Poster for 2012's 'The Avengers'
Credit: Image Credit: Rhythm & Hues

Even heroes need a master plan.

When Marvel Studios began producing its own movies in 2008 with the original Iron Man, the film ended with Samuel L. Jackson's S.H.I.E.L.D. spymaster Nick Fury telling Robert Downey Jr.: "Mr. Stark, you've become part of a bigger universe … "

That was the start of Phase One, in which The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America each linked up and laid the groundwork for what would become 2012's biggest movie – the billion-and-a-half dollar blockbuster The Avengers.

With Iron Man 3 opening Friday, Marvel launches Phase Two – another ambitious expansion of its superheroes' cinematic universe. Though much of it remains secret, producer and studio president Kevin Feige talked to EW to declassify a few new details.

"There are things in [Iron Man 3], in the next Thor movie, and particularly in the next Cap movie that will drastically change the landscape between Avengers and Avengers 2," Feige says. "One of the amazing things in our little Marvel Studios sandbox is that filmmakers are inheriting other filmmakers' solutions, other filmmakers' expectations."

Here's the latest on what's in the works beyond Iron Man 3:

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Thor: The Dark World

(due Nov. 27)

Chris Hemsworth's thunder-summoning god was banished to Earth to learn humility in 2011's Thor, but he's still grappling with his responsibilities as a leader and protector. "I would say there's a question of what happens when you're now seemingly ready for something, but don't necessarily want it anymore," Feige says. "That's part of his internal struggle."

This sequel will spend more time in the galactic stomping grounds of the hammer-wielding hero as Thor brings his astrophysicist love (Natalie Portman) to the celestial realm of Asgard for safekeeping when life on Earth becomes too dangerous for her to stay there alone.

The threat this time: Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston), a sorcerer and leader of the chaos-craving dark elves. He first appeared in the comics in 1984, and struck up an alliance with Thor's similarly anarchy-inclined brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, returning as one of the Marvel movies' favorite love-to-hate villains.)

"Tony Stark wasn't perfect at the end of Iron Man 1, and I don't think Thor is perfect at the end of Thor 1 — particularly in his relationship with his brother, considering what he went through in Avengers," Feige says.

Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor is picking up the reins from Kenneth Branagh for the sequel. Based on the just-released first trailer, some fans have remarked that The Dark World has a distinctly Tolkein-esque vibe.

"Alan is bringing a grittier, more visceral, more textured patina to the designs of the worlds, and to Asgard in particular," Feige says. "It's less to chase either Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings — because you're not going to catch up. But part of the fun of Thor over the other characters is he doesn't have to stay on Earth. We visit a few of the other realms in this new movie."

One of those realms is known as Svartalfheim – the domain of Malekith. Fans can probably agree The Dark World is a better subtitle than Thor: Svartalfheim, no?

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(due April 4, 2014)

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

While the first Captain America was a World War II action-adventure, the new one is conceived as a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller—in tone, if not time period.

"We weren't going back to World War II," says Feige, especially since Chris Evans' hero was introduced to modern times in Avengers. "Cap cannot travel in time. So while Tony can go home to Malibu and Thor goes up to Asgard and Hulk can sort of ride the rails, Cap was stuck."

At the end of the 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, supersoldier Steve Rogers woke up to find he was a man out of time. Now he finds he's also a man without a place. "So Cap does stay with S.H.I.E.L.D. because he has nowhere else to go," Feige says. "But he's not necessarily comfortable there. As you might imagine, somebody who's spent 70 years in ice, frozen, wakes up and has to fight a bunch of aliens with a bunch of weirdos—he is trying to figure out what his life is."

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are taking over the franchise from filmmaker Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer). They're unusual choices for the project, since they're best known for directing TV comedies Community and Arrested Development. But Marvel doesn't hand off its characters to just anyone, and the shows the brothers have done — while a different genre — are still among the most critically acclaimed on TV.

"Winter Soldier" refers to an assassin (pictured in concept art above) who is the resurrected and brainwashed version of Captain America's best friend Bucky (played by Sebastian Stan), who was last seen plunging off an icy train in the first movie. The bio-engineered killer was created by comics scribe Ed Brubaker in 2005, and in short order became a favorite part of Cap lore.

"Just as he's given permission to let go of the past and to focus on the modern world… a ghost comes up," Feige says.

Captain America

Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Jackson's Nick Fury return for major roles in this installment, with Anthony Mackie joining the superhero squad as the high-flying hero Falcon, and Robert Redford playing S.H.I.E.L.D veteran Alexander Pierce.

