With Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel both heading into box office history and Marvel's Hall H presentation at San Diego Comicon just weeks away (presumably), the Marvel Cinematic Universe rumor mill is about to go into overdrive regarding what's coming up in Marvel Phase 4. Part of the fun of these rumors is thinking about whether they make any sense in the context of comics continuity, MCU continuity, and practical reality. When I saw this rumor about what Peyton Reed might like to do with the Fantastic Four movie for a prospective 2022 reboot, it immediately brought to mind a scenario that checked off all three of those boxes.
Marvel Studios is aiming for a 2022 release for the 'Fantastic Four' reboot. Sources also say that 'Ant-Man' director Peyton Reed is pushing to direct, and has already pitched his vision for the movie to Feige multiple times. Reed's pitch includes a 1960s setting that involves the Quantum Realm, and possibly The Black Knight.
The Quantum Realm's Microverse City
Putting together comments made by Peyton Reed, the director of both Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp, from over the past year seems to give us a strong indication of what he might be pitching to Kevin Feige — and it has a lot of implications for Marvel Phase 4 — but let's start with this: last fall during the home video release of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Reed made a point of calling out an Easter egg which can be spotted in that film:
As Hank and Janet blast their way out of the Quantum Realm in the quantum pod, maybe freeze frame on some of those, and see if you can see anything in the distance in the Quantum Realm.
The thing that can be seen in the distance at that moment in the Quantum Realm appears to be a city.
More recently, Jackson Sze, Senior Visual Development Artist at Marvel Studios, posted his concept art for "Microverse City" and its environs on his Instagram account. It's clear from his context that he's talking about the same thing that Peyton Reed is talking about:
Microverse City developed for Antman and the Wasp. I wonder if Scott Lang made it here during his unscheduled stay in the Quantum Realm. You can catch the briefest glimpse of this when Hank and Janet leave the Quantum Realm.
Having started my concept art career in environment design, it's always fun to do some pure environment concepts at Marvel Studios.
This was an exploration of the Microverse in Antman and the Wasp. It's not as small or deep as the Quantum Realm so there are still understandable and familiar elements in the landscape.
It's widely been assumed that the MCU's Quantum Realm is the functional equivalent of the subatomic realm that has gone by a few different names in Marvel comics, most notably the Microverse. The prevailing theory has been that the name was changed to Quantum Realm because Marvel didn't have the rights to use that name since it no longer has the license to publish Micronauts. But Marvel Comics has used the term Microverse on a number of occasions after the Micronauts comic franchise concluded at Marvel (and notably, Marvel retained the rights to and continued to use some characters that were created for the comics). However, when Peyton Reed alludes to copyright issues with the term, he may be referring to something else. While Hasbro's trademarks on Microverse appear to be dead, Byron Preiss' copyright for the book The Microverse seems to be directly on point here.
Most interestingly, Sze is clearly referring to the Microverse as a distinct thing from the Quantum Realm when discussing his design concepts.
Special Surprise Guest Star: Ant-Man
Many of these elements suggest the adventure from the first Marvel Universe comic which featured the Microverse, Fantastic Four #16. In this 1963 comic from the early era of Marvel's Silver Age, the Fantastic Four enlist the aid of Ant Man to help them take on Doctor Doom, who had previously entered the Microverse and quickly taken over a small kingdom there. Is this kingdom in the Microverse the "Microverse City" referred to by Jackson Sze? It seems possible, and in the context of this rumor, it might make sense given Peyton Reed's experience with Ant-Man and the Quantum Realm. What's more, Reed is familiar with this specific comic, Fantastic Four #16, which introduces the FF into the equation:
"I was always fascinated with the various versions of the micro-verse in the Marvel Comics because I was a kid who grew up reading Marvel and was first introduced to it in Fantastic Four. There was an early Doctor Doom storyline where they all shrink down in the micro-verse and stuff…"
Reed has been thinking about what he'd do with the FF for quite some time, as he was set to direct a film featuring the team for Fox in 2003. He discussed his take on it a bit in 2015:
Hey, the Fantastic Four is fighting right around the corner!' People run out of Starbucks and the camera flies around the corner to this splash page imagery, where the Human Torch is flying, The Thing is fighting, and it's just chaos. Really, Joss' first Avengers movie had that feel – it's broad daylight. There was a time when you just didn't have the technology, so a lot of those fights took place at night. We thought having it take place in the city during the day would've been a lot of fun. They were kind of modern celebrities. There were a lot of different versions of it, but that was a movie I really wanted to make.
