At the very end of 2021’s “WandaVision” — the inauguration of Marvel Studios’ post-“Avengers: Endgame” slate of titles, collectively known as Phase Four — we see Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) quietly sipping tea by a lakeside cabin, recovering from the traumatic events of the series finale. As the camera pushes deeper into the cabin, however, we see that Wanda is actually astral projecting as the Scarlet Witch so she can study the Darkhold, a book of corrupting dark magic. Suddenly, she hears the voices of her two lost sons, and the screen cuts to black. At the time the episode streamed in March 2021, we were left to wonder how that could happen and what Wanda would do next.
Fourteen months later, those questions have been resolved in the Marvel Studios feature film “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”: Wanda heard variants of her boys from somewhere within the multiverse, and it causes her to break bad in pursuit of a way to get back to them.
This kind of extended — and, for some, controversial — character evolution has been the promise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inception. It’s provided audiences with the emotional rewards of longform storytelling previously restricted to television, and Disney with the financial rewards of a franchise capable of pumping out two to three blockbuster movies a year, raking in over $22 billion in global box office grosses in the process.
But while Marvel has dramatically increased its output for Phase Four, releasing 11 Disney+ series and theatrical features in a little less than 18 months, that sense of a larger cohesive narrative woven through each title has been missing. Instead of the incremental escalation of the Infinity Saga, there is no sense yet of where Phase Four is heading — if, indeed, it is heading in any single direction.
To be sure, the multiverse has played a critical role in several Phase Four titles, starting with the Disney+ series “Loki,” which concluded with a single timeline fracturing into an infinite number of alternate realities. That immediately fed into the animated Disney+ series “What If…?” as well as set the stage for the multiversal mayhem in the features “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Multiverse of Madness.”
So far, that’s all its been: Highly entertaining mayhem. And even setting aside that Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) was already learning about the multiverse five years before “Loki” in his 2016 feature debut, the multiverse hasn’t played a role whatsoever in any of the other Phase Four titles.
Instead, the MCU has conjured up 10 separate narrative threads with no clear relationship to each other, only two of which have thus far perpetuated through other titles. The first: Wanda’s aforementioned journey between “WandaVision” and “Multiverse of Madness.” The second: Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) getting marching orders at the end of “Black Widow” to kill Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), which she abandons over the course of “Hawkeye” as she and Clint share their grief over the death of Natasha Romanoff.
As for the rest? (Deep breath!)
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” ends with several antagonists — Wyatt Russell’s John Walker, Emily VanCamp’s Sharon Carter and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Valentina Allegra de Fontaine — still alive and vaguely ensconced within the U.S. government with no obvious purpose beyond free-floating malfeasance. Valentina is the one who gives Yelena the order to kill Clint in “Black Widow,” but we still don’t know who Valentina is working for, or what she means to accomplish.
“Loki” ends with the emergence, off-screen, of Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), a figure with Thanos-sized ambitions to rule as much of the multiverse as he can. But we won’t meet him until “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” which is currently set to open in Feb. 2023. (The death of Kang’s variant, He Who Remains, is what causes the multiverse to spring forth in the first place.)
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” ends with Wong (Benedict Wong) telling Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) that those titular rings are alien and even more ancient than he’s known — and, what’s more, they are calling out to… something… in the cosmos.
“Eternals” ends with a god-like Celestial turning to stone in the Indian Ocean, which causes another Celestial, Arishem (David Kaye), to appear just outside of the Earth and announce that he’s placed the entire planet on trial for its very existence. Does anyone on Earth other than the Eternals know about this trial? Are any of the Avengers curious about the massive stone figure that’s abruptly popped out of the sea? Unclear! (Oh, and Harry Styles — Harry Styles! — materializes as Thanos’ hot brother, Starfox.)
“Hawkeye” ends with the reappearance of Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio), the lead villain of Netflix’s Marvel series “Daredevil.” Fisk has a long history with Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox), who is getting her own Disney+ spinoff series, “Echo,” but we don’t know yet if Fisk will appear on that show, let alone Daredevil (Charlie Cox), who showed up for a fun scene in “No Way Home.” Will any of that interrelate with any other MCU titles? Maybe. Maybe not.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” ends with Strange erasing all memory of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker from the multiverse but not memory of Spider-Man, as Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) shows up inside the MCU just long enough to leave behind a drop of Venom’s alien symbiote goo.
