The MCU Phase 4 felt like Marvel’s most disjointed—because it was

(From left) Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow, Elizabeth Olsen in WandaVision, Tom Holland in Spider-Man, and the new Black Panther

(From left) Scarlett Johansson in Black WidowElizabeth Olsen in WandaVisionTom Holland in Spider Manand the new Black Panther
image: Courtesy of Marvel Studios, Courtesy of Marvel Studios, Courtesy of Sony Pictures, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t supposed to launch the way it did. Until 2019, Marvel Studios had been moving at a steady pace of two to three film releases per year. The company had just wrapped up Phase Three with Spider-Man: Far From Home in July, and was set to kick off the next batch of projects with Black Widow in May 2020. But then the pandemic hit, and the Marvel machine stopped running. Black Widow got pushed back—first to November 2020, then May 2021, and, finally, to July 9, 2021. Throughout the pandemic, Marvel maintained that it was holding the film instead of releasing it on Disney+ because the title deserved a big-screen release . That messaging got muddled when Disney eventually gave the film a hybrid release, making Black Widow available to stream on Disney Premier Access on the same day as its theatrical debut.

The delays, the botched release, and even Scarlett Johansson’s eventual lawsuit over the hybrid strategy could have been chalked up to pandemic-related issues and some questionable decisions by new Disney CEO Bob Chapek. And all of those things likely would have been forgotten pretty quickly if Black Widow had come out swinging—but the reviews were mostly lukewarm and the consensus seemed to be that it wasn’t worth the wait. It certainly wasn’t the triumphant return Marvel was hoping for—partially because of the reception, and partially because Black Widow didn’t actually kick off Phase Four as the studio had planned.

What’s up with the phases?

When you’re dealing with a franchise that spans dozens of films and TV shows, it’s a good idea to have a plan for how all the projects fit together. Marvel groups its films and TV shows into segments called Phases, which combine to form a larger arc, which they call Sagas. The Infinity Saga encompasses Phases One, Two, and Three of the MCU; the Multiverse Saga will encompass Phases Four, Five, and Six. If you think about the saga like a season of television, the first two phases introduce the characters and the main subplots, and the final phase ties everything together. With the Infinity Saga, it breaks down like this:

  • Phase One: iron man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers
  • Phase Two: Ironman 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardian of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Ant Man
  • Phase Three: Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panthers, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man And The Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home

So Phase One sets up the initial team, Phase Two expands their backstories and ups the ante by adding outer space and aliens into the mix, and Phase Three pulls everyone together to resolve an Earth-altering cosmic threat. Following this logic, Phase Four should have reminded the audience where the existing characters stand, introduced new characters, and ended with a clear sense of their common goals. But Phase Four didn’t do that.

WandaVision, the multiverse, and thematic continuity

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness
photo: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Because Marvel delayed Black Widow by an entire year, it was no longer the first project in Phase Four—WandaVision What. Thematically, it actually made more sense; Black Widowa throwback film set after Captain America: Civil War, was always an odd choice to start Marvel’s next slate. Why kick off a new era for the franchise with a film set years ago about a character who had just died? It would’ve worked better as part of Phase Three, even if it came after Natasha’s death in Avengers: Endgame. Spider-Man: Far From Home was just as much about Iron Man’s death as it was about Peter Parker’s future, and Black Widow could’ve functioned as a similar retrospective. Black Widow‘s delay ended up working in the MCU’s favor, as WandaVision was a much better introduction to the major themes and problems of the Multiverse Saga, but it also highlighted just how out of place Black Widow what to begin with

The new Saga wasn’t the only thing that changed about the MCU with Phase Four; it also brought Disney+ TV shows into the mix. Unlike Agents Of SHIELD., Agent Carterthe Netflix Marvel shows, and various other Marvel series with questionable connections to the MCU, the Disney+ shows are firmly part of the MCU canon, designed to fit in and interact with the films. WandaVision was the first project in this experiment and, in the weeks leading up to its release, it felt like an exciting new direction for Marvel. And it worked as an introduction to the Multiverse Saga, too, easing audiences into the concept with a smaller pocket universe while also making the larger implications of Wanda’s magic and the multiverse clear.

The divide between the big and small screens

Tom Holland and Benedict Cumberbatch in Spider-Man: No Way Home

(From left) Tom Holland as Peter Parker and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange in Spider-Man: No Way Home
image: Matt Kennedy/Sony Pictures

As Phase Four has played out, the TV shows and the movies have co-existed pretty well so far—but they also haven’t had much to do with one another. Yes, WandaVision set up Wanda’s heel turn in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madnessand Loki gave us a relatively thorough introduction to the multiverse, which was helpful when it came to Spider-Man: No Way Home. But the TV shows have mostly felt separated from the films, which is a problem from a structural standpoint.

Phase One worked because it effectively introduced all the characters, then brought them together. It was easy to see their common interests, what they were fighting against, how they interacted with each other. And, most importantly, the next step was clear: the Avengers were going to face off against a larger threat.

Phase Four has kept its characters largely separated, or put together in groups of two at the most. It’s not apparent how any of them will come together or why. And the future isn’t clearly defined, either: we don’t even know for certain who’s going to be fighting together or against each other. Throughout Phase Four, the MCU has shattered its formula—but not in a good way. Instead of revamping its staid approach to climactic battles and fight scenes, Marvel is messing with its defined narrative structure and fore parallelism, making the company’s most recent projects feel “off” in a way that’s difficult to describe.

On top of that, some of Marvel’s most anticipated films haven’t been as critically well received as expected: Thor: Love And Thunder was a huge disappointment coming off the high of Ragnarokand Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness didn’t deliver on the bonkers promise of its title. Maybe Phases Five and Six will add context that pays off the MCU’s current structural issues, reframing them as bold decisions instead of just incongruous with what came before. But even the strongest foundations will crack under too much strain, and, between the weight of declining reviews and an unclear narrative, the Infinity Saga is currently supporting a pretty heavy load.

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