As for the villain? Well, waaaaaay back in 2002, screenwriter Doug Petrie elaborated on what he and Reed had in mind for the franchise. He revealed their take on the team's signature bad guy, Doctor Doom, and sketched out some concepts that appear to be very compatible with what Reed has been saying in more recent years:
The Fantastic Four" movie will mostly skip the back-story and begin in a New York where the team already exists — in a world where, unlike "X-Men," they are anything but antiheroes.
"They're the biggest celebrities in New York City," Petrie explained. "To the world outside, they are the world's coolest superheroes. [But] when they get home, they just fight with each other about everything. They order pizzas and argue about who gets the better costumes and stuff like that. It's a family comedy when they get behind closed doors.
That's all a pretty good fit both thematically and chronologically with Fantastic Four #16. This is not to say that the film will be a scene-for-scene match to that comic, because that's not how the MCU works. But it's a pretty good fit with what Reed has suggested and the recent rumors, and concepts here might be mixed and matched with other Marvel comics concepts as needed.
Soup of the Possible Multiverse
In this 2015 blog post, Spyridon Michalakis, Quantum Physicist and Manager of Outreach for the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter at Caltech — and also a consultant on Ant Man and other Marvel Studios films — describes the Quantum Realm and how the term came to be used in the MCU:
We discussed a lot of things, but what got everyone excited was the idea that the laws of physics as we know them may break down as we delve deeper and deeper into the quantum realm. You see, all of the other superheroes, no matter how strong and super, had powers that conformed to the laws of physics (stretching them from time to time, but never breaking them). But if someone could go to a place where the laws of physics as we know them were not yet formed, at a place where the arrow of time was broken and the fabric of space was not yet woven, the powers of such a master of the quantum realm would only be constrained by their ability to come back to the same (or similar) reality from which they departed. All the superheroes of Marvel and DC Comics combined would stand no chance against Ant-Man with a malfunctioning regulator…
Three years later, after Avengers: Infinity War had been released, Michalakis continued to his explanations of the Quantum Realm:
…you can engineer reality to manifest itself to your liking, just like a computer programmer can write code that allows you to experience being a soldier in virtual reality, fighting unicorns with lasers during the First World War. Space and Time are dimensions that emerge from a soup of pure possibilities, the Quantum Realm. The laws of physics themselves are merely suggestions within the Quantum Realm, only taking a more definite form as we "zoom out" from that place of infinite possibilities, to find ourselves in the macroscopic world we call home.
While the terms seem to be used imprecisely by various other parties involved with the film from time to time, Michalakis' description here tracks with designer Jackson Sze making a distinction between the Microverse and the Quantum Realm based on scale by saying of the Microverse, "It's not as small or deep as the Quantum Realm so there are still understandable and familiar elements in the landscape."
The Quantum Realm itself, which Michalakis also describes as "a place where time and space dissolve", is perhaps not a place where one would find a developed civilization or a city. You might find such a thing on your way to zooming in on the Quantum Realm, or as you zoom out from it. You might find many other weird places on such a trip as well.
Dimensions of the Multiverse such as the Dark Dimension and the Astral Dimension have already come up in the MCU in connection to Doctor Strange and the Quantum Realm. If the Microverse is indeed a thing apart from the Quantum Realm, we can count that as a dimension also. In a trailer for Spider-Man: Far from Home, Mysterio claims to be from Earth-833. Other dimensions have been alluded to in the MCU as well.
There may be at least one other particularly interesting dimension hinted at in Peyton Reed's Ant-Man and the Wasp. Stranded far from home herself in a place only reachable via the Quantum Realm, Janet Van Dyne becomes connected with Scott Lang via quantum entanglement, and is able to send Hank and Hope Pym a message to help find her: "Meet me in the Wasteland beyond the quantum void." Most observers have assumed "the Wasteland" to be a throwaway term here, but given the context, I have my doubts.
The Wasteland is yet another well-established Marvel dimension, and Janet Van Dyne and Mysterio play important roles there… along with Old Man Logan. That could be a hint as to what she was doing during those 30 years she was gone as well.
Weirdworlds of Doom and the Black Knight
As you'll recall, the current rumor says in part, "Reed's pitch includes a 1960s setting that involves the Quantum Realm, and possibly The Black Knight." The character was the subject of a previous round of rumors in December 2018 which simply stated that plans were in the works to bring the character to the MCU, and that these plans involved the Quantum Realm.
