With Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe announced, we can finally glean a trajectory for the franchise post-Infinity Saga. And if there is one word to sum it all up, that would be… weird.
Just, really dang weird.
Which is all for the best, if you think about it.
It’s important to point this out because starting the Marvel movie ’verse with Iron Man and Captain America and Hulk set a particular tone for audiences straight out the gate. Heroes created via scientific means, responses to war and terrorism and the military-industrial complex, they were closer to science fiction than pure fantasy, and they grounded the films in very specific ways. Part of the reason that the MCU initially struggled with integrating Thor into the universe was a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that he didn’t fit that mold. They tried to handwave it with some “oh magic and science are the same thing on Asgard” pseudo-babble, but it could never cover up the fact that Thor was a mythic prince from a magical land who could wield a special hammer that most people couldn’t pick up, like an alien Excalibur.
While Marvel worked hard to broaden its range as it collected new heroes, most of them retained that (incredibly loose) sheen of logical cohesion. Even when they added talking trees and raccoons, or the infinitely odd realms at the fingertips of the Sorcerer Supreme, or mysteries of the Quantum Zone, Marvel was all about keeping that continuity in line, making these stories and tones play well together.
Then Endgame arrived and bulldozed that dynamic right out of existence.
The often-baffling time travel shenanigans and other choices of the Infinity Saga’s final chapter served as a paradigm shift. Matching tones was right out. Clear Point-A-to-Point-B narrative was no longer in vogue. Grounding through an expanding repertoire of fictional technology was not a priority. It makes sense because the larger the pool becomes, and the more heroes you throw at the wall, the harder it is to pretend that all of these people come close to occupying the same universe. The only way to make it all hold together is to stop making internal continuity the top priority. At which point, things are bound to get a little freaky.
It is telling that Black Widow is the first film in the Phase 4 roster because she’s now a remnant of the previous era. Marvel is years behind on giving Natasha Romanoff her own movie, to the point of having to go back in their own canonical timeline to make the story possible. Widow is set to be the very last of the old guard, and her film(s) doesn’t have to sync up with any of the new content being produced. And what’s coming up is getting a little darker, and a little odder (sorry, you can’t say “stranger” because then you invoke him), and a little wilder. When asked about the upcoming WandaVision series, set to premiere on Disney+, most of the actors who arrived on stage at San Diego Comic Con had one thing to say about the show: It’s freaking weird.
This is a welcome piece of news for the character of Scarlet Witch, a character who never managed to play well with the OG Avengers because she was both too powerful and too utterly apart from the group’s overall dynamic. Wanda Maximoff was wasted on her introduction because both she and Quicksilver were planted in Avengers: Age of Ultron at director Joss Whedon’s behest, with no consideration for how Scarlet Witch would fundamentally alter the manner by which the heroes of the MCU faced challenges. It resulted in continually sidelining Wanda, to the point where Infinity War had to lampshade her continued under-use when Okoye rightfully griped, “Why was she up there [i.e., protecting Vision away from the fight] all this time?”
WandaVision is meant to give Scarlet Witch a vehicle to truly come into her own. According to actor Elizabeth Olsen, the show is a space to “get weird, get deep, and finally understand Wanda Maximoff as Scarlet Witch.” The events of the series are supposed to play directly into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which Marvel is billing as their first “scary” film. This makes sense on several fronts, knowing the sorts of opponents Strange is likely to face off against, and the frequent psychedelic terror his powers can evoke. But a horror film wouldn’t have fit the mechanics of the MCU even a year ago. By focusing on two characters whose powers encompass the potential to warp reality, Marvel can try something truly different.
And if that’s not mind-bending enough for you, the Eternals film is about a set of near-immortal genetically enhanced humans, many of whom were around observing Earth’s history for thousands of years, sometimes posing as gods. If Marvel goes whole hog with the Eternals concept, the film could draw back the narrative to a macro level that might make even the epic scope of the Infinity War arc feel hilariously superfluous, but this is where we’re headed regardless. Then there’s the Loki show, which is set to follow everyone’s favorite trickster meddling in Earth’s history for the ‘gram or the Vine or whatever pseudo-gods do things for. It almost seems too silly to be a sustainable concept, but then again, given how muddled the MCU timeline became post-Endgame, why not go for it? And if that’s not enough timeline foolery, we’ve got the upcoming What If…? series, full of familiar (animated) faces and even more alternate timelines, just to prove that reality is a matter of perspective.
