Phase Four Of The MCU: An Assessment

Now that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special have come out, Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has come to a close.

On the whole, Phase Four turned out to be a mixed bag for the MCU films and now TV shows that came out during the phase which started last year with the streaming of WandaVision. While some of the films and TV shows were well beloved and successful, others turned out to be huge disappointments, both critically and financially. Of course, the financial disappointments can be rightly blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic which kept filmgoers away from theaters. It should be pointed out that some of the MCU TV shows that streamed on Disney + were more popular, well received and watched than other MCU TV shows.

Given the mammoth success of the previous phases of the MCU, the diminished success of Phase Four may be surprising to some fans. However, this was inevitable given the lack of cohesion and direction of the phase, and the uneven quality of the efforts.

Hard Act to Follow

So what exactly happened? There are many reasons and theories but one thing to keep in mind is that it is impossible to remain on the top once you have achieved success. The MCU films were at the height of their success and popularity by the time Phase Three ended in 2019 with Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Marvel Studios had a difficult challenge to maintain that level of success given that for the most part the overall story line of the MCU came to a definite conclusion with Avengers: Endgame. Sure, there were a few dangling plot threads, but if someone walked away from viewing the MCU at that point, there was a feeling of finality. What else could be done at that point with the MCU? Comic book fans knew that there were always new story lines after a successful comic book arc with new villains and threats, but the average moviegoer does not know that or even cares. Plus, the final films of Phase Three did not drop any hints of new threats to the MCU. The only significant plot thread that needed to be resolved was Spider-Man’s secret identity dilemma at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home, which could have been unresolved due to squabbles between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures.

Then there was the fact that the two most popular characters in the previous MCU films, Iron Man and Captain America, were written out of the MCU and would not return. Without those two headliners, there were not any clear successors to pick up the mantle and continue the momentum. The next choices to be the MCU flagship characters were problematic. Spider-Man and the Hulk are embroiled in legal obstacles as Marvel Studios does not own their film rights. Chadwick Boseman, who played Black Panther and was emerging as a breakout star in the MCU, unfortunately passed away. Meanwhile, Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, announced that he is stepping away from acting to deal with a recent diagnosis that he is predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s disease.

In other words, Phase Three was a hard act to follow.

Mixed Reactions & Executions

It did not help that the announced films and TV shows for Phase Four for the most part did not bring about the over-the-top anticipation and excitement that previous films did. The exception to that was the announcement that the tensions between Marvel Studios and Sony were resolved and that a new Spider-Man film would be released.

Let’s face it, no one was clamoring for an Eternals film yet it was given a big announcement. The characters were not even popular with comic book fans, yet they had a film while more popular characters that didn’t cross over to the live-action medium still did not have a film or TV show under development.

On the other side of the coin, it has to be considered that execution is very important. Even if a character is not popular, with the right filmmaker and creative team that character could be successfully presented on film or TV. Want some examples? Look at Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. Even Iron Man and Captain America have to included, as well. At the start of the MCU, Marvel Studios lacked the film rights to Marvel Comics’ most popular characters like Spider-Man or the X-Men. So, the film studio had to make do with what they had. They recruited topnotch talent who were able to deliver winning films. With Phase Four the execution of its films and TV shows was certainly muddled.

WandaVision was one of the most popular and successful entries in Phase Four, though it had its faults, namely its conclusion. The TV series set the template for other TV shows in that the final episode felt rushed and left viewers wanting more. It did not help that the episode was overhyped with undelivered promises of guest stars that ended up disappointing everyone.

The other MCU TV shows that followed had the same issue with executing the landing with one exception: She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. But that show had major issues and its reputation was probably salvaged by its final episodes.

Other TV shows were not as fortunate. Usually the first couple of episodes were finely executed and engaging, but the middle episodes were often a drag to watch before rushing towards its finales. Many of the shows only had six episodes, which was not enough time to flesh out the characters and plot lines.

One example to look at was Moon Knight. Just like its titular character, the show was schizophrenic. First it started off as a mystery about Marc Spector and the reveal of his costumed identity as Moon Knight. But midway through the series, the show abruptly shifted gears thematically and became a kind of Indiana Jones knock off with the hero running around Egypt and fighting thugs while finding a lost tomb. Then once that arc was over, Moon Knight turned into a metaphysical drama where the hero and the viewers wonder about reality. Finally in its last episode, the show rushed headlong into a series of fight scenes, some which featured dueling, gigantic Egyptian gods. It’s easy to understand why so many were put off by Moon Knight’s abrupt shifts in tone and story lines, and unclear thematic direction.

