Phase Four of Kevin Feige’s grand Marvel Cinematic Universe ended not with a bang, but with a Bacon. The actor was at the centre of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Holiday Special (2022), which saw the titular heroes try and kidnap the Eighties’ icon as part of a twinkly plot to revive some holiday spirit in leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt).
It was fun, lighthearted, and most importantly, focused — a highlight of a phase which has often been preoccupied with setting up new heroes and examining old favorites in the aftermath of the devastating events of Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Here, we take a look at this phase and rank everything in it — from movies to the Disney+ TV shows — to work out the highlights and lowlights of this ongoing superhero spectacular.
The MCU Phase Four
What Is Phase Four of the MCU?
The MCU is now so gigantic that it has to divided into ‘Phases’. Bookended by landmark events in the ongoing Marvel Studios’ superhero story, they help determine story arcs and character journeys much the same as a comic book event will ripple and take place across multiple titles in any given year of a comic book’s run.
Phase Four of the MCU started with Black Widow (2021) and ended with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022), largely covering the immediate aftermath of Endgame, Thanos’ ‘blipping’ of half the universe, and their subsequent return thanks to Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) sacrifice at the climax of that movie.
What Movies Are Included?
Marvel Studios’ Phase Four cinematic work has been split between debuting new heroes, such as Shang Chi (Simu Liu) and the Eternals, and continuing the journey of veteran characters in new ways. Black Widow (2021), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), Eternals (2021), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) are all included.
What TV Shows Are Included?
Phase Four was also responsible for Marvel Studios’ television debut on streaming platform Disney+. Despite having previously forayed into television with the likes of Agent Carter (2015) and Agents of Shield (2013), Phase Four is really the first time the television output has been truly integrated with the cinematic, building upon and providing key backstory to major developments in the big screen world.
WandaVision (2021), The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021), Loki (2021), What If…? (2021), Hawkeye (2021), Moon Knight (2022), Ms. Marvel (2022) and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022) are all included. The Guardians of the Galaxy: Holiday Special and Werewolf by Night (2022) also count among the TV output as their Marvel Studios’ Special Presentations.
We Rank The Entirety of Phase Four, From WandaVision to Wakanda Forever
So now we know what’s included in Phase Four, how would we go about ranking it? Let’s find out…
How Would We Rank Phase Four?
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Starting at the bottom is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Building on the fan-favorite relationship between Antony Mackie’s Falcon and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky, the show was Marvel Studios’ second on the Disney+ platform and saw the pair face off against activist terrorists the Flag Smashers and eventually, Captain America wannabe U