The toughest thing about being king of the mountain is staying there to paraphrase an old saying. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige is certainly experiencing this now given the stumbles and headaches with Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The film universe devoted to the Marvel Comics heroes absolutely ruled the box office in the past decade with their interconnected films. Many memorable characters became part of our popular culture in a way not seen since the original Star Wars films. The MCU reached its zenith in 2019 with the release of Avengers: Endgame, as that film concluded the Infinity Saga. But since then, there are cracks in the once-invincible armor of the MCU as their recent entries in film and television streaming have had a mixed reaction from fans and critics.
The films and TV shows are successful as seen with most recently with Thor: Love and Thunder and Ms. Marvel. However, in the past an MCU entry would both be well received by fans, critics and profitable. But as seen with the most recent entries that is no longer the case. Thor: Love and Thunder was not as well received, but it is a genuine box office hit, while, Ms. Marvel received excellent reviews, but was the least viewed MCU TV show. This is nothing new with Phase Four of the MCU, which began when Black Widow was released in theaters and streamed at the same time on Disney+ in May 2021. Due to the pandemic and the availability of the film on home media, Black Widow did not make as much money as many of the previous MCU films and had a middling reception by critics and fans. As the pandemic eased and subsequent films were released exclusively in theaters, they performed better with Spider-Man: No Way Home becoming the biggest hit of Phase Four and acclaimed by fans and critics, alike. But most of the other film entries have proven to be controversial or derided by all.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an excellent example as it was equally revered and derided, Some enjoyed the more viceral horror elements of the film, but others complained about the film’s content, the way certain characters were treated and so on. Others wanted to see more bizarre explorations of other dimensions and alternate takes of the MCU aside from the Illuminati. Basically, these critics felt the so-called Mulitverse of Madness did not live up to its name.
That leads to another gripe with the recent MCU fare. Before a film or TV show comes out, the speculation about who will appear in them goes overboard which will disappointment fans. This was evident with WandaVision when one of the TV show’s star promised an important character would appear in the last episode, leading to wild rumors that the X-Men would finally debut in the MCU, but this did not happen. Then there were all the supposed cameos for the second Doctor Strange film that never materialized. What is more infuriating are the reports that many characters were supposed to appear in these films and TV shows, but for one reason or another these appearances did not happen.
Here are some examples: Doctor Strange was supposed to appear in a cameo in WandaVision, Deadpool was supposed to pop up in a post-credits zinger in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, director Sam Raimi was supposed to reunite with Tobey Maguire as the universe of Spider-Man was supposed to be visited in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Beta Ray Bill would finally debut in Thor: Love and Thunder, Werewolf by Night was supposed to appear in Moon Knight, and so on. Now, the speculation continues as Doctor Doom will supposedly make his MCU debut in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and that Ben Grimm and Matt Murdock will turn up in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. This speculation is a great way to generate interest but it is bound to disappoint many, no matter what. Of course, there have been notable and important cameos in the Phase Four films and TV shows, such as the characters from the Netflix Marvel TV shows turning up in Hawkeye and Spider-Man: No Way Home, Captain Marvel appearing in a post-credits scene of Ms. Marvel, and of course the appearances of several Marvel heroes like Reed Richards and Professor X in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
One of the best things about the second Doctor Strange film was it explored the concept of the multiverse and alternate worlds like Spider-Man: No Way Home, What If…? and Loki. This is the framework for the future of the MCU as there is speculation that the big event for the MCU films and TV shows will be an adaptation of the Marvel Comics event Secret Wars. However, many of the Phase Four films and TV shows are ignoring this concept and the result is that the overall tone of Phase Four is inconsistent and lacks focus. For the most part, there isn’t an urgent feeling that the stories are leading to anything.
This could be due to the huge amount of properties being developed, which means that coordinating them and their continuity and storylines becomes more of a challenge. There is only so much attention Feige can devote to each project. The obvious solution would be to cut back on films and TV shows but the demand is too high to ignore. At this point, Feige needs qualified deputies and assistants who can help deliver his vision for the MCU. Most likely he does have such people but the result is evidently inconsistent as some efforts seem to be barely part of the MCU and are not contributing to and helping advance the Secret Wars story arc. This does not mean that every single film or TV show has to involve interdimensional incursions, but the story element at this point has to appear more often.
Meanwhile, some filmgoers have been vocal about the how the MCU films all look the same and have similar narratives. This is a valid point, but that is part of the appeal of the MCU and believe it or not, many films and TV shows are distinctly different in tone and narrative. Take the recent films where we went from a horror film with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to a comedic superhero romp with Thor: Love and Thunder, though it had its serious moments. Many of the MCU entries can be as silly and light hearted as Ant-Man to more contemplative explorations of today’s society like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Of course, if a property strays too far from the MCU formula it could end up displeasing many like Eternals. The film gets some credit for doing something different, but the end result was an unsatisfying chore to watch.
Another handicap with Phase Four of the MCU is that many of the properties lack the A list characters like Iron Man and Captain America. While that is true, remember that when the MCU was in its infancy these now-beloved superheroes were not well known. Phase Four has its share of A listers like Doctor Strange, Thor and Spider-Man and the Scarlet Witch became an A lister during Phase Four thanks to WandaVision. So in this case, do not be surprised if more superstars emerge.
Bear in mind, writing off the MCU at this point is both premature and foolish. The films and TV shows are versatile and can surprise us, which is another part of their appeal. Not everything will be universally acclaimed or beloved, but the MCU is still in good hands with Feige and company. All this could be moot starting next week when Marvel Studios announces its new projects at Comic-Con and later at D23. The known upcoming properties like Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, Fantastic Four or Secret Invasion may wind up blowing us away and any faults about Phase Four will be forgiven. In any event, while not all of the films and TV shows of MCU’s Phase Four have not enthralled us, there is always hope that what lies ahead will.