Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
It’s only right that Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ends on a celebratory note.
In the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, released over the weekend, the MCU heroes take a break from saving the world to kidnap Kevin Bacon as a gift for Star-Lord. Like the rest of Phase 4, the resulting story is equal parts silly and sweet – content devoid of risks exploring the inner lives of its characters rather than moving the story forward in any meaningful way.
It’s symbolic of the often-cracked Phase 4, which at times has seemed like a collective hangover of the MCU. Coming off the top of Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has basically decided to stop and catch its breath, take stock of its characters, and start laying the groundwork for future stories. This was what some anime fans would describe as a filler arc – the kind of story a long-running show like One Piece might have while waiting for the manga to catch up with the series.
MCU filler bracket
Shonen anime has dealt with these kinds of gaps in a variety of ways over the years, often creating entirely new heroes, villains, and romance arcs in an effort to fill the time. The stakes of the filler arc are self-contained, with few opportunities for active character development. Bleach fans, for example, will remember the Shusuke Amagai arc, which used a dose of subtle humor to show the daily life of a team under a new captain. At their best, they can deepen current themes and lay the groundwork for future conflicts, but they can also leave fans wanting to fast-forward to the next major plot beat.
This effectively describes Phase 4, which has spent the better part of two years seeing just how deep the MCU rabbit hole goes. As the first phase to include Disney Plus’ various Marvel shows alongside its films, Phase 4 has used the opportunity for feature-length storytelling to shape characters like Hawkeye and Loki. I retired old characters And the I introduced new, all while playing with old concepts like heel turn and origin story. In many ways, making the Marvel Cinematic Universe feel like a Universe than ever before, giving previously overlooked characters a chance to shine.
No character benefits from this dynamic more than Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, who went from constantly ignored bit-player to hugely popular hero (and anti-hero) thanks to the success of WandaVision. Given some space from the MCU’s strong Avengers team, Olsen and co-star Paul Bettany finally get a chance to revive Wanda and Vision’s star-crossed story, resulting in a show so popular that it’s managed to spawn at least one spin-off, with other rumours. On the road.
Written by IGN contributor Carlos Morales, who wrote Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the rise of Wanda Maximoff was emblematic of how Phase 4 encourages viewers to root for its villains as much as its heroes.
If WandaVision is about Wanda going through a phase of grief denial, then Multiverse of Madness is unquestionably about her working through her anger. Strange might think why he isn’t happy despite having so much power as one of the most skilled wizards on Earth, but that’s in Mostly to provide it with texture so it can serve as a constant point of reference for the audience amid Wanda’s more visceral, emotional journey. Said journey takes into account both the tragic and horrific circumstances Wanda was forced to endure in the franchise while not excluding the brutally violent choices she made in the aftermath.”
Phase 4’s more introspective approach has had the effect of giving its stories more emotional heft than in the past, which could raise the stakes for future conflicts. But it also had a downside, which made some fans feel as though the MCU had become directionless, mostly choosing to spin its wheels at the expense of the larger plot. Even Spider-Man: No Way Home – arguably the most successful movie of the bunch – was basically just an homage to Sony’s Spider-Man movies.
Shortly after the release of Thor: Love and Thunder, which was perhaps the biggest disappointment this side of Eternals, contributor T. Macdougal remarked, “After 55 hours of Phase 4, where exactly are we? That’s more than two Infinity Sagas Combined, but it’s going to be very difficult to define the overarching story in this new Marvel era. Were there good and even great moments in those 55 hours? surely! But the MCU has always been about the bigger story of this universe, and it’s definitely starting to feel like there isn’t one right now.”
In the end, there wasn’t. At San Diego Comic-Con, Kevin Feige took the stage to announce that Phase 4 will end with Wakanda Forever and Phases 5 and 6 will include Secret Wars and Kang the Conqueror. A month after that, Marvel released She-Hulk, which was at once a workplace comedy and fourth-wall-breaking commentary meta with one of the strangest endings in MCU history. It concluded with the festive (and unexpectedly sentimental) Wakanda Forever and Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special – a mixture of the bleak and the silly that effectively sums up Phase 4.
Some of this was definitely by design. Speaking of his tendency to follow strong bow loops with a series of breath loops, Babylon 5 viewer was written by Joe Michael StraczynskiYou can’t – you can’t – maintain that kind of intensity you have [a finale] throughout the season. You need some light moments like contrast or people are going to start sticking their heads in ovens all over the country.”
However, in hindsight, it was shocking how long that calm had lasted. After taking a break for the entirety of 2020 — an unfathomably long time in retrospect — we were guaranteed to put together what amounted to a series of short, unconnected stories. In the great tradition of a filler arc, it really felt like Feige and company were just trying to buy time until the next big story could begin. All that was missing was a beach ring.
Every confirmed mutant in the MCU (so far)
An interesting exploration of storytelling prospects in the MCU
But whatever you feel about its scope and pace, Phase 4 was an exciting exploration of the MCU’s storytelling prospects. From Loki’s multiverse-spanning adventures with TVA to seasonal specials like Werewolf by Night, it’s found new ways to push the boundaries of superhero storytelling on the big and small screen. So it’s only right that it ends with Hymns of Rock and Roll featuring Kevin Bacon, and the most poignant moment is the quiet reveal between Mantis and Peter Quill.
With the fifth stage approaching, there will be more adventures soon. But with Phase 4, the MCU had to dance.
Kat Bailey is a senior news editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Do you have advice? Send her a direct message at the_katbot.
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