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Looking Back At Marvel’s Phase Four

A Look Back At Marvel’s Phase Four

With Ant-Man Qunatumania looming, heralding the start of Phase Five, it is a good time to look back at what was always going to be a challenging Phase after following on from the events of Endgame and the new status quo that the remaining heroes found themselves in. It is easy to forget as well, that Phase Four marked the first time that Disney+ series were heavily embedded within the Phase, a Phase that was also defined by the Covid pandemic and the resulting changing viewing habits.

  1. A Look Back At Marvel Phase Four
    • Phase Four Films
    • Phase Four Disney+ Series
  2. How Did Phase Four Compare To Previous Phases?
  3. So, Was Phase Four Any Good?
  4. Did Disney+ Make or Break the Phase?
  5. Where To Next?

As a reminder, here is what Phase 4 contained:

Phase Four Films

Black WidowShang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsThe Eternals
Spider-Man No Way HomeDoctor Strange In The Multiverse of MadnessThor: Love and Thunder
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Eight Marvel films made up Phase Four, starting in June 2021 with Black Widow and ending in 2022 with Black Panther

Phase Four Disney+ Series

WandaVisionThe Falcon and the Winter SoldierLoki
What If…?HawkeyeMoon Knight
Ms MarvelShe Hulk: Attorney at Law
Nine Marvel Disney+ series made up Phase Four starting with WandaVision in January 2021 and ending with She-Hulk in 2022

How Did Phase Four Compare To Previous Phases?

I am going to throw some numbers at you now so stick with me:

  • Phase Four included 976 minutes of film (16.26 hours) as well as a whopping 2,516 minutes of Disney+ series (41.93 hours).
  • This means that to have watched all of Phase Four, since the start with WandaVision in January 2021, you would have spent 3,492 minutes or 58.2 hours on Marvel content. That would be 2.425 full days of Marvel over a two year period.
  • To put this into perspective, Phase 3, which started with Civil War in 2016 and ended with Far From Home in 2019, you would have spent 1,397 minutes or 23.28 hours (just under a day) on Marvel content over a three/four year period.

On paper, more Marvel content is great for everyone; we get to see the heroes continue to evolve and grow while new characters are introduced to backfill the roster and inject much needed diversity into the cast, all while new threats begin to rear their heads. The reality however, is that quantity doesn’t trump quality a fact that has even been acknowledged by Disney as their future plans seem to scale back from a barrage of content to a much more focused slate.

The shift to including series as part of the overarching story was an interesting one that fundamentally reflected the state of the world at the time. The pandemic forced a lot of people inside, resulting in cinemas closing their doors and people turning to streaming instead. This meant that the shift to content being available on a weekly basis off the back of the launch of it’s new streaming platform was opportune for Disney, and explains why their series make up a disproportionate part of the total viewing time for Phase Four. It also explains why a lot of people are so burnt out on Marvel. The inconsistency in quality across the series and films, on over double the amount of minutes versus the previous Phase, means that many have lost faith in the direction and storytelling of the MCU. Endgame offered a very definitive cut off point for the franchise to some and while Spider-Man: Far From Home served as a decent epilogue the narrative in Phase Four failed to reach peak MCU.

So, Was Phase Four Any Good?

It’s difficult to remember Phase Four because it’s full of extremes. Some of the best films in the MCU are within this Phase, and some of the more innovative content sits within some of their series while it also has some of the MCU’s biggest let downs and disappointments. No Way Home served as an epilogue to three Spider-Men’s stories allowing for a more focused future to be built with the characters while WandaVision toyed with genre in a reality bending way that took Marvel from Superhero romps into a place we never would have expected to see when we were within Phase One. But in the same year, Marvel also release The Falcon and The Winter Solider, a story which reverted back to ‘standard Marvel’ and potentially felt jarring off the back of something like WandaVision. It sought to tell a message about equality and race but often it felt lost in amongst everything else that the story was trying to tell; the easter eggs of Mandripoor, the societal aftermath of the Blip and the idea of legacy for these heroes that hadn’t hadn’t to confront their mortality until now.

The Phase tried to innovate but struggled in places with films like the Eternals struggling under the weight of it’s own lore and expansive cast resulting in a very pretty but relatively lacking film while in the same vein it introduced us to Shang-Chi which took us from kung fu fights on a bus to kung fu fights on the back of a dragon while fighting evil soul sucking demons. These early films show that the innovation and storytelling struggled to remain consistent and going into the second year of the Phase these challenges looked to continue.

There was a clear aim at establishing the Multiverse in this Phase with Loki explaining the Prime Timeline and the events of the series essentially trigger everything to come (and in a way, everything that has already happened) while What If gave us an uneven but sometimes interesting glimpse into the various universes outside the one we are familiar with. This Multiversal story saw 2021 end with a flourish though, as No Way Home brought Holland, Garfield and Maguire together to dial up the stakes and set a very emotional situation for Peter Parker by the end. For many, this film breathed new life into what had already been a packed but potentially stagnant year of Marvel content, however this breath was quickly taken away again with Doctor Strange 2 which failed to live up to the Madness that could be promised by the Multiverse. Although not a bad film, but not a great one, it struggled to live up to expectations by rushing through plot points, undermining key characters like the Scarlet Witch and the Illuminati and simply failing to utilise the opportunities that the unlimited multiverse offers.

It’s difficult to remember Phase Four because it’s full of extremes. Some of the best films in the MCU are within this Phase, and some of the more innovative content sits within some of their series while it also has some of the MCU’s biggest let downs and disappointments.