What about a potential buddy comedy between the new Captain America and his hundred-year-old super soldier pal? The Falcon and the Winter Soldier characters had that rapport going from the beginning of the MCU, but the early film arcs didn’t have space for a burgeoning odd couple dynamic. Between those two and the other Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, arriving to set Clint Barton straight (he has a lot to answer for with all the… murdering), we’re delving into interpersonal dynamics like never before. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is also likely to deliver on family drama (Shang-Chi’s got a thing with his dad), while simultaneously capping off the story of a long-running MCU villain—the real Mandarin, also known as the Master of the Ten Rings—and playing into the tropes of Kung Fu cinema.
And now that Marvel has finally nailed their vibe for Thor’s corner of the universe, they’re bringing him back and changing things up: this time, it’ll be Jane Foster who is worthy to wield Mjolnir and assume the mantle. Aside from the fact that this is an excellent idea lifted from a recent run of Thor comics, there’s also the fact that Jane Foster has always been a character that these films didn’t know what to do with; she was too smart to sit still and wait on Thor to fix problems, too curious about the universe and all its wonder, and possessed of her own odd entourage—her frank and funny BFF Darcy, frequently harassed scientist Erik Selvig, and Darcy’s new boyfriend Ian. Despite the fact that Jane and her crew were a solid highlight of the first two Thor films, the MCU clearly didn’t feel comfortable with them because they were experts at drawing focus away from their big buff hero. It looks like Marvel has finally recognized that might be a good thing, hence giving Jane a chance at the big buff hero status.
And to cap this all off, we’ve been told that Mahershala Ali has been cast as Blade in a forthcoming film. While some fans cried foul since Ali has already appeared in the MCU as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Netflix’s Luke Cage, this isn’t the continuity pile-up that everyone making it out to be. For one, Alfre Woodard (also of Luke Cage fame) has already appeared in the MCU twice and no one seemed to take note: She played Cornell’s sister Mariah Dillard on Cage, and also appeared in Captain America: Civil War to give Tony Stark a dressing down as grieving mother Miriam Sharpe. Add the fact that Doctor Strange is bringing a multiverse to bear quite soon and we’ve got infinite reasons why a man looking just like Stokes might show up elsewhere in Marvel’s giant story web. What’s more amusing is that people haven’t latched onto the truly pressing change that Blade brings with him: an entire underworld of freaking vampires.
If you had tried to convince movie buffs and new fans that vampires existed in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe that brought them Captain America and Iron Man, you probably would have had some difficulty in that task around, say, 2011. Those pieces didn’t interlock in a way that felt feasible. But all these characters (and far weirder ones) are a part of the Marvel Comics roster, and they were destined to show up one day. Phase 4 is about precisely that—making room for the things that didn’t fit. Because once Captain Marvel and Blade occupy the same narrative landscape convincingly, then there truly are no limits to what the MCU can pull off. Talking raccoons and sentient trees were only meant to be the start of this turnover, not the sole place where they dialed to eleven. And once they hit that mark, there was no chance of backing off—it’s time to crank the dial and break off the knob.
Will they succeed? It looks like that’s what we’re about to find out. And it’s true that the multitude of changes we’re soon to encounter aren’t going to work for every fan, but there was no way to keep this sprawling cinema empire going on the back of a bunch of similar-looking dudes named Chris, and one guy who’s great at mecha armor. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe wants to survive, it needs to feel bigger and far less knowable. That’s the only way you can churn out films and TV shows by the dozen and still be remotely interesting. And you don’t get there on the backs of enhanced soldiers and shiny tech. You get there with big, messy conceptual nightmares, and ancient history, and blood-sucking monsters… who might all be around the corner from that Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
You get there with the weirdos.