By Anthony Breznican
May 17, 2013 at 06:00 PM EDT

Big things happen in threes.

With Iron Man 3 heading into its third weekend, now is the perfect time to look ahead to what Marvel Studios may be planning for its own third act — the evolving multi-movie slate known as Phase Three.

Phase One for the comic book studio was the series of films that culminated in last year’s The Avengers. Phase Two begins with Iron Man 3, and will build to Avengers 2 in 2015, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy in between.

The question that still hasn’t been resolved, even internally at the studio… What comes next?

Right now the only definite project being planned for Phase Three is Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man, which has been in development since 2006 but will finally come to the screen in November 2015 — just a few months after Avengers 2.

“I’d say 99 percent of our time right now is purely spent on Phase Two,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige told EW. “It’s five colossally giant motion pictures that we have to produce. So that’s taking up the time. But within the next year or so we’ll start the advanced planning for post-Avengers 2.”

Given that nothing has been settled yet, EW tried to pick Feige’s brain about which potential Phase Three movies are likely — and which are definitely not happening.

Here’s what we learned:

• Ant-Man

• Doctor Strange

• Iron Man 4

• Black Panther

• Daredevil, The Punisher, Blade, Ghost Rider

• Hulk

• Inhumans

• Runaways

• Marvel Zombies

And in case you missed it, here is EW’s update on Marvel’s Phase Two series, with details on all the movies that are already in the works.

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Ant-Man

It’s done. Or at least, it will be.

Ant-Man is definitely happening, at long last…

Once director and co-writer Edgar Wright wraps this summer’s apocalyptic pub-crawl comedy The World’s End (out Aug. 23), he will begin work in earnest on bringing Marvel’s teeny-tiny ass-kicker to the big screen.

Wright has already crafted a short film as test footage for the movie, which showed at Comic-Con last July and at Entertainment Weekly’s recent Cape Town Film Festival. Next year, he’ll shoot the feature-length version. For those who have been waiting, it can’t come soon enough.

“We started working with Edgar on that movie right in the dawn of us becoming our own studio,” Feige says. “It goes back so long you maybe even remember our 2006 appearance at Comic-Con. Edgar was on that panel talking about Ant-Man. And it had been a few years [of planning] at that point.”

For the uninitiated, Ant-Man is about a hero with a suit that allows him to miniaturize at will and communicate with insects and other small-but-dangerous creatures. The character is one of the reasons Marvel decided to stop licensing its comics to other studios (e.g. Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic 4) and start making their own films.

Feige said he sat in on too many pitch meetings where confused people scrunched their faces and asked if this was about a guy who was half-ant and half-man. “Do you know why we became our own studio?” he said. “Because those are the conversations we used to have with studio execs. And they were very frustrating.”

Wright has had the green light to make it for several years, but he’s the one who has been vexing fans by postponing it.

“I actually made the choice to make Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End before this one,” Wright told EW. “And Ant-Man is such a big special-effects film, it’s almost like the further it goes on, the easier it is to do, in a way. I feel more confident now, but I can’t talk about it too much because I get superstitious. I just feel like I don’t want to jinx it.”

But there’s no jinxing it this time. Although they haven’t cast the lead role yet, the project is now the only definite part of Marvel’s Phase Three. “I’ve learned a lot in the last five years, and now I’m ready to do something big and crazy,” Wright says. “Or, I should say, small.”

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Doctor Strange

Created in 1963, Stephen Strange was an arrogant surgeon who goes on a faith-healing quest after his previously miracle-working hands are damaged in an accident. What he discovers transforms him into one of the world’s most powerful sorcerers, charged with protecting Earth from supernatural and magical threats.

The character has fascinated filmmakers for decades, with everyone from Wes Craven to Guillermo del Toro mulling ways to bring originating artist Steve Ditko’s trippy, astral illustrations to the big screen. No one has succeeded.

Now, Feige says Doctor Strange is one of the prime candidates for a Phase Three berth — or birth, if you will.