The second year of Phase Four saw a mixed performance across the board, with the series potentially shouldering more of the weight but definitely resulting in a mixed bag. Besides the disappointing Multiverse of Madness we also got Thor: Love and Thunder which undermined Thor, underutilised a great villain and over-used jokes becoming a film that was too Ragnarok. Moving on from Norse heroes, Moon Knight offered an incredibly enjoyable ride through Egyptian mythology and resulted in one of the stronger series, while Ms Marvel offered a glimpse into Muslim life and, although it received varying levels of praise, it introduced us to a very good iteration of Kamala Khan. She-Hulk however, caused a lot more controversy, with it’s direction that a lot of fans didn’t like and potentially controversial ending which makes it very hard to understand how she will factor into future films.

This divisiveness defined Phase Four. Up until now there was a largely accepted scale of quantity when it came to MCU films with films like Endgame often up there as some of the stronger films and Thor: The Dark World being counted among some of the weaker. The sheer amount of content, diversity, narrative styles and characters introduced in Phase Four means that there is an increased chance of mixed opinions on what we have seen. When coupling this with the astronomical time needed to watch it, it can make Phase Four a potentially very difficult Phase to re-watch in it’s entirety. This isn’t to say it is bad but more that it feels more like the state of the comic books now where theres hundreds of storys going on which crossover and intertwine at points, but that the viewing of all of them isn’t 100% necessary.

Did Disney+ Make or Break the Phase?

For the first time in the MCU this Phase was defined by the series that were released more than the films themselves. Due to the restrictions across most of the Phase, these series became the way that fans could continue to get their Marvel fix and in that way they kept the MCU alive. There was already a years break over 2020 when nothing was really released so to a certain extent the amount of content that hit us was also down to the backlog of stories that needed to be told. Disney+ offered a way for fans and non fans to experience these stories while remaining safe, and for Disney to keep themselves making money when the alternative was several years without anything. In that respect, Disney+ kept the MCU alive and continued pushing the story forward, giving us time with veterans like Hawkeye, developing off of character moments such as the Falcon receiving Cap’s shield and introducing new heroes into the mix like Ms Marvel and Moon Knight.

The series format also allowed for a different type of story telling – the return to serialised stories that kept viewers returning week by week and fostering buzz online around the various theories and predictions of what’s to come. Mephisto for example was probably the most popular villain to have debuted in Phase Four without actually being in it and purely only existing in theory and speculation. It was this that kept the MCU and this universe moving forward and, arguably, it saved the franchise in the short term.

There is a fine line to be struck between accessible, weekly content that supplements key film releases and too many series for the sake of it.

This isn’t to say that the shift to series is the recommended move going forward. There was an inconsistency in quality across the series that were released which makes each series unpredictable. This, in turn, makes users less likely to watch as the time commitment needed is much more than a film. It can also result in poor pacing or slow storytelling which series like Ms Marvel suffered from meaning that the length of the season needs to be considered. Nine episodes for She-Hulk for example was about three too many as Hawkeye succeeded in telling the story, keeping the suspense and wrapping it up in six. On top of this, and this is the most common issue I have come across, is the burn out. Viewers are expected to watch a lot more than they have before in order to understand the main story that is to come. It remains to be seen how much Kang may explain about the events of Loki for example in Ant-Man Quantumania but, as it stands, Loki at least, appears to be necessary viewing to a certain extent. This wasn’t too bad when you were expecting someone to catch up on a two hour film ahead of a new one coming out but when they have to watch six hours of a season in order to understand an upcoming two hour film it creates a feeling of ‘is this worth it?‘. This feeling, combined with the overwhelming amount of choice and inconsistent quality, has turned a lot of people off of the MCU and the Kang narrative they are building.

There is a fine line to be struck between accessible, weekly content that supplements key film releases and too many series for the sake of it. Phase Four definitely felt like it was leaning into the later by the end meaning that their job is that little bit harder now when it comes to winning back lapsed fans and non-fans. There seems to be a self-awareness of this over at Disney as they have started reviewing the upcoming slate with series like Armor Wars getting re-dated again and potentially even turned into a film. Now that ‘normality’ has returned the focus should be on ensuring that there is quality, original stories to be told in the best available format. That being said, the challenge has also swung the other way now with the cost of living crisis also squeezing peoples disposable income meaning that the Disney+ subscription needs to be worth it. Getting this balance right between film and series in Phase Five will be crucial in ensuring that the MCU can exist into Phase Six and beyond.

Where To Next?

Ant-Man kicks off Phase Five and it has a lot of work to do. Reactions to the trailer have been, largely, positive with Kang in particular being a highlight. Seeing the next big bad whos going to hound our heroes up to the next Avengers films so early is a treat; Thanos was a looming unknown threat across the early MCU whereas they are coming right out there with Kang and hitting the ground running.

On top of this, we have Guardians Three this year as well as the Marvels meaning that we won’t be inundated with films in 2023. However, in terms of series we will have a lot that we will need to follow with six series slated for this year, including Loki season 2, Secret Invasion and Ironheart with Daredevil slated for early 2024. This is the biggest concern because, as mentioned above, the scale between quantity and quality needs to be balanced. The line up for this year has a lot of potential but also creates a lot of risk in terms of mismanagement and rushing through production. Hopefully as they go into their third year of producing series and receiving the feedback they will put more focus on the quality of these shows to show that they can tell these incredible stories and do them justice. There is a lot to prove with Phase Five and hopefully Ant-Man can set the tone for what is to come.

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