“Moon Knight,” the most recent Disney+ series, ends with no clear tie to the MCU whatsoever beyond a passing reference in Episode 3 to Madripoor, the thieves city introduced in “Falcon and Winter Soldier.” In fact, the show even suggests that Oscar Isaac’s title superhero could actually be a concoction of his own fractured mind. Probably not? Reply hazy, ask again later.
“Multiverse of Madness” ends with Clea, a character we’ve never met before played by Charlize Theron — Charlize Theron! — appearing before Strange on a New York City street, tearing open a portal to the Dark Dimension, and convincing him to join her in diving inside it.
And then there are the rest of the MCU titles due this year and next — “Ms. Marvel” and “Thor: Love & Thunder” first among them in June and July — which could introduce even more new dangling plot threads into Phase Four. “Ms. Marvel” hero Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) will show up in “The Marvels” in July 2023, while the Guardians of the Galaxy play a role in “Thor: Love & Thunder.”
Compare all of that to how the MCU marshaled the Infinity Saga: By the sixth movie, 2012’s “The Avengers,” we’d met Thanos. By the tenth, 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” we first heard the words “Infinity Stones” and understood fully that Thanos was bent on collecting all six of them. Every subsequent film inched that larger story forward in small or major ways, as we realized at least some of the Infinity Stones had been hiding in plain sight starting with 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Each Phase culminated with an “Avengers” movie (or two), and each MCU film, while an experience (more or less) onto itself, had a cogent sense of forward momentum and overall narrative purpose. Thanos wants those stones, which would be cataclysmically bad — our heroes are going to have to stop him.
Eleven titles into Phase Four, there are several potential Big Bads — Kang, Valentina, Arishem, Kingpin, even the Dark Dimension’s overlord Dormammu — lurking in the periphery. But Marvel Studios has yet to let on whether there even is a grand design to tie all of these strands together.
That could be a feature, not a bug. With the explosion of MCU content on Disney+, there may be simply too many titles to hold together into one consolidated storyline, so Marvel isn’t going to try. The introduction of the multiverse even underlines that issue: If there are an infinite number of Wandas and Stranges and Peter Parkers living out their own stories, how could audiences, or storytellers, possibly keep track of them all?
So far, this issue hasn’t harmed Marvel’s bottom line. To date, its features have been just about the only reliable box office draw during the pandemic, grossing over $3.6 billion worldwide; and its Disney+ shows have all been popular hits (at least, as best can be measured). Nevertheless, at least some of that success has drafted off of the astronomic audience goodwill built up by the Infinity Saga, and on the expectation that investing time and money into each MCU title will pay off with an “Avengers”-style mega-movie further down the line.
Marvel Studios, however, has yet to announce an “Avengers” movie. The only person who knows for certain if or when that would happen is Marvel’s chief creative officer Kevin Feige. But if past precedent is any indication, the earliest one could arrive would be the Marvel film dated for May 3, 2024, which will likely be announced during San Diego Comic-Con in July or the D23 Expo in September.
There is one conceivable thread, though, that could draw together all of Phase Four: The Young Avengers. Keen MCU observers have noticed that several youthful superheroes — or characters who become superheroes in the Marvel comics — have been introduced over the last year and a half, including America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) in “Multiverse of Madness,” Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) in “Hawkeye,” Kid Loki (Jack Veal) in “Loki,” Eli Bradley (Elijah Richardson) in “Falcon and Winter Soldier,” Billy Maximoff (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy Maximoff (Jett Klyne) in “WandaVision,” and, next year, Cassie Lang (Kathryn Newton) in “Quantumania.”
Together, these characters make up the Young Avengers in the comics. One of their enemies — and, oddly enough, members — is Kang the Conqueror.
So that is one possibility for where Phase Four is heading. It still doesn’t account for what’s going on with Arishem’s trial, Valentina’s scheming, Shang-Chi’s rings, Venom’s goo, Kingpin’s machinations or Clea’s Dark Dimension. But perhaps Feige knows that he needs Marvel’s youth to build the MCU’s future.