8 Marvel Comics Storylines That Could Inform 'Avengers 4' And Phase 4 Of The MCU

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.

The Avengers: Almost Forever

No one seems to think it's possible, but let's take a minute to consider what it would be like if all those deaths in Infinity War, including the disintegrations, really were permanent. People have joked that Infinity War is a prequel to HBO's grief-stricken The Leftovers, but I'm not convinced the MCU is ready to deal with the full wide-ranging consequences of a reality where half of Earth's population has ceased to exist. If the answer isn't as simple as Nebula getting ahold of the Gauntlet and undoing everything that Thanos did, are there any other workarounds for how Avengers 4 could bring back some of the characters who crumbled to dust?

Time travel is one obvious answer, and in the comics, there was a story called Avengers Forever where Avengers were plucked from different time periods to aid a powered-up version of Hulk's one-time sidekick, Rick Jones, against the threat of Immortus and the Timekeepers. Since they might already have an "in" with Ant-Man and the Quantum Realm (which could potentially see the inclusion of alternate realities open up a new Marvel Cinematic Multiverse), the Avengers wouldn't even necessarily have to recover the Time Stone in order to make this cross-temporal hero assemblage happen.

The only problem is that Joe Russo seemingly debunked the time travel theory earlier this year. He has also since hinted that the title of Avengers 4 might not be comics-based at all, joking, "The actual title is The Avengers: Almost Forever." It's worth noting here that the way we have seen the Time Stone function in the MCU up to this point has been not so much as a time travel device, but rather, as a time manipulation tool whereby the holder could accomplish a rewind effect.

Iron Man: PTSD from a Wormhole

Rather than time travel, what Russo implied we might see is a return of the B.A.R.F. (Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing) technology from Captain America: Civil War. This technology had therapeutic applications. It allowed users to interact with a virtual reconstruction of scenes from the past in the hopes of working through traumatic memories.

The Battle of New York and his trip through the wormhole and near-death in The Avengers is certainly a traumatic memory for Tony Stark. In Iron Man 3, it appeared to leave him with a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Maybe that is why we have seen the Battle of New York being revisited in leaked Avengers 4 set photos.

After being impaled, almost dying, and then witnessing everyone in his strike team — including Peter Parker, the kid he had taken under his wing — disintegrate at the end of Infinity War, Tony might be in an even worse place emotionally in Avengers 4, where he would need to overcome his trauma before he could ever hope to face Thanos again. In the absence of alcoholism, having Tony start out the movie as a man who was completely broken and suffering from P.T.S.D. (even more so than he was in Iron Man 3) might be a way to repackage the classic "Demon in a Bottle" comics storyline, where Tony was forced to confront his drinking problem and reconcile with friends he had alienated.

The De-Aging Iron Man

People have come up with some elaborate theories to explain how Iron Man might die in Avengers 4, but what these theories often don't take into account is the James Bond factor. In the middle years of the MCU, Kevin Feige spoke of Tony Stark as being a character like James Bond who could be recast. This is a little tricky because Downey arguably engineered the character's quippy personality to fit him like his own custom-made Iron Man suit. In the comics, pre-MCU, Tony Stark was a more vanilla character (until the Civil War era, when he went all Machiavellian). Tony, as we know him on film, is really more Downey than Downey is Tony. Having a different actor play the role would be like throwing Captain Jack Sparrow's dreadlocks on a Johnny Depp impersonator.

If Downey has become too inseparable from the character, or Marvel just wants to give him a rest and focus on some of its other bankable heroes for Phase 4, it's possible Tony may simply retire like he tried to do already at the end of Iron Man 3 when he blew up all his suits and promised Pepper Potts not to put himself in harm's way any longer. The friction between him living in constant danger as a superhero and maintaining his relationship with Pepper has been a running subplot for him, and maybe the natural resolution of that would just be to have him settle into married life and finally make good on his promise to stop being Iron Man, once and for all.

Prior to his disappearance and subsequent revival in the aforementioned Onslaught: Marvel Universe and "Heroes Reborn," Marvel Comics did an interesting thing with Tony Stark: they de-aged him. In Avengers: The Crossing, a six-issue mini-series that came out in 1995, the Avengers pulled a teenage Tony Stark from the timestream to help combat an evil older version of himself. This teenage Tony then remained in the present day and became the de facto Iron Man from Iron Man #326 onward.

De-aging the character (Downey is, after all, 53 years old) would be one route Marvel Studios could go with Tony Stark for future movies. Another would be to have a different character take on the Iron Man mantle. A couple years back, Marvel Comics debuted a character named Riri Williams as the black female star of a new Invincible Iron Man title. Tony Stark served as a blue holographic adviser to Riri. He had downloaded "his essence" into a "digital frame," and that A.I. construct would help Riri operate her suit.

