Phase Four of the MCU has been criticized for its lack of a clear plan and little crossover between individual projects. Yes, everything is building towards two massive Avengers movies, but what about the smaller crossovers in between?
Phase Four may be like Phase One in the sense that it’s laying the groundwork for The Multiverse Saga, but it’s still entirely unfocused, lacking any kind of major crossover event. However, that may not be entirely true. I believe we will be getting a mega-sized crossover event before Phase Six’s Avengers overload - but the clues lie in three key Phase Five films, not in Phase Four itself.
What happened to the MCU’s structure?
Phase One consisted of six films with immediate teases and connections to other Avengers, ultimately concluding with an impressive crossover event film. Phase Two introduced some characters who wouldn’t cross over until Phase Three, but little connections were present throughout. Guardians of the Galaxy may have been relatively disconnected from the rest of the MCU at the time, but it still shared characters with Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Phase Two also featured a major crossover film, although it concluded on a smaller scale with Ant-Man.
Phase Three consisted of twice as many films as the previous Phases, but still threaded a consistent story throughout. Doctor Strange appeared in Thor: Ragnarok a year after his debut while Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming followed directly from Captain America: Civil War. Everything came together in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, with Spider-Man: Far From Home acting as a Phase Three epilogue and even managing to integrate Captain Marvel further with its final end-credits scene.
Compared to The Infinity Saga, Phase Four has been a total mess. There’s little to no connection across the phase’s seven films, eight Disney+ original series, and two Special Presentations. Wanda’s story connected through WandaVision and Multiverse of Madness, but the head writers of each have spoken openly about their opposing views on the character. Yelena and Val’s two-project appearances are essentially our only true crossover apart from background Easter eggs like the Ten Rings logo in Ms. Marvel. Part of this is likely due to COVID and constantly reworked projects, but as a result, Phase Four feels utterly directionless. However, some semblance of structure remains when you look at Marvel Studios’ original plans.
Phase Four’s shaky foundations
Phase Four was supposed to kick off with Black Widow, one last ride with Natasha Romanoff that sets up key players for future films. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Valentina would have debuted in Black Widow’s end-credits scene before popping up just two months later in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova would have appeared a year later in Hawkeye, setting the stage for 2024’s Thunderbolts. But whatever other plans Marvel had seem to have vanished.
Connections between series and films deteriorated as projects were reworked, resulting in situations like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. That film took a sharp turn from Wanda Maximoff’s complexity in WandaVision, rushing her corruption into villainy because the writer thought it would be cool. Meanwhile, projects like Eternals, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and Thor: Love and Thunder stand completely alone in this Phase, setting up projects in Phase Five or “teasing” things the director and actors aren’t even aware of.
None of this would be an issue if the content was good on its own terms, but Phase Four also displays a notable decline in quality. Putting personal opinions and fan bickering aside, several Phase Four projects have been received less positively than previous Marvel Studios fare. To be fair, most movies and Disney+ series have received Marvel’s typical good-to-great critical reception, but there are undeniably more missteps than in previous phases.
We could focus only on Rotten Tomatoes, but CinemaScore is a better metric to measure by. Rotten Tomatoes only measures the percentage of critics that rated a movie 6 out of 10 or higher, but CinemaScore polls moviegoers - the actual audience paying to see Marvel’s films. The MCU has only received four CinemaScores lower than an “A-” in its history, but three of those scores are from the last year.
Eternals received a B and became the MCU’s first “Rotten” movie on Rotten Tomatoes, while Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder received B+ scores and ended up in the MCU’s bottom six on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, many of the Disney+ series are plagued with similar complaints of simultaneously rushed and drawn-out storytelling, with many fans feeling as though some series could have been a movie, a Special Presentation, or simply a longer series.
The MCU is clearly buckling under its own weight. And with no Avengers movie or other major crossover releasing in 2022, Phase Four seems to be ending rather abruptly. It’s certainly not going out with a whimper - Black Panther: Wakanda Forever already looks to be the best MCU project since Avengers: Endgame - but this is a sudden conclusion compared to previous Phases.
I’m willing to chalk up the growing pains to the impacts of COVID. I think Marvel Studios had to quickly course-correct projects and complete them in a rushed timeframe, which is why Phase Four might seem messy. But there’s already a brighter future ahead, since Kevin Feige seems to be planning a pretty major crossover event in the form of three Earth-based Phase Five films.
