It's been one of the most ambitious film franchises ever devised. But not even the head honchos at Marvel Studios could've dared dream how their grand plan would come together in such a box-office shattering way.
Concluding what is known in Marvel-speak as Phase 1, last year's The Avengers became the third highest-grossing film of all time, taking US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) globally. Only James Cameron's Titanic and Avatar have taken more. Beginning with 2008's Iron Man, Phase 1 was designed to introduce cinemagoers to a handful of superheroes from the Marvel Comics universe, via a series of stand-alone solo outings, with the intention of bringing them all together for The Avengers. And so, along with Robert Downey Jr's billionaire playboy we saw the arrival of Chris Hemsworth's hammer-wielding Norse god in Thor and Chris Evans' shield-spinning Second World War soldier in Captain America: The First Avenger.
It wasn't entirely successful; 2008's The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton as the less-than-jolly green giant, was just as disappointing as Ang Lee's misguided 2003 effort. Only The Avengers' director Joss Whedon, recasting Mark Ruffalo in the role, truly understood how to unlock The Hulk's potential, using him in small but potent doses. Other characters had to be content as bit-part players - Jeremy Renner's arrow-shooting Hawkeye arrived in Thor, Scarlett Johansson's ultra-limber Black Widow in Iron Man 2.
Yet nobody could argue with Whedon's ensemble, bringing The Avengers together to fight against Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the mischievous god first introduced in Thor. Now, with the release of Iron Man 3, we see the start of Phase 2. As Downey Jr once again dons that iron suit, we look at the forthcoming films that will deepen Marvel's cinematic universe.
Thor: The Dark World (November 8, 2013).
Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor and Natalie Portman as his Earth-bound paramour Jane Foster in this second instalment about the Norse god from the faraway planet of Asgard. Fresh from facing off with The Avengers - and getting smashed by The Hulk - Tom Hiddleston will also return as Loki, though intriguingly, there's a new villain in town. Christopher Eccleston, the former Doctor Who, will play the universe-rattling Malekith The Accursed. The film will be directed by Game of Thrones regular Alan Taylor, who'll have to go some way to besting his 2011 predecessor Kenneth Branagh, who arguably delivered one of the best stand-alone efforts of Phase 1.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 4, 2014)
Marvel Studios' guru Kevin Feige has already stated that this follow-up adventure for Chris Evans' Captain will be a "1970s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie" - which may account for the casting of Robert Redford, a veteran of the real thing (in movies such as Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men). Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo - the brothers best known for the indie comedy Welcome To Collinwood - this episode will also see the return of Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow in a story set in modern-day Washington DC.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
One of the more obscure titles from the Marvel stable, this will introduce a raft of new characters. Set to start shooting at Shepperton Studios near London in June, this cosmic tale about an eclectic group of space-adventurers, led by the half-human, half-alien Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), pits them against Thanos - the alien creature glimpsed at the end of The Avengers. The director James Gunn may be relatively untested, but Whedon has said Gunn has "a really twisted take" on the material - which sounds promising.
The Avengers 2 (2015)
Whedon will return to complete Phase 2 with a second superhero ensemble, but who will be with him? No word yet on whether the original Avengers will assemble again, but you can bet that reintroducing us to the villainous Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy will feed directly into Whedon's world. The director has already promised that his sequel won't go all out trying to better his first film, though. "The solution isn't: 'How do we top this?'" he says. "The solution is: 'What's the next interesting idea?'"
Iron Man 3 opens across UAE cinemas today.
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