Screenwriters Thomas Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer (Conan the Barbarian reboot, Sahara) penned a script for the studio a few years ago, although there’s no telling whether it will be used, refined, or replaced. When the Marvel brain trust begins laying out plans, expect a new version of Strange to be a top priority.

“I would love Strange to be a part of that only because he’s a great character. He’s a great standalone character,” Feige emphasizes. “He’s got a great origin story, for the most part. And that world of pure magic, we haven’t done yet. There’s a whole supernatural/magic alternate dimension going on in the Marvel comics that we haven’t ever touched on. So I think that’s exciting.”

Who should play the somewhat sinister hero? Fans have suggested everyone from Viggo Mortensen to Liam Neeson, and Patrick Dempsey openly campaigned for the role in an interview with Geoff Boucher in 2011.

Obviously, no casting is set at this early stage. “I think there’s any number of actors who would be chomping at the bit to play this guy,” Feige said.

But who can rock that iconic popped collar?

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Iron Man 4
'IRON' GIANT The third installment in the Iron Man series is poised to be a both financial and critical success.
Disney

This is the billion-dollar question.

With Iron Man 3 reaching that number at the global box office, a fourth installment would seem to be a no-brainer. Except… Robert Downey Jr.’s contractual obligations have all been filled, and though everyone expects him to return for Avengers 2, there’s no guarantee beyond that.

And if we did get another Iron Man movie, it would be many years away — and Downey himself acknowledges that, at 48, he’s not getting any younger. “I’d go start another one tomorrow, but it’s not tomorrow,” Downey tells EW. “ And there are a lot of other considerations. But I also don’t like the idea of leaving people hanging or leaving people in the lurch.”

Meanwhile, he also has the Warner Bros. Sherlock Holmes movies, which could have another installment, and he would like to try out an entirely new character.

“My intent is to launch another franchise, independent of any that I can even imagine right now,” Downey said. “My intent is to dominate the playing field for as long as I can, with my own challenges, with myself.”

That doesn’t leave much room for a return to Tony Stark, but it doesn’t rule out a return in a few years either.

Feige says Marvel Studios is talking with Downey about if and when he could reprise the character. But if it doesn’t happen, we could find ourselves with a reboot. It has happened before, though rarely with a character so singularly identified with one actor.

“I believe there will be a fourth Iron Man film and a fifth and a sixth and a 10th and a 20th,” the producer says. “I see no reason why Tony Stark can’t be as evergreen as James Bond. Or Batman for that matter. Or Spider-Man. I think Iron Man is a character just like that.”

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Black Panther

The title isn’t the easiest sell, even though this Marvel Comics character was introduced in 1966, just a few months before the similarly named militant group was founded.

But the world’s first black superhero has a core legion of fans who have been eager to see him on the big screen, and getting over any name confusion would be a fairly simple marketing problem to solve — if the resources were devoted to it.

Black Panther is the ceremonial title given to the leader of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and T’Challa is the man in the mask — a warrior of great strength and intelligence who not only rules his homeland, but must protect it from a perpetual legion of attackers. That’s because it is one of the few places on Earth where the element Vibranium can be found.

Vibranium, you say? It’s one of the rarest and strongest metals imaginable. (And it is totally imagined, by the way.) Captain America’s shield — that’s made out of vibranium.

Wesley Snipes tried to launch a Black Panther film as a starring vehicle for himself in the 1990s, but it never came together. In 2011, Marvel Studios commissioned a script from documentarian Mark Bailey, who has made such socially charged films as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, and Pandemic: Facing AIDS.

That led to rumors last year that Black Panther would be one of Marvel’s next movies, but then the Phase Two slate was announced and… it wasn’t on there.

Still, rumblings persist.

Recently, actor Morris Chestnut triggered one such temblor on Facebook with this status update: “It’s time to get familiar with the Black Panther character.” Fanboys wondered: Will we see Black Panther in Avengers 2? Or maybe the ABC series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

His Twitter account later dismissed the speculation and said the Facebook post did not originate from Chestnut, but rather was wishful thinking by fans who handle his social-media presence.

