The MCU Phase 4 has been a messy but necessary experience

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever And the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has closed – the shortest, longest, and weirdest phase yet in Marvel Studios’ ongoing dynasty-building experiment. It’s the shortest, because pandemic delays meant it ran less than two full years, but it’s the longest because it included seven movies, eight TV series and two one-off specials.

Which is all the more bizarre, because in addition to introducing a mind-boggling multiverse, it came as close as it gets to answering a long-standing criticism of the MCU: the ways in which the studio runs harshly on its signature filmmaking voices. Phase 4 has been retroactively billed as the first chapter in the Multiverse saga, but in reality, Phase 4 was the filmmaker’s phase – and Marvel may not have been prepared for the demands of the project at hand.

On the movie side, at least, this was the MCU’s most eclectic lineup ever. Their new additions included the franchise’s first solo female director, Kate Shortland (Black Widow); Chloe Zhao (eternal), after winning an Academy Award; Experienced studio designer Sam Raimi (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness); and Destin Daniel Creighton (Shang Chi), who comes from a background in human-sized dramas such as In the short term 12. Of the three directors she brought back for the sequel, Taika Waititi (Thor: Love and Thunder) and Ryan Coogler (Wakanda forever) are the two clearest and most recognizable sounds from stage 3.

Photo: Jason Boland/Marvel Studios

By contrast, nearly half of Phase 3 films have been directed by either the Russo brothers, or John Watts, who also helmed Phase 4. Spider-Man: No way home. (Meanwhile, the Rossos conducted a parallel counter-experiment in the post-The Avengers Film industry, I came up with abysmal Cherry And intelligence gray man.)

Phase 4 was the perfect time to experiment more widely with what directors with strong, defined and unique voices might bring to the screen. Suddenly freed from the long march toward the climax of the Infinity Saga, Marvel was able to relax and play with its remaining familiar characters, introduce significant new ones, and do more of both with a steady stream of TV shows. surely, game over It had the feel of the series finale, but it also left this vast world of interconnected characters feeling more open to interpretation than it had in a decade, since the era when the first installments of Iron ManAnd the oxAnd the captain America They all felt very different from each other, before the true formation of the Marvel House Style. Just as Joe Johnston doesn’t share much in common ground with Kenneth Branagh, few attentive viewers could easily mistake Sam Raimi’s eye-catching burlesque and Ryan Coogler’s emotional greatness.

So why have so many fans and critics spent so much time diagnosing how Phase 4 went so wrong?

No doubt some Marvel aficionados will accuse the studio of not exercising enough control at this early stage in the multiverse saga – of letting the main story roam the multiverse, rather than immediately gathering speed and gravitas. Perhaps the idea of ​​highlighting iconic filmmakers is fundamentally incompatible with making a long line of interconnected superhero films.

Black Widow slides her way down the side of a building into falling debris in Marvel Studios' Black Widow movie.

Image: Marvel Studios

Just look at the DC movies released over any similar two-year time period. At times, they seem really eclectic and driven by directors. As is often the case, they seem to be running in four or five different directions at once, with different people playing the same characters in stunningly different films only a few years apart. The multiverse seems to invite this kind of chaos. Shouldn’t Marvel have therefore reined her in, at least enough to give her some sense of focus and coherence?

movies like eternalAnd the Thor: Love and ThunderAnd the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever It certainly seems to make the case for a better compromise between the filmmakers and the studio. Chloe Zhao eternal She continues to try to break away from the superhero origin routine while trying to bring up Zhao’s reflexive poetry Egyptian godsHistorical-fantasy style soap. Zhao doesn’t have a lot of facilities with a CG haze climax, or stagnant laughter punches that are supposed to lighten the mood.

love and thunder He has more confidence in his joke lines – Taika Waititi is one of the few MCU filmmakers who really seems invested in the comic, rather than programming it in required time slots. but with love and thunder, pursues his gags with such an overconfident gusto that he undermines the story and the characters. It’s a prime example of a place where the filmmaker’s voice is allowed to dominate the underlying storytelling, resulting in a movie that doesn’t serve the overall arc of the MCU, or the movie’s characters as they were created.

On the other side of the equation, having to fit into a giant storyline doesn’t particularly serve the needs of the artists whose voices are their primary assets. Wakanda forever It might rank as the MCU’s biggest recent disappointment from an artistic perspective. Coogler brought such depth of feeling and graceful image-making Black Pantherbut the sequel’s need to maintain and anchor a continuous narrative means it’s peppered with exposition, canned conflicts over the futility of revenge, and characters who can’t do anything, because their arcs are being saved for future installments.

A woman (Angela Bassett) sits on a throne with counselors sitting around her with a large window behind her.

