The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t exactly in the best spot it’s ever been. The year 2023 was rough not only for Marvel, but for superhero content as a whole. The box office numbers are alarming. The CGI has become a central talking point for most of these properties. The public’s response to the superhero films of 2023 was lukewarm at best, vitriolic and hateful at worst.
Refreshingly, Season 2 of What If...? was good. I liked most of the episodes, particularly those that pushed the limits on stories we’ve seen, like the episode introducing a brand-new hero in Kahhori. I’ve always thought the show did a great job looking at canon moments in the MCU, playing around, and wondering what would happen if one aspect of the situation differed. I’m also a fan of animation, and the show is low stakes enough that I can enjoy it without wondering how this might affect seven different movies over the next three years.
With the second season having just wrapped, with 2024 now here, and with a desire to process some of the superhero fatigue trauma served in 2023, I present my best what-ifs for real-world decisions that led the MCU to where it is today.
What if … Robert Downey Jr. had stayed on as Iron Man?
It’s hard to believe that Avengers: Endgame was released almost five years ago. Spoiler alert for those who don’t know: Tony Stark died during the movie’s climax, sacrificing himself to save the universe from another devastating snap from Thanos. It was an incredibly emotional ending and remains one of the defining moments of the MCU run.
One small issue: We also lost Robert Downey Jr.’s presence. You know, the actor who kicked off the whole MCU in 2008. RDJ’s impact on the movies is obvious, but the guy was THE face of the franchise for over a decade. He showed up not only when it was time to promote these movies, but also when the people showed up for him.
Without him, there is no face of the franchise anymore. Benedict Cumberbatch, Brie Larson, and Paul Rudd are not RDJ. Without RDJ—and the character of Iron Man—the MCU has suffered for the past five years. Some of the interconnectivity that helped make weaker movies feel useful has disappeared. The movies feel somewhat siloed. In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Wong shows up and tells Shang and Katy that their lives are about to change. The whole interaction, including cameos by Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner, makes it seem like Shang-Chi will be popping up in more MCU movies. But over two years later, Shang, Katy, and the Ten Rings have yet to be seen again. In Phase 3 of the MCU alone, the character of Tony Stark starred in four of the 11 movies.
What if Marvel had kept RDJ around? In this universe, Tony doesn’t die at the end of Endgame. Stark retires as Iron Man, and RDJ has less action work to do, but he serves as the next generation’s Nick Fury. He doesn’t wear the armor anymore, but he’s still the face of the franchise. He’s figuring out who the next heroes are, and when the next big threat rolls around, he’s there to throw on that Iron Man suit again. The box office doesn’t take nearly as steep of a dive as it has, and there’s more connectivity between movies and Disney+ shows with RDJ popping in occasionally.
What if … Black Widow had come out before Avengers: Infinity War?
Downey wasn’t the only one whose character died in Avengers: Endgame. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow also perished in Endgame, albeit earlier and with much less fanfare. While RDJ and Chris Evans (whose character didn’t die on-screen but effectively retired) have yet to appear again in the MCU, Johansson has. In fact, she had her own movie dedicated to her character. Pretty cool, right?
It would have been, if the audience knew what the movie wanted to be. Black Widow is a prequel, but not an origin story taking place before Widow’s first canonical appearance in Iron Man 2; it’s more like an in-between-quel that follows Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.
What if they’d made and released Black Widow exactly where it needed to go, in between Civil War and Infinity War? In this universe, Nat’s death in Endgame would feel extremely final, with no one speculating about whether she could be brought back somehow due to a Black Widow movie dropping just a few years after Endgame. In turn, Nat’s family introduced in Black Widow gets (possibly) included or at least mentioned in both Infinity War and Endgame instead of just mysteriously being absent in the MCU timeline.
What if … Disney and Sony never agreed to share Spider-Man?
Spider-Man is, without a doubt, one of the most recognizable and bankable superheroes to date. When the MCU started, some characters were off-limits because other studios owned the cinematic rights to several characters, including Sony owning Spider-Man.
But the Spider-Man movies had started to become less popular over time. While the Tobey Maguire trilogy had been popular, Spider-Man 3 was commercially and critically less successful. Sony rebooted with Andrew Garfield taking over, but each ensuing movie made less than the previous one.
On February 9, 2015, everything changed when Marvel and Sony announced that the character would finally appear in the MCU. Tom Holland was cast as Spider-Man; he showed up in Civil War, two Avengers movies, and a trilogy of Spider-Man movies that are three of the highest grossing of the entire Spider-Man franchise. Pretty successful deal all around.