If we do end up seeing an adaptation of Black Panther, he could be introduced to general audiences through a supporting role in one of the other movies or the ABC series — just as he was in the comics, debuting in an issue of Fantastic Four.

Marvel just says everything is speculation at this point. Right now, those rumblings you hear are just evidence of the passion for this character — internally as much as from outside.

The real shock would be if Black Panther didn’t make an appearance sooner or later.

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Daredevil, The Punisher, Blade, Ghost Rider

Every now and then, one of the characters Marvel previously licensed to another studio returns to the fold. Unfortunately, it’s usually because the studio let the property lapse due to fan disinterest.

So Marvel Studios hasn’t been particularly eager to hustle more of these battered titles back into production.

Sorry.

“So Punisher, Ghost Rider,Blade, all those characters are back,” Feige told EW. “They all have potential, but I think we need to find the right time.”

In other words, don’t look at any of these as a priority for Phase Three.

It has been 10 years since Ben Affleck’s screen version of Daredevil, and Fox nearly held on to the property last year when director Joe Carnahan (Narc, The A-Team) pitched a grim, grittier version of the blind superhero. When executives passed, Carnahan released some concept reels suggesting the tone he had wanted for his Daredevil… and the clock slowly ticked down until the rights landed back in Marvel’s lap.

“We’re not going to say, we got it back — make it,” Feige said.

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The Incredible Hulk

The third time is the charm. For the Hulk, that moment came with The Avengers. It may lead to a place in Phase Three.

“People were like, ‘You’ve already had two movies. How is that going to happen?’” Feige said about pre-Avengers Hulk worries. “One of the goals that we talked about with Joss [Whedon] on Avengers was we want Hulk to be cool again.”

Ten years have also passed since Ang Lee and Eric Bana’s (in my opinion) underrated Hulk in 2003, which was rebooted with Edward Norton in the Bruce Banner role for 2008’s more action-oriented The Incredible Hulk.

Each was a modest box-office hit, with lukewarm critical reviews. Neither Hulk was particularly beloved by fans. That changed with The Avengers as Mark Ruffalo stepped into the role of Banner, giving the scientist with a mean, green streak some much needed warmth and humor.

Part of Ruffalo’s charm was making the character of Banner/Hulk more like a lovable kid who is prone to uncontrollable tantrums. It worked. Fans wanted more — a lot more.

In December, Ruffalo told EW he’s up for returning as the character, but worried that if they don’t do a Hulk movie with him relatively soon after Avengers 2, he’ll age out of the role. “You don’t want to be a 55-year-old Hulk,” the 45-year-old actor said.

“If anyone could be a great 55-year-old Hulk, it’s Mark so I’m not worried about that,” Feige told EW.

Rumors that a live-action version of the Planet Hulk comics series, in which the green monster is banished to an alien world, are completely false, Marvel execs insist. “What we’re excited about exploring and expanding is Mark — and Banner’s not in Planet Hulk at all,” Feige says. “The fun of the Hulk is his interaction with humans.”

There’s no script for a solo Hulk movie in the works just yet, but Feige says: “Mark could stand in his own movie. … We’re talking about it. We’re excited to sit down and go, ‘What is a stand-alone Hulk movie?’”

Most Marvel fans would agree: Phase Three could use a heaping helping of green.

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Inhumans

For a while, Inhumans seemed like it could have been a Phase Two movie, competing with Guardians of the Galaxy as Marvel’s way to expand its cinematic universe into the farther reaches of space.

Guardians got the go-ahead, but Inhumans is still a possibility. Don’t expect to see it take Phase Three priority over, say, a potential Thor 3 or Captain America 3, but it’s one that clearly has a lot of affection among the denizens of Marvel Studios. And it would be a good way to introduce an ensemble of fresh, new characters among the studio’s possible sequels.

The Inhumans series, which was introduced in 1965, focuses on a royal family of superbeings who evolved from alien experiments on primitive humans, and were dispatched to a remote world when the tests were abandoned. Think of it as Dallas with superheroes, only the name of their cosmic city is Attilan.

