Marvel Phase 4 – The darkest phase of the MCU: what, why and how?

Marvel Studios recently concluded the first chapter of its highly ambitious, The Multiverse Saga – Phase 4. It consisted of a total of 7 movies, 8 Disney+ shows, 2 TV specials, and 1 TV short. All in a total of 18 projects. It started with Wandavision (January 2021) and ended with Black Panther (November 2022). Well, that will officially end with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, which is set to release on Disney+ in December 2022. However, the story of how this phase turned out was not a happy one. Many of them have divided fans and critics, and some have even shaken fans’ faith in Marvel as a whole. So what went wrong? Let’s talk.

Too much content

MCU Phase 4 slate unveiled at Comic-con

One of the most obvious reasons for the fuss is that the MCU’s Phase 4 simply had too much to do. Too many hands spoil the broth! That’s what happened here. Marvel already suffers from the inability to direct all of its projects towards an overarching plot. This requires interconnectivity which often comes at the expense of content quality. On top of all that, Marvel has decided to dive into streaming services by offering 6-8 episode Disney+ shows. In the age of Covid it was a necessity but soon it started to choke.

With the exception of Wandavision, almost all of the shows felt a little too long and left audiences unhappy with their rushed endings. Before the premiere of WandaVision to start the phase, Julia Alexander at The edge wondered if Marvel Studios would over-saturated its content, saying that essentially having “one new Marvel thing every week (2021) is either a blessing or a curse” depending on what viewers think of the MCU. Many of these movie/show locals held great promise, but their execution fell short.

Introducing the Multiverse

Multiverse in MCU

Marvel Studio’s previous three Phases 1, 2, and 3 (now called The Infinity Saga) benefited from the fact that all of its films were very focused in their execution. The stakes were set, the characters were given appropriate motivations, and the audience was well acquainted with the world before the final threat arrived. The losses were mourned by all and at the same time the so-called special Marvel moments were cheered (remember Cap lifting the Mjolnir for the first time). Now Marvel has introduced the big concept – Multiverse. While this opens up plenty of possibilities for including X-Men, Mutants, and Sony’s Spiderman universe in the MCU, it also comes with a lot of baggage.

First of all, since there are so many variations of a character across the multiverse, no character’s death will now matter. Marvel can bring in another version of him at any time from another universe – alive, revamped, and (perhaps) recast. Second, the concept of a multiverse can easily go over the heads of the usual movie-going audience. The kind of audience that goes to the movies to rejoice and have fun, not to be bombarded with complicated theories about relativity and parallel universes and dimensions, will feel frustrated.

In fact, I can bet that few people still fully understand the concept of Incursion which was introduced in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, even 7 months after its release. Third, audiences will always be confused about the current storyline of a movie or series that takes place in the main universe (now called Earth 616) or another that they don’t know.

Disjointed narrative and uninteresting characters

Still from Thor-Love and Thunder

Considering the mountain of projects the studio had to manage, hesitations here and there were evident. Many films like Eternals, Black Widow, Shang Chi, Thor: Love and Thunder, are still waiting for their role in the overall MCU plot. It was surely teased in their mid-credit or post-credit scenes, but how they affect the MCU as a whole remains to be seen. They sometimes feel disjointed and soulless. Often the director’s choice and vision doesn’t feel in tune with the tone of the MCU, sometimes it gets too dramatic (Chloe Zhao’s Eternals) other times it gets too comedic (Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder).

Marvel is sparing no effort to add more talented and acclaimed actors to the MCU, for example. Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie in Eternals, William Dafoe in Spiderman: No Way Home and Christian Bale in Thor: Love and Thunder. But, their outstanding performances were diminished by poor visual effects, poor execution, and an inconsequential plot. Audiences also felt left out by the new characters introduced. They didn’t invest in the identity of these characters or care about their history, for example. Moon Knight, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel and the Eternals. They failed to generate buzz just weeks after their movie or show ended.

Failed experiments

Moon Knight

Kevin Feige (the big boss of Marvel Studios) had never hesitated to experiment with different genres in his MCU projects. This ensured continued interest and helped avoid repetition or fatigue. In Thanos’ days it worked great, but now it doesn’t. Let’s go through these points, shall we,

  • Black Widow focused on a character who was already deceased, with a consequence that didn’t do much in the future (Yelena in Hawkeye).
  • Shang Chi delivered an excellent film on martial arts and Chinese culture but posed a question (the origin of the ten rings) that still remains unanswered.
  • Eternals was a dramatic, inconsequential snooze fest, with a plot spanning decades of history (none of which was explicitly explained or shown).
  • Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness felt open to the world of the Multiverse, but had a chaotic plot and suffered from Sam Raimi’s horror vision.
  • Thor: Love and Thunder was just too comedic, and it reduced Thor (from a fearsome Asgardian in Endgame) to a mere joke.
  • Loki suffered through world-building and a cringe-worthy love affair that no one asked for.
  • Hawkeye and She-Hulk themselves didn’t know what they were supposed to do. They were left confused and directionless.
  • Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel had a great start (one dealt with psychological issues, the other with religion) but in the end, they too were disappointed with their hasty endings.

Lots of accumulation is still needed

Arishem the judge in Eternals

Above all, if we look closely at phase 4, Marvel is now forced to rely on a lot of other things like:

  • Establishing a powerful antagonist for The Multiverse Saga – Kang.
  • Introduce younger versions of OG characters in order to progress to Young Avengers.
  • Introduce Mutants, Monsters, Celestials, and X-Men to the MCU.
  • Manage convoluted plot points like – Variants, Multiverse, Dimensions, Realms, Incursion, and God-Beings, and find a way to fit them cohesively into the ongoing MCU.

It sounds like a Herculean task, but Feige said the MCU’s future will be clearer with upcoming projects. We all have high hopes for our beloved caped crusader, and we firmly believe that he has thought of everything. Let’s just hope he does it soon enough.

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