Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, Loki: MCU’s Phase Four Was Tired and Tiring

Marvel has delivered 17 films, shows and specials in the past two years. We look back at Phase Four’s highs and lows
Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, Loki: MCU’s Phase Four Was Tired and Tiring

The Marvel cinematic universe (MCU) turned 14 this year, and like any teenager, it's going through an awkward phase. The good news is that its interests are more vast and varied than before, which makes a few hours in its company not entirely charmless. The bad news is that it’s still figuring out who it’s supposed to be, and its big mood swings and tonal shifts require patience. Good: It’s able to reckon with and revisit the past in thoughtful ways. Bad: This stage of its life is pretty unremarkable with few meaningful milestones. Also bad: It’s growing far too quickly. 

Let’s go back a decade, give or take. It’s 2008 and the MCU Phase 1 has released six movies spread out over the next four years. Doable, right? Fast-forward to Phase 4, which between 2020 and 2022, lays claim to 17 films, shows and specials in two years. To watch all of its installments, you would need to carve out 3,545 minutes, or a little more than 59 hours, from your schedule. If just the thought of this makes you want to lie down right now, this is understandable. Adding to the fatigue is the lack of cohesion to this phase, a sprawl that verges dangerously close to aimlessness. Where each of the previous phases culminated in an Avengers movie that felt like a distinct concluding chapter, Phase 4 is a collection of disparate origin stories, a great deal of setup for spin-off properties and the establishing of a multiverse, which even two years later, lacks well-defined rules. 

With seven films, eight shows and two television specials, the quantity of Marvel output is higher than ever, but its quality has never felt lower or more frustratingly inconsistent. This phase contains the highest-rated installment in the MCU so far (Ms. Marvel, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98%), but also the lowest (Eternals, with 47%). It’s given filmmakers room to experiment but also restricted just how creative they could get, trapping them within the confines of a big studio production. It’s championed diversity and inclusivity, but in the absence of a meaningful exploration of these ideas, often reduced them to a tick-box exercise. It’s promised that “anything can happen in the multiverse” and gone down now-predictable routes of nostalgia bait, cameos and the definitive end of any sense of finality. It’s ventured into some genuinely dark places — episode 5 of Moon Knight was a devastating look at mental illness and the fracturing of a young psyche — but frequently undercut them with humour of the long-stale quippy kind. What else did it get wrong this time around?

A whole new world (rendered in the same CGI)

For all Eternals’ visual beauty — who can forget Kevin Feige’s astonishment at a sunset in the film being the actual sun and not a set of pixels created in post-production? — it lacked emotional depth. Every natural landscape eventually flattened out into background for more CGI fighting. Characters were betrayed by the people they loved, betrayed by a God they thought was their father, had the very idea of their personhood questioned and yet registered all of these cosmic shake-ups with calm indifference. For all the marketing describing Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness as “Marvel putting their toe into the world of horror”, it was populated by terrors of the more existential kind. Its few jumpscares were novel for a Marvel film, but the tone was more schlocky than outright scary. 

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which navigated a difficult production and the tragic death of its hero Chadwick Boseman to deliver a stirring tale of loss and the weight of moving on, was ultimately unwieldy, succumbing to the usual MCU third-act mess. Weapons were drawn and a prolonged, eye-glazing climactic battle ensued, a standard, too-familiar MCU narrative path that’s long hit a dead end. Even WandaVision, a superb puzzle-box mystery modeled on American sitcoms and tackling grief with more nuance than the franchise had displayed until then, ended with lasers and punching. As did Ms. Marvel, in which the visually inventive, playful first two episodes gave way to staid imagery, stereotypes (a kohl’d-up Farhan Akhtar) and increasing ties to looming larger universe that threatened to eat into the intimate storytelling of these solo crusades. It was all the more disappointing given that the show started off as an unusually low-stakes story with an astute understanding of teenage angst and that phase of life in which the default instinct is to elevate everyday problems to world-ending events.

The MCU’s few attempts to subvert this template couldn’t find compelling alternatives. Loki replaced dueling with dialogue, but couldn’t reconcile the intimate story of an antihero coming to terms with himself with the urge to spiral into a forecast of multiversal war. A large part of the show’s finale constituted a lengthy, exposition-heavy speech from Kang variant He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors), a new character whose appearance relied solely on viewers having familiarised themselves with casting for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantummania, a movie still two years away at that point. For those in the know, the sight of He Who Remains was thrilling. For casual watchers, there was confusion and a fair bit of backstory to fill in the gaps. She-Hulk, on the other hand, built up to a finale of several confrontations but deployed its fourth-wall breaking protagonist (Tatiana Maslany) to declare that the show had gone off the rails and scrap several narrative threads in favour of a peaceful ending. Instead of a novel approach to a season finale, it came across as a show that wrote itself into a corner and decided to shrug its way out of an actual ending. She-Hulk chiding an artificial-intelligence Kevin Feige for ending every MCU installment the same way was less cheeky banter and more convenient cop-out, explaining why this show didn’t bother with a coherent resolution at all.

