The Phase 4 MCU Movies Were Mostly A Mess, Now What?

With the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to a close, and we can look at the entire phase as a whole. The television series are their own thing that would require a separate deep dive, but a pattern emerged for the movies from the first film in phase four, Black Widow, and carrying through nearly all of the movies straight to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. The pattern is that all of these movies are a mess when it comes to plot structure and story. Some of the films are bigger messes than others.  Some rebound and still become good movies, whether by having a killer third act or really nailing an emotional note.  But almost none of them hold together as a story. There is one exception, which we'll get into later, and the issue comes with how the MCU is moving forward.

So, The Phase 4 MCU Movies Were Mostly A Mess, Now What?
Phase 4 Poster. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2020-2022 MARVEL.

Origin Stories For New Characters Within Sequels

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, it could build stories by introducing new characters within their own solo movies and then use sequels to continue arcs. For example, we were introduced to Tony Stark in Iron Man and watched his character evolve throughout the two Iron Man sequels and the various team-up movies in which the character appeared. We had the origin that established the hero and the world, with the sequels introducing new dimensions to the main hero, building out the world, and sometimes introducing supporting players who would become larger players as the universe unfolded. This is the pattern that Marvel followed throughout phases one through three until we got to the end, and with a movie called Endgame, there was a sense of a soft reset.

However, the next sequels didn't flow as well as the previous films. A Black Widow movie that was supposed to be the sendoff for a character that died was also a low-key origin story for Yelena. It meant that neither of these characters was really given a chance to shine and as the world of the MCU continues to expand, it also gets bogged down with more and more worldbuilding. In the beginning, you didn't have to worry too much about linking all of these things together, but now fans expect some sort of crossover in nearly every movie they watch.  If there isn't one, they feel let down. At the same time, crossovers and worldbuilding are beginning to feel much more important than anything happening to the individual characters we fell in love with.

The Phase 4 MCU Movies Were Mostly A Mess, Now What?
Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Marvel Studios' THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

The most egregious example of this is the entire God sequence in Thor: Love and Thunder. Worldbuilding is the only reason for that sequence to exist, but that sort of thing used to be left to the margins, the details, and the post-credits scenes of the MCU. But as the universe gets increasingly complicated, the explanations and reminders for it tend to get more cumbersome. So we have entire sequences that add little to the story, the characters, to anything in films like Thor: Love and Thunder, and it slows down the entire movie.

MCU Worldbuilding And Franchise Building Above All Else

This focus on worldbuilding and introducing new characters within the sequels of existing movies means that the films seem to exist more for franchise management than to tell a story. The Marvel movies used to focus on characters above everything else, and that is why we fell in love with these movies. We fell in love with Steve Rogers, with Thor, with Tony Stark; one could argue that no one really cared about the stupid magic rocks floating around in space because the people and the relationships are the things that fans have latched onto. If you've spent any time in the Marvel fan space beginning around the time of the first Avengers movie, you may have noticed that the fanfiction being written wasn't about the Infinity Stones or trying to get the next bad guy. The stories were about the Avengers living in Avengers Tower and being weird roomies.

Even the movie that set out to do something completely different with not only the genre but the franchise as a whole, Eternals, was bogged down with worldbuilding and things that felt like they would be important later. That is what almost every frame of phase four has felt like; this will be important later, but nothing seems important to the story at hand. There are lone moments in each film that hit hard, the final scenes in Spider-Man: No Way Home and the two memorials at the beginning and the end of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but they don't feel like the focus of the films anymore. The characters are the things that we fell in love with. Despite working with established characters, it feels like Marvel writers largely fail to connect with these characters in the present and only make promises for later down the line.

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Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2021 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Shang-Chi: The Least Messy Of A Very MCU Messy Phase

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is by far the strongest movie regarding narrative cohesion in this phase. Some films such as Wakanda Forever pack harder punches, but Shang-Chi is the film that holds together the most, and that is because it's the film that feels complete. It's working from a template we haven't seen Marvel use in a little while, an origin story with completely new characters and in a new corner of the universe. Shang-Chi had worldbuilding, but it was not the focus of the movie. There were moments explaining Ta-Lo and what the Ten Rings did, but the central focus of the story was introducing Shang-Chi and his history.

The Marvel worldbuilding was left to the margins like it used to be. We had one of the Black Widows in a cage fight and Wong and the Abomination fighting each other. We also got the return of Trevor Slattery, but that didn't feel like fan service because he's a character that is original to the MCU and fits into the context of the story. Trevor isn't showing up in this movie so we can have a Trevor movie down the line; he's showing up because he's a fun character who integrates well into the story and can bring some well-needed humor to dire situations. The rest of the Marvel universe is barely acknowledged, save for a few throwaway lines and the post-credits scene. It's the most approachable movie Marvel has made in a long time because it isn't weighed down by everything else that has happened in previous films.

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(L-R): Wenwu (Tony Leung), Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios' SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Is The Multiverse Saga Heading Toward A Crisis?

DC Comics did the event Crisis on Infinite Earths to try and streamline the DC universe into something that was less confusing to casual comic book readers and more approachable for new readers. Marvel has also done its own versions of reboots and restructuring to try and make things more palatable to new readers because the problem with long-form storytelling is that eventually, it's going to get convoluted, messy, and confusing to anyone who isn't paying attention to all of the details. At the moment, Marvel is walking the line fairly well, but this is only the first year or so of them mixing the world of television and movies together. It is a lot to ask of an audience to watch both, and sooner or later, it will be a lot to ask people to keep up with. There is momentum right now, but are we getting tired?

The streaming numbers and the box office numbers say that we very much are not tired, at least not yet, but this isn't something that Marvel can keep up indefinitely. Phase four being largely a mess does not bode well, leading into phases five and six. We can't keep constantly watching two hours of things happening with the promise that everything will be important later. The audience needs to feel satisfied by what transpired in the story they just watched when the credits roll. The characters are the things we fell in love with in the early phases of these movies, not the magic rocks or any worldbuilding that was on the horizon.  If Marvel remembers that fundamental fact, then maybe a crisis won't be needed at all.

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Kaitlyn BoothAbout Kaitlyn Booth

Kaitlyn is the Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. She loves movies, television, and comics. She's a member of the UFCA and the GALECA. Feminist. Writer. Nerd. Follow her on Twitter @katiesmovies and @safaiagem on Instagram.
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