Avengers: Age of Ultron gave us one of Marvel Studio’s most action-packed films to date, giving the viewer almost no time to process the intense insanity they had just witnessed before moving on to another action sequence. It was almost too overwhelming for a first viewing and may have been partially responsible for some of the complaints about it being overstuffed. Fortunately, I think this film will hold up well upon repeated viewings because it was a beautifully shot film and will hold a very important place in the grand scheme of the MCU when seen as a part of a greater whole.

It appears to me that Joss Whedon was given a Herculean task in putting together Avengers: Age of Ultron. This film appears to be the connective tissue between two halves of the known MCU. Phases 1 and 2 of the MCU films were about introducing the characters, positioning them along the chess board and ultimately setting up the larger narrative of Thanos and the Infinity Stones. So while Captain America: The Winter Soldier was one of my favorite movies and it did a great job setting up Season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I was keenly aware last night that it had little to no impact on Avengers: Age of Ultron. Neither did Iron Man 3. In some ways, we could have skipped right from the end of Avengers to Avengers: Age of Ultron and never missed a beat. And that’s ok. Sure there were little things that were nods to previous films, but what this film was really about is what comes next.

If Phases 1 and 2 were about positioning players on the board, Phase 3, it would seem, is set to be about some intense game playing and Avengers: Age of Ultron, while technically not the end of Phase 2, took the final step in getting the players where they needed to be to have maximum impact on the end game. What players ended up where and what does that mean about what’s coming next? Read on for my speculation, but beware, there be spoilers ahead…

Captain America: Civil War

Man, where the seeds heavily sown for this film. The ideological split between Cap and Stark was glaringly obvious throughout, but never so clear as during the wood chopping/tearing in half scene. While the two parted on good terms at the end of the film, it’s clear they are fighting battles for very different reasons and that Tony really is weary of battle while Cap is just hitting his groove. I can’t help but wonder if that means Stark won’t pull out all the stops to end things quickly when Civil War breaks out.

With the introduction of Scott Lang’s Ant-Man coming later this year, there is a very large pool of heroes, both “enhanced” and not, from which to draw in Civil War. Filming is underway and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear more about it VERY soon now that Avengers: Age of Ultron has hit theaters, but we know that in addition to Captain America and Iron Man, Black Widow, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Hawkeye and War Machine will be choosing a side. We also know The Winter Soldier, Black Panther and Spider-Man will be somehow involved and Paul Rudd is doing nothing to make us believe that he won’t be included too. It’s hard to figure out who would side with whom,but rumors have Cap’s team of Avengers made up of Falcon, Black Widow and Hawkeye and that they’ll square off against Stark’s Registration Enforcement squad of Vision, Ant-Man and War Machine. That leaves Wanda in the wind, but I’m certain she’ll have a big part to play. It’s not hard to see how T’Challa would end up involved given the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. My guess is that Tony will knock on the door, looking to purchase some vibranium maybe, and that he and T’Challa aren’t going to be friends right away.

Just as importantly, some very powerful people will apparently NOT be a part of the Registration Civil War. Thor has Asgardian drama to handle and the Hulk has decided to go to a place “where he can’t hurt anything” (more on that soon). Before I saw the movie, I told you those two would sit Civil War out and I’m convinced they will, but having witnessed Vision’s powers on screen, I can’t see how he can be involved. Powered by the Mind Stone, he’s quite simply the most powerful being on Earth. While he certainly hasn’t used the Mind Stone to anywhere near it’s full effect, he’s already displayed enough to make it clear nobody could handle him. He’s a wild card for me at this time.

At any rate, it seems to me that the purpose of this film will to leave Earth’s Mightiest Heroes dead, scattered and in shambles so that they have to rise from the ashes to save everyone from Thanos. It will also show the audience why we need new heroes, like the ones we’ll meet along the way.

Doctor Strange

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we certainly caught a glimpse of what magic is going to look like in the MCU. Regardless of how Wanda got her powers, they certainly play out like she could control the energies around her. That might just bee what Doctor Strange’s magics look like too…right down to the classic comic bookish way she positioned her fingers:

I do wonder if Doctor Strange’s exploration of other dimensions might not lead to the discover of another Infinity Stone (if I had to guess, I’d guess Soul), but that is JUST a guess. After having seen Avengers: Age of Ultron, I also wonder if Wanda Maximoff won’t turn up in Doctor Strange in some way. It would seem a natural fit, though by no means do I believe it’s a certainty. She proved to be incredibly powerful, especially when she was not controlling her powers. It would seem like a good time for a visit to the Doctor for some help.

Either way, we end up with a new and powerful ally to the Avengers at the end of this film, one capable of communicating and possibly even teleporting over long distances, something that’ll come in handy in the war to come.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2

I wonder if this film doesn’t get subtitled in the near future now that Avengers: Age of Ultron is over. I think, at one point, the held off because they were honestly considering having Hulk join the Guardians in space, but it’s clear that is not happening nor is it necessary: the Guardians can handle their own box office business. I’m very curious what James Gunn has in store for us in this sequel, but there are a few things of which we can nearly be certain now.

We will meet Peter Quill’s father in this film. I have no idea who it’s going to be, but I bet it’s going to be pretty damn cool.

