As Marvel Looks Beyond ‘The Avengers,’ Do Superheroes Always Have to Save the World?

io9 went to Marvel’s big press junket for The Avengers, and came away with some details about where the franchise will go next after its tentpole-to-end-all tentpoles: Loki will get dressed-down back in Asgard, Thor will go world-hopping, Tony Stark will go back against the wall, Captain America will work for S.H.I.E.L.D. and end up in political intrigue, and Hulk is basically done. Notably, there are no details about Black Widow, Maria Hill, or Hawkeye. There’s a lot of discussion about how changes in tone and setting will prevent sequelitis. But it sounds like Marvel’s committed to the same basic formula: dude gets in bad way, world gets in bad way, dude figures out things about himself, dude saves the world.

I enjoy that formula—it’s fun, it’s showy, and it’s been effective even if I think its returns are somewhat diminishing. But it ignores all the ways in which Marvel could avoid sequelitis by expanding the world in which its heroes live and telling different kinds of stories. Some of the new characters Marvel’s considering adding to the roster would shake things up. Doctor Strange would add a more contemplative air to the proceedings, and you could riff on the omnipresence of New York in movies if the movie followed the whole mystical-consultant-in-Greenwich-Village thing (speaking of which, an uptown-downtown, Doctor Strange and Luke Cage 1970s teamup would be all the awesome and a hilarious joke on interracial buddy cop movies). An Inhumans story could be a way to get into alien rivalries—the backstory there is the enmity between the Kree and the Skrull empires and genetic experimentation on human beings, which could be tonally very different and move the Marvel franchise into pure sci-fi. And a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, also apparently in the running, could jump forward into the future depending on which team Marvel wanted to explore.

But none of these formulations do the smaller, low-fi, tonally utterly different stuff that happens within the Marvel universe all the time. Marvel could make movies that draw their drama simply from the fact that superheroes exist and explore how society changes as a result, whether it’s She-Hulk litigating a legal regimen that takes superheroism into account, or Luke Cage recognizing that superheroes will spend more time on the immediate threats to humanity as a whole and less time reforming it. They could resurrect a hero like Deathlok, a cyborg who tries to balance between using his powers and not letting them overwhelm his humanity, as a way to meditate on powers that are imposed on characters rather than natural to them (something Wolverine tried and largely failed to do), and providing a futuristic setting that could steal some of the thunder from the upcoming Judge Dredd movie. And you could play with the idea that superheroism sometimes means solopsism with a Dazzler movie that could be a metaphor for the power we give celebrities. It might be very smart for Marvel to start diversifying kinds of stories and lower-budget plots if only as a hedge against the day when the formula that’s been very successful starts producing diminishing returns for them—and because there’s so much more creative and narrative potential for them to play with. Which characters and storylines do you think Marvel should consider adapting for screens big or small?