Lack of Focus and Direction

The issues with Moon Knight with its lack of focus and direction could also be seen with other Phase Four projects.

The first three phases of the MCU had a clear direction, with most of the films laying hints to what was to come. This meant that the films were interconnected, yet structured in a way that for the most part they could be viewed separately. Phase One of the MCU built itself up to the formation of the Avengers. Once it did, the final film of Phase One, The Avengers, gave us a hint of what was to come with the reveal of Thanos, who threatened Earth. With Phase Two, the Thanos threat became more prominent, yet stayed in the background as the second phase concentrated on growing tensions for the superheroes, while introducing new heroes and villains. Phase Three was the climax of the Thanos story arc, where the MCU heroes had to reunite after the Avengers broke up and confront the supervillain.  

From the very start of its films, Phase Four was shown to have lacked a clear direction. Black Widow was the first Phase Four film, but it took place during Phase Three and aside from a post-credit scene that tied to Hawkeye, did not present a direction for Phase Four.

The new threat of Kang the Conqueror was Phase Four’s answer to Thanos, but his looming threat was not as well defined as with Thanos. Introduced in Loki, Kang presented himself as a threat to time itself and the reason behind the fracturing of the Multiverse. Yet, the two MCU films and TV show that addressed the growing problem with the Multiverse (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and What If…?) did not make any connection to Kang.

Meanwhile, the other MCU films of Phase Four were independent of this Kang threat. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was an early Phase Four film that had a potential running plot thread about the nature and origin of the mystical bracelets adorned by Shang-Chi, but nothing came of this in the films and TV shows that followed. Eternals introduced the threat of the Celestials but that film seemed to have existed in another universe given the fact that by the end of that film a giant stone statue appeared in the ocean that would have wrecked the Earth’s climate. Yet, this was not mentioned in other films or TV shows (aside from an obscure Easter egg in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law). Nor has anyone on Earth reacted to the fact that a gigantic alien appeared over the planet at the end of Eternals.  

The films were not alone with the lack of continuity and cohesion. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson became the new Captain America by the end of the show. This is a major deal, but subsequent films and TV shows did not reference this.

This probably would be forgiven if the fourth phase ended with a full reveal of Kang. Instead that will happen next year in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, the first Phase Five film. In hindsight, it probably would have been better for Phase Four if it concluded with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

It seems as if the films and TV shows were presented out of order, which is frankly confusing. No viewer should have to go to supplemental materials or YouTube videos to figure out what was going on. One theory making the rounds online is that these films and TV shows actually take place in separate universes. This would explain the lack of continuity and cross-referencing with the projects. If this was the case, then the final film or TV show should have revealed this, so at least it would make better sense to viewers. But the more likely explanation is probably the difficulty Marvel Studios had with coordinating all these projects at once.

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Andor: A Different Star Wars Story

The latest Star Wars TV show, Andor, just concluded its first season with the episode “Rix Road”, and on the whole the series left Star Wars fans divided. Some applauded how it took a different approach to Star Wars, which was more serious and grounded. Others dismissed the show because of its deliberately slow pace and lack of typical Star Wars action and tropes. Regardless, it is clear that Andor tells a different kind of a Star Wars story, which is an unusual risk for Lucasfilm and Disney, but the effort largely pays off.

Diego Luna reprises his role of the title character, Cassian Andor, who was introduced as a shady Rebel agent in the film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This series shows us his back story which takes place several years before the film, and  chronicles the events that turned him into a Rebel against the evil Galactic Empire.

Andor establishes immediately in the opening moments of the first episode “Kassa” that it is different from the typical Star Wars story by setting it in a brothel on a distant world. Andor visits the brothel in trying to search for his long-lost sister. Flashbacks in the early episodes show that Andor was part of a primitive tribe of humans on a backward planet and ran afoul of the Republic (the galactic government before the Empire) before being adopted by a visiting scavenger named Maarva (Fiona Shaw). This act of kindness separated him from his sister and his quest to find her as an adult gets him into trouble with local authorities. This in turn attracts the attention of the Empire, who has begun to tighten its grip on its subject worlds and systems.

Back on his adopted homeworld of Ferrix, Andor stays one step ahead of authorities. He is soon forced to flee Ferrix and work for a group of Rebels by taking on an off-world assignment to steal an imperial payroll on the planet Aldhani. Along the way, Andor meets many people who help change his outlook on life and see beyond his own selfish needs. At the same time, the audience sees through the people Andor interacts with, that life under the Empire is reaching a critical point as a legitimate opposition to the Empire rises.

