Marvel Studios Phase 4 Isn't As Bad As You Think It Is

A good general rule to live by, but specifically in terms of entertainment, is that you don't have to like everything. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and there are ways to respectfully discuss them with other fans. However, when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it feels like many people are coming down particularly hard on Phase Four. 

Admittedly, I'm one of /Film's biggest Marvel fans. Alan Silvestri's incredibly emotional score for "Avengers: Endgame" is playing on my record player as I type this, but that still doesn't change the fact that even those who would consider themselves to be True Believers of the House of Ideas have some harsh criticism for the films and TV shows that have been released since the start of the Multiverse Saga. One of the most frequent complaints is that Marvel is "doing the same thing over and over again," while another is that the franchise seems no longer accessible since it requires previous knowledge of the 30 films, 8 shows on Disney+, and a number of one-off/special presentations. Looking at Phase Four specifically, which just came to an end with the release of "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," some in the audience have even expressed feeling as though the story as a whole is weirdly paced and doesn't clearly build to anything.

If these are some of the issues you're personally having with Marvel Studios right now, that's completely fair, but I hope that I can offer another way to look at Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

More than the same old, same old

Movies and TV shows often obey a formula and can be boiled down to a three-act structure allowing the audience to chart the hero's journey in just about every story. Sure, filmmakers can subvert their audience's expectations by throwing a creative or unexpected twist into their version of the formula, but generally speaking, they're using the same parts. You can see this in action whenever you put on a Kevin Smith movie or a Tyler Perry movie or even a Nora Ephron movie. To some degree, you know what you're going to get, and that certainly applies to movies from Marvel Studios. However, saying that the projects in Phase Four are "the same as what came before" is empirically wrong.

Kevin Feige and company have taken a number of chances with the latest chapter of the MCU by exploring uncharted areas of this sprawling world that they've created. With "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," we got a martial arts movie. Before going full sitcom with "She-Hulk," "WandaVision" played with the half-hour format in very unique ways. And though it was her first solo movie, "Black Widow" is technically the franchise's first prequel since we saw the life and death of Natasha Romanoff unfold over the course of several movies.

But if the gripe is that Marvel is doing more origin stories, what else do you expect them to do at the start of a new phase? Just like "Iron Man," "Captain America: The First Avenger," or "Thor" in Phase One, everything we've seen in Phase Four presents the new status quo and lays the groundwork for what's coming next. This is just the first act of the larger story, and just like any other first act, you need to be introduced to the characters.

It's okay to pace yourself

As daunting as the MCU is based on the sheer size of it at this point, the easiest way to look at this franchise is to compare it to its source material — comic books. Marvel Comics releases a plethora of new books every Wednesday at your local comic shop, but rather than buying the entire line of books that week, you're probably only buying the ones you're interested in, right? It's perfectly fine to only pick up "The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl," "Black Panther," and "Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty" while leaving other perfectly good titles like "Immortal X-Men," "Amazing Spider-Man," or "Strange Academy" on the racks. Obviously, I'm sure that Marvel would love for you to consume everything they put out, but there are no hard feelings if you don't. Consume the media that speaks to you.

Marvel's movies and shows work the same way. If you're not interested in the Guardians of the Galaxy, no one is making you watch their movies. You might be meeting them for the first time in "Avengers: Infinity War," but the script gives you enough information about these characters and what they're doing there to keep you up to speed. But if you're interested to learn more afterward, then the rabbit hole is there for you if you want to go down it.

And yes, with the dawn of Disney+, Marvel projects are coming out at a much faster pace and they don't necessarily feel like the special events that they once were when only two movies came out per year. But remember, you're free to watch things at your own pace and no one should judge you for that. Not everyone can do this all day like Captain America and that's okay.

It's about the journey, not the destination

Finally, there's the issue of connectivity. Marvel has been touting since the release of "Iron Man" in 2008 that everything is connected, but many say that Phase Four doesn't show signs of a bigger picture as clearly as previous phases. In fact, there are even some that consider the overarching story of these films and series to be in a holding pattern due to the more isolated, self-contained stories being told. It certainly doesn't help that there isn't a huge crossover event like "The Avengers," "Captain America: Civil War," or "The Defenders" to tie everything together, although, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Prior to the Marvel Comics event "Civil War" that spanned from 2006 to 2007, the company preceded the epic storyline with titles sporting the banner of "Road to Civil War." These were stories that weren't directly connected to what was coming next but set the stage for what was to come. That's what Phase Four feels like to me. The connections to the broader strokes of the MCU are there, but they're more subtle than an Infinity Stone popping up in every movie. Over the course of Phase Four, we saw that Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is assembling a team, the terrorist group known as Ten Rings is under new management, various universes throughout the multiverse are ceasing to be, and the "gods" of our world and beyond are not happy. These are not insignificant occurrences and they will surely have lasting effects, especially since we're on the road to "Avengers: The Kang Dynasty" and "Avengers: Secret Wars." Not every pitstop can be Disney World or Captain Kirk's birthplace. Sometimes you need a gas station in the middle of nowhere to help propel you forward.

The future is now

Ultimately, Marvel Studios' Phase Four mainly focuses on family and legacy. The new characters are steeped in Marvel lore and show how the overall story can and will continue into the future. If you think of these movies and TV shows as a place to live, a franchise can only get so big until it hits the ceiling. But what the House of Ideas is doing is building a whole new house on the same block with Phase Four as the foundation. There's still plenty of construction to go until we get to the ceiling or the next house, so we should take the time to appreciate each story (which works in more ways than one in this metaphor) and not solely focus on the neighborhood being built around us. Even if a project turns out to be a small closet rather than a master bedroom, it's still an integral part of the house that serves a purpose. If you don't need to use the half bathroom in the basement right now, move along to the full bathroom upstairs if you find it more comfortable.

Just like there are multiple ways to enjoy a house, there is a plethora of ways to engage with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some fans will devour anything and everything with that red and white logo on it as soon as they can, others will follow along more passively, and some don't want anything to do with it. No matter where you land on that spectrum, it's possible to be respectful of other fans and be critical of media without punching down or being malicious. It may sound corny, but I just hope that this message goes out across the multiverse and we can all have a good time as we continue to assemble.