Phase 4 is very nearly over. The latest era of the Marvel movie franchise has, it’s fair to say, been somewhat of a flop. The superhero movies have been unusually forgettable, which has come as a surprise because Kevin Feige has, up until now, managed to ensure that nearly every entry in the MCU has some special, defining quality.
That hasn’t been the case with Phase 4. This latest era of action movies is the first to take place in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame. It has included six movies, in addition to the many, many Marvel series which have debuted on the streaming service Disney Plus. Those six movies are: Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, and the upcoming Black Panther 2.
These have ranged from bafflingly bad, as with Thor: Love and Thunder, to mediocre, as with Shang-Chi (Editor’s note: what?). The one standout entry is the newest Spider-Man movie, but all the hype and cameos aside, it’s the weakest of Tom Holland’s outings as the web-slinger. If you were going to bet on the upcoming Black Panther: Wakana Forever being the best of the bunch, you’d probably win a lot of money. But, even if the movie is excellent, Phase 4 has been chronically underwhelming, and it’s Avengers: Endgame’s fault.
The quality of the time travel movie aside (and it’s time we all admit it’s much weaker than Infinity War), it was successful in being a hugely cathartic moment. The story of the MCU, built up over the course of a decade, came to an end. The heroes beat the big baddies, and there were poignant sacrifices made along the way. Whatever its flaws, the science fiction movie was a lot of fun and will go down as one of the greatest crowd-pleasers of all time. It was the ultimate popcorn rollercoaster flick and a fitting conclusion to the MCU.
And that’s where the first part of the problem lies. Avengers: Endgame was a definitive ending. If there was never to be another MCU movie made after it, there wouldn’t have been too many complaints. All the main heroes got their satisfying resolutions, the biggest threat that the universe could ever face was destroyed, and there were seeds of hope for the future.
Of course, with the multi-billion dollar success of the franchise, that was never going to happen. And that’s fine. More of a good thing is rarely an issue, and it wouldn’t have been if the MCU were to take a sensible, measured approach to its next era. That’s the second issue.
Instead, seemingly in a panic at having lost major characters and the most significant plot thread, the MCU has doubled down with endless, sprawling TV series and desperate attempts at introducing new characters. The Eternals was an enormous misfire, and it’s almost impossible to see how they can fit into plans for the future. Shang-Chi, while passable as a fun martial arts movie, is also completely forgettable.
The MCU has jettisoned its core characters while having an unimpressive selection of MCU characters lined up to replace them. That’s not to say that Shang-Chi, Kamala Khan, or Sam Wilson as the new Captain America don’t have solid potential or great moments: they do, and with these characters, the MCU has made important strides in wider representation. But, at present, they’re underserved by what they’re given to work with.
With so many characters, such little sense of direction, and too many steps in the wrong direction the franchise has begun to look as if it might collapse under its own weight. It’s turned into a pick and mix, ‘choose your own adventure’ style affair. You didn’t like the multiverse? That’s fine; here’s the Quantum Realm. You weren’t a fan of Moon Knight? It doesn’t matter because here are 47 other C-list superheroes with their own Marvel series to choose from. It reeks of panic.
After Avengers: Endgame, there should have been a bigger pause. It should have spent more time lingering on the aftermath of Thanos’s hijinks, building back much more slowly and with more intent. After such a big event, you can’t just go back in and pretend like it didn’t happen. Phase 4 was, essentially, the MCU soft-rebooting itself: it’s the foundation for Phase 5 and the future of the franchise, and it should have been treated with far more care rather than a chance to unleash a constant stream of mediocrity.
I used to roll my eyes when people said they couldn’t keep up with the MCU. Now, I find myself thinking the same thing. The MCU has devolved into predictable, forgettable movies and TV series that stand no chance of matching the cultural impact of its first three eras. It needs to slow itself down before it and the audience, like Thanos, snap.