The Promise Behind Marvel's Phase 4 Slate

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR Still Scarlett Johansson - Publicity - H 2018
<p>Scarlett Johansson in <em>Avengers: Infinity War</em></p>   |   Courtesy of Marvel Studios
In addition to a more inclusive roster, the MCU also is embracing a sense of pulp fun with titles such as 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' and 'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.'

For months we’ve heard Kevin Feige tease the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe post-Avengers: Endgame, with the promise of a very different Phase 4. At Saturday night’s Comic-Con panel for Marvel Studios, Feige not only delivered but blew the roof off of Hall H with a Phase 4 lineup that marks a new chapter for the MCU with plenty of new characters, new filmmakers, and a few familiar faces returning in new ways. That lineup includes: Black Widow, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, The Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, WandaVision, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Loki, What If…?Hawkeye, Thor: Love and Thunder and the undated Blade, Black Panther 2, Captain Marvel 2, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 and even a Fantastic Four movie casually teased.

A mix of films and Disney+ streaming series, Marvel Studios is giving equal weight to the theatrical and streaming experience within Phase 4 through multiplatform storytelling we haven’t seen on this scale since Star Trek in the '90s. Within that union there’s a confident sense of pulp fun to those titles that harken back to the pages of Marvel’s comics and titles like “Fury of the Forgotten Hero” from Thor No. 288 (1979) or “Love is the Spell, The Spell is Death” from Doctor Strange No. 1 (1988). It’s as though Marvel Studios is saying ‘OK, you’ve seen infinity gems, time travel and flerkens, so now let’s get really deep into comic goodness.’ Also, in terms of delving deeper into Marvel lore, is the existence of greater inclusivity, an oft-repeated promise that Marvel Studios is finally delivering on. While there’s no doubt the future of the MCU will still deliver on the pop-culture phenomena it’s become known for, despite the absence of beloved characters like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, the look and feel of this cinematic universe has the potential to be just as exciting as what’s come before, if not more so.

Phase 4 of the MCU feels like a new beginning that builds off the past, not entirely unlike Marvel Comics numbering system in which each major shift in the Marvel Universe leads to a new #1 issue and volume that doesn’t reboot but marks a change in direction, and often creative teams. While Phase 1 deliberately built towards The Avengers, and occasionally felt confined by that need to get from point A to B, the latest lineup of films and series seems, at least from their titles and formats, to be more self-contained and thus more driven by endless possibilities, and maybe even a few more risks. While there’s still the interconnectivity that we’ve come to love — like the Disney+ series WandaVision leading into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Loki dealing the ramifications of the Loki who escaped during Endgame — it looks like we’re largely looking at a candy box assortment of films, each bringing a different flavor to the MCU.

As successful as Marvel Studios has proven to be, the development of a cinematic universe at this scale has not been without its share of growing pains. One of the common complaints about Marvel Studios is its implementation of a house style, and hiring directors to shepherd a unified producer-driven vision while only being able to bring a little bit of their distinctive styles and directorial trademarks, if they’re even established enough to have developed them. The MCU, as exciting as it often is, hasn’t necessarily been auteur-friendly.

But looking at the lineup of directors for their upcoming features — Cate Shortland (Black Widow), Chloe Zhao (The Eternals), Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi), Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) and Taika Waititi (Thor) — you have a collection of filmmakers who have honed their voices, delivered distinct styles and are working with characters that fit within their filmographies. Shortland proved adept at character-driven works that find young women in search of something coming to terms with themselves. Zhao is a filmmaker of immense empathy who provides a window of understanding for people too often weighed down by stereotypes and expectations. And Cretton is a social-minded filmmaker drawn to emotionally honest portraits of dysfunctional families. They each seem like perfect fits to explore their properties. And although Derrickson and Waititi aren’t new to the MCU, the horror angle of the Doctor Strange sequel and the news that Waititi will be writing the latest Thor feature himself, suggest that they too will have more prominent voices in their films, and hopefully offer distinctive styles between each entry.

It’s not just directorial voices that are offering distinction in Phase 4, it’s also the attention to inclusivity. Black Widow, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Shang-Chi, WandaVision, the new Doctor Strange, Hawkeye and the new Thor each offer a much-needed and desired perspective to the MCU, be it a diverse cast, female superheroes, an Asian-American hero, a Black Captain America, a female Thor and an LGBTQ character. Each of these decisions reflects the world that we exist in. As Stan Lee said in Stan’s Soapbox in Avengers No. 74 (1970), “It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. …none of us lives in a vacuum — none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us — events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives.” The MCU has proven to be sound in body and in mind, but the Phase 4 lineup looks to be a unique experience by way of both characters and creators that will allow audiences to discover the soul of the MCU and all it can accomplish when unbound from the expectations of what sequels and cinematic universes have to be.