His participation was part of paying homage to the '70s thriller vibe. "I had my first meeting with Robert Redford, and he had read the script and he goes, 'You know I did a movie once called Three Days of Condor, and it really felt …' And I was like [widens eyes ], 'Uh-huh …'" Feige says with a laugh.

But all is not well between noble Cap and his S.H.I.E.L.D colleagues. "With the greatest generation in World War II, there's a tendency to reflect on that period and say. 'Things were black and white back then, and now it's hard to know who the bad guys are,'" Feige says. "We wanted to play on that a little with Cap being uncomfortable with the way S.H.I.E.L.D., and in particular Nick Fury, operates."

Just because a character has traditionally been a hero doesn't mean Marvel won't push the boundaries into anti-hero territory. "Fury certainly rides a line, sort of rides the shadows," Feige says. "He has, I think, lied to every character in every movie, though always for seemingly for the good."

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Guardians of the Galaxy

(due Aug. 1, 2014)

Credit: Marvel Studios

A warrior tree?

A rocket-launching raccoon?

Chris Pratt?

Probably the most daring and outrageous of Marvel's Phase Two slate, Guardians of the Galaxy features a cast of oddball intergalactic characters who would be quite at home knocking back drinks in the Star Wars cantina.

Parks and Recreation's Pratt plays Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord), the half-alien leader of a team that includes genetically engineered gunslinging varmint Rocket Racoon, a giant fighting tree named Groot, wrestler Dave Bautista as knife-wielding green muscleman Drax the Destroyer, and Zoë Saldana as the assassin Gamora, the last survivor of an otherwise extinct alien race.

In the never-before-seen concept art below, we see a young Quill's first close encounter on Earth, before he is whisked away to the far reaches of the galaxy. Marvel isn't revealing much about the craft, but it is not the ship from the comic books that goes by the name "Ship" -– a sentient spacecraft with a feminine persona who has a kind of crush on Star-Lord … (because, you know, THAT would be crazy.)

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

"Guardians takes place within the continuity of the [other movies] but it's on the other side of the universe," Feige says. "We've always wanted to do a space movie. I'm obsessed with Star Wars, I'm obsessed with Star Trek."

The Guardians of the Galaxy comic books began in 1969, and though it is more of a cult-favorite than a mainstream title, the movie aims to change that by introducing this team of law-and-order-enforcing cosmic misfits.

"It's a huge story on a massive canvas," Feige says. "We can take it to all those crazy places as long as all the characters respond in an emotionally truthful way. That's why I believe people are going to respond to Chris Pratt and to an alien Zoë Saldana—because they did respond to that one time before [with Avatar]. And to a tree and a raccoon who, it is certainly our intention, will steal the whole movie."

The voices of Rocket Raccoon and Groot (who, Hulk-like, isn't the most verbal character and tends to say only his own name) haven't been cast yet, but filmmaker James Gunn (Super, Slither) has shown a willingness to cast his offbeat movie in appropriately offbeat ways.

Saldana as a seductive alien badass? No brainer. But Pratt, known for the dim-but-lovable Andy Dwyer on TV, was an unusual a choice for a superhero. (Of course, so was Michael Keaton as Batman once upon a time …)

"He's a hilariously frumpy, doofy guy in Parks and Rec, and he's an incredibly kickass ripped guy in Zero Dark Thirty and that's pretty awesome," says Feige. "He's going to need that in Guardians. That's a big range right there."

Still, finding the right actor wasn't easy. "We did a lot of auditions, a lot of screen tests, just as we did for Thor, just as we did for Cap," Feige says. "[Pratt] was hilarious, he was moving, he was … you bought him in the early versions of the outfit."

As team leader both on and off screen, Pratt also helped them figure out who else should join the Guardians. "One of the reasons Bautista got the part was because his banter, and ad libs, and screen tests with Pratt were awesome."

Now they just need their raccoon. "We're open to being surprised," the producer says.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

(TV series, date TBD)

Poster for 2012's 'The Avengers'[/caption]

While not technically part of the Phase Two cinematic realm, this in-the-works TV show is still set in the same series of connected stories.

The Marvel universe expands to television with this ABC series focusing on the non-superpowered humans of the global police force known as S.H.I.E.L.D. Clark Gregg, who played beloved (and highly efficient) Agent Phil Coulson in The Avengers, will be returning to star in the show, which has been co-written and produced by Joss Whedon, who also directed the pilot.

Given how many characters Marvel Studios controls, and the fact that they only want to produce two films a year, could we see some of the as-yet-unused heroes – like Black Panther — turn up here?

