OPINION: Phase 4 Of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe Is Inconsistent Yet Experimental
We’re less than two weeks away from the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. That film, along with the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special which comes out on November 25th, will mark the end of Phase 4 of the MCU. I don’t think most people will disagree with the statement that Phase 4 has been hit-or-miss for both critics and fans. On one hand it’s given us films like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which are now viewed as some of Marvel’s best work. On the other hand, it’s also given us Eternals and Thor: Love and Thunder which some view as Marvel’s weakest.
While I’ve still enjoyed most of the studio’s new content, I can understand why not everything has landed for everybody. It was probably inevitable this would happen though. Phase 3 was generally viewed as the MCU’s best, and it also marked the conclusion of over a decade-long storyline that began with Iron Man in 2008. How could Phase 4 compete with that?
But I think it’s a little unfair for people to have expected the franchise to reach such great heights so soon again. Essentially this was the MCU starting over. We were moving on from the previous storyline and saying goodbye to older characters in order to introduce a new generation of Avengers. But there’s another reason I think Phase 4 has felt different compared to others. It seemed that Marvel decided to use this period as a chance to experiment and try new things they wouldn’t have been able to do before. Some certainly worked better than others but I think they deserve a little more credit for trying to go in different directions especially after one of the biggest criticisms they received for years was that all the films felt the same.
The first project right out the gate for Phase 4 was Wandavision, their first Disney+ series. Already this was something wildly different than what people had come to expect from Marvel. The first two episodes of this show were basically just 1950’s era sitcom episodes (complete with the first one being filmed in front of a live audience). After WandaVision, the rest of the episodes took on a darker tone and introduced a core mystery that had people tuning in every week just to see if their fan theories were true. Some people have cited Wandavision as one of the shows to bring the water cooler talk back for shows in the streaming era. This stylistic choice of releasing something in Black and White would later return – and be taken even further – with the recently released Werewolf by Night. As another first for Marvel, it was a one-off “Special Presentation” that doubled as a Halloween special which paid tribute to old monster movies and featured some of the most brutal scenes in the MCU to date.
Staying on the theme of horror, we also had Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. A movie which served as a sort of sequel to Wandavision and was directed by Sam Raimi, who famously directed both the original The Evil Dead and Spider-Man trilogies. Multiverse of Madness allowed Raimi to infuse his love of both horror and comic book movies with signature chaotic camera movements to create another first for the MCU – a campy dark humor horror movie. I think Multiverse of Madness is one of the best examples of Marvel’s approach with Phase 4. For many years people felt that most of the MCU’s films had too similar of a style regardless of who was directing. When Doctor Strange came out earlier this year it became one of their most polarizing films. People who were fans of Raimi’s campy style of filmmaking mostly enjoyed the movie. However, others who weren’t used to the MCU haven’t such a shift in tone and style were a little thrown off. The climax of the film involves Doctor Strange possessing a dead body and later winking to the camera. As someone who loves not just horror but campy horror, I thoroughly enjoyed that. But I can understand why others would find it too goofy or bizarre.
Another divisive Phase 4 film released this year was Thor: Love and Thunder. After the more comedic approach taken with Thor’s character in Ragnarok received positive reception, Marvel seemed to let director Taiki Watiti go off and dial everything up to 11 – again. Making a film that pretty much felt like a live action cartoon with scenes like Thor getting into arguments with his axe, the Greek god Zeus (played by Academy Award winner Russell Crowe) talking about orgies in a scene that had an animated dumpling in it, and two goats that screamed every time they were on screen. This was a movie people either loved because of it’s silliness or absolutely hated because of that. I feel like these two films show not only Marvel trying to give their movies individual styles, but it also might show that they no longer feel the need to make films that appeal to as many people as possible.
Now, the MCU has way more movies coming out per year now than they ever did before, on top of shows on Disney+. Simply put, it’s become a conveyer belt of content. Instead of trying to connect everything with a consistent style and tone they’ve now decided to operate as any other studio, releasing projects in different genres that appeal to different people. If you’re a fan of just straightforward action, you got things like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Widow. If you love goofy comedy, you’ve got Love and Thunder and She Hulk, Attorney at Law.
None of this is to say that they aren’t legitimate criticisms to be made about this Phase. Despite being dubbed “The Multiverse Saga“, and the multiverse already being explored quite a bit, there are still so many questions. Somehow it feels like there are so many rules and no real rules at all. Perhaps this is something that will start to become more clear in future films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Another major issue with Phase 4 comes with most of the Disney+ series: the length. Most of these shows have only been 6 episodes long. And with the exception of maybe Loki, that length has been the detriment of each show’s respective stories. Personally, I find that most of the finales often feel rushed. Many times I also find that some of the deeper and serious themes get pushed into the background for the sake of action. For example, the exploration of racism and PTSD in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier felt like it wasn’t allowed to go as far as it could have. And I could say the same thing about Moon Knight and its themes of mental health and childhood trauma. As a result, the most impactful moments and conversations from each respective series felt largely forgotten by the end. In some cases, I think a few of these stories probably might’ve worked better if they were adapted as movies instead of shows, especially because some of the middle episodes contain so much filler. As a result, there’s a clear imbalance between the show’s dramatic moments and its spectacles.
And vice versa. There are some movies that might have worked better as a 6-episode series. I think the Eternals is a prime example. Its Rotten Tomatoes score aside, the tone and style just don’t match. While it has an interesting dark tone and notably shot on location for most of its scenes, there was simply not enough time to give proper development to the large cast of characters. Those characters and the storyline, which spanned thousands of years, would’ve obviously made for a rich Disney+ series; whereas, something like Ms. Marvel probably would’ve benefitted from being a movie with a tighter script that focused more on her bloodline and the Dept. of Damage Control and not so much the Clandestines.
That’s why I think the theory of Marvel viewing Phase 4 as an experimental period may be right. It seems that they’ve used this time to try new things in order to see what works and what doesn’t. As a result, they seem to be adjusting their future Phases based on all the criticism they’ve received. They also already seem to be poking fun at it.
Recently the finale of She-Hulk acknowledged the problem that all Disney+ finales seem to have. Jennifer Walters literally breaks the fourth wall, speaks to a Kevin Feige surrogate, and begs him to rewrite the story the way she wants because they way it was already written is reductive and repetitive. The series doesn’t end with a bang, but instead chooses to focus on the lead character’s personal stakes. Another example of Marvel being receptive and learning from its “mistakes” is the fact that Armor Wars, which was previously announced as a show, is now being redeveloped as a movie. After the success of Werewolf by Night, “Special Presentations” seem to be the best way to go about introducing niche characters and stories without spending as much money and without spreading themselves too thin. And the hype surrounding this new format is real. Since Werewolf By Night‘s debut, there have been numerous rumors making the rounds about new Special Presentations such as Nova and Silver Surfer.
In the end Phase 4 hasn’t been the most consistent in terms of quality, but that doesn’t make it a failure. Instead, it may have been a necessary moment for the MCU, a chance to evolve and grow. Hopefully the main lesson Kevin Feige and company learn is that it’s okay to experiment and try new things, but that none of that experimentation matters if it starts to eclipse the reason fans fell in love with the franchise in the first place.