Image: Marvel Studios

Still, as is almost everything interesting about it Wakanda forever Looks like Coogler, almost all of the notable Phase 4 elements can be attributed to the specific filmmakers hired for the experiment, rather than the usual Marvel Studios stuff. While Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness I had to reconfigure or fix some of what happened during this WandaVision, it also carried a tantalizing sense that we might already be watching Sam Raimi’s interpretations of Stephen Strange and the Scarlet Witch, even as Raimi himself downplayed his word for it in the film, calling himself an enthusiastic employee. At times, the MCU version of Strange has come across as annoyingly cruel. What’s better than imagining him by temporarily forcing him into a real decaying body? And what better way to cap the endless crossover thrills than with a scene in which Wanda methodically dispatches a row of big-character cameos? Another MCU director may have agreed to do these scenes, but it’s hard to imagine others putting them together with the same vibe that Raimi brings to the table.

Cate Shortland’s stylistic departures Black Widow more gentle. The movie has been largely dismissed as a postscript to the Natasha Romanoff story, though it also set up some characters designed for use in future shows or films. But Shortland lends the film a surprising amount of visual texture, with exciting close-ups, environments that don’t feel as drab as some MCU films, and an appropriate melancholy of human interactions. As far as the story neatly fitting into a particular point in the MCU’s timeline, Black Widow He doesn’t feel particularly beholden to his larger connections. It’s a story about a character that fans already love, but one that doesn’t make much sense to tell in context The Avengers Movie. It’s a shame Marvel Studios apparently didn’t even realize that could Tell this kind of story about Natasha until the character is actually dead.

The MCU all feels more like a relatively standalone spy thriller Black Widowthe slanting and honest idiot of The multiverse of madnessor the saddest parts of Wakanda forever It wouldn’t necessarily be more fan-satisfying or more financially successful than the robot blockbusters that have made the MCU’s reputation. (Although when a movie is deemed a flop simply for raking in $300 million at the domestic box office, the problem is more with the financial model than the movie.) But these are the Phase 4 elements that feel like movies, rather than the tendrils of a franchise.

The biggest hit of the fourth stage, Spider-Man: No way home, offers a kick of nostalgia for seeing three different versions of Spider-Man inhabit the same space on screen. But its title is true: This type of magic trick can only be pulled off once before the audience demands something bigger, better, flashier – but it’s also comfortingly familiar, since fan fiction tends to conjure hopes and dreams based on what they do. We’ve already seen and loved it, especially when contemporary franchises encourage them to think purely in terms of their longtime favorites.

Spider-Mans Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, both looking battered and sloppy, support each other and smile in Tom Holland's Spider-Man in Spider-Man: No Way Home

Photo: Marvel Studios/Columbia Pictures

This tension between series familiarity and individual differences has been a part of the MCU since the beginning. Back in the first days Iron Man The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s long-term planning component of filmmaking was new, and Robert Downey Jr. as the sexy movie star at its center provided a sense of audience familiarity.

Stage 4, however, lacks the self-reflexive team event status The Avengers Movies or the instant freshness of something like the original Iron Man or Black Panther, brought this conflict to a head more clearly than ever. Even without an eclectic roster of acclaimed filmmakers, TV shows similarly moved between trials (WandaVisionAnd the LokiAnd the What if…?) and rest (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier And the hook). Sometimes they strike a nice balance, as in Ms. Marvel, a show that is part of the MCU without being included in it. (Likes Black Panther(It has a whole universe of characters who seem totally uninterested in crossing into the main story to exchange banter with Ant-Man.) Other times, they land awkwardly in the middle — Strong woman It appears to have been made with the intent of subverting the conventions of the MCU with sitcom language and outdated legal dramas, but without the production team actually paying attention to the formats of those shows.

With the sheer volume of Marvel stuff available, it shouldn’t be considered a huge disappointment when some movies or TV shows don’t work for every fan. This is part of why the filmmaker stage is so important. If anything, Phase 4 didn’t go far enough in acclimatizing viewers to the idea that with so many Marvel properties hitting screens, it’s okay for some of them to run into unexpected elements, beyond the kinds of twists and turns that warrant warnings from. spoiler. (Werewolf by night Perhaps he even went so far as to prove that even an MCU-compatible project can have a unique flavor and approach that won’t fall flat for every viewer. More of these kinds of distant projects will likely expand fan expectations, especially with the sheer volume of new material hitting screens.)

As the MCU has become more nimble in its integration of multiple characters, franchises, or even dimensions (remember that awkwardly introduced Hawkeye in the beginning… ox?), the films seemed more technically restricted. That’s how you get a bleak white sky in a Sam Raimi suspense thriller, or a CG-choked ambiguous climax Shang Chia film shot by the cinematographer of Scott Pilgrim versus the world And the Alita: Battle Angel. This diverse group of filmmakers has only managed to bend Marvel’s boundaries collectively so far. It’s possible that the studio didn’t want anyone to go any further. (Surely, no one inclined to do so could bother to take over.) But every game can’t be the end game. Marvel should have at least tried to stretch its boundaries, or die trying. The results show that giving unique filmmakers a voice in the MCU will always be a struggle – but even if some battles are destined to be lost, the battle is still worth fighting.

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