"If that works the way everyone expects it to work I think that would open up another avenue, another outlet for some of those characters," Feige acknowledes. "Maybe they guest star, I don't know. I think they're avoiding the cameo of the week on that show, which is very smart."

The only other major question, still unanswered for sure — though there are lots of theories: How does Agent Coulson return after his seemingly final fate in The Avengers?

But, well, there is one other question: Would Robert Downey Jr. ever return to TV for a guest appearance as Iron Man?

EW asked him straight-up. Downey Jr.'s response: "You know what? There's no telling. I am open to everything."

It's not very likely. But at the very least, it's also not a hard "no."

NEXT PAGE: The Avengers 2

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The Avengers 2

(due May 1, 2015)

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

The crown jewel of Phase Two, this team-up sequel will see the gang of heroes growing even larger – though Feige acknowledges sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

One thing he said they need to be careful to avoid is hero overload. "When it becomes a cameo or Easter egg, [audiences] become less interested in it," he said. "If we're going to add new characters, there's going to be a reason and they're going to be a major part of the movie."

All of the Avengers from the first movie will be back. At least, that's the plan. Robert Downey Jr. has currently fulfilled his contract obligations as Iron Man, but nobody – including the actor himself – expects that he'll skip this one.

Just like in the comics, new characters will also join the ranks. "What's fun is that the roster shifts," Feige says. "It was always the intention to have a storyline that brought in, obviously, new bad guys and potentially new heroes."

So who will that be? The answer is in the comic book images above.

Joss Whedon has finished a first-draft and told reporters at the Iron Man 3 premiere there will be a brother-sister team in it. Fans began speculating online that Quicksilver, who can move with incredible speed, and his sorceress sister Scarlet Witch were the only possible contenders.

A source close to the movie confirms to EW that, yes, they are the ones in the script.

Feige kept his poker face when asked about it. I'm not confirming or denying," the producer said. "The draft could change six months from now." He notes that the Mandarin was the main villain in the first Iron Man movie until shortly before filming began.

And speaking of the Mandarin … Marvel has shown a willingness to tweak the backstories of some characters, which would seem to be a necessity on Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Even though the Marvel source confirms that the studio does have the right to use them in the movie, the siblings in the comic books are supposed to be the children of Magneto – a character licensed to Fox for the X-Men movies, which are made independently of Marvel Studios.

In other words, don't expect a cameo from Ian McKellen – and it's also not very likely that Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch will reference their metal-bending villain father. They also probably will not be referred to as "mutants," a term that is off-limits as part of the X-Men license.


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(Nov. 6, 2015)

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

When Phase Two ends with Avengers 2, Phase Three begins.

And the first announced film in that line-up will be Ant-Man — the hero with a suit that allows him to size-shift at will, and technology that lets him communicate with insects and other tiny-but-deadly creatures.

Writer-director Edgar Wright has been developing the project since before the first Iron Man. "Frankly, now we have to re-write it to put it a little bit more into the [Marvel Cinematic Universe] because it was written before it existed," Feige said.

Wright, who appeared last night at an EW CapeTown Film Festival double-screening of his movies Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, also brought his test reel of an action sequence from the movie. In it, we get a clear example of how being small can still be a fearsome way to fight.

Although miniaturized, Ant-Man still has the weight and power of a full-sized person, so even a tiny punch can knock a man's tooth out and send him caroming off a wall. Zipping from itty-bitty to regular size can also be an effective combat technique – awesomely dubbed "Size-Fu" by Baddass Digest's Devin Faraci when a rough version of the scene played at Comic-Con.

Wright said last night he has been eager, but not impatient, to get started on the film, since the two movies he has made in the interim – Scott Pilgrim and the upcoming The World's End – have helped him hone a lot of skills he'll need to bring Ant-Man to the big screen.

Shooting is set for next year, but they still need to cast the main character. "We've talked about various names over the past eight years but as you can imagine they keep changing as time goes by," says Feige. "But towards the end of this year, we'll buckle down and start casting and start refining the script, which is great and which is very Edgar. He has done a great job being incredibly true to the comics but is putting his own spin on it, so we'll be drawing on multiple mythologies for this one."

A pirated version of that test reel has already leaked online, but expect the full, finished and polished version to make the rounds sooner or later. Feige acknowledges that it has been a valuable way to introduce the hero to the unfamiliar.

"Sometimes we take it for granted that people know what we're doing," Feige says. "Some people don't get it: 'Ant-Man …? Is that goofy? What? He talks to ants? What is this…?'"

The test reel fixes that, Feige says: "Then they suddenly go, 'Ohhh…'

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