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.
Stretched Too Thin
It is true that Marvel Studios pulled off an impossible feat with their films in the past. But it is difficult to keep up that level of quality especially with the expanding roster of projects.
Marvel Studios cannot be blamed for that, the entity responsible is Disney who has a constant need for new content on Disney +. Not happy with a robust roster of MCU films, the company mandated that original TV shows be created. This put a strain on Marvel Studios who had to churn out original shows. This resulted in their creative and production resources to be strained and stretched. As a result the quality of some of their shows and films was not up to MCU’s high standards.
While the idea of many films and TV shows being released during a short period sounds appealing, the reality is very different. With so many choices for fans it can be difficult to keep up with them and not every project will have universal appeal. Then there is the fact that fans are limited by the time they have to be fully engaged with everything Marvel Studios releases. Think of it this way, do comic book fans read every single comic book that is published? Or has any fan watched every single genre film that is available?
There were reports earlier this year about special effects companies complaining about how overworked they were by Marvel Studios and how the film studio had a hard time with their projects’ special effects. This would explain why some of the effects in their films and TV shows were subpar. A good example is the CG work done for She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. There were times when the CG work on the main character looked painfully unfinished. Another example could be seen in Thor: Love and Thunder where the effects work looked shoddy, especially in a scene where Thor is communicating telepathically with a teenage Asgardian.
Looking Ahead to a More Focused Direction
Can Marvel Studios recover? Of course, it can. Many of the Phase Four offerings were unabashedly great and endeared themselves to fans. That goodwill has helped carry the film studio to the next wave of films and TV shows.
Based on some of the announced films and TV shows it appears that there is more focus on the Kang threat. In fact, Phase Six of the MCU films will culminate with an Avengers film called Avengers: The Kang Dynasty. If Kang is not the main villain by this point, then all hope is lost, but that won’t happen.
One thing that Marvel Studios could do is cut back on the number of projects. Last year they released four films, which is a record for them, and the upcoming film schedule seemed just as daunting. However, films and TV shows have been recently shuffled and pushed back. This is good as the spacing between films and TV shows will increase demand and give the film studio the time to fully flesh out their products to be the best they can be.
Another good sign is that instead of forging ahead with a full slate of TV shows, Marvel Studios seems to be reorienting planned TV shows into TV specials instead. This came about with the successful reaction to their one-off specials Werewolf By Night and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Not everything needs to be a big budget film or extensive TV show. With the short specials, Marvel Studios can see how fans react to new characters. If successful, these characters can earn their own full-length TV shows or films. Man-Thing, anyone?
It’s regrettable that Phase Four of the MCU did not meet expectations and the high standards of the previous phases. However, this was inevitable because maintaining such quality is impossible. Maybe it was for the best, as the results of their efforts allowed the film studio to see where they went wrong and hopefully learn from these mistakes.
Onward to Phase Five!