Captain America to the rescue
Captain America: New World Order, Thunderbolts, and now Armor Wars seem to point towards Phase Five's endgame. In stark contrast to Phase Four’s mostly self-contained films, these three are each directly tied to what was supposed to be Marvel’s first Disney+ series: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Our new Captain America and Falcon will take to the skies in New World Order, Bucky and John Walker are out for redemption in Thunderbolts, and Rhodey is stepping up to deal with Tony Stark’s complicated legacy in Armor Wars.
That’s not all, though. These three films will connect a ton of Phase Four and Five projects, teeing up Phase Six’s two Avengers movies the same way Age of Ultron and Civil War set the stage for Infinity War and Endgame. While Thunderbolts seems to be a Black Widow sequel, it’s also going to expand the Captain America corner of the MCU thanks to the Winter Soldier and U.S. Agent’s appearances. Meanwhile, Thunderbolt Ross returning to the wider MCU in Civil War was clearly only the beginning of the Hulk and Captain America franchises mixing together.
Ross has been officially recast following original actor William Hurt’s death, with Harrison Ford taking on the role in Captain America: New World Order and Thunderbolts. His presumably significant role in Thunderbolts will likely result from whatever conflict he comes into with Sam Wilson in New World Order, with some rumors suggesting the two will be forming competing superhero teams.
Thanks to D23, we also know that Captain America 4 will feature Hulk villain The Leader. Unconfirmed rumors suggest that Tatiana Maslany’s She-Hulk and/or Oscar Isaac’s Moon Knight could pop up in Sam Wilson’s first solo film. With Rhodey’s government role in Secret Invasion and Ross re-entering the scene in New World Order, Don Cheadle could easily swing by the set for a quick cameo.
With Armor Wars recently leveled up to a theatrical feature, I expect the film to draw in a ton of MCU government officials in addition to Iron Man supporting characters. I fully expect to see Sharon Carter selling government-owned Stark tech to shady people like Justin Hammer and the Ten Rings, while Thunderbolt Ross and Val seem like no-brainer cameos. Riri Williams, Pepper Potts, Harley Keener, and even Peter Parker are all fair game for Armor Wars cameos or supporting roles, while Nick Fury, Maria Hill, and Everett Ross wouldn’t be out of place in Armor Wars or Thunderbolts after their stint in Secret Invasion.
I fully expect Rhodey and Sam to continue weaving in and out of various MCU projects while Ross and Val make their own semi-villainous cameos. Captain America has been rumored to appear in Secret Invasion and could quite easily show up in Thunderbolts and Armor Wars. The same goes for Bucky and Rhodey, who would be natural appearances in New World Order after the support they offered Sam on his journey in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And as I previously mentioned, Val’s two brief appearances are already Phase Four’s only major connective tissue, hinting at her true endgame for Thunderbolts.
Reuniting the MCU
Captain America: New World Order, Thunderbolts, and Armor Wars seem to be the major crossover event I’ve been waiting for. Instead of a full-fledged Avengers movie to cap Phase Five, we’ll be seeing most (if not all) of the MCU’s Earth-based heroes and allies scattered across these three films.
Going off confirmed cast members only, these movies will be tying together characters from WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Black Widow, Hawkeye, She-Hulk, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Secret Invasion, and The Marvels. Moon Knight, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Echo, Ironheart, and Daredevil: Born Again could all factor in as well depending on the final cast lists for these films.
With Thunderbolts releasing just two months after New World Order and ending Phase Five (as of July 2022), I think we’ll see the most crossover there. Armor Wars doesn’t have a set release date yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rhodey’s solo adventure release in mid-2025. While I think it should release before Avengers: The Kang Dynasty, there isn’t much wiggle room in Marvel’s current slate (especially if Spider-Man 4 is indeed targeting a 2024 release). An Avengers movie isn’t going to move out of the May slot, so unless Fantastic Four becomes a post-Kang Dynasty summer release, it looks like Armor Wars will be sandwiched between Phase Six’s Avengers films.
Strengthening Phase Four’s foundations
I liked some of the self-contained projects in Phase Four but some of them were astonishingly rushed and underdeveloped. The MCU is at its best when the content is good on its own merits and also builds out the wider universe. I think that’s what was really lacking in Phase Four. Most of the MCU worldbuilding felt messy and even downright lazy at times, like the secret societies introduced in almost every project or the shallow explanations for entirely new concepts like witchcraft.
Phase Five feels like a huge breath of fresh air already, with crossovers beginning in earnest with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Marvels. But it’s Captain America 4, Thunderbolts, and Armor Wars that will bring together most of the disparate films and series in Phases Four and Five, finally giving fans a super-sized crossover event on the level of Captain America: Civil War - three times over. I can’t wait to see how these movies connect to each other and where we leave our favorite characters heading into Phase Six!
Which movie are you most excited for? Comment below!