It was an event that had been anticipated ever since Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige laid out Marvel’s Phase Three in 2014, and expectations were only heightened off the clean slate provided by Avengers: Endgame. In our post-Iron Man and Captain America world, our main champions and throughlines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are gone. This leaves Marvel with an opportunity to grow and evolve in new directions. And this weekend, at SDCC, Marvel finally revealed its plans for Phase Four — indicating it will do exactly that.
We’re currently sitting in a period of time that we haven’t really had since 2015, a point in time where there will be no Marvel movie in the next six months. But what follows promises to be an onslaught of content — to quote Doctor Strange — “on levels hitherto undreamt of.” Some of it will be in an entirely new format: series streaming on the upcoming Disney+ product that will more directly tie into or lead into the films than Marvel’s previous television endeavors like Agents of SHIELD or Daredevil. What’s interesting is that, unlike the Netflix or ABC shows Marvel has released so far, these have been officially categorized as within Phase Four, and seem to matter more consequentially to the plot of the existing universe, rather than to complement it. Feige’s announcement provided this list of content (films in bold, Disney+ series left unstyled):
Black Widow (May 1st, 2020)
Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Fall 2020)
The Eternals (November 6th, 2020)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (February 12, 2021)
WandaVision (Spring 2021)
Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (May 7th, 2021)
Loki (Spring 2021)
What If…? (Summer 2021)
Hawkeye (Fall 2021)
Thor: Love and Thunder (November 5th, 2021)
In addition to revealing this schedule, Feige also assured the audience that Marvel would begin developing a Blade movie starring Mahershala Ali, as well as Black Panther 2, Captain Marvel 2, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and projects featuring the Fantastic Four and “Mutants” (read: X-Men) whose release dates have yet to be scheduled.
That list of ten Phase Four properties should be taken with a grain of salt, since Marvel has made adjustments to their plans before – tweaking release dates, canceling Inhumans in favor of Ant-Man and the Wasp (thank goodness), and surprise revealing Captain America: Civil War with Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. taking the stage at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles and revealing Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther. But considering we’re out of Phase Three and this announcement was not made two years in advance of the upcoming phase like the last announcement was, we can expect it to be a fairly good guide for what might come (any intentional surprises aside).
This list gives us some familiar faces: Black Widow, Doctor Strange (whose new film will include Scarlet Witch, and with WandaVision acting as a lead in), Falcon, the Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, and Thor, indicating that there will be strings of continuity, even if these largely serve to give previously underdeveloped characters a bit more time. However, we’re also getting a couple of brand new entries, like the Eternals and Shang-Chi, that initially may make you go “who?” This is what makes this start to feel a lot like Marvel’s Phase Two, where we were met with familiar faces: Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America — the headliners from the last phase — and then saw the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy and the punchline-worthy Ant-Man get tacked on. Marvel is surely hoping to replicate the success and mainstream-ization of Guardians and push the Eternals and Shang-Chi as soon-to-be household names as well. It’s a risk,1Not that they can’t afford a little risk, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made more than twice as much money as the next-closest franchise, and can also boast to have the highest-grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation). but much like Marvel’s success coming off the original Avengers, they can afford to bring their trusting and eager audiences along for the ride – and take a step back if things don’t pan out quite like they had hoped.
Marvel’s going to be packing some star power (Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek are set to star in The Eternals) alongside some relatively new talent (Simu Liu, who is largely known for Canadian television, will play the titular character in Shang-Chi); which is true to how Marvel got so big in the first place: signing on relatively unknown or out-of-demand actors as their leads for multi-movie contracts, while complementing them with Hollywood fame to really focus the spotlight and star power. Unlike the torrent of dread, despair, and tragedy of Marvel’s Phase Three, which handled its heroes coming to blows, half of the population going to dust, and the death of the universe’s most significant protagonist, Phase Four seems primed to begin anew and introduce audiences to those who they did not expect would quickly become their favorite. There’s not quite a lingering threat yet, as there was through Phase Three, and there’s not quite a blank slate as there was with Phase One; instead Marvel has the opportunity to build a universe off the rules of the old, and induct a new generation of audiences to the journey.
This may sound like Marvel’s just trying to repeat what they know already works – but they’re also making bold choices that will turn the tables on how film, television, and the entertainment industry operate. Including major characters and stories in series exclusive to Disney’s streaming service and billing them as critical tie ins is not without its own set of concerns. If audiences don’t partake in Disney+ despite the interconnectedness of the tv show with the films, there’s bound to be some gaps in storytelling that’ll leave audiences wondering how characters got from one place to another. It appears Marvel (and Disney) know this, and have made the importance of these Marvel series a key selling point for Disney+, using them to market the platform and set a stake in the streaming market. This is uncharted territory for both Disney and the greater entertainment world, and Marvel is in the unique position to test it. They are the only institution with so many films built up amongst such a loyal and massive fanbase, while simultaneously entering a new phase in their grand entertainment journey as the previous Infinity Saga of the last three phases has come to a close.
Multimedia aside, Phase Four is continuing on Marvel’s commitments towards a more diverse slate of characters that can truly give each and every viewer someone to relate to. Introducing their first Asian headliner, finally giving Black Widow her own movie, and delving into their first LBGTQ hero in Thor’s next journey are but a taste of how Marvel is willing to grow and broaden its horizons. Marvel has spent eleven years cultivating and curating its style, wit, personality, and following, justifying why it matters in the great fight for audience’s attention. With Phase Four, Marvel seems determined to prove it is not just a vessel for Iron Man, but a teller of many different and diverse stories, and daring enough to tell these stories in a brand new format.