In May of 2019, Marvel will release the fourth Avengers film, ending the Infinity War storyline and bringing Phase 3 to a close. What follows next is largely a mystery, but so far, Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2020?) have both been confirmed, as well as a Black Panther sequel. Add in the widely rumored Black Widow solo film, and that only slates four films. With 20 movies planned for Phase 4 and beyond, that leaves plenty of room for speculation - who’s entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe next?
In the past few films, we’ve seen Iron Man mentor Spider-Man, Thor coincidentally bump into Hulk on Planet Skaar, and Dr. Strange fight alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters of the MCU are increasingly interacting with one another in a multitude of ways and combinations, similar to what we see in the comic books. If this trend continues, films in which the hero is isolated from the rest of the super community may become a vestige of the past. Thus, to predict who will be joining the MCU in the future, we should consider which characters are the most connected with the larger Marvel social network.
Network centrality is a measure of how “central” an individual is to a network. To calculate it, I considered how many comic book appearances every possible pairing of any two Marvel characters share (fun fact: out of over 8 million pairings, The Thing and Human Torch appear to be the most connected, with 1,748 shared appearances). A character with a high score likely interacts with dozens of other important characters and on a regular basis.
Indeed, by the time Avengers 4 is released, almost all 20 of the most “central” characters will have played a prominent live-action role, whether that be for the MCU, Netflix, or Fox’s X-men movies. Centrality helps explain Nick Fury’s key role in the MCU and Captain Marvel’s upcoming debut - even though both characters have fewer appearance counts than you may expect, they’re both among the most “central” individuals in the network of Marvel characters. In Fury’s case, we’ve already seen how he helps introduce new characters, connect existing characters, and drive key plot devices - making him a valuable character, even with little screen time.
The Fantastic Four and X-Men have been absent from the MCU, because the movie rights to use these characters were sold off to Fox after Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Yet once Disney finalizes its Fox acquisition, Marvel Studios will be able to legally add the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and more to the MCU. Avengers vs. X-Men, anyone? So yes, based on recent acquisitions and their high centrality scores, it’s a reasonable guess that Wolverine, Beast, Storm, and the Fantastic Four will find their way into the MCU. But those are pretty safe bets, so let’s keep moving.
Here I’m corroborating Walt Hickey’s prediction of a She-Hulk debut, who may be a necessary addition if Bruce Banner’s Hulk doesn’t want to come out and play. We also have Nightcrawler, Magneto, and a handful of other mutants as possible candidates for Phase 4, but something tells me that Marvel won’t be in a rush to introduce dozens of X-Men, especially those who we’ve already seen on the big screen. So I’m placing my bets on Hercules fighting alongside with Spider-Man and the Black Panther in the near future. Spider-Woman would be an excellent addition, but the film license for that character still belongs to Sony...so instead you’ll be seeing her inSpider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
My Predictions for the Future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Plenty of other great, central characters caught my attention (like Jean Grey and Emma Frost, who are respectively ranked #70 and #75). However, Marvel may want to focus on characters who are completely new to movie-going audiences, rather than rebooting those we’ve already met in Fox’s X-Men films.
Therefore, here are the characters with the highest centrality scores who have never been prominently featured in recent film or television. Collectively, this hodgepodge is my best prediction of who we’ll see in Phase 4 and beyond of the MCU.
Centrality and Appearance Usually Go Hand-In-Hand...But Not Always
It’s important to note that centrality score and appearance count is related - you can’t get to the center of the universe without being in a lot of the action. That’s why Spider-Man, Captain America, and Iron Man all dominate in both measures.
Of course, it’s not a perfect relationship. Mary Jane Watson is one of the most featured Marvel characters with 1,313 appearances, yet her network centrality score is only .39, far less than other characters of similar popularity. This may be because despite appearing often, she interacts mostly with Spider-Man and not a lot of other characters. Let’s return to Marvel’s 20 most central characters, comparing their centrality scores and appearance counts. Both metrics have been normalized to a 0-1 scale for comparison purposes:
Captain Marvel, Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Luke Cage haven’t appeared that often, relatively speaking, yet they’ve all claimed their stakes in the MCU. Considering centrality helps highlight characters who are important to Marvel’s larger storylines, but not seen super often - just like Nick Fury in the movies.
Hardcore fans may be surprised by my predictions: characters like Mole Man, Wrecker, Taskmaster haven’t appeared that often throughout the comic books. But based on their relationships and frequent interactions with other important characters, they could help connect various worlds of the MCU together, making for more awesome events like Falcon recruiting Ant-Man to fight against Iron Man or Thor introducing Groot to Captain America. Marvel’s comic books are full of characters who are intertwined and connected in multiple ways, and adding more central characters to the MCU could help get the movies there too.
Character names and titles of comic books they’ve appeared in were scraped from the Marvel Wikia. I considered characters only appearing in Marvel’s main universe, Earth-616, which seems to be the universe the MCU is modeled after. After scraping all 26,461 characters, the data was subsetted to include only characters who have appeared in at least 10 comic books. This left a sample of 4,031 characters. Appearance count is measured by number of comic books, rather than number of unique panels or scenes. A more robust analysis would conceptualize an appearance as a single scene, but scene-specific data isn’t available.
For every combination of any two characters in the data, I compared their lists of comic book appearances to compute how many comic books they’ve both appeared in. This is the measure of common appearances, a proxy for relationship strength. For example, Captain America and Tony Stark both appearing in Civil War adds +1 to their number of shared appearances, suggesting a stronger connection between than the two characters than if they had not appeared in that comic book together. This does not factor in sentiment; two characters could be enemies, but still considered well-connected if they’re frequently seen in the same comic books.
The result was 8,122,465 counts of shared appearances for character duo (my computer was very angry with me). It looked something like this:
I used Python’s networkx library to calculate each character’s centrality score.
You can get the data and code here.
Finally, some fun facts I know only readers who read this deep into the ‘methodology’ section will appreciate:
-The data includes 31,007 unique comic books in which characters could have appeared in. That’s 31,007 opportunities for networks to develop, grow, evolve.
-268,149 unique character & comic book combinations. As in, Tony Stark / New Avengers #25 counts as one unique character & comic book combination, as well as Captain America / New Avengers #25.
-Nearly 90% of the 8,122,465 character pairings I counted common appearances for had 0 common appearances.