Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which started early in 2021, has finally come to its conclusion with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Unlike the more focused narratives of Phase Three, Phase Four took a more scattershot approach to storytelling and introduced tons of new heroes and concepts in a short amount of time.
So, what is the state of the Marvel Universe after seven films, eight TV shows, and two specials? Does the new Phase give us any hints about where the franchise might be going? And are online critics justified in complaining about issues with the overall direction of the MCU in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame?
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the fourth group of MCU shows and movies and isolate the biggest plot points and characters. From surprising character reveals to new villains who will terrorize the Multiverse, let’s break down the biggest new additions from Phase Four. While we’re at it, we’ll also talk about some of the possible future storylines the studio could pursue in Phase Five and beyond and how Phase Four could be setting up these exciting new plot threads.
The biggest reveal from Avengers: Endgame came from the bonkers time-travel plot that saw the Avengers traveling back in time to various points in the MCU’s history to steal earlier versions of the Infinity Stones from before Thanos destroyed them. The film explained that time travel in the MCU is more like dimensional hopping. The heroes were stepping into parallel realities that were running a bit behind the main continuity.
Several shows and movies in Phase Four have expanded on this time-bending universe-hopping. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness expounded at length on the nature of the multiverse and the threat posed by “incursions,” which are dimensional collisions that occur when someone spends too much time outside of their own reality.
The TV series Loki further expanded on this temporal manipulation by focusing on a “variant” of the titular trickster god. During the events of Endgame, the Avengers fumbled one of the Infinity Stones, which allowed the 2012 version of Loki to slip away from his fate. This drew the attention of the Time Variance Authority, a shadowy organization employed by “He Who Remains” to maintain a specific series of events in the “Sacred Timeline.”
Kang the Conqueror
Loki revealed that “He Who Remains” is really Kang the Conqueror. Or, at least, a particularly peace-loving variant of Kang. In the comics, Kang is a recurring antagonist of the Avengers who uses his mastery of time travel and far-future technology to conquer various timelines. In the MCU, he’s a super-genius who finds a way to travel through different dimensions, allowing him to coordinate with his variants and spread his influence throughout the multiverse.
During the final episode of Loki, Loki’s own variant, Sylvie, killed He Who Remains and broke his grip on the Sacred Timeline. He warned Loki and Sylvie that this would result in chaos, as it would allow all of the Kang variants to run rampant throughout the Multiverse without him keeping them in check.
Kang (well, one of his variants, at least) will be the main antagonist in the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Kang’s shining city (called Chronopolis in the comics) was briefly visible in Ant-Man and the Wasp during the group’s journey through the Quantum Realm, so it stands to reason that the Conqueror has somehow hidden his empire down in the hidden realm under our reality.
Speaking of realms, Phase Four introduced more parallel realities beyond the confines of the time-travel-adjacent multiverse. The Quantum Realm seems to be connected to every reality, as it’s the liminal space that allows the Avengers to pull off their Time Heist in Endgame. It’s far from the only “realm” introduced, thanks to several Phase Four properties.
Black Panther introduced the Ancestral Plane, a metaphysical afterlife where the souls of departed Wakandans can be found. Another afterlife, the Duwat, plays a major role in Moon Knight. In Shang-Chi, much of the film’s action is centered around the realm of Ta Lo, which is based on Chinese mythology and populated by everything from dragons and hundun to guardian lion-dogs and villainous demons.
Another mystical realm was introduced in Ms. Marvel: the Noor Dimension, a realm composed of light and home to the Djinn. All of these mystical realms are distinct from the “universes” depicted in Endgame and Multiverse of Madness, in that they aren’t alternate-reality versions of our world but are instead planes populated by non-human creatures or otherwise mystical representations that aren’t bound by the laws of physics.
While the MCU has had gods playing a major role since the first Thor film in 2011, it’s gotten much more overt about their godliness since Doctor Strange came out and made magic mainstream in the franchise. In Thor: Love and Thunder, the protagonist meets plenty of deities from real-world Earth religions, like Zeus and his crowd of adoring onlookers in Omnipotent City.
However, these gods don’t seem to hold a candle to Marvel’s own oldest beings: the Celestials. These guys have only briefly been featured in the franchise, appearing in a flashback in Guardians of the Galaxy and then playing the role of a major antagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. In the second film, audiences learn that Peter Quill’s father is Ego, a Celestial and living planet who has tried to pass his powers on to his offspring for centuries and only succeeded with Peter.
The Phase Four film Eternals sheds much more light on the Celestials, explaining that they’re as old as the universe and go through a bizarre life cycle. They apparently need to incubate inside of planets before “hatching,” destroying the planet, and killing everyone on its surface. Thankfully, the Eternals manage to stop the Celestial at the core of the Earth from awakening, but they’re quickly snapped up by a vengeful Celestial judge for this crime and whisked off to stand trial for their actions.
The Remaining Avengers
Phase Four also spends a good amount of time dealing with the fallout the remaining Avengers have dealt with in the aftermath of Endgame. Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes saved the world from the Flag Smashers during the events of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and Sam finally accepted his new role as Captain America by the end of that series.
Bruce Banner helped his cousin Jennifer Walters manage her new superpowers throughout She-Hulk. Meanwhile, he’s still working with Captain Marvel and the other remaining Avengers, as we saw them recruit Shang-Chi to their ranks in his debut film’s post-credits scene. Captain Marvel, for her own part, seems to now be somehow entangled with Kamala Khan. That plot point will likely be resolved in the upcoming Captain Marvel sequel, The Marvels.
Phase Four was notable for being the first phase of the MCU to have no tentpole Avengers film to serve as the center point of the narrative. In a broad sense, some have argued that Phase Four had no central narrative at all and that it instead focused on telling a wide variety of stories.
Phase Four had plenty of smaller-scale, more personal journeys. In a lot of ways, this made it very similar to Phase One, which was defined mainly by introducing the Avengers ahead of their inevitable team-up film.
Several of the new heroes, like Kate Bishop, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk are likely to appear in future Avengers titles as the next generation of superheroes. With the existing old guard of characters like the Hulk, Thor, and Captain Marvel ready to pass the torch, it seems likely that Phase Five will include a lot of payoff for the numerous smaller stories in Phase Four.
Still, many critics took issue with the pacing and tone of Phase Four in relation to the perceived cohesiveness of the earlier phases. But was Phase Four really any worse than the MCU content that came before it?
Taste is subjective, so it’s hard to say definitively whether any given movies or shows are better than others. But it’s worth noting that reviewers generally felt mixed-to-positive about most of Marvel’s Phase Four output, and their support was just a bit more muted than in prior phases.
The general consensus seems to be that each individual film or show, taken on its own merits, is fine enough. However, the forward momentum seen in earlier phases, with the action clearly building toward some kind of major conflict, is mainly gone from this phase.
The notable exceptions to this more reserved critical response were, oddly enough, some of the most isolated entries in the phase: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and the horror-themed Werewolf by Night. Clearly, there’s a bit of tension between directors wanting to make MCU content more self-contained and producers wanting to create a sprawling, interconnected web of stories that build off each other. Which direction will Phases Five and Six take? Well, you’ll just have to buy a movie ticket (or twenty) and find out.