they like to have their creative teams in place about 2 years ahead of the game. Cap 3 already has screenwriters and directors in place. Thor 3 has screenwriters. Ms. Marvel has had a script for sometime now. Avengers 3 is going to be another Joss Whedon production. Of all the films, Doctor Strange seems to have the furthest to go in terms of completion. As of today, I'd peg it as the yet unannounced 2017 date if it will be a part of Phase 3 at all. If not Doctor Strange, your guess is as good as mine. I hear it on good authority that Wakanda will be a part of Avengers: Age of Ultron and we all know how long Marvel has been developing a Black Panther feature and how big of a deal it would be to bring T'Challa to the screen. Having Phase 3 feature a minority lead and a female lead would put Marvel light years ahead of where they are now. Could we get the Inhumans or would the Planet Hulk film fill that spot? I'm sure both films will happen, just not sure when yet. I guess when it comes down to it, it doesn't really matter to me. None of those films sound like bad choices to me and with the way Marvel continues to raise its level of performance, it doesn't seem like they can go wrong. Here's to a bright future, even though the fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier left things looking awfully dim. Do me a favor and in a few years, come back and tell me how dumb all this was and how wrong I was!