We will see Thanos at some point and he’ll unleash hell on Xandar to get that Power Stone. If Xandar is destroyed here and there isn’t some lead in to Nova, I don’t know that we’ll ever see him in the MCU. I think there are some pretty cool theories out there that the Xandarians have learned to harness the Power Stone and are using it to soup of the Corps. I hope that’s kind of true and that maybe James Gunn writes in a little bit of a lead in to a Nova feature. Maybe John C. Reilly‘s Rhomann Dey escapes and heads to Earth, empowering Richard Rider or Sam Alexander and taking the place of the Silver Surfer in heralding the coming of Thanos. Maybe none of that happens.

We will get new Guardians and new characters and, I’m guessing, be introduced to some more high-powered Cosmic players. I think Gunn will use this opportunity to expand the universe a little more and, while he may not like it, continue moving players on the board for the final showdown with Thanos. I’m hopeful (and rumors are starting to spread that my hopes will come true) that Adam Warlock is among those players.

Spider-Man: The New Avenger

Now I know I did some crazy speculating the other day about the Hulk showing up in this movie and I still stand by it as ridiculously crazy speculation. However, Banner’s line about going where “he can’t hurt anything” really hit my brain hard. That’s because I’m obviously looking for evidence that affirms my insanity, but when he says that and then I know there are people out there working on the movie that are researching the Savage Land, I end up in a 2+2 scenario. Of course, it’s still far more likely I’m way off, but I don’t want to be.

I’d like to see Hulk reappear, but not steal the show, and I’d like to see Spidey take on Kraven in the Savage Land. That’s just a movie I’d eat up; however, I’ll also like whatever Marvel Studios does push out and what’s most important is we have another VERY different addition to our roster of heroes. End of Phase 2 and Phase 3 will give us a size-changing thief, a magician and a super-powered teen…that’s cool!

Thor: Ragnarok

This was the next film that was set up by Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. For any of you that were clinging to hope this was going to be an entire movie about an effing clone of Thor, Whedon dashed your hopes like Piggy’s head on the rocks in Lord of the Flies.

Thor’s vision sends him back to what promised to turn into an Asgardian orgy, where he bumped into Heimdall who gave it to him straight: it’s all going to end and it’s all going to be your fault. Thor glimpsed the Infinity Stones among many other crazy images, but the message was clear…big trouble is coming. While Thor spent some time in the movie trying to clarify what his dream meant for Earth (and to him that meant entrusting the Vision with the Mind Stone), he left to deal with what his dream meant for Asgard and the rest of the universe. Thor is keenly aware that there is someone out there pulling the strings. My guess is that he already suspects that he’s been played by Loki and that he may even think it’s him; however, he’s going to find out from Loki someone much worse is out there and he’s a little less mischievous and a lot more murderous.

The mid-credit scene with Thanos was pretty cool and it sets in motion some pretty crazy stuff. You can guess (and you’ll probably be right) that Thanos is set to begin his Quest (because it was called Thanos Quest…) to reclaim the gems. That should lead him to Xandar first, then to Asgard, then to wherever the Collector has stashed the Aether, then after the Soul and Time Stones, before finally bringing him, or one of his minions, to Earth for the Mind Stone which is currently lodged in Vision’s coconut.

I’m hopeful that Thanos is not the sole cause of Ragnarok. I want/need to see Surtur because I want this this Thor film to be the fantastical Asgardian epic we have not had. I have no problem with Thanos working with Surtur or even coming in at the end and just grabbing the Tesseract. Just please, don’t make this Thor vs. Thanos…save that for the end.

Thor won’t come out of this in good shape. I’ve said before he’ll likely die and go to Hel, where he’ll have to swing a deal before he can go save the universe. Again, leaving him in a bad place makes his heroic return that much cooler.

Black Panther

This was hardly a blink and you miss it nod to this upcoming film. Klaw stole vibranium and was used to nearly destroy the world. You don’t think the King of Wakanda is going to be pissed off?

Klaw left the film missing an arm and we kind of all know where that’s headed, so I think this film will certainly deal with the fallout from all that on a very personal T’Challa vs. Klaw level. Damn this is going to be a cool movie. A small, personal film taking place in the madness of a universal war. And, we get another All-New, All-Different Avenger to stand alongside the thief, the magician and the teen.

Avengers: Infinity War

‘Nuff said. Thanos has the Gauntlet. He’s headed out to get the Stones. Things are going to get very, very heavy. By the time Part I hits, we’ll have a slew of new heroes with an incredibly vast set of powers. I have no idea how you pull of a film of this magnitude, but damn it’ll be fun to see. In between these films we are going to get yet another All-New, All-Different Avenger in Captain Marvel and her role in this inter-galactic war is likely to be a large one. I’m not sure if Marvel truly intends to involve the Inhumans in this or not, because like Whedon said at some point an embarrassment of riches actually becomes and embarrassment. By the time these two films are done, we’ll have seen all the original Avengers team up with a bunch of new heroes and some weirdos from space to save the universe from the most powerful being in it…that’s going to be good.

And so Avengers: Age of Ultron is the bridge from the calm to the storm. I think it’s important you judge it as such and I think that when this is all said and done and we can watch it for what it was in retrospect, we might appreciate even more than we do now because it set up so much of what’s to come.