**This article features spoilers to many MCU films and WandaVision**
Despite an ongoing discourse to the contrary, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an ever-evolving art project with twists, turns, switcheroos, what-have-yous, and WTFs. I’m not here to argue the merits of the cinematic value of the MCU (or, at least, not in this article. Anyone in the 25YL Slack chat, who has seen my Twitter timeline, has read my previous articles, and/or has suffered listening to my voice on numerous podcasts knows where I stand on this issue), so don’t worry: you don’t need to run and hide and wish for the bad film man to go away today.
What I will say is that Marvel Studios’ ability to simultaneously juggle commercial aspirations with artistic integrity while also servicing a massive fanbase is astounding, especially because the studio has continued to challenge itself on how it tells stories as its popularity has grown (usually, that tendency to push the envelope fades as something grows more adaptable to a widening market). Avengers: Endgame, the bookend to a ten-year saga of films, is perhaps its most intricately dense film, weaving together a decade of interlacing storylines with over 30 characters to provide an epic conclusion. The fact that Endgame became the highest-grossing film of all time (briefly anyway) despite being part twenty-two of a film series that is likely inaccessible to newcomers shows the MCU’s impact on the cultural zeitgeist.
Though critics and fans alike can agree MCU Phase 1 and some of MCU Phase 2 leaned on formula to world-build, it is noticeable that the phase-ending “crossover” event films plus the studio’s agreement to bestow directors/screenwriters more creative control in the narrative and look of the films allowed for more genre-busting, subversive content from Phase 2 onwards. The Phase 1 origin stories look very similar in terms of story progression and characterization, but as time went on, no Marvel movie looked alike. Be it a political thriller, a heist film, a goofball comedy, an all-out fantasy, or a deeply layered racial commentary, Marvel was not only creating a new genre of cinema but was allowing it to evolve past simple classification.
That evolution has only continued with Marvel’s entry into the television fold. Now that WandaVision has ended and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is set to begin, Marvel’s ambitions on a storytelling front are only becoming bolder as more complex aspects of the literal comic book make their way to the big and small screens. WandaVision, originally intended to be the fourth entry in Phase 4 but, due to the pandemic, became the first, broke a lot of new ground on Marvel’s mythology that was previously only hinted at. It now puts a lot of pressure on future entries in the Phase to explain itself.
As Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) jokes in a recently released clip from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, our protagonists usually encounter the “Big Three” of villains: “androids, aliens, and wizards.” And for the most part, that sentiment has been true: Ultron, Thanos, Loki, Kaecilius, etc. have been thorns in our heroes’ sides for over a decade. But with WandaVision, even more complex ideas are entering the fold. On a more “grounded” level, you have a more defined introduction of pure magical elements like witches, chaos magic, and demons, yes. But, either by honest mistake with the casting of Evan Peters as a “re-cast” Pietro Maximoff and with an ambiguous end-credit scene to close out the series showing multiple Wandas perusing other dimensions, the promise of a comics-standard multi-verse is now at bay, a concept that should prove challenging to a general audience and even hard-core comics fans, who have had to deal with the machinations and complications of a multi-verse for over 70 years.
In the end, WandaVision’s unintended appearance as the first offering of Phase 4 may, in fact, define the next big narrative arc to consume the MCU for years to come. Phases 1-3 were titled “The Infinity Saga” as each piece of storytelling eventually led to the climactic universe-spanning battle between the Avengers and Thanos for control of the all-powerful Infinity Stones. It was a daring narrative maneuver, taking over a decade to complete and, in the end, coming down to the classic tale of good vs. evil.
Despite all the interweaving characters, motivations, and plotlines, The Infinity Saga’s approach to “good vs. evil” is what made the MCU so classical in nature and highly accessible to the mass populace. It was, both in critical praise and physical construction, exactly like Star Wars in the ’70s/’80s and Lord of the Rings in the early aughts. Through two- to three-hour installments every year, the iconography of people like Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor were molded and solidified in the public consciousness.
However, now that TV is becoming involved, these larger-than-life figures are going under a much more precise microscope. Characters like Wanda Maximoff and Vision, for example, were previously seen in small chunks. Though their characters were indeed well-written and defined, their appearance in the MCU films ultimately served as plot movers. For example, Wanda’s mistake of killing Wakandans in Lagos in Captain America: Civil War led to her being a symbol of guilt and fear while her burgeoning love with Vision was challenged by Vision’s sense of mathematical analysis and a desire to control catastrophe. In the end, the characters’ choices, or in later films, sacrifices, led to continental shifts in the narrative, and the effects on the characters themselves were seen on a more surface level. Wanda = sad, etc.
This isn’t taking away from those character moments, but the MCU, up to this point, has been about grand movements and epic chess moves. With the franchise’s heavy hitters, like Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, there were entire films dedicated to more three-dimensional aspects of their characterization (such as Iron Man 3, which dug into Tony’s PTSD and anxiety and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which examined Cap’s assimilation into a society that has changed incredibly in the seventy years he was gone). But side characters like Wanda and Vision were given more of a “greatest hits” approach which, in turn, allowed for stories to be told later, if Marvel so chose. Not everyone can carry a movie.
