Avengers: Infinity War is driving a lot of speculation right now about what next year’s follow-up Avengers movie and the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could look like. Part of that speculation draws from what we know — or think we know — based on movie news, but fans are also looking to comics history for possible indicators of where the story might go. If you read our feature about the iconic Marvel Comics moments that Infinity War brings to life, then you know that the movie is full of visual callbacks to the comics. More often than not, these moments have been re-contextualized from the comics, as if the filmmakers were using the same basic ingredients to make a different recipe.
Even before it stopped answering to the Marvel Creative Committee, Marvel Studios was never bound by a need to slavishly adapt specific stories. What it did do that set it apart from the studios behind the early batch of inferior comic book movies in the 2000s was demonstrate a genuine affinity and respect for the source material. This could be felt in things like the faithful costume design it afforded most of its heroes and some (but not all) of its villains. No longer was their colorful comic book look — the bright visual aesthetic that X-Men once dismissed with a cheeky one-liner about “yellow spandex” — regarded as silly and in need of black-leather revision.
Knowing the studio’s penchant for pulling from old back issues, let’s dig into the Marvel Comics library and take a look at some elements that might make it into Avengers 4 and Phase 4 of the MCU.
Potential spoilers for future Marvel movies and definite spoilers for Infinity War lie ahead.
Avengers: Heroes Reborn?
It seems unfathomable now given the success of their respective movie trilogies, but there was a time in the 1990s when Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were B-list heroes in terms of popularity. At the very least, their comic book titles took a back seat in monthly sales to Spider-Man and the X-Men. When Marvel started making movies, the Avengers were the best option they had to work with simply because they had sold off the movie rights to other more valuable characters years before.
At one point, Sony could have grabbed up the rights to a number of MCU heroes for a cheap price, but it was only interested in Spider-Man, with one executive reportedly saying, “Nobody gives a shit about any of the other Marvel characters.” In 1996, this indifference coupled with the company’s financial problems (it filed for bankruptcy that year) led Marvel to cancel four of its longest-running titles: Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers, and Fantastic Four. It then outsourced the characters to two of its former artists, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, who had left the House of Ideas to found their own rival company, Image Comics.
Dubbed “Heroes Reborn,” the stunt gave the characters a modern origin update and helped rejuvenate sales, but what’s interesting is the way Marvel chose to make those four titles available for a relaunch under Lee and Liefeld. In the Onslaught: Marvel Universe one-shot, which concluded the Onslaught crossover, it had the heroes sacrifice themselves by absorbing the disembodied villain’s energy field. After running into the field, the heroes seemed to disappear, much like those who disintegrated on-screen at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.
It was later revealed, however, that they had survived in a “pocket universe” contained within a blue orb. Imbued with godlike powers, Franklin Richards — the son of Mr. and Mrs. Fantastic — had put them there subconsciously. In the Heroes Reborn: The Return mini-series, Spider-Man actually got sucked into the pocket universe and was surprised to find the heroes alive.
Infinity War co-director Joe Russo may have already confirmed the theory that the Soul Stone houses its own pocket dimension, Soul World. (He later clarified that it did not mean Gamora was trapped in limbo there … but she was notably killed, not disintegrated.) In the comics, Soul World is a place “where the spirits the Soul [Stone] snatches go to spend eternity.” Substitute Thanos for Franklin Richards and the Soul Stone for Franklin’s blue orb and it’s not a stretch to think that heroes like Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians of the Galaxy could still be alive in the purgatory of Soul World.
Having “Heroes Reborn” as the title of the next Avengers movie would also be a dead giveaway that they are coming back, thereby undercutting the dramatic effect of their apparent deaths at the end of Infinity War. That jibes with what Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has said about the title of Avengers 4 being a spoiler.
Red Hulk and Baron Zemo’s Thunderbolts
“Heroes Reborn” was also tied to the rise of the Thunderbolts, a new super-team that stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the absence of the Avengers and Fantastic Four in the mainstream Marvel universe. One of the greatest plot twists in Marvel history came at the end of Thunderbolts #1 when it was revealed that the Thunderbolts were actually the Masters of Evil: villains masquerading as heroes. Their leader was none other than Baron Zemo.
Captain America: Civil War introduced Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) as the plainclothes mastermind who pitted the heroes against each other. He was left alive at the end of the movie (a rare thing for an MCU villain), so it’s possible he might come back and even don the Baron Zemo mask in Phase 4. Civil War and Infinity War also noticeably reintroduced William Hurt’s “Thunderbolt” Ross into the MCU as the U.S. Secretary of State. In his guise as Red Hulk, Ross would go on to lead a later iteration of the Thunderbolts in the comics.
If the Avengers are no more — either retired or dead and gone — after the events of Avengers 4, it’s possible that we could see a team of government-sponsored Thunderbolts become a major presence in the MCU. This could be Marvel’s version of Suicide Squad or The Dirty Dozen.
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