One of the most exciting parts of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness comes with the fate of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Once the film concludes and Maximoff has sacrificed herself to stop the Darkhold, it’s unclear where she’s gone. While the characters refer to her in the past tense and talk about her “sacrifice,” audiences never see a body on-screen. Plus, even with all the might it would take to crumble the sanctuary that housed the Darkhold, it’s hard to imagine that would be enough to kill the Scarlet Witch. All this uncertainty is especially apparent since it’s unknown if Olsen has any further Marvel movies on her contract.
For the first time in years, more questions than answers linger over the commitments contained in the contracts Marvel Cinematic Universe actors have signed, and it’s making for enjoyably unpredictable storytelling developments.
When Marvel Studios first started making its solo films in 2008, it was committed to the then-peculiar idea of interconnected cinematic narratives. To ensure consistency across these titles, actors were signed on to lengthy multi-film contracts that were unheard of in the film industry. Samuel L. Jackson signed one that spanned nine features in early 2009, while Sebastian Stan signed a contract for the same amount of titles in 2010. Chris Evans initially turned down the role of Steve Rogers / Captain America solely because it would’ve encompassed nine features, but eventually accepted the role after parring down this commitment to a still hefty six movies.
Once The Avengers became a gargantuan hit, the continuity-conscious blockbuster was now a major deal and newcomers to the franchise were expected to play ball. Paul Rudd joined Ant-Man knowing he was signed on to play the character for five films. Tom Holland’s eventual Spider-Man contract would span six films, just like Chris Evans, with this young actor’s commitments being extremely unique since these half-a-dozen features would be evenly split between titles made by Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures. With this being the norm, Marvel could guarantee that all of its high-profile performers were in line and ready to go as it built towards its 2019 mega-finale. Avengers: Endgame.
The problem here, though, is that it removed some dramatic tension from the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in the meantime. While exceptions existed, for the most part, multi-film commitments ensured that audiences knew from the get-go that they were not seeing the last of Tom Hiddleston as Loki or Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes. Marvel Studios was always looking to the future, an angle that gave them revolutionary new marketing techniques. However, it did also undercut any uncertainty over who would live or who would die in their movies in the here and now.
However, post-Avengers: Endgame films collected in Phase Four and beyond have begun to abandon this process of signing actors to multi-film commitments. While it’s not been entirely eschewed, as recent comments from Eternals lead Gemma Chan indicate, it’s also no longer the norm. Oscar Isaacfor instance, only signed on to play the various personalities of Moon Knight for a Disney + TV show, with no options for further TV or movie appearances, not even cameos. While the final mid-credits scene of Moon Knight indicated there were still stories to tell with this character, those will be decided in the future rather than emerging as a byproduct of obligation to a multi-film contract.
Similarly, the lack of information about or even the existence of further movie commitments from Elizabeth Olsen or Paul Bettany (the latter of whom last appeared as The Vision in WandaVision) makes it all the more exciting to wonder if we’ll even see them again. Rather than be reassured that they’ll have to come back to fulfill all the features on their contracts, the appearances of Marvel Cinematic Universe actors can now be a lot more random and unpredictable. In the process, individual stories in this franchise can be more beholden to creating tension and satisfying storytelling now rather than focusing on setting up building blocks for the future.
It also opens up new doors for what kind of actors Marvel Studios can get for its projects. Given that Iron Man was anchored by Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrowand Jeff Bridges, it’s clear that Marvel Studios has never shied away from approaching or scoring big-name talent for its movies. However, in the past, the likes of Joaquin Phoenix have turned down major roles in this saga because of the hazards of the long-term commitments of traditional Marvel Studios actor contrasts. That’s understandably limited these productions on what kind of actors they could secure. So long as they were asking people to sign on for three or six movies rather than just one, there was always going to be a ceiling on what actors they could secure.
Phase Four properties in this saga have already managed to deliver several big-name actors showing up for appearances that are clearly one-and-done turns. The legendary Tony Leung Chiu-wai made his English language acting debut playing the nefarious Wenwu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a role that featured his character’s demise and has never been mentioned as being attached to a long-term contract. Similarly, Ethan Hawke made his first foray into superhero storytelling by playing the villainous Arthur Harrow in Moon Knightwith his part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe being finished by the time Harrow’s surprise mid-credits arrived.
These one-off turns allow Leung Chiu-Wai and Hawke a chance to play complicated characters in a big-budget sandbox without boxing them into long-term commitments that would prevent them from showing up in the next Happy Together or Before Midnight. It’s exciting to see actors getting to play in the best of both of these acting worlds and the mind reels with the potential actors from around the world that Marvel Studios could secure now that it’s no longer chaining these actors to six or nine movies right off the bat.
Even in the modern version of Marvel Studios, it’s clear some actors are being groomed to play characters over long periods of time. Simu Liu as Shang-Chi is not a one-and-done role, for sure, and it’s clear that expansive plans are in place for Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘s untrustworthy Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. However, by and large, Marvel Studios has appeared to have ditched the restraints of lengthy multi-film contracts for its performers. In the process, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for its work in terms of both creating dramatic tensions and what kind of actors it can secure for its oversized characters.