These interactions between characters, many of whom never meet one another, are a true highlight for the show as is the acting from the many actors. Stellan Skarsgård gives a triumphant performance as Luthen, a morally compromised Rebel agent who recruits Andor and is all too willing to let others, including Andor, do his dirty work. In the best episode of the season, called “One Way Out”, Luthen gives a terrific speech about the choices we make and how they trap us. Andy Serkis appears in a few episodes as Kino, a floor manager in an imperial prison and supervises Andor, who was unjustly imprisoned there for hard labor. Andor encourages Kino to question their grim existence in the prison and to foment a prison break. The episode “One Way Out” where these two and other prisoners defy authorities and break out was one of the most thrilling and intense moments in Star Wars.

The series has about four story arcs that start off calmly and deliberately takes time to come to a conclusion. During the arcs, the series introduces fascinating characters, while developing other characters established earlier in the show. For instance, Andor follows a parallel journey of Syrill Karn (Kyle Soller), a low-level inspector who is obsessed with tracking down Andor. His actions do not endear him with the bureaucratic Empire, but he has a dogged determination to find his prey just like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables.

But a criticism about the show is that many sub plots and character arcs are introduced, but many of them are not concluded by the time of the final episode.

The many complaints from some Star Wars fans that Andor is too slow are a legitimate gripe. But the payoffs for the arcs are brilliant and intense, such as with “One Way Out”, “Rix Road” and “The Eye”. The tension was very gripping as Andor and his Rebel colleagues pulled off the heist on the depository in “The Eye” or when the prison break is about to happen. By the time the tension is broken by many action scenes, such as when Andor and Luthen escape Ferrix, or when Andor commandeers an imperial ship after the heist, well, these moments were so cathartic.  

It is true the show’s pace can be slow at times, but the pay off was well worth the patience it took to watch the episodes.

Perhaps the reason for the complaints about the show is that many times it does not feel like it takes place in the Star Wars universe and that is probably its greatest strength. None of the characters about the Force; for the most part we rarely see signs of the Empire in the early episodes; and the typical Star Wars blaster fights and space battles are rare.

Life in these worlds seems harsh and gritty as we see the Empire’s demoralizing effect on them. In fact, the pilot episode “Kassa” seemed like a cyberpunk show that took place in a seedy futuristic city. Occasionally, curse words are spoken, and it is quite clear during some scenes that characters had sex or relieved themselves. Characters deal with morally ambiguous situations, such as Mon Mothma’s (Genevieve O’Reilly) machinations to fund the growing rebellion in secret, or with Luthen allowing fellow Rebels to fall into imperial traps or being willing to kill Andor in order to protect the larger rebellion against the Empire.

So, yes, Andor is more mature and adult oriented than the typical Star Wars story. It and its showrunners like Tony Gilroy must be commended for going in a different direction. That is because by trying to be a different Star Wars story, Andor has proven that Star Wars can be a rich and complex universe.

Celebrating The Death Of Superman

Thirty years ago, one of the most monumental events in comic books took place with the release of DC Comics’ Superman #75. As comic book fans know, the issue was the finale to the epic “Death of Superman” crossover storyline that ran across several other Superman titles, Action Comics, The Adventures of Superman, and Superman: The Man of Steel. Superman met his physical match with the alien monstrosity called Doomsday that escaped from an unknown prison and rampaged across the countryside.

During the rampage, Superman and his allies desperately fought the hulking, grey behemoth, but were unable to stop Doomsday as he finally made his way to Superman’s home, the city of Metropolis. It was in that fictional city that Superman made his last stand against the creature and ultimately killed him, but not before Doomsday killed him, as well.

It was one of the finest Superman stories ever told, it was a true epic full of action and heart. It demonstrated why Superman was one of the greatest superheroes ever conceived, as he used all his strength and drive to stop Doomsday before making his greatest sacrifice.

Before the storyline came out in 1992, the creative team behind the Superman titles, which included Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern, Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice and Jon Bogdanove, were following in the wake of John Byrne’s run with the character in Superman, Action Comics and The Adventures of Superman. Byrne radically revamped and modernized Superman in the 1980s, which raised the superhero’s profile to an extent. But when Byrne left the titles it was up to this small army of writers and artists to continue creating quality storylines. The creative team at that time often would get together in a so-called “Superman Summit” to map out and brainstorm ideas for Superman.

