For a little while now, there have been grumblings about Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The problem, depending on who you ask, varies; the range of opinions both broad and contradictory. Too many new characters, but also an overreliance on familiar faces. An insistence on crossover storytelling and character cameos, but not enough of a bigger picture connecting it all. Perhaps the problem is something else entirely – something that no film (or series) in Phase 4 can contend with. Namely, that Avengers: Endgame (and Infinity War, and basically the entire concluding suite of The Infinity Saga) was simply too good. That it delivered such a satisfying experience – so deftly woven amid countless story possibilities, so perfectly balanced between delivering jaw-dropping spectacle and tapping into long-cultivated emotional connections – that the bar has been impossibly raised, expectations irrevocably altered. What if the problem with Phase 4 is that it simply isn’t Phase 3?
After San Diego Comic-Con 2022, Marvel Studios looks set to quash those growing concerns – and big-time. Across an hour-plus Hall H panel, MCU boss Kevin Feige didn’t just eke out hints of what comes next – he planted a whacking great flagpole in the distance, and established (most of) the path that leads there too. If fans went in unsure of exactly where Phase 4 was going to end (as we now know, with this November’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) they left knowing not only that, but also the entire line-up of Phase 5, the complete scope of what we can now officially call The Multiverse Saga, and the event it’s all leading towards too. Capping off this latest MCU mega-omnibus? A new double-whammy of Avengers sequels, arriving six months apart in 2025: Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and (as had long been rumoured) Avengers: Secret Wars. You wanted a plan? There’s your plan.
Inevitably, Marvel revealing so much of what comes next (and, more importantly, when it’s all coming out) can be interpreted as a direct reaction to the growing Phase 4 backlash – a way to dispel any notion of the MCU being aimless, or in search of, in all senses, an endgame. But it’s also a reaction to Endgame, and how we all responded to it; an acknowledgement that that film, and the ones immediately preceding it, completely changed our relationship with Marvel movies. The way we watch, experience, and ultimately enjoy these movies has forever been warped – when the climax of The Infinity Saga paid off long-gestating moments we didn’t even know had been set up, the euphoria was immense, and audiences have spent Phase 4 chasing a similar high. But with a focus on introducing fresh faces and new narratives, those pay-offs haven’t been earned yet – instead we’ve been trying to spot potential set-ups to anticipate those bigger rewards. It’s easy for that focus on the future to come at the expense of simply relaxing into stories being told in the here and now. Maybe, Marvel’s Hall H panel was a tacit acknowledgement that, in a post-Endgame world, audiences require this level of foreknowledge to really sit back and enjoy the Marvel movie right in front of them.
Events like an Avengers movie were the exception rather than the rule, and the journey there was just as entertaining as the destination.
If so, that’s a shame – and it wasn’t always like this. Sure, way back when, there was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more. But for Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the MCU, the bigger picture was rarely more than, ‘You get a big Avengers movie every now and then’. Events of that size were the exception rather than the rule, and the journey there was just as entertaining as the destination. Around those tentpoles, you got origin stories and adventure-filled sequels – a tonal buffet of Earth-bound action films, mythical space-Viking romps, groovy cosmic odysseys, and heist-comedies about a guy who gets really small. We didn’t embrace Iron Man 3, or vibe with the Guardians Of The Galaxy (at the time a seeming outlier) because of some supposed grand-plan. They were all enjoyed on their own merits, in their own registers. And there was no Infinity War or Endgame to measure them against.
Perceived wisdom has it that the output of Phase 4 has been somewhat shaky – and individual mileage on these movies, inevitably, varies. But the wider criticism does feel unusual when you consider the breadth of what’s arrived so far. After years of complaints that Marvel movies are too homogenous, we’ve had a batch of MCU films that feel more heavily authored than ever before – Eternals bears the humanistic fingerprints of Chloé Zhao all over it, while Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness channeled Sam Raimi’s propensity for both eye-popping horror and traditional superheroism. Thor: Love And Thunder couldn’t feel more Taika Waititi if it tried. Streaming series like WandaVision, Loki and Moon Knight pushed the boundaries of what an MCU story can be. They’ve been packed with new characters that pop (we’ll take much more of Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, endless variants of Sophia Di Martino’s Sylvie, and an entire karaoke-centric spin-off about Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi and Awkwafina’s Katy), as well as best-yet performances from veterans Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston, and Benedict Cumberbatch. That Spider-Man: No Way Home currently emerges as the biggest success of Phase 4 (a box office behemoth that received raucous reactions) perhaps speaks to the general desire from audiences for something to repeat that Endgame endorphin hit – a film that doesn’t rest on its appearances from previous Spider-Men, but capitalised on our long-held connections to them to springboard itself to greater heights.
What now, then? Well, the path has been made clear – and the future looks incredibly bright. There aren’t just the sprawling delights of Phase 5 (More Kang! A new Blade! Sam Wilson’s Cap debut proper!) and the promise of The Kang Dynasty and Secret Wars to come, but also the impending arrival of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – a film whose emotional potency in the wake of Chadwick Boseman’s passing looks to be off the charts. The trailer, also unveiled at Comic-Con, is a total knockout. Hopefully, the unveiling of The Multiverse Saga won’t just mean looking forward with anticipation, but looking backwards too with renewed perspective – a chance to reassess recent films that played to insurmountable expectations and already feel unfairly maligned. Go back and revisit Eternals, a rare MCU beauty whose location shooting means you can feel the whistling wind and taste the salty air, with rich, complex characters and an epic, ethereal tone; or Multiverse Of Madness, not a colossal mega-blockbuster but a spooky romp with a ghoulish wit, whose odd clunky moment only thunks because it’s otherwise so light on its feet; or Shang-Chi, which offers a classic Marvel origin story from an entirely fresh cultural perspective, with dazzling fight choreography to boot. If they’re still not your bag (and hey, that’s alright too), then Secret Wars is coming. But without all that ‘What’s next?’ pressure, Phase 4’s output could be better appreciated more in its own right.
In other words, we’re no longer in the Endgame now – and, you know what? That’s ok, because The Multiverse Saga is only just getting started. Let the multiversal madness commence.