What if Disney and Sony never agreed to share Spider-Man? In this universe, talks between Disney and Sony break down, and Captain America: Civil War doesn’t feature the plucky teen from Queens. The movie is still successful, with Black Panther being introduced (and being a focal part of the movie). However, talks of MCU fatigue hit faster without a couple of billion-dollar Spider-Man movies to hide weaker entries. With the lack of new IP, Disney moves more quickly on their deal with Fox, with Feige feeling pressured to rush the X-Men into the MCU. Mutants become more of a focal point in the multiverse saga, emphasizing new actors being cast for the team.
For Sony, Andrew Garfield continues on as Spider-Man, and they move ahead with their Sinister Six movie plans. They continue to build their Spidey-Verse, with live-action Miles Morales and a return from Tobey Maguire on the docket. Despite some hiccups and misses, the Spidey-Verse develops into a legit contender with the MCU.
What if … Disney never bought Marvel?
It’s hard to remember, but when Iron Man premiered almost 16 years ago, it was not a Disney production! In fact, the movie was distributed by Paramount. It wouldn’t be until mid-2009 that Disney would purchase Marvel for a cool $4 billion.
The rest is history. The Disney resources allowed the MCU to explode, resulting in more movies, shows, merchandising, theme park rides—it was more everything. There was no shortage of excitement for the growing cinematic universe.
What if Disney had never purchased Marvel? The MCU would not have felt as coherent in that universe. Iron Man was distributed by Paramount, while Universal distributed The Incredible Hulk. Marvel likely would have settled on one major studio for most of its releases, but they could have come from a few different studios, as they already were for the first few movies.
Furthermore, without Disney’s bargaining power, Spider-Man wouldn’t have appeared in 2016’s Civil War. The same goes for using the X-Men and Fantastic Four in existing MCU properties. The MCU wouldn’t have reached its current height and likely would have been rebooted and redistributed among other studios in 2024.
What if … Disney didn’t get the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four?
Before the MCU did its thing, Fox had its own shared universe with the X-Men films. It was the Wolverine franchise for a long time, but the First Class quartet and Deadpool movies each had some success in making it a successful cinematic universe. The film series even laid some of the foundation for the MCU. X-Men: The Last Stand featured the first notable post-credits scene, confirming that Charles Xavier was alive. In 2014, X-Men: Days of Future Past featured time travel and multiple versions of the same characters, years before the MCU would incorporate similar storytelling techniques.
Like Sony’s movies, however, the X-Men movies continued to gross less and less at the box office. X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix both failed, critically and financially. Deadpool was successful, but was an R-rated film with a limited audience. Fox decided it was time to sell, and Disney swooped in and bought the studio in March of 2019, meaning the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four were back with Marvel Studios.
Since then, the MCU has made a few nods to and mentions of mutants, and there was one Mr. Fantastic cameo. Other than that, we’ve yet to see a new X-Men or Fantastic Four movie (though Fantastic Four is slated for release in 2025), even though Disney has owned the rights to the characters for almost five years.
What if Disney hadn’t gotten the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four? In this universe, Fox would maintain its X-Men and Fantastic Four rights, rebooting those series for a third time. Deadpool, meanwhile, would remain the lone bright spot for the struggling studio. There wouldn’t be many changes, but the integration of mutants and the X-Men doesn’t happen for the MCU, while Fox would struggle to make profitable films with its own Marvel characters.
Meanwhile, on the Disney side, superhero fatigue would accelerate. With no mutants and Fantastic Four on the horizon, the slate of Phase 4 and 5 content would be even more confusing. Marvel must accelerate its next Avengers movies and is forced to bring back the majority of the stars it bid farewell to in Endgame.
What if … an MCU movie never hits $1 billion again?
All of these what-ifs have looked back at key decisions and wondered what might have happened. But I wanted to end this exercise by looking at one thing in the future and predicting what things might look like in our actual reality.
In its heyday, the MCU could not miss. Phase 3 is the most successful run of commercial filmmaking the industry has seen in a small and concentrated amount of time. The MCU released six movies between February 16, 2018, and July 2, 2019. Of those six, five made over $1 billion. Since then, the MCU has only had one movie clear the billion-dollar mark (Spider-Man: No Way Home).
What if the MCU never has a billion-dollar movie again? Deadpool 3 is the only MCU movie coming out in 2024. While Deadpool is a popular franchise, it’s an R-rated movie from a previous cinematic universe that’s being integrated into the MCU. Adding Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine to Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool should push it to $1 billion, but it’s no sure bet when superhero fatigue is the name of the game.
After that, Captain America: Brave New World, Fantastic Four, Thunderbolts, and Blade are all set for 2025. The fifth and sixth Avengers movies are currently set for 2026 and 2027, respectively. An Avengers movie has never made less than $1 billion at the box office. If one or both fail to hit that mark, we might be all out of what-ifs for the MCU.