The Black Knight might seem an odd fit with the rest of this, but given the pathway we're sketching out here, the answer is straightforward. The character has most recently been seen in a 2015 series called Weirdworld, and the dimension of Weirdworld is another well-established Marvel Comics concept. And the vivid, other-wordly artwork of this Weirdworld series is a very good match for the psychedelic representation of the environs attached to the Quantum Realm in the MCU. It's further noteworthy that the kingdom in the Microverse of Fantastic Four #16 seems to be some sort of medieval-style realm, and that the Black Knight would fit right in there as well. What's more the magical elements of the character are a good fit with Doctor Doom also, and could open up the storyline of this rumored film to Doctor Strange or FF characters such as Agatha Harkness.
Created by Mike Ploog and Doug Moench and initially appearing in Marvel Super Action #1 (B&W magazine version, 1976), Weirdworld became the home of stories of magic and Tolkienesque fantasy among other things. More recently, a 2015 mini-series by Jason Aaron and Mike del Mundo featured the Black Knight, and also included characters ranging from Man-Thing to Morgan le Fay. In the comics, the Black Knight has frequently been a member of the Avengers and also romantically involved with a character who is about to have a lead role in an upcoming Marvel film — Sersi of the Eternals.
Marvel Phase 4 and Secret War
Weirdworlds, the Wasteland, the Microverse and other dimensions were all realms that were salvaged and patched together into a world — a Battleworld — by Doctor Doom during the course of the 2015 version of the Secret Wars crossover event, and the clues and rumors about Marvel Phase 4 of the MCU seem to support the notion that this arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may set up the Multiverse — only to destroy it at the end of Phase 4, perhaps in a pair of Secret Wars films that are the general equivalent of the Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame films that ended Phase 3.
Feige has known Reed since the director's failed run at helming Fantastic Four at Fox in 2002, and the two of them seem to be in sync on the importance of the Quantum Realm to the future of the MCU. He told IGN in 2014:
Peyton is someone that I've been a fan of for a long time. People may not remember, though probably your readers remember, that he was attached to Fantastic Four more than 10 years ago. We spent a lot of time together… and I got along with Peyton very, very well and he had awesome ideas and an awesome vision for the movie, and for various reasons he ended up leaving that movie…
"He's come in to meet on a lot of our movies over the years, in particular Guardians. He had a lot of awesome things to say on Guardians. But James [Gunn] had a slightly more solid take that was of interest to us. But Peyton was always on our lists, and so when this happened and Edgar [Wright] said 'Not for me' we met with a handful of people, but Peyton was always one that I thought would be great.
As for his part, Reed has been talking up how he'd like to bring the FF into the Marvel Studios fold since before the Disney/Fox deal officially closed. Reed is also on the record noting that although the Quantum Realm didn't exist in the Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish draft of the script, it wasn't a mandate from Feige to stick that in there — just a suggestion.
And yet… it's hard to imagine that the development of this apparently crucial concept was not carefully planned. Within about three months of Edgar Wright's departure from Ant Man over conflicts with script changes that Marvel wanted, Marvel had brought in one of the world's leading quantum physicists in Spyridon Michalakis to help them get the physics right. By 2015, Feig had gotten the controversial Marvel Creative Committee out of his way, and he, Peyton Reed, and even Michael Douglas were all touting the importance of the Quantum Realm. Soon even the likes of world's-smartest-man Stephen Hawking and the immortal Keanu Reeves had gotten together with Paul Rudd to explain the importance of Quantum Entanglement to the world. Marvel has been all-in on this concept for years.
Did it start with the 1963 Fantastic Four issue that may have given Peyton Reed the core of the idea he's been pitching to Feige? Will it end with the decimation of the Multiverse and the smashing together of the weird worlds left over into one world by Doctor Doom, as in Secret Wars?
We may not know the answer soon, but we'll certainly get some additional hints. Marvel skipped Hall H at San Diego Comicon last year, and between that event this year and/or Disney's D23 the month after, the timing seems right for some big announcements. Beyond The Eternals, Black Widow, and Shang-Chi, the studio has at least four "claimed but unnamed" Marvel film slots on the schedule between now and the end of 2022. Sequels such as Black Panther 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy 3 also seem likely within that timeframe, which might leave them with room on the schedule for this rumored FF film and something else. If there's anything to the Secret Wars Quantum Theory at all, it might not be coming until years beyond 2022. As for the months ahead, while the secrets they reveal might not be Secret Wars, they are likely to offer up some hint as to where the Quantum Realm might be taking us next.