Not a good time to be a bad guy

At least initially, Phase 4 seemed to counter the criticism leveled at the MCU for its disposable villains, those that appear for a single installment, are instantly compelling, but are unceremoniously killed off. WandaVision’s Agatha (comedic talent Kathryn Hahn) not only survived, but got her own spinoff. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier spared Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) also made it through, though the reframing of his character from a grieving soldier wanting to burn the world to a convict content to set fire to a dance floor instead divided viewers. Loki has died four times now, a character trait his show gleefully leaned into by spearing him through the chest, only to have him pop up again seconds later. Namor lived, though fans were aghast to learn that one specific part of his onscreen anatomy did not

However, in Christian Bale (as Gorr the God butcher in Thor: Love and Thunder) and Tony Leung (as Wenwu in Shang Chi), the MCU scored veterans who brought a degree of gravitas and melancholy to their characters, turning in performances that far surpassed the quality of the films they were in. Wenwu’s arc as a grieving-husband-turned-self-sacrificial-father grounded even the dizzying whorl of CGI threatening to overwhelm the film. And at every turn, Love and Thunder underlined the inherent selfishness of the Gods’, proving its antagonist right but opting to punish him anyway, making a film about worthiness itself unworthy of Bale’s talents. Neither villain survived their films. 

Other installments decided that more was more, ending up overstuffed with too many (and often ineffectual) villains. Having eliminated the Clandestines — a group whose desire to return home after centuries was undercut by lack of interiority, and their impulse to kill the girl who could help them get there — in episode 5, Ms. Marvel proceeded to overcompensate in the finale, stacked with a now-evil-but-not-for-long Kamran (Rish Shah) and suits from the Department of Damage Control. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier not only brought back Zemo, but introduced US Agent (Wyatt Russell), who was initially positioned as the antithesis of everything Captain America (Chris Evans) stood for, but handed an abrupt redemption arc by the end; and the Flag Smashers, a group with aims that were so reasonable, the only way to paint them as villainous was to have them commit murder. The show even turned Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) evil.

As for Kang, the overarching big bad of the Multiverse Saga, he’s so far only been relegated to a single appearance in the season finale of Loki, a show that barely foreshadowed his appearance and didn’t even refer to him by name.  While the promise of multiple iterations of this character indicates a showcase for Majors’ talents over the next few phases, it’s hard not to wish he was better served in this one. 

Future, tense

Several of the installments in phase 4 had to balance adding depth to familiar characters by way of crafting richer, strange new adventures for them, with also serving as backdoor pilots for future films and shows, such as Thunderbolts (2023) and Young Avengers (you know it’s a only matter of time before it’s announced.) Some, such as Wakanda Forever, juggled these duties more gracefully, introducing Riri Williams ahead of her Ironheart debut in a way that felt seamless. But not all passing of the mantles were as smooth. Love and Thunder introduced the Mighty Thor, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) but minimised her point of view, especially by leaving out the crucial scene in which she assumed her powers for the first time. Later, by making it clear that Thor had commanded Mjolnir to protect her, it reinforced that her ability to wield the hammer came from his authoritativeness, and not her own worthiness. 

Even Black Widow, steeped in the past, faltered in its rush to arrive at the future. A prequel made more poignant by the death of its protagonist later in the timeline, the film maintained a largely respectful tone in not only establishing the origin of an overlooked Avenger, but also cementing her legacy. Until the post-credits scene. Set in the present and depicting her younger sister (Florence Pugh) weeping at her gravestone, it gave viewers barely a second to register the sting behind their own eyes before breaking the spell with a loud bout of nose-blowing from a new character. Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) appeared, setting up the next installment, Hawkeye. Credit where it’s due, though: Black Widow’s Yelena Belova (Pugh) and Hawkeye’s Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) were delightful new additions to the franchise. 

Post-credit scenes also amplified the sense of disconnect defining this phase of the MCU. While past sequences acted as building blocks to the shared Infinity Saga universe, more recent ones were journeys into their own pocket dimensions, rather than bridges to a larger, more cohesive world. Harry Styles (in Eternals), Charlize Theron (in Multiverse of Madness) and Brett Goldstein (in Thor: Love and Thunder) made appearances that added to the lore of their standalone installments, with no ties to the overarching story. The MCU upped its star power, but diminished the impact of the characters themselves — Theron’s Clea wasn’t even identified by name in the post-credit scene, and it took scrutinising the film’s credits to find out who her character was.

