Warning: This post contains major spoilers about the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier — read at your own risk.
Since Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) introduced Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) — and the world — to "The Avenger Initiative" at the end of 2008's Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D., the fictional peacekeeping task force, has been the binding agent that tied every Marvel movie together.
But by the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been destroyed, both from the inside (thanks to the emergence of HYDRA sleeper agents) and the outside (thanks to those careening Helicrafts).
"Marvel is getting crazier and more inventive with each film," star Chris Evans told BuzzFeed last month at the film's Los Angeles press junket. "But, 'In Marvel We Trust,' so when I was told this movie was the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., I knew it was going to be the beginning of something even more amazing."
Marvel's well-documented shroud of secrecy prevented Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, and Anthony Mackie from detailing the long-term ramifications for the franchise, but all three actors spoke candidly about the immediate implications.
"Nick is retreating back to the shadow world," Jackson said of his character, who is presumed dead by the world at large at the end of The Winter Soldier. "It's this place that he and Natasha [Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow] refer to a lot, and it makes him a much more interesting character who won't be instantly recognizable because of that." Also helping to aid Fury's anonymity will be the lack of his iconic eyepatch, which he burned at the end of Winter Soldier and replaced with a pair of sunglasses Jackson personally picked out.
"We looked at a lot of glasses, and went with those because they were a specific color that blended into my skin tone," he told BuzzFeed. "It was most important they not be immediately recognizable as sunglasses because we didn't want it to look like he was trying to hide. We wanted it to look like this was simply a style choice to the outside world."
Jackson also cites the first of Winter Solder's post-credits sequences (there are two in total) — introducing Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), mutant twins who factor heavily into Age of Ultron — as evidence his character will remain in hiding for much of Joss Whedon's The Avengers sequel, due in theaters in May 2015.
"Avengers 2 is so huge, and having seen the tag, I don't know there's a real space for Nick in that scenario because everything is so extraordinary," Jackson revealed. "When you come down to it, Nick's an ordinary guy who knows how to bend extraordinary people to his will. The [Avengers sequel] is not about Nick and what S.H.I.E.L.D. is going through. We're going to skip over him in an interesting sort of way."
Although Jackson was very quick to add, "Don't get me wrong, I'll show up, but it's not to be an effective part of the plot or the resolution of the plot from [The Winter Soldier]."
Mackie echoed Jackson's sentiments, saying that while it's clear The Winter Soldier is a two-part story, Captain America 3 will be the film that serves as the conclusion. "In the comics, Cap would aways call on the Falcon for help, and then they'd go their separate ways," Mackie said. "Avengers 2 is one of those instances where Cap goes off and does his thing. Then, he'll circle back around to get my help for Captain America 3. That will pick up where we left off and Avengers 2 will be a segue to something else."
And while Mackie's Falcon won't be featured in Avengers: Age of Ultron, he's thrilled to be a member of The Marvel Cinematic Universe — finally. "I wanted to be a part of Marvel so bad that I auditioned for about 20 Marvel characters before this," Mackie revealed. "Every time they were doing a Marvel movie, I was like who can I audition for? I can be the guy that says, Thor, throw the hammer! It got to the point where Kevin [Feige, President of Marvel Studios] was like, Stop. Don't call us anymore. If we need you, we'll call you. Six months later I got a call about Falcon."
Although, Mackie quickly learned that becoming part of the Marvel family doesn't give you unfettered access. "The secrecy, even between the actors, is pretty hardcore," he said, laughing. "I wasn't given the Avengers 2 script and had to call up Chris, who is a good friend of mine, to see if I was in the movie. And he was like, Uh ... I don't know, um, well, let me call you back. It's like, dude, you just told me you read it!"
Evans was even more tight-lipped about the sequel, but he did promise that the script exceeded his already-lofty expectations. "It's a tough balance for Marvel to orchestrate these independent franchises while still dipping into the Avengers pool," he said. "But the script is so good." Yet it quickly became clear that Captain America 3 is the project he's most excited to begin work on.
"I just love the relationship with Bucky, the Winter Soldier [Sebastian Stan]," Evans said. "Cap's this wildly selfless man who is going through a very traumatic experience and determined not to bleed on anybody but challenged with such a conflicting hurdle. It's this really beautiful dichotomy of trying to be strong and selfless, but at the same time, facing this real personal challenge."
He added, "This is so personal for Cap, who has had to adjust to modern times; not just with tech shock and how society operates, but with the fact he's been alone. He had no connection to anyone from his life when he was suddenly slammed with this relationship from his past, and seeing that evolve and come to fruition will be very exciting."
Jackson, for one, is hoping subsequent installments explore a different dynamic: "I don't think a lot of kids who watch these films realize that Nick was around when Captain America was around in World War II," he said. "I want to know how he got from where he was then to where he is now, and what it is that allows him to still be so vital."
Mackie's sequel dreams are a little more frivolous: "I know Falcon's suit is going to evolve and I'm hoping it evolves into red spandex," he said. "I've been working really hard on my body and was very disappointed when I didn't get a copious amount of spandex to wear while shooting this movie."
High atop Evans' wishlist is the desire to see Cap dirty up his American ideals. "He's had some flaws, but I'd really like to see him make a major misstep," Evans revealed. "I'd like to see that morality betray him; have him do something he really truly felt was right but realize that even if you think something is the right thing to do, it doesn't always pan out the way you think it should."
When asked if he worries audiences might react negatively to Cap betraying his comic book ideals, as many did when Superman carelessly destroyed an entire city and murdered someone in 2013's Man of Steel, Evans shrugs off the comparison.
"The best thing about [The Winter Soldier] is, if you take the superhero element out of it, this is still a good movie, so hopefully if Cap makes mistakes, it's not just seen from a superhero perspective," he said. "This is a human being. If he makes mistakes and does end up doing something that's considered flawed or regrettable, I hope that it's not just connected to the superhero parts of his identity."