Led by the king Black Bolt, whose voice harnesses enough energy to level a city, young members of the Inhumans family face a trial when they come of age, and must venture into the mutating Terrigen Mists only to emerge as something different — and hopefully better — than what they were.

Feige himself told EW in 2011 that Inhumans was in the works, and he remains enthusiastic — almost boyishly so.

Inhumans is cool, they’re really great characters,” he said in a recent interview, getting more animated about this title than almost any other he discussed. “The most powerful guy is the king who doesn’t say a word and if he does — lookout. That’s awesome. And the notion of the Terrigen Mists, this notion that you go through and don’t know what you’re going to be on the other side, is incredibly compelling dramatically.”

Sound a little bizarre and out-of-the-mainstream? Maybe. But Guardians of the Galaxy, with its rocket-launching raccoon, walking-warrior tree, and other assorted misfit heroes, could clear a path for further exploration of the Marvel galaxy when it comes out in August 2014.

“In other words, all the craziness that comes with Inhumans, we’ve done in the other movies already,” Feige says. “But this would have some of the social drama that we haven’t really done yet. [Fox’s] X-Men, obviously, has been touching on that stuff for a while.”

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Runaways

This cult-favorite comic book series (created in 2003) follows a group of super-powered kids who discover that their parents are actually diabolical villains and turn against them. Marvel Studios came very, very close to producing a film version.

The series’ creator, Brian K. Vaughn, was working on a script, with plans to start production in 2011. Directors and cast were being considered. Then the title was delayed as screenwriter Drew Pearce was brought in to do a re-write.

Unfortunately, the characters didn’t fit in with Marvel’s Phase One plan to have all its movies build to The Avengers. Runaways was put on indefinite hold — and remains there.

“It’s a matter of where it fits,” Feige says. “The way the business is working now, you either have really inexpensive, sort of surprise movies that can come out and be hits, but don’t cost much. Or you have the big giant summer blockbusters that really swing for the fences. Right now, we’re just swinging for the fences every time. Runaways sort of falls in between those, in a way. We just haven’t found where or how to do it… right now.”

It wasn’t a problem with the script. Feige and the Marvel crew liked Pearce’s draft well enough to hire him to co-write Iron Man 3. “It’s worked out for Drew,” Feige says. “And for us, because he did such a good job on Iron Man.”

There’s still a remote possibility of a movie, especially since Joss Whedon — Marvel maestro extraordinaire — is a fan of the series and wrote an arc for the comic books a few years ago. Maybe when his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Avengers 2 slate is clear …?

As for what the studio boss says about the future for a Runaways movie? Feige shrugs apologetically. “I’d love to do it someday,” he says.

Unfortunately, “someday” isn’t very definite.

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Marvel Zombies

This is kind of a throw-away possibility. Nobody has talked about adapting a movie version of Marvel’s five-issue comic series from 2005-06 in which most of its heroes turn into flesh-eating fiends battling for sustenance in an undead apocalypse.

But with The Walking Dead’s popularity on television, and zombies in general becoming sort of the monsters of the moment, it seemed like it was worth a question: Would Marvel Studios ever make a one-off film of this twisted comic book tale? (After all, The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman also wrote Marvel Zombies.)

Predictably, Feige just shook his head. “I know… Zombies is such a funny thing because its such a cool comic and it’s such a cool idea, but the bigger profile becomes what starts to happen [with fans]” he said.

Specifically, why spend years building the Marvel Cinematic Universe only to destroy it with a gruesome joke. The concept of alternate universes isn’t one that works as easily in such a meticulously constructed film world. (Also, many of the characters — such as Zombie Wolverine, above — are licensed to other studios.)

In the comics, it’s easy to section off the zombies series as a special treat for grown-up fans, but the Marvel Studios movies aim for a much wider audience and making them ghouls might seriously freak out younger fans.

“Are you going to draw figures in chalk with your 3-year-old with Hulk eating someone? Or Captain America with his brains coming out of the top of his head? Probably not,” Feige said.

True. But then… there’s always Phase Four.

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