Movies & TV / Columns

Breaking Down The Ups & Downs of the MCU Phase Four

March 1, 2023 | Posted by Rob Stewart

Well, as of Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania, we are officially into Phase Five of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the highly divisive Phase Four is finally and fully in our rear-view mirror.

With the unprecedented success of, and overall affection for, the MCU’s efforts through its first three phases, a backslide in Phase Four was inevitable. Though exactly how far the slide regressed the brand is still a topic of a lot of debate.

I’m not going to lie: I was mostly a huge defender of the MCU in Phase Four. Did I think it had problems? Oh, definitely. A bunch. Or else this article would be pretty boring! But I also thought it still managed to do a lot exceedingly well, too, and I was trying to keep that at the forefront of my mind. I am, after all, a mostly positive guy. Or I try very hard to be.

That said… Quantumania… whoof. I wasn’t a big fan! Then again, Phase Four kicked off with the similarly underwhelming Black Widow, and I still ended up enjoying the run as a whole. Quantumania feels different, though; Widow was never supposed to be anything more than a skippable offering to finally give a character her due. The newest Ant-Man & The Wasp movie, meanwhile, seemed poised to really set in stone where Phase Five is going to take us. But instead, it felt like so much wheel-spinning.

So with Phase Four complete and Phase Five kicking off rather auspiciously, I decided to take a page from my own podcast and written movie reviews and look at the Ups And Downs of the recent phase that was!

Image Credit: Marvel Studios


Let’s start off with the negatives because I’d prefer to end this article focusing on the good side of things! And with that in mind, there is one widely accepted down for Phase Four that even I can’t argue with: The Visual Effects Seemed To Drop Off Dramatically! There’s no real acceptable reason for this other than maybe that the MCU just started putting out SO MUCH CONTENT that it was impossible for its heavily-pressured effects teams to keep caught up. But a lot of Phase Four was a god damn CGI nightmare. The MCU has never embraced tact in regards to its effects, but Phase Four is where everything started looking more like People Standing Against Backgrounds In A Warehouse. It was ugly at times.

And I get that the shows weren’t going to have the budget of the movies, but aside from Eternals and [most of] Shang-Chi, the movies didn’t look that hot, either. Love & Thunder and Multiverse Of Madness in particular were just blurs of colors and bad effects. At some point, your eye and brain need something real to relate to.

Honestly, look no further than Groot for the effects issue. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume One Groot was an amazing visual accomplishment. He looked… well not “flesh and blood real”, but maybe “bark and sap real”. Now look at modern Groot. I get he is a different being with a new body type, but he stands out like a bad cartoon. Rocket still excels, but the new Groot looks so damn awful.

Phase Four was where I started getting a little bit bored with the larger-than-life stakes in the MCU. Shang-Chi, for instance, is a comic about a martial artist, but for the MCU, they gave him god-like weapons and made his mission to save the world. Not Every Movie Or Show Needs To Be About Saving The World! Sometimes you just have to save yourself or your loved one or stop a criminal. Shang-Chi and Moon Knight of all characters do not need to be out there fighting giant, monstrous gods with all of Earth at stake! That’s almost a fundamental misunderstanding of the characters.

The Eternals fighting for the sake of the planet? Sure! That tracks. Give us Celestials and what not and a big story. But Moon Knight? What the hell are you doing?

Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Speaking of which: Moon Knight Was A Particularly Uninteresting And Tedious Show. I never got invested, and even at six episodes, it felt far too long. Society really has a thing for Oscar Isaac, but I’m yet to be impressed by him. Now, was HE the problem with Moon Knight? No. A nonsense story, boring characters, and weird penchant to have the viewer miss all the action because the main character blacked out were the main culprits. But nothing about Isaac lifted the show above its station.

Moon Knight may have been, for me, the worst MCU show, but at least it did something. Which is a little more than I can say for The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, Which Spent An Entire Season Building To Where We Assumed Endgame Left These Characters Anyway. Will aspects of the show matter come New World Order or Thunderbolts? I’m sure they will. But were they aspects you likely couldn’t have just introduced in those self-same movies? I guess we will see.

So Black Widow was skippable. TFATWS just putzed around in a cirlce back to its own status quo. Moon Knight wasn’t good. Ms. Marvel existed just to introduce the character herself. Yeah, There Was Too Much Content In Phase Four. Now, is this going to fly in the face of an Up or two that I’m going to give in a bit? Yes! So let’s correct it: There Was Too Much BAD Content In Phase Four.

I’m fine with content for content’s sake. I’ve always said that damn never every character Marvel or DC owns should be in a book at any given time. And I’m not of the mind that says you have to watch EVERYTHING. Watch what you want, and if you feel you are going to be lost later, Wikipedia the rest. I’m going to watch virtually everything (he says, having not watched I Am Groot and having no real desire to see Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur) because I’m a massive comic fan, but if you skip TFATWS or Black Widow, I don’t think that will cripple you.

But you shouldn’t HAVE to look at it like that, and Marvel and Disney clearly still want you to. You should just be able to watch whatever looks interesting to you. And while I love set-up, shows (and especially not movies) should not exist JUST to set up what’s coming next. They should be enjoyable on their own. And I feel like the MCU forgot that at points in Phase Four. There was content just to hint at future content (that, in turn, just hints at future content). It was too much!

