Spring 2012, and The Avengers - or, in the UK, Avengers Assemble - is released to huge critical and commercial success. By the end of the year, it has pipped The Dark Knight Rises to become 2012's biggest box-office hit, earning $1.5 billion worldwide.
The closing credits hint at a sequel involving alien warlord Thanos, but there's a long way to go before The Avengers 2 is released...
Flashback to October 2011. While Joss Whedon was immersed in post-production on The Avengers , Marvel producer Kevin Feige announced the studio's future plans at New York Comic-Con. Specifically, he confirmed that Iron Man 3 "will be the first of what we sort of refer to as phase two of this...saga that will culminate, God willing, in Avengers 2 ."
The full line-up consists of Iron Man 3 , Thor: The Dark World , Captain America: The Winter Soldier , Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Avengers 2 .
While the success of The Avengers has made Phase 2 an easier proposition, Marvel was already prepared to take risks, as Feige explained to Moviefone in September. "It just solidifies the notion that for Phase 2, play the long game, stick with what you believe in, and when there is a fork in the road and one seems safer and maybe a little boring, and one seems risky and harder, we always go the risky and harder way.
"That’s what people will see in Iron Man 3 , Thor: The Dark World , Captain America: Winter Soldier and certainly in Guardians Of The Galaxy , which is one of the ones that I’m most excited about because it’s so outside the box and so weird and so different. People like grand experiments and things that haven’t been done before, the unexpected," Feige added.
Back In The Suit
First up is Iron Man 3 which hits most cinemas worldwide from 25 April 2013. Robert Downey Jr. is back in the suit as Tony Stark, joined once again by Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle as James Rhodes
Behind the scenes, the film (alongside The Avengers ) marks a transition for Marvel from previous distributor Paramount to new owner Disney, with the latter agreeing to pay Paramount at least $115 million for the privilege of releasing the two films.
Favreau out, Black in
That's not the only change. Jon Favreau, director of the first two films, passed on the threequel (although he'll continue to play Tony Stark's assistant, Happy Hogan). He confirmed on Twitter that, "It's true, I'm directing Magic Kingdom , not Iron Man 3 . I've had a great run with Marvel and wish them the best," wrote Favreau.
That paved the way for Shane Black to take on the double-duties of writer and director, reuniting with his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang star Robert Downey Jr.
Clancy Replaces Clanging
Ain't It Cool News reported that Black's approach is very different in tone from the first two Iron Man films. Speaking at the Omaha Film Festival, Black explained that - in Ain't It Cool's words - "The studio was not happy with the direction Iron Man 2 took.
" Iron Man 3 will not be another 'two men in iron suits fighting each other' film. Instead, it will be more like a Tom Clancy-thriller, with Iron Man fighting real world villains," Black advised.
Without A S.H.I.E.L.D.
Likewise, Stark doesn't end up calling on his Avengers buddies. Feige told Collider in April 2012: "the gut instinct on the next phase and Phase 2 is to not have Iron Man 3 be a pseudo- Avengers 2 … Iron Man 3 is a full-on Tony Stark-centric movie."
Expanding on this point, he explained that Stark is "stripped of everything, he’s backed up against a wall, and he’s gotta use his intelligence to get out of it. He can’t call Thor, he can’t call Cap, he can’t call Nick Fury, and he can’t look for the Helicarrier in the sky."
Enter The Mandarin
The first major casting coup arrived with the announcement that Sir Ben Kingsley would play the film's primary antagonist, The Mandarin.
According to Marvel comic lore, this Chinese villain is not only highly trained in science and combat, but has extra-terrestrial tech at his disposal in the form of ten rings he discovered in a crashed spaceship.
However, Kevin Feige has confirmed that the movie interpretation will have no magic rings or technological doo-das. Instead, he's a terrorist fashioned more from the countless iconographies of other cultures' evil warlords.
And if you've seen the movie already? Let's just say it's fair to say that he's not what you're expecting.
The next major casting news saw Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall cast, respectively, as scientists Aldrich Killian and Dr Maya Hansen. Speaking about their roles, Pearce said, "I just think the films have a fun, joyful sort of quality about them. I've just enjoyed them. So I just felt like I wanted to be a part of this."
Meanwhile Hall told Entertainment Today that, "I decided to do Iron Man 3 because I've never done the 'Hurry Up And Wait' movie before. Even the studio movies I've done have been small studio movies, or indie films that we made on a wing and a prayer. I love those, but Iron Man is refreshing in a way because it's something out of my realm of experiences."
The names of Pearce and Hall's characters alerted aficionados to the fact that Iron Man 3 would be at least partially adapted from the acclaimed comic book arc, Extremis .
Published in 2005-6 and already an influence on Tony Stark's origins story in the first Iron Man film, the plot of Extremis revolves around a nanotechnology serum created by Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen that transforms people into "super soldiers."