Feels like we only go backwards, darling

Even as this phase’s relentless attempts to set up future properties were built on unsteady ground, it found more reliable footing by reaching back into the past. With Black Widow, it finally gave Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), one of the original Avengers, a solo film of her own, a long-overdue decision made even more hollow by it following her death. The obliteration of any physical stakes, however, freed up this prequel to focus on Natasha’s emotional stakes. Death also informed Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which lingered on loss instead of treating it as a minor plot point . A montage of several pivotal moments in Loki’s life at the end of his show’s first episode was an inspired way of conveying to viewers, who already knew this character inside out, how this was a man who needed to confront his knowledge of himself.  

At its worst, however, the MCU’s fondness for the past became a narrative crutch that it leaned on a little too hard. Take the first half of Spider-Man: No Way Home, which coasted on nostalgia, relying on the audience’s affection for past Peter Parkers and Spidey villains and playing out like an exhausting “point and gasp” parade of cameos, before a more affecting second half crystallised the idea of what it meant to be a hero, especially one destined to be unacknowledged. 

Even excursions into sideways, parallel realities were a mixed bag. In bringing Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) face-to-face with alternate versions of themselves, Multiverse of Madness allowed them to experience the peaks of their potential, but also the depths of their failures. Strange was also the focus of one of two standout episodes of What If…?, an animated show meant to envision alternate timelines, but one in which the disappointing lack of big swings and bold choices meant that audiences were watching minor tweaks on the same, established material. 

First things first

With Black Widow, Cate Shortland became the first solo female filmmaker to helm an MCU film, a novel gaze that reflected in the film’s writing, particularly its feminist handling of Natasha’s forced sterilisation. Where Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) blamed her for it, Black Widow directed that blame outwards, to the men who made that choice for her and her sister. The shame and guilt was no longer the women’s, but their foster father’s (David Harbour), forced to confront the consequences of his role in that operation. 

Not all the firsts in this phase of the MCU were as meaningful. Moon Knight was Marvel Studios’ “first Jewish hero,” but apart from the sight of a Kippah he wore in a single scene, this aspect of its identity remained unexplored. The much talked-about first MCU sex scene in Eternals amounted to five seconds of lacklustre humping on a beach in dim light. (The less said about that film’s Bollywood dance number, the better.) Only Ms. Marvel gave its protagonist any meaningful representation, establishing how the emergence of a Muslim superhero only made the community more vulnerable to governmental persecution and oversight. In reworking the backstories of how Kamala (Iman Vellani) and Namor got their names and rooting them in cultural specificities, both this show and Wakanda Forever gave this phase two of its most winning moments. 

Attempts to boost its LGBTQ representation were, however, insipid. On the Love and Thunder press tour, replying to a fan who asked how gay the film was, Natalie Portman replied, “So gay!” What a surprise when the most pointed queer representation in the film came through two male aliens made of rock reproducing by holding hands over a pit of lava. For all Michaela Coel’s talk of her character being in a “forbidden relationship” with another Dora Milaje member in Wakanda Forever, it was reduced to a single forehead kiss. Likewise, other scenes depicting same-sex relationships were just brief enough that they could be snipped out for the films’ China release — a flashback of America Chavez’s (Xochitl Gomez) two mothers in Multiverse of Madness, a brief kiss between Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and his husband in Eternals. Loki came out as bisexual and gender fluid, only to fall in love with a female-presenting version of himself, an abrupt act of narcissism that didn’t slot well into a show intent on establishing his ability to see the bigger picture. 

The better (ultimately heterosexual) romantic moments this phase? Wanda and her heartbreaking “you and my sadness and my hope” monologue to Vision (Paul Bettany) in WandaVision; the wordless playfulness between Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) in Eternals; Layla (May Calamawy) rediscovering new dimensions to her love for her estranged husband (Oscar Isaac) through his alter ego (also Oscar Isaac) in Moon Knight; the Multiverse of Madness yearning between Strange and Christine (Rachel McAdams), which extended beyond the constraints of time or space; the Thor and Jane goofy, affectionate relationship montage in Love and Thunder.

What now?

The one bright spot in this phase has been the MCU’s special presentations, Werewolf By Night and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. One’s a spooky black-and-white Halloween tribute to Universal monsters, the other’s a heartwarming yet irreverent take on Christmas as the most magical time of the year. Both allow their creators the kind of free-reign creativity that doesn’t have to adhere to the templates of a big studio movie or a six-episode series arc. At less than an hour each, and somewhat unconcerned with any ties to the larger universe, they’re designed to appeal to casual viewers who haven’t caught up on the constant churn of the MCU. They’re also pretty delightful. No one expected the MCU to take a break after putting out the once highest-grossing film of all time. But at the rapidfire pace it’s going, it wouldn’t hurt to, every now and then, slow down, look around and take a detour into some of the weirder corners of its universe.

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