With Downey's solo movie trilogy long since completed and Marvel Studios looking to add more diversity to its stable of heroes, we've already speculated that a black female Iron Man could be the future of the character on-screen. They wouldn't even necessarily need to introduce Riri into the MCU. Having already established that she's smarter than Stark and Bruce Banner (she was able to suggest things they had never thought of in the tech lab with Vision), they could have Shuri, Black Panther's sister, fill the role. Who knows, maybe we'd still get to hear S.T.A.R.K.'s voice quipping as a new J.A.R.V.I.S.-like program.

The Death of Captain America

We've known for some time that Chris Evans is ready to move on from the role of Captain America. Last year, the actor explained that the reason he signed on for Infinity War and Avengers 4 was so that they could wrap up his character's story. Earlier this year, he confirmed once again that these two movies would be his last go-round. The only question is what the resolution of his story will be. Will it be a happy ending or one that is bittersweet?

Again, people seem to take for granted that Steve Rogers, like Tony Stark, might need to perish for him to be phased out of the MCU. Rogers was, in fact, famously assassinated on the comics page in the epilogue to Civil War (Captain America, Vol. 5 #25)Cap has always inhabited a special place in the Marvel universe in that he is a man out of time and in some ways it is not natural for him to be living in the here and now. As a soldier who has faced certain death once already when his plane went down over the Arctic at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, it would make sense for him to somehow sacrifice himself again, this time without coming back. The first Avenger's death might be a fitting way to bring the narrative full circle in what could very well be the last Avengers movie. Maybe the theories are right and Steve will trade his life to retrieve the souls of friends like Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson from Soul World (or prevent their disintegrations from ever happening via the Time Stone).

Yet there's a distinct possibility that the big deaths being teased for the end of Phase 3 in the MCU have already happened now in Infinity War. If this dark chapter can be seen as The Empire Strikes Back of the MCU saga, then perhaps the next logical progression of the story would be to restore hope: reviving the new generation of heroes and letting the core group of Phase 1 Avengers exit the franchise in a sanguine manner. Steve Rogers could ride off into the sunset on his motorcycle, looking to rediscover America, and if they wanted to keep the Captain America identity going, they could replace him with a new shield-bearer like they did in the comics.

Fans have long speculated that either Bucky Barnes or Sam Wilson could take over as Captain America. Following Steve's comic book death (he would later be resurrected, of course), it was Bucky who first assumed the hero's costume in Captain America, Vol. 5 #34. With his cybernetic arm, he was more than capable of handling Cap's vibranium shield, yet he also brought his own unique features to the table like a pistol and combat knife that he armed himself with and was not afraid to use. This was a departure from the classic Cap image, but it would align with what we've seen of Bucky and his on-screen weapon usage. Remember: this is the guy whose gun Rocket Raccoon wanted to buy.

In some ways, it would make more sense for Bucky to take over as Cap given his history with Steve and the way they've built him up in the movies (not to mention Sebastian Stan's reported nine-film deal with Marvel). Yet the Sam Wilson possibility is intriguing because it would again add more diversity to the MCU and because the comic where he took over (Captain America, Vol. 7 #25) actually saw Steve Rogers remaining alive and giving Sam his blessing as a chosen successor.

Rogers had the super-soldier serum drained from his body and old age had finally caught up with him. With the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos could conceivably hasten the effects of time to where Steve's body would experience the rapid onset of his natural age. That would be a cruel, mind-bending trick to pull in the middle of a fight, yet it would also maybe soften the blow if we knew that Steve was going to join his lost love Sharon Carter simply by dying of old age.

The Future of Spider-Man in the MCU

As we look to the future of the MCU, we know that Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 will be the first Phase 4 movie, and we know that its story will begin minutes after the events of Avengers 4. What we don't know is if Spider-Man will remain in the MCU or if he will be folded into the universe of Sony's upcoming Venom movie after that.

In the thrill of having Spidey back home at Marvel, it's easy to forget that his planned arc is only for five movies, three of which have already hit theaters now. The deal with Marvel has worked out pretty well for Sony, which had seen a steady decline in box office returns with its two Amazing Spider-Man movies until Homecoming brought the franchise's numbers back up to where they were when the Sam Raimi trilogy ended. If Sony decides that the deal has run its course and it wants the character back to help prop up its Spider-Verse (where Venom and the Black Cat and Silver Sable spin-off the studio is developing will be set), then Avengers 4 and Spider-Man: Homecoming 2 could be the last time we see the web-slinger in the MCU for the foreseeable future.

Is it possible Marvel would actually leave Peter Parker dead? What if some of the things we've been hearing in interviews are just filmmakers laying misdirection? Marvel already pulled that move when it showed Hulk on the ground in Wakanda in the trailers for Infinity War. It could always go the Indiana Jones route with Homecoming 2 (as well as Guardians of the Galaxy 3) and give us a prequel set before the events of Infinity War. What's weird is that Tom Holland's contract with Marvel is for six movies yet his MCU storyline is said to span five. What if the remaining movies in his contract see him (or some past version of him plucked from the timeline a la Avengers Forever) transitioning out of the MCU into another reality?

