From ‘Black Widow’ To ‘Thor Love And Thunder,’ Why Does The MCU Phase 4 Feel So Aimless?

People have started to take note that the luster is starting to fade a little bit from Marvel projects. I mean granted, that still means billions of dollars and pop culture conversation domination, but here in Phase 4, things feel a bit different. Supposedly we are now halfway through this phase, the first one where Disney Plus TV series join the blockbuster movies, and things have been kind of weird.

I want to try to pin down why all these projects don’t really seem like they’ve worked as a cohesive unit. There may be some individually great ones here and there, but as a whole, Phase 4 feels off in a few ways, and it’s tough to know where exactly it’s going even based on all the projects we’ve seen so far.

I’m going to go in order here:

WandaVision (January 2021) – Perhaps an indication that things were going to get a bit… weird here in Phase 4, WandaVision does remain one of this era’s best projects, a fantastic exploration of grief and mourning, though what it ended up being was setting up Wanda to be the antagonist of the next Doctor Strange film. Now she’s allegedly dead, but that seems unlikely, though we don’t know when or how she will return.

Falcon and the Winter Soldier (March 2021) – This show is back in the news right now based on a THR article that seemed to wonder if Sam would pick up the mantle of Captain America when… that was literally what this entire series was about. But it does sort of speak to how it feels relatively pointless, given that the end of Endgame has Cap handing him the shield, and in general, this seems to be the least well-received live action series so far on Disney Plus.

Loki (June 2021) – Another strong entry for Disney Plus, one that results in the birth of the multiverse, which is at least a partial thread kind of holding some of these upcoming projects together, and also introducing us to Kang, though it still remains an open question if he’s truly meant to be the ultimate big bad of the Phase. It’s looking like yes, but I’d argue the reliance on the multiverse has been kind of a weak plot point in this phase, as once you open that door, it’s hard to create meaningful stakes.

Black Widow (June 2021) – A project that should have existed a long, long time ago, with Scarjo’s Natasha not getting her due until after she died in Endgame, making this one of the only flashback MCU movies, and a very weird way to kick off an entire phase at the box office. The movie mostly served to be an introduction / torch passing to Yelena, who still has been underutilized. But more on her later.

Shang-Chi (September 2021) – Arguably the best or at least second best movie in the entire phase so far, Marvel really did something significant by turning a relatively unknown hero into a great new force in the MCU. But while Shang-Chi will no doubt be a key presence on whatever “super team” assembles in the future, it has yet to crossover in any meaningful capacity with any of these other projects. A sequel is coming which could change that, but it’s weird that such a standout feature and character have felt ignored since release.

Eternals (November 2021) – The first ever “rotten” MCU movie must have raised alarm bells all over Disney. I am very much an Eternals apologist, but even I will admit it’s far from the MCU’s best in any way besides visually, and I think Marvel had very high hopes for this super team that may now be flushed away because of how the movie performed. This also continues a Phase 4 trend of trying to make new superstars out of lesser known characters. It worked for Shang-Chi, but it did not work to the same extent here.

Hawkeye (November 2021) – Hawkeye is a prime example of the MCU executing well with no real indication of what their larger plan is supposed to be. Hawkeye did a great job passing her torch to the enigmatic Kate Bishop, but approaching a year later, we have zero idea when she’ll be seen again, with no season 2 announcement, nor any indication she’s forming the Young Avengers or joining the new , near Avengers team, or what’s going on. And they resurfaced Yelena here in a way that seems like a perfect season 2 could be Kate and Yelena doing things, and that doesn’t appear to be happening either, as maybe Yelena will instead be attached to an anti-Avengers “Thunderbolts” project.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (December 2021) – What most people would probably consider the best movie of this phase, but one that sort of “cheats,” making the multiverse idea work because it’s pulling in Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire Spider-Man from other universes, which is impossible not to enjoy . But even this film ended somewhat awkwardly with a grand memory wipe that now must make the Peter Parker we’ve spent three films investing in start over from scratch, whenever he reappears.

Moon Knight (March 2022) – An experiment in what happens when you take a fan-favorite, albeit not blockbuster-level character, and give them a series wholly disconnected from the rest of the MCU. It works… fine, but then again, you have all the same questions about a second season, and if not that, where Moon Knight may appear again after six episodes of an introduction. No answers yet.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (May 2022) – Another controversial multiverse entry, showing just how chaotic things could get using that plot point. But it serves as sort of a weird blend of a reprisal of an old Avenger (Strange) the sacrifice of a long-term, fan-favorite character as a villain (Wanda) and the introduction of someone new and probably meant to slide into the Young Avengers squad that does not yet exist (America).

Ms. Marvel (June 2022) – Currently the highest reviewed MCU project ever, as much as I like it (and particularly Kamala Khan herself), this feels like a series that A) probably should have been a blockbuster movie and B) probably should have debuted as one of the first introductions to this new phase, as there are few better new heroes to build off of than Kamala, as we’ve seen here. And then after this week again, we will be in a weird position where a show that feels like it should have a second season may just turn into a guest spot for Kamala in The Marvels next year.

Thor Love and Thunder (July 2022) – Critics soured on this one badly, and even if audiences like it more, it’s not exactly top-rated there either, and the Ragnarok magic isn’t there. It brings up the somewhat awkward question of what to do with the leftover main Avengers from the last phase, and that does not appear to be a question it answers all that well.

The main issues I see:

  • No clear direction at this point re: forming a new Avengers team and facing a unified villain threat
  • The multiverse introduction makes everything somewhat low stakes
  • A bunch of Disney Plus shows that ride an awkward line between kind of being a TV series, but mostly being lower budget movies that are chopped up into six 30 to 50 minute episodes, with unclear indications about their future

We’ll see where things go from here.

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