Fixing Phase 4 of the MCU

Ahead of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania kickstarting Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe this week, I thought I would take a look back at the uneven period of change that occurred within the largest shared universe in Hollywood. And maybe how it could be tweaked for a better viewing experience.

The three biggest factors moving into this new saga were the launch of Disney+, the pandemic and the absence of flagship characters Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, T’Challa and a modern-day Natasha Romanoff. There was lots of content produced very quickly and released in a retrospectively odd order. Here’s what happened.

Disney+ performed a last-minute switcheroo to place Wandavision, a beautiful series that homages and celebrates the television medium, as the first piece of phase four content. This is a masterstroke. It is a more entertaining and rounded series than Falcon and Winter Soldier and moves the franchise forward in new and unexpected ways.

The Falcon and Winter Soldier soon follow and meditates over the implications of Avengers: Endgame’s last five minutes until finally accepting the plot of the $2.4 billion behemoth. The way the series uses US Agent and Isaiah Bradley’s story to inform Sam’s ascension to Captain America is a more interesting story than a toothless villain, but could it not have been delayed two weeks to premiere after tonally-similar Black Widow?

The original Avenger’s film was delayed by misogynistic executive Ike Perlmutter to the point that the character is dead before it hits the screens, resulting in a strange middle part of an already completed story. Somewhat incredibly it manages to be relevant within the wider context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and introduce at least one new fan favourite character.

At this stage, the new series is like two sides of a coin. What will come next?

In the next six months Loki (June), What If (August), Shang-Chi (September), Eternals (November), Hawkeye (November) and Spiderman: No Way Home (December) are rapid-fire released and it is dizzying. While the content is mixed – Loki, Shang-Chi and Spiderman are exceptional, Hawkeye is quite good, while What If and Eternals middling quality gets lost in the noise.

Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has been a fan favourite since Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the perfect character to truly explode the concept of the multiverse in a weighty but hilarious way. When the first three pieces of Disney+ content were announced this was by far the most anticipated and it delivered. It even exceeds expectations by casting series villain He Who Remains as Jonathon Majors, implying that character is a variant of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Avengers 5 villain Kang the Conquerer.

What If is the natural progression and exploration of this. The animated adventures stuffed more content onto new streamer Disney+ quickly and cheaply. It has fleeting moments of relevance (Captain Carter, Dark Doctor Strange), fanservice (Thor and Captain Marvel) and foreshadowing (Thor and Jane) but ultimately it is skippable. And in a release strategy as dense as this it could have been delayed to 2022.

If Disney+ were adamant they wanted a piece of Marvel content almost every other week they could have dropped the Oscar Isaac series Moon Knight in this position. It would have returned the audience to Earth and continued expanding the world post-Endgame. Whichever project that was chosen, it should have waited until Shang-Chi cleared the space.

Shang-Chi was a fun adventure origin story with a strong cast that was focused on building something new rather than anything that came before. It is the freshest and most interesting area of the universe that doesn’t involve Kang. Wherever it landed in this calendar year between Black Widow and Spiderman it would have succeeded.

Yet to have the lead-in for Marvel completionists to be What If doesn’t make any sense.

The same could be said for Eternals. In a crowded landscape, why did Marvel insist on dropping a product they knew would not be received favourably. Were they trying to capture some of the awards season market and even petition for a trophy? Or were they trying to bury their big concept flop before an inarguably epic Christmas period.

Hawkeye and Spiderman: No Way Home are two peas in a pod. The Marvel diehards got everything they ever wanted: the perfect casting of Hailee Steinfeld, the reintroduction of Kingpin, the crossover with the new Black Widow Yelena, the Doctor Strange crossover and the return of legacy characters in the Spiderman trilogy closer. It was a pure joy to watch these two projects and they are only strengthened by standing beside one another.

Has anyone mentioned there is a hand and half a head poking out of the planet from Eternals? And might I add, the film would have worked significantly better if the plot was told chronologically and the marketing was smarter. There are some solid elements to a gorgeously-directed but ultimately strange project. If it were released in April 2022 far away from Spiderman or Shang-Chi it might have stood a better chance.

At the end of the first year of Phase 4 the universe is starting to take form: the magic, the spies, the multiverse and the Eternals are all in different corners of the world. And then… nothing?

A full hundred days between the Christmas-themed pieces pass after an oversaturation of content. A fandom that was getting exhausted is now starved. Moon Knight drops to a thirsty audience. It’s six episodes of a cool character that completes his origin and fails to use him in any other project yet. Could we not have paced this better?

Could we not have started with one of the fresh and vibrant new female heroes? While Ms Marvel is not my favourite part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I have enough awareness to know it is not marketed towards me. Iman Vellani is a brilliant young actress whose show has a lot of heart. It’s quick and snappy and is confirmed to directly lead into 2023’s The Marvels. Is this not how we dive into a new year?

Thor: Love and Thunder is not released on Valentine’s Day and everyone is stunned. It’s in the title. The love interest is back after sitting out the third entry into a revitalised franchise. It fits tonally with Ms Marvel while not treading over the same godly plot threads as Moon Knight.

Instead Doctor Strange wanders into the biggest Marvel position on the calendar in May. After playing a supporting role in three of the highest-grossing and best films it makes sense to put the character in such a premium position. The plot thread of the multiverse is pushed back into the spotlight for the first time since What If ended nine months ago. It makes sense.

However, in a competition between the audience popularity of Doctor Strange and Black Panther, there is no competition. And while there is no Chadwick Boseman there is enough meat on the film to place it in the May position. It also avoids the watery theme overlap between Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Disney’s Avatar: The Way of Water.

The criminally-underrated She-Hulk series is the only series left to release. Rick and Morty’s Jessica Goa wrote a snappy show that was filled with Marvel lore but not weighed down by it. Tatiana Malsany offered a commendable performance. There were a few plot missteps but the meta-ending tied everything enough into a neat enough bow that the character could and should continue throughout other projects.

Werewolf by Night drops on Disney+ for Halloween and not many people click on it. Maybe if the horror-centric Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness were adjacent and the slightest bit connected it would have got some extra views. In the same token, the post-credits scene of Doctor Strange rubbed people the wrong way by introducing a new character too quickly and ripping the title character off the board. The exact same scene plays more shocking and offers more meaning as the closing moment of the final film of Phase 4.

WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, exclusively on Disney+. © 2022 MARVEL.

And then The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, a silly stocking stuffer that was better than it has any right to be, reminds everyone of what is to come. It seems odd to close a phase of Marvel movies without any kind of team-up film. Even a Disney+ exploration of the many legacy characters floating about could have satiated the diehards. Yet this is a new world post-Endgame, even if it is a little choppy.

Wandavision

Wandavision

The Falcon and Winter Soldier

Black Widow

Black Widow

The Falcon and Winter Soldier

Loki

Shang-Chi

What If

Loki

Shang-Chi

Moon Knight

Eternals

Hawkeye

Hawkeye

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Spiderman: No Way Home

Moon Knight

Ms Marvel

Doctor Strange

Thor: Love and Thunder

Ms Marvel

Eternals

Thor: Love and Thunder

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

She-Hulk

She-Hulk

Werewolf by Night

What If

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Doctor Strange and the Mutliverse of Madness

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

Werewolf by Night

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

Mark Halyday has been writing movie and television reviews for over ten years. He’s loved them even longer than that. He fondly remembers his friend telling him about the secret scene after the credits of Iron Man and wondering whether or not it would be possible to crossover two characters like that.

His debut novel “Dominic Anderson and the Tecbug Ten” is available here.

@markhbooks

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