So when WandaVision became the first entry in Phase 4, it fundamentally changed the storytelling game for the MCU by taking two side-characters and, over 350 minutes (instead of a movie’s standard two to three hours) went into shocking detail on the grief process (for Wanda) and the sense of identity one grapples with as they evolve (in Vision’s case). The playing field of television allows for this deeper introspection and, in the end, it enriches the prior films, too. While Marvel Studios moves forward with the types of stories it tells, it also supplements the prior entries, making the universe more robust.
Add in the fact that now multiple versions of characters will now appear (thanks to the multi-verse), there is a rich playground for creators to examine how one’s separate reality influenced their existence. Coupled with television, this ability to stretch the characterization and the narrative can only be a good thing, at least for those well-versed in the universe. I can see new fans of the MCU becoming a little intimidated with the catching-up process. Before they just had to watch a back catalog of films. Now they have to do that, plus switch over between big and small screens!
So what then does the future of the MCU have in store for us now that we know they are pushing ahead with a newly evolved storytelling style? Well, for one, don’t worry film lovers: the movies aren’t going anywhere but may, similar to the TV projects, reflect a desire to dig deeper into the characters. The next major film to be released is Black Widow, which has been delayed many times due to the pandemic. Set for release on May 7th, Black Widow will be a tale from the past (before or during The Infinity Saga) but one that fleshes out Natasha Rominoff’s family tree and details major decisions in her life that made her an Avenger.
The fact that one or more characters from Black Widow will cross over into the Hawkeye TV Series (coming late 2021, the character being Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova) will not only provide more depth to the universe but also enhance Clint Barton’s character even further since he has a deep, but mostly unseen, history with Natasha. Add the television series format, and Hawkeye will be getting a much deeper analysis. Other films include the introduction of new concepts or barely seen figures such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (July 9th, 2021) and Eternals (November 5th, 2021) plus franchise stalwarts like Peter Parker in Spider-Man: No Way Home (December 17, 2021).
Speaking of Spider-Man, the web-slinger’s third solo film in the MCU will be important in setting up this multi-verse we keep hearing about. WandaVision teased it, and the upcoming television series Loki, which involves an alternate-universe Loki who escaped in Avengers: Endgame while the “original” Loki was killed (the series comes out June 11th, 2021), will further solidify the concept leading into Spider-Man: No Way Home. That film is rumored to have members of prior incarnations of Spider-Man characters from different franchises (aka, non-MCU films, aka, alternate realities, a comic book staple) join the cast, including Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, and maybe even Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire as their versions of Peter Parker. The MCU version of J. Jonah Jameson has already been seen and he was portrayed, as he was in the Raimi-verse, by J.K. Simmons in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Confused yet? Well, WandaVision, Loki, and Spider-Man: No Way Home are conceptually leading to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (ironically, directed by Sam Raimi) which is scheduled to be released on March 25th, 2022. Though the plot of the film is virtually unknown at this time (as is usual for MCU films, which are always draped in massive secrecy), one can expect that, like The Infinity Saga, the many different pieces of the narrative puzzle will build up to one epic story.
And that is with Marvel introducing new concepts and ideas alongside these other more established world-building event films. Will this multiverse concept be the next logical step in the grand scheme of things or a stepping stone to something even bigger? It is hard to tell. Marvel’s slate of upcoming projects in 2022 and beyond creates more scratching of the head, then a clear idea of where we are all headed: Thor’s fourth film, Thor: Love and Thunder, comes out in May of 2022; Black Panther II, which will deal with the death of Chadwick Boseman directly, is set to come out in July of 2022; while Captain Marvel’s second feature and Ant-Man’s third feature are due at the end of 2022. Even further down the line is the Guardians of the Galaxy coming back as well as the introduction of the Fantastic Four.
So, in essence, the craziness is really just beginning. Much of that craziness is possible due to fan theories, casting rumors, and a multi-media assault by Marvel that has fans chomping at the bit to know what happens next. Now that WandaVision is over and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier starts this week, the new saga, whatever it may be, kicks off and, thankfully, provides more detail and characterization to not only new characters but also the ones we’ve grown to love over the last decade-plus.
Below is a list of the upcoming Phase 4 MCU projects in chronological order:
- WandaVision (released)
- The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Mini-Series, releases on March 19, 2021)
- Black Widow (film, releases on May 7, 2021)
- Loki (Mini-Series, releases on June 11, 2021)
- What If…? (TV Series, animated, release date TBD in 2021)
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (film, releases July 9, 2021)
- Eternals (film, releases November 5, 2021)
- Hawkeye (Mini-Series, releases end of 2021)
- Ms. Marvel (Mini-Series, releases end of 2021)
- Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (film, releases March 25, 2022)
- Thor: Love and Thunder (film, releases May 6, 2022)
- Black Panther II (film, releases July 8, 2022)
- Captain Marvel 2 (film, releases November 11, 2022)
- Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (film, releases end of 2022)
- She-Hulk (Mini-Series, releases sometime in 2022)
- Moon Knight (Mini-Series, releases sometime in 2022)
- The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (event, releases Nov/Dec 2022)
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (film, releases in 2023)