Marriage & Death

During this period, they were developing the concept of Superman/Clark Kent marrying Lois Lane. But they came upon a huge stumbling block in that the same story was being used by the TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. This postponed plans to marry off the two lovers in the comic books because the TV producers wanted to be the first ones to play with the marriage concept and have the comic books coincide with the TV event. This frustrated the creative teams because this decision by the higher ups disrupted their carefully planned stories for the year.

It was back to the drawing board as the creative team held another meeting to conceive an alternative plot for Superman. Despite their efforts, they could not come up with a story that was as good as marrying off Superman. On a frustrated whim, it was suggested by Ordway to kill off Superman. At first, the idea was dismissed because he often would bring this idea up as a joke in previous summits. But this time, the joke began to germinate as the creators wondered what if Superman was killed, and their brainstorming led to the crossover event.

Pending Doomsday

The “Death of Superman” garnered so much media attention because many who did not follow or understand comics actually wondered if this event was a publicity stunt to generate sales or if DC actually intended to kill off its flagship superhero.

When the storyline first debuted in Superman: The Man of Steel #18 (where all readers saw were fists thumping through reinforced walls at the end of the issue), interest in Superman was already percolating as fans latched onto the storyline and wondered themselves how it would play out. After all, for the first time one of the most prominent comic book icons was going to be killed off. Sure there were big deaths in comic books before such as Supergirl and the Flash in the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series and lesser known heroes like Invisible Kid and Ferro Lad, both from the Legion of Superheroes died, as well. But this time it was different. This was Superman we were talking about. By the time Superman #75 came out the storyline morphed from a media event to a pop culture event.

At this time, the story played out weekly as each title advanced the plot. It was a slow burn as each tightly coordinated issue advanced the plot, which enticed readers to come back to the stores the following week to find out what happened next. This generated a lot of interest not just with readers, but with trade magazines like Wizard. By the time the story culminated in Superman #75, the confrontation between Superman and Doomsday took up entire splash pages and concluded with a multiple page spread featuring Lois crying over Superman’s lifeless corpse.

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DC Films’ Pending Comeback

It has become a bit of a running joke and a sore point for fans of DC Comics that the films based on the popular comic books have not been as well received as those from Marvel Studios.

For years, the films of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have had a mixed reaction from critics and fans. The result was a perceived lack of quality or consistency, which was quite frustrating as the potential for the films and various DC characters was squandered. Two examples are Superman and Batman. After their joint film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice turned out to be disappointing it seemed as if DC Comics’ owners Warner Bros. (now Warner Bros. Discovery) gave up on the two characters, especially Superman, and focused on DC films not set in the DCEU.

Then there were extensive behind-the-scenes production problems, the most recent and glaring were the issues behind The Flash and its star Ezra Miller. Other properites were announced then abandoned. These issues in turn gave the perception that properties from the DCEU were inferior or at the very least were inconsistent as the film universe lacked direction.

This will all change thanks to the hiring of James Gunn and Peter Safran who will take over the newly formed DC Studios. The duo promise to bring a creatve and consistent approach to the DC films, TV shows, animation and other media. While the non-DCEU films and TV shows will continue to be made, such as sequels to Joker and The Batman, the two film executives will have a firm hand on the DCEU films and TV shows. Needless to repeat to fans that the two are well known for their work in previous DCEU films such as Aquaman, Shazam!, The Suicide Squad, and Peacemaker.

Also worth mentioning is that Warner Bros. Discovery has had a change of heart when it comes to Superman. Henry Cavill who originated the role with the first DCEU film Man of Steel, has already reappeared in the DCEU with a cameo in Black Adam, and will star in a new solo Superman film.

Meanwhile, Ben Affleck, who played Batman in the early DCEU films is also slated to return and in fact will appear as the Caped Crusader in The Flash, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and future DCEU films.

After the release of next year’s Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, it is not clear what exactly lies ahead for DCEU films. At this point, all we can speculate on are reports of another Wonder Woman film being developed, as well as sequels to Black Adam and The Flash. But keep in mind that David Zaslav, the president and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery has committed to developing a 10-year plan for the DCEU films. With the proven and talented guidance of James Gunn and Peter Safran, DC Studios will be quite successful with the effort.

It is an exciting time for DC fans, as the future holds a lot of promise for the DCEU. Now, if only we can get some kind of confirmation of a Green Lantern film…