Why has Phase 4 of the MCU been so divisive?
Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe officially ended with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
However it has been met with a divisive critical and commercial reception
After the success of Avengers: Endgame, some fear the MCU will never return to its former glory
Read on to get the full story of the MCU Phase 4 and where the world’s highest-grossing franchise goes next
Another phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been snapped out of existence, and as we look ahead to Phases 5 and 6, and the eventual arrival of the X-Men, let's look back at what’s been the most divisive phase yet.
We bet Phase 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron are sighing with relief about now.
What went wrong in Phase 4 of the MCU?
Out of the gate, Phase 4 was on the back foot simply by trying to do anything after Avengers: Endgame. As well as breaking box office records, the Avengers ensemble waved goodbye to OGs including Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.
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Seeing more of the old crowd makes sense, but coupling this with a deluge of new characters to shore up the franchise’s future became overkill. New faces included (but weren’t limited to) Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Moon Knight, Black Widow's Yelena Belova, Shang-Chi, and the ten-strong Eternals team.
Other new recruits are already getting their own shows, including Kathryn Hahn-led Agatha: Coven of Chaos, Hawkeye's Echo and there are reports of multiple Black Panther spin-offs in development. Most post-credit scenes came with ambitious teases of what’s to come without going anywhere. Eternals was the worst culprit for this, with two: a vocal debut of Mahershala Ali’s Blade and the setup of Thanos’ adoptive brother in the form of Harry Styles as Starfox.
A major criticism highlighted those poor souls who dared to jump into the MCU now. Even for those who’ve watched the movies up until now, you’d need to tune in almost weekly for the Disney+ shows to understand why Florence Pugh's Yelena is in Hawkeye or what’s next for WandaVision's Monica Rambeau in The Marvels.
This was especially highlighted in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which generated complaints that Wanda Maximoff’s villainous turn seemingly came out of nowhere.
Real world drama for the MCU
In terms of real-life dramas, the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the schedule and led to Black Widow’s convoluted release that had the knock-on effect of Johansson trying to sue Disney over a break of contract.
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VFX artists complained they've been unfairly treated, and in general, CGI was called out for making Phase 4 sometimes look like we were back in Phase One. The tragic passing of William Hurt led to Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross being recast with Harrison Ford, while Chadwick Boseman’s shock death in 2020 meant Ryan Coogler had to completely rethink Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — thankfully, it’s held as one of the phase’s highlights.
These critiques quickly spilled over into the reviews, as critic and audience scores started to tumble. Eternals has the dubious honour of being the MCU’s first 'rotten' movie on Rotten Tomatoes (although it does have a more positive 77% audience score), while Taiki Waititi failed getting lightning to strike twice when Thor: Love and Thunder was slammed for its overly comedic tone, screaming goats, and cringeworthy dialogue like, “Eat my hammer!”
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She-Hulk: Attorney At Law was review-bombed simply because some don’t like the idea of a 'girl hulk', but at least it remained defiant by using toxic comments from its own fan base to stick a middle finger to the haters.
More than this, there was actual money on the line. According to Box Office Mojo, Eternals has the second-lowest lifetime gross of any MCU movie — boasting $164,870,234 and only faring better than 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.
Black Widow is in 24th place, and Shang-Chi in 21st. Spider-Man: No Way Home is comfortably at the other end of the spectrum with a whopping $804,793,477 in second place, but you should remember it’s a joint venture with Sony.
Despite touring the globe (and beyond) in Phase 4, that’s just part of the problem. Despite these post-credit scenes trying to sew everything together, the lack of a full-blown Avengers outing has made Phase 4 feel like a series of solo projects rather than the usually united front. .
It’s not all bad news for the MCU
Let’s give Phase 4 some credit because there have been some diamonds in the rough. Some experiments with the formula paid off, and it’s no coincidence that out-there outings like WandaVision and Werewolf by Night are held as some of the best, whereas Wakanda Forever being largely in its own corner of the MCU is also reflected in its reviews.
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One of the movie’s few complaints are the shoehorning of Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross and more geopolitical plotlines that will undoubtedly rear their heads in Captain America 4: New World Order.
Phase 4 also championed diversity, which is a far cry from the white male-dominated days of Phase One. Iman Vellani, Tenoch Huerta, Simu Liu, and Xochitl Gomez have all landed major roles and are likely to return.
It’s also been refreshing to explore new mythologies with the Egyptian deities of Moon Knight and the Mesoamerican lore of Wakanda Forever. Thor: Love and Thunder’s Pantheon of the Gods showed how many potential mythologies the series could tap into, but it’s a concept that seems too big to comprehend right now.
You’ve likely have either loved or loathed Phase 4’s fan service. The inclusion of multiple Spider-Man and their enemies in No Way Home feeds back into the accessibility issue, but then again, who didn’t love Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina stealing every scene?
Phase 4 also made some major steps toward integrating the forgotten Netflix era. With Charlie Cox back as Matt Murdock, it’s surely a matter of time until Krysten Ritter's Jessica Jones and Jon Bernthal's Punisher also return.
We’ve had some A-list additions with Russell Crowe and Charlize Theron, while John Krasinski’s cameo in Multiverse of Madness proved those at the top really do listen to fan castings. Speaking on the Illuminati, Phase 4 had a major win by luring Sir Patrick Stewart back as Charles Xavier.
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Whether Stewart and Krasinski return or not, their castings showed the potential of this chapter being called “The Multiverse Saga.” As for tantalising teases that work, Loki’s He Who Remains twist might’ve not quite landed, but at least it gave a nod toward Jonathan Majors as the 'new Thanos' that the MCU so desperately needs right now.
The future of the MCU
As Phase 4 bows out, we’re obviously looking to the future. This was another of Phase 4’s big failures, as we were too busy looking ahead to really enjoy what was going on before our eyes. This is why the largely unconnected Werewolf by Night was held as being so revolutionary. There was no predictable cameo from Doctor Strange, and although some were disappointed we didn’t get a cameo from Blade, it worked in the TV special’s favour.
Fringe shows like Echo and Ironheart have to prove that they’re more than just placeholders to tide us over until Daredevil: Born Again or the inevitable Black Panther 3, but let’s hope the experimentation continues.
In animated form, there’s the much-hyped return of X-Men: The Animated Series as X-Men ‘97, however, it’s disappointing that the Marvel Zombies series is only four episodes. Jake Schreier’s Thunderbolts will be an interesting one amidst groans it’s not a comic-accurate lineup of anti-heroes and is too reliant on Captain America villains.
Even though the MCU made it look easy to build out from the core Avengers, queuing up teams ranging from the Thunderbolts to the Young Avengers means the sprawling cast sheet for will surely leave some in the dust.
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Phase 4 was called to task for sidelining legacy characters like Thor or Hulk. In a franchise that prides itself on leaving no man (or woman) behind by bringing back Jane Foster after years of being MIA, we tip our hats to those in charge of trying to keep continuity in check.
If Phase 4 has hopefully taught the MCU anything, it’s that you need quality, not quantity. Sadly, we can already see the dollar signs ringing in Disney’s eyes, meaning we’re sure the money-making MCU machine will continue to churn them out in Phase 5 and beyond.
Confirmed Phase 5 titles so far:
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3 (2023)
The Marvels (2023)
Secret Invasion (2023)
Loki S2 (2023)
Agatha: Coven of Chaos (2023)
Captain America: New World Order (2024)
Daredevil: Born Again (2024)
Phase 5 of the MCU will kick off with the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in cinemas and IMAX on 17 February, 2023.
Watch a trailer for the new Ant-Man movie