SPOILER ALERT: This story mentions a few plot developments for projects in Marvel Studios’ Phase Four.
To get a sense of just how much Marvel Studios content there has been in the past two years, consider that almost every month between January 2021 and November 2022 has included a new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. During that period, the superhero storytelling behemoth debuted 18 productions across feature films, streaming series and special presentations, unfurling what it has deemed Phase Four: a superabundance of content that some fans have found exhilarating, but many others found exhausting.
It’s easy to understand why: From 2008 to 2019, Marvel famously trained hardcore fans and casual viewers alike to think of its feature films as part of a single, interconnected reality. In order to truly appreciate the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you had to consume all of it; the climax of the 23-title Infinity Saga, 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” paid off that unprecedented commitment to the tune of $2.8 billion.
That’s easy enough of an undertaking when it’s just two to three movies per year. But following “Endgame,” at the height of the pandemic, Marvel appeared to be demanding that its fans essentially never stop watching its content. “WandaVision” led into “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” which led into “Loki,” and then “Black Widow,” and then “What If…?,” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and “Eternals,” and “Hawkeye,” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” That was just in 2021. People have lives!
By the time “Moon Knight” debuted in the spring of 2022, many Marvel observers began to notice that the multiversal common thread connecting this constant procession of Marvel titles was considerably less substantial than the constantly reinforced über-narrative of the Infinity Saga. The post-credits scenes for “Eternals,” “Moon Knight,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” all introduced brand new characters within those individual franchises, rather than tease out how those franchises connected with the rest of the Cinematic Universe. Even when there was a connection — e.g. Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff shifting from the grief-stricken hero of “WandaVision” to the wrathful villain of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” — many felt like the dots were either barely connecting or outright contradicting each other.
The vibes were so wildly off that Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige took to the stage at San Diego Comic-Con last July to assure fans that they were, in fact, creating a brand new central storyline that he christened the Multiverse Saga. There will be monumental conclusion, namely “Avengers: The Kang Dynasty” in 2025 and “Avengers: Secret Wars” in 2026.
However, now that Phase Four has concluded with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” — notably not a team-up “Avengers” movie or anything close to it — it’s clear that Marvel Studios has not actually expected its fans to consume every last second of its output. Which is to say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming even more like the Marvel comic books: An ever-sprawling storytelling confederation with distinctive entry points for different fans, punctuated with occasional omnibus titles that try to bind everything together. Prefer dark character studies that showcase high-wire acting? Take in Oscar Isaac splitting his personality on “Moon Knight.” Pine for lushly choreographed martial arts spectaculars? Soak up Simu Liu and Michelle Yeoh kicking ass in “Shang-Chi.” Love legal comedies? Watch Tatiana Maslany twerk with Megan Thee Stallion on “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.”
Superfans will always watch it all, of course. But while “She-Hulk” contains a profusion of winking references to the MCU — up to and including the finale, where Maslany’s She-Hulk breaks the fourth wall and meets with a sentient robot stand-in for Feige — audiences don’t have to have seen “Thor: Love and Thunder” or “Hawkeye” or “Eternals” or “Black Widow” or “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” or “WandaVision” to savor the show’s fizzy, meta comedy. “Shang-Chi” does include a call back to 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk” — about as deep a cut as you can get in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — but that movie spins its own elaborate mythology that requires zero prior knowledge to enjoy. And you could have never watched a solitary second of any Marvel movie and still have understood everything happening in “Moon Knight.”
It’s right there in the plot of “Loki”: What had been a single, unified timeline is, by the end of Season 1, shattered into an infinitely branching multiverse of possibility that no one could possibly understand in its totality. Yes, the accountants at Disney would much rather have everyone watch everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but whether by design, happenstance, or a combination of both, Marvel Studios has used Phase Four to gently suggest that its fans don’t need to be completionists anymore, or anything close to it.