“As years passed by, the MCU grew bigger and bigger, exploring unknown corners of the galaxy as heroes famous and obscure became pop culture phenomena. Now, in Phase 4, Marvel Studios decided to expand its content explosively, connecting a bloated film release schedule with multiple series released on Disney+. There have never been so many MCU projects in production simultaneously. Yet, some of the amazement of those very first years is gone.” -Marco Vitto Oddo (publisher at Collider.com)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the MCU, has, for quite some time, dominated the superhero movie industry and shown that it could put out films that told their own individual stories while simultaneously being able to contribute to an overarching plot that would always be teased in either the events of the movie itself or in a post credits scene where some crucial aspect of the next of their astonishingly beautiful and adrenaline filled flicks. Another aspect that really saved the MCU was that even if the movie underperformed it would still hold that aspect of the bigger story progressing (which was already extremely interesting on its own) and that alone would make people want to see the way it progresses. Unfortunately this has not been the case for the MCU’s fourth phase which felt overloaded with shows and movies that had either very little or no storytelling at all and a very notable lack of the final goal that the other phases had.
The first reason why phase 4 underperformed compared to the previous ones is the sheer amount of shows and films being released is certainly impressive, however due to this increase it appears that the content has taken its turn for the worse and had a decrease in the CGI, cinematography and storytelling. For comparison, in phase 3 there were eleven movies that were spaced out in four years (2016-2019), with three movies per year except for the only two in the first year. In phase 4 however there have been seven movies and nine tv shows released within two years (2021-2022) in Disney+, with four movies and five tv shows in the first year alone, something which surpasses the amount of content present in phase 3. Tv shows have been made before in the MCU but until now they had not connected with the main universe’s bigger plot and instead stuck with telling their own individual stories. With this massive increase in production and all of these tv shows having to both have entertaining,innovative events that could be distinguishable from each other they also had to drive the universe forward. Thismust have really harmed the writers as it forced them into a tighter schedule that destroyed projects that could have turned out great if they had a little more time in the making (and some more experienced directors).
The rate at which they are releasing content affected both the larger scale story and the movie/tv show plot for the worse. Starting with the smaller tales that are told within the pieces of media themselves. Now, there are both good and bad elements in this aspect and we will start with the good ones. Something incredible that was seen in these series was that they don't hide away from some surprisingly deep moments for the characters, and show how they react when faced with real life problems that we, normal people, can also go through. The biggest examples of this can be seen in ‘Wandavision’ and ‘Loki.’ These two shows star the supposedly well known characters of Wanda Maximoff and Loki being put in what seems to be very random situations that were designed to eventually lead to a final confrontation between them and the antagonist, at the end these events are used to uncover the characteristics about the hero/villain that don't usually get much light of day.
For example, in ‘Wandavision’ there are two plots; one of them centres around Wanda and Vision and their daily interactions as a wife and husband in a small and cartoonish city, while the second plot is uncovered to us later in the show where we find out that Wanda has kidnapped a whole city and is forcing its residents to be within her made up world. Now, these plots already have something going with them and alone would be able to make a decent series. But what truly makes it interesting is that this is also a story about grief. Yes, this human emotion that has nothing to do with superpowers is the whole guiding force of this show because it is Wanda’s grief for the loss of her lover Vision in events that took place in ‘Avengers:Infinity War’ which makes her create this world where they can be together, where she has fabricated another Vision out of her thoughts that cannot exist anywhere else. This is how she can cope with his loss and this is the driving factor for why Wanda wants to be part of these casual activities, and has also proven to be hostile when others attempt to take it away from her.
The same applies to ‘Loki’ which has the plot of the title character attempting to earn his life by working for a time regulating organisation and this sets in motion events of universal (or rather multiversal) proportions. Yet all of this started due to the self-disgust he felt because he thought he could only be the stereotypical villainous trickster that everyone around him knows he is, and sets out to change this and prove to others that he can be different if he wants to. It always is more compelling to watch these shows when there is some sort of relatability; it is impossible for people to understand how it would really be to live in this world full of powered people, much less be one of them, and that is why it is absolutely necessary to include emotions that people can relate to. We might not be able to do the same things the characters are doing in the story but we can understand why they are doing them. This is what sets apart the MCU’s cliché and forgettable superhero mindless entertainment and actual storytelling that is believable.
Unfortunately this is where the positives about Marvel’s new content ends and the negatives begin to appear very visibly. The first major problem of the new MCU tv shows (and some of the movies) is by far the finale’s. The end of these stories are meant to be sentimental,wrap up what happened during the season or film and prepare the viewer for the future content that will be released by this studio. However, instead of opting for this option, Marvel decided to finish most of their works with a big fight scene that is full of action but lacks resolution to the character’s problem, or used solely to set up the next entry in the MCU. Neither of these options provide a proper ending for the character’s motivations, which is what makes the audience even want to keep watching the show, and instead makes us feel like we just watched the very beginning of something bigger or a really elaborate advertisement for the next blockbuster to be released. That alone makes phase 4 feel extremely poorly made compared to the past ones, where we could actually get character development. It is never a good sign when you finish the show focused around a single character and another character is the one that ends up sticking with you the most. I will use ‘Wandavision’ and ‘Loki’ again to show how these good premises can be ruined by a terribly written ending.
‘Wandavision’ was leading into a good ending where she would finally be able to let go of her lost lover; but by pure coincidence Wanda ended up trapping a witch in a city of normal residents which forces a fight that feels too disconnected to the remainder of the show that actually didn't do that poorly. In ‘Loki,’ the character is finally being able to realise that he can be whatever he wants to regardless of what others expect from him and leading to a grand finale where his feelings can finally be settled, but it instead takes a massive 180 and uses its ending purely to announce the future ‘Avengers’ movie villain, something which felt extremely underwhelming, especially for people who were actually enjoying the show.
The final issue that is present in MCU phase 4 is that there is no overarching plot! You know, the one I said was what made the MCU the MCU. In the past 3 phases there was a constant presence, an evil that was always advancing in the background of all movies which led to a final conflict after many long years. That evil was Thanos, a character that has been engraved into the minds of Marvel enjoyers as the guy who wants to wipe out half of the universe. Unfortunately for us fans one of the (if not the) best villains in the whole cinematic universe has been disposed of after the end of ‘Avengers:Endgame’ which now leaves us with Kang. Kang is this big threat to the multiverse that could destroy it all if he wanted to, or so they say because we actually have only seen him in the finale of ‘Loki.’ With so many movies and tv shows they still have not managed to fit him into anything! No post credits scene, no little easter egg, none of that Marvel flair that it used to have, now instead we get a horrible finale for an amazing show that, simply put, deserved better.
Marvel is struggling to bring us the spark from the first phases onto this new one and it really shows that they are running out of ideas. I hope most of these negatives get countered by the positives when ‘Avengers: Dynasty of Kang’ releases; but ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’ have left some very big shoes to fill.