The odds of Peter Parker staying dead are probably pretty low, but hey, in the comics, they did kill off a version of him in Ultimate Spider-Man #160 — the final issue of the series that launched the Ultimate Universe. The Ultimate Fallout mini-series dealt with the ramifications of the "Death of Spider-Man" story, and in so doing, it introduced the figure of Miles Morales, who would go on to become the next Spider-Man.

We've already seen Miles' uncle Aaron in the MCU in Spider-Man: Homecoming. He was the criminal played by Donald Glover who Spidey left webbed to the back of a car. Aaron did mention his nephew in the movie — a clear nod to Miles — so Marvel could hypothetically introduce Miles in the MCU as someone who had heard about Spider-Man from his uncle and who had watched videos of the wall-crawler on YouTube and been inspired by his example.

In the 2015 Secret Wars mini-series, Miles accidentally became a stowaway on a vessel that escaped the Ultimate Universe as it was being destroyed. As mentioned before, Peter Parker also got sucked out of the mainstream Marvel universe and into the "Heroes Reborn" pocket universe at one point. With universe-hopping adventures like these existing in the comics, it's not so crazy to think that Peter Parker and/or Miles Morales could wind up crossing over from the MCU into an alternate-reality Spider-Verse at Sony.

Adam Warlock, Nova, and Guardians of the Galaxy 3

Kevin Feige has said that Marvel Studios isn't "going to announce any post-Avengers 4 movies until hopefully after Avengers 4." That's part of the reason it's skipping Hall H at Comic-Con this year. However, it has already set aside release dates for three untitled movies a year from 2020 to 2022, and here on the site, we've speculated a couple times that the first of those 2020 movies could be Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

Guardians of the Galaxy 3 is supposed to end the current team line-up. It's also supposed to set up the next ten years of Marvel movies. With the saga of the Infinity Stones being drawn out over so many Marvel movies already (the Stones served as five separate MacGuffins in the films leading up to Infinity War), the simplest thing for Marvel to do with them in Avengers 4 would probably just be to have a resurrected Scarlet Witch destroy them like she did with the Soul Stone before Thanos reversed time and undid her actions.

Conversely, there does exist a precedent in the comics for a team of heroes functioning as keepers of the Stones. Warlock and the Infinity Watch was a comic book title launched in the immediate aftermath of The Infinity Gauntlet mini-series (part of the source material for Avengers: Infinity War). Before they ever came to be identified as Guardians of the Galaxy recruits, Gamora and Drax the Destroyer belonged to the Infinity Watch, whose members were each tasked with bearing one Infinity Stone. Drax was so dense that he actually swallowed the Power Stone, and since it was indestructible and wouldn't digest, it remained in his stomach until Gamora later kicked him in the gut and he coughed it up.

In addition to teasing future adventures for Sylvester Stallone's Ravagers (based on the original Guardians of the Galaxy team in the comics), the post-credits scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 introduced the cocoon-like birthing pod of a certain "Adam." Fans will know this to be Adam Warlock. Last year, director James Gunn told our own Peter Sciretta that Warlock was originally a major character in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. He also strongly indicated that Warlock would have a big role in Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

With all due respect to Stallone and company, the current big-screen roster of Guardians members is a tough act to follow and I'm not entirely sure the Ravagers would be up to the task. Yet there are other heavyweight Marvel cosmic heroes who, if brought together, could provide a worthy team of substitutes for Star-Lord's Guardians. We now know that Nova, for instance, has immediate movie potential at Marvel. Avengers: Infinity War casually let slip that Thanos had already decimated Xandar, the homeworld of the Nova Corps, but since it happened off-screen, it's possible that's something that could be revisited and shown in Guardians of the Galaxy 3 or Nova's own solo film.

Next year will also give us Brie Larson's Captain Marvel solo film, with the character having been teased in the post-credits scene of Infinity War. If you're keeping count, this means Marvel has already laid the seeds for Adam Warlock, Nova, and Captain Marvel in its cinematic universe. These three characters have appeared together as team members in the Guardians of Knowhere comic book mini-series, and a threat on the level of the ones in the Annihilation or Annihilation: Conquest storylines might justify bringing them together on celluloid.

Whether or not they're acting as an Infinity Watch (again, they probably won't be), the characters might rise to prominence in the aftermath of a big crossover event just as the Infinity Watch did in the comics. What we might see Marvel doing in Phase 4 is taking an Avengers-in-space-like approach with them and other cosmic heroes. Cue Avengers 4 post-credits scene with Nick Fury telling the Phase 3 survivors: "You think you're the only heroes in the universe? You're about to become part of a bigger cosmos."