Iron Man 3 - In Summary
Director: Shane Black.
Writers: Drew Pearce & Shane Black.
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr; Gwyneth Paltrow; Don Cheadle; Ben Kingsley; Guy Pearce; Rebecca Hall.
Released: Out Now
Into The Dark World
Following Iron Man 3 , the next installment of Marvel Phase 2 will be Thor: The Dark World , released in October 2013.
As promised by Kevin Feige in 2011 to Disney magazine, "Thor will go off into a new adventure," which sees Chris Hemsworth as the titular Asgardian tussling again with The Avengers ' big bad Loki (Hiddleston) and reuniting with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), even as he faces a new threat.
The official synopsis was released by Marvel in October, promising that "Thor battles to save Earth and all the Nine Realms from a shadowy enemy that predates the universe itself.... but an ancient race led by the vengeful Malekith returns to plunge the universe back into darkness. Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all."
In Marvel lore, Malekith the Accursed is the ruler of the Dark Elves of Svartálfar, a race who - like the Gods of Asgardia - are a sci-fi spin on Norse mythology. In August, it was confirmed that one-time Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston would play the evil elf, after Mads Mikkelsen dropped out.
Putting The 'Nah' In Branagh
One person not returning for the sequel is director Kenneth Branagh, who bowed out - according to the Los Angeles Times - due to the time pressures of script and visual effects development, which clashed with his commitments to starring in Wallander and working with his own theatre in Belfast.
Chris Hemsworth admitted his disappointment: "I learned so much from Ken while we built [ the first film ], so at least I had that time with someone like that. The start of anything creative is the most important period in a way. That’s when the most can go wrong, and Ken made sure we got it right.”
The search for Branagh's replacement continued to the end of 2011, with Brian Kirk (a British TV director lately working for HBO on Game Of Thrones ) and Patty Jenkins ( Monster ) in the running.
When Marvel parted company with Jenkins due to "creative differences" (something that Natalie Portman wasn't happy about, according to The Hollywood Reporter ) it was announced that Alan Taylor - another Game Of Thrones alumnus, who also directed the first episodes of Mad Men - had got the gig.
The interest in recruiting from Game Of Thrones served notice of a possible new aesthetic, confirmed by Chris Hemsworth to Slash Film . "I think that is what’s exciting about the second one: making it sort of more tangible and having a more organic feel to Asgard and that world.. I think of big waterfalls and mountains and a Viking influence... Having that in Asgard is going to make it all the more special and that’s what Alan wants to bring to it."
Meanwhile, Kevin Feige teased extra details in an interview with Collider . "What’s been going on in the nine realms without the Asgardians being able to use the Bifrost? I will just say it’s not good."
One of the dangling threads left from the first film that there wasn't room to explore in The Avengers was Thor's relationship with Jane Foster. Kevin Feige told Collider that The Dark World will remedy this.
"Really they were only together for three days, and do they love each other? Do they like each other? Do they know each other? We’re acknowledging that that love story in the first movie was sort of a quick crush, essentially, over the course of three quick days in the middle of the desert."
Loki And Learn
What about Loki? Tom Hiddleston told MTV News that, after the events of The Avengers , "he’ll have to take responsibility for what he’s done" in the Thor sequel.
With Malekith in place as a new threat, is there the possibility of a fresh start for Loki? "I for one am championing the redemption," stated Hiddleston, adding, "This isn’t definitely going to happen, but I think there would be nothing more awesome than seeing Loki and Thor fight somebody side by side."
The first trailer for Thor: The Dark World dazzles with an array of teasing moments. Luckily, we're on hand to decipher the fanboy clues amidst the bombastic chaos.
Just give our Trailer Breakdown a read, for a host of questions raised, and answers given.
Thor: The Dark World - In Summary
Director: Alan Taylor.
Writers: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on a story by Don Payne.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth; Natalie Portman; Tom Hiddleston; Anthony Hopkins; Stellan Skarsgård; Christopher Eccleston.
Released: 8th November, 2013.
Chris Evans will return as Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, in April 2014 for Captain America: The Winter Soldier .
The title was revealed at the 2012 Comic-Con, confirming that the story will likely be an adaptation of the acclaimed comic arc where Cap's old war buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been brainwashed into becoming the Soviet agent of the title.
Evans and Stan won't be the only returning cast members, as Marvel is set to use The Winter Soldier to bring back S.H.I.E.L.D. from the sidelines after sitting out Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World .
It was confirmed in Variety in June 2012 that Samuel L. Jackson will reprise his role of Nick Fury, with Scarlett Johansson and Cobie Smulders also set to return as Black Widow and Maria Hill, respectively. As Kevin Feige pointed out to Collider , "Tony goes back to Malibu, Thor goes back to Asgard, but there are a number of people who stay in S.H.I.E.L.D. Steve, for the time being, is going to be one of them."