Was Anything A Bigger Disappointment Than Thor: Love & Thunder? I remember as the year wore on, I continuously said “Love & Thunder is 2022’s only chance to have a movie I enjoy more than Everything Everywhere All At Once“. In hindsight, that was a laughable hope. Love & Thunder was a movie that got better as it went on, but how could it not? The first act was insufferably bad. The humor didn’t land at all, the Asgardians Of The Galaxy tease that Endgame gave us was irrelevant, and no one felt in character or like they wanted to be there. I remain a fan of Taika Waititi, but it felt like he was all the way off of his game here. After the rest of his body of work, including Ragnarok, I have no idea what went wrong here. But it was BAD.

Okay! Feeling pessimistic yet? Good! So let’s move on to the happy sunshine of it all…


+ Okay, this is more objective than anything else, but I have to: Two Of The Very Best MCU Movies Are From Phase Four! Nothing from Phase One, for me, even begins to approach No Way Home and Shang-Chi. I have both of them in my top five of the entire franchise. I was worried if I rewatched Shang-Chi a second time out of theater, it might fall off, but when I did? I think I liked it even more. It was exactly what I wanted in a movie, even if the stakes kind of fell off of the map in the third act (as noted above). Wenwu became one of the best and most realistic and relatable villains the MCU has created. Simu Liu was charming and commanded the screen. Awkwafina was, to the surprise of no one, a complete joy. The fight scenes. The redemption of Trevor. The cinematography and respect for influences like Asian martial arts and fantasy. It was a complete package.

I think Shang-Chi was a huge homerun for Marvel in Phase 4, and it’s left me wanting so much more from the character. But what about the other movie I mentioned here? Well…

+ They did it. They Put Tom, Andrew, And Tobey All In The Same Movie. And they not only pulled off that feat that fans had dreamed of for years, but they did it in a movie that was pretty damn incredible in its own right. The touching death of Aunt May. The old villains reprising their roles and really committing to solid performances. And the three Spider-Men not just being a cameo but an entire third act dynamic. I loved everything about No Way Home.

Now, was it fan-service? Of course it was. But why is that bad? I get that in writing, you want to give fans what they NEED more than what they want, but there is nothing wrong with listening to what people desire and then saying “Not only will we do that, but we will do it excellently”.

Image Credit: Marvel Studios

+ I don’t really intend to sit here and sell you on Ms. Marvel as a show. I enjoyed it personally, but maybe not enough to give a whole-hearted Up to it, and I get a lot of folks felt it got weaker as it went. I will say this, though: Iman Vellani Is A Star, and I’m ready for the entire MCU to be based around her iteration of Kamala Khan.

Even if you didn’t care for the show, I can’t imagine you genuinely weren’t charmed by the newcomer actress’ infectious joy and appreciation for the source material. I could watch her all day long. And even in a show that hit some rough patches, SHE was never not an absolute blast. I’m a million percent on board for everything else Marvel and Disney has planned for her.

+ I said there was too much content in Phase Four, and I stand by that. But that said, you know what I LOVED? The entirely skippable and nigh-pointless WereWolf By Night. Because I Am On Board For Showcasing Smaller Characters, Even If They Don’t Go Anywhere. WWBN [likely] did not exist to set up something in the future.

(Well, maybe Blade. Maybe)

But I think it was made because Disney saw they own ALL THESE CHARACTERS, so why not do some fun, boundary-pushing things with them! WWBN told its own story, it was well made and took risks, and it didn’t feel like a commercial for another, better movie coming out in three years. More of this, please! Less of stuff like TFATWS.

Image Credit: Marvel Studios

+ Speaking of taking some chances, I was surprised that, more-or-less, The MCU Let Sam Raimi Make A Sam Raimi MCU Film. Maybe not 100%; it wasn’t rated R or anything, but I quite enjoyed Multiverse Of Madness when it embraced its more Raimi-ish aspects. The creepiness and the horror. Wanda’s assault on The Illuminati. Dr. Strange running around in a zombie body and fighting off wraiths. I was impressed with the movie as a whole, even if the last moments and then the mid-credits scene were so damn cheesy. It was also nice to see Marvel loosening the restrictions on their directors and letting them add more of themselves to their work. To bad they didn’t figure that out earlier in their phases, or we could have had Edgar Wright’s Quantumania. And that would likely have been better.

+ As the phase grew near its end, and it was abundantly clear misses were abound, it felt reasonable to worry about Wakanda Forever. There was no reason to, it turned out. Wakanda Forever Was A Moving Tribute To Chadwick Boseman, Respectful Of The Character Of T’Challa, And Quite Good Besides All That. Ryan Coogler, Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Tenoch Huerta, and the rest of the production came together to make something that was beautiful and powerful. It was a little overlong, sure (a problem that MCU can’t seem to shake, even from well before this phase), but it hit every mark that it needed to.

Okay, that is a lot of out of me, so there is no reason for a big wrap-up. Do I expect you to agree with everything I just said?

I mean… yes. Yes, I do.

But you might not! So let me know what your Ups and Downs for Phase 4 were in the comments!

And until next time… take care!