The Modern Age
Much of the drama in Steve Rogers' story will come from the frozen WW2 hero navigating his way around the 21st Century, something that The Avengers only touched on slightly. The sequel will likely capitalise on a scene cut from Whedon's film, in which Steve searches for information on long-deceased friends.
Evans confirmed to Collider that "it is him trying to on a personal level adjust to the fact that everyone he knows is gone and the whole Peggy Carter of it all. There are a lot of things that he kind of has to come to terms with."
One of the defining characteristics of Marvel Phase 2 thus far is that each hero has a new director. Accordingly, Captain America: The First Avenger 's helmer, Joe Johnston, isn't in the running. A shortlist of potential replacements was reported as being down to The Adjustment Bureau 's George Nolfi, The Italian Job 's F. Gary Gray and Community 's lead directors Anthony and Joe Russo.
By June 2012, Variety was reporting that the latter were in final negotiations, and then they were officially locked in. With their background in comedy, the appointment of the Russo brother suggests that the light-hearted style of The First Avenger will remain intact. Although that said...
Tom Clancy Inspiration
Yet while it'll likely be a shade lighter than the other Marvel movies, Kevin Feige's teased some interesting points about a shift in tone and genre, suggesting a story that'll mix up the story so far.
“What’s exciting to me about [Captain America 2] - sort of about Iron Man 3 too if you look at it - is it’s tonally almost like a different genre. Shane Black’s described Iron Man 3 as a Tom Clancy sort of political thriller, which I like a lot. We hired our directors on Cap because they loved our explanation that we really want to make a ’70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie.”
The first released picture from the set, as seen above, certainly gives off a moody, darker vibe.
Mega Supporting Cast
The darker, more political tone certainly helps explain the addition of Hollywood veteran and critically acclaimed dramatic actor Robert Redford to the cast.
His addition back in April 2013 came with some ominous teasers about his place in the Marvel universe, and what drew him to the project.
"The Captain America thing is just a very simple thing I wanted to do something different," explains Redford. "I wanted to do something just to be different. Something bold, different."
"And that felt like a good thing to do," he continues. "That was it, nothing more to it than that. Well, it’s bold in terms of expectations, I guess."
He also went on to describe his character as "the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.", which is intriguing since Samuel L. Jackson is already on board as Nick Fury. Will Redford be playing an earlier incarnation of Fury (setting up the name as more of a cover identity than an actual person), or is he even higher up the chain then our favourite one-eyed badass?
The Winter Soldier himself won't be the only threat faced by Captain America. Variety confirmed in October 2012 that Warrior and End Of Watch actor Frank Grillo is to play the villainous Crossbones
In the comics, Crossbones is the alter ego of Brock Rumlow, a petty criminal who becomes a mercenary working for the Red Skull. So does that mean Hugo Weaving's fiendish mastermind will be back? Nothing definite is known as yet.
Another surprising addition came courtesy of UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre, who was cast as C-list comic villain Batroc the Leaper back in February 2013.
His main power is a speciality in savate, a form of kickboxing, but thanks to his garish purple costume and stereotypical French characterisation, he's been somewhat of a joke in the comics of late. The hiring of a genuine real-life fighting bad-ass suggests the movie could go down a different route.
Calling The Falcon
Alongside familiar faces from S.H.I.E.L.D., The Winter Soldier will see the big-screen debut of the Falcon, Marvel's first African-American superhero and Captain America's crime-fighting partner in the comics.
Variety reported in July 2012 that Anthony Mackie was the favourite for the role, becoming the second star of The Hurt Locker (after Jeremy Renner) to take a job with S.H.I.E.L.D.
Intriguingly, Mackie suggested things could've gone a whole other way before Chris Evans came aboard.
"I was offered Captain America," reveals Mackie. "It was just a straight offer. I met with the directors and the producers and talked to them and we were kind of on the same page about what it is we thought the character could be and they really were interested in my input and my ideas."
A huge number of actresses have been rumoured for Steve Rogers' modern-day love interest, including Brits Felicity Jones, Imogen Poots and Jessica Brown Findlay. But what of Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter? Nothing has been confirmed, but Marvel has been pondering the use of flashbacks to Rogers' previous life.
According to Kevin Feige in April 2012, "we’re still figuring that out. We love that cast, we love his dynamic with that cast and we want to see that again…the cast from the first movie; we want to see that again because I think it informs his character in a big way."
In February 2013, Emily VanCamp was confirmed for CA:TWS 's female lead.
Concept Art Explosion
In early April 2013, Marvel released a host of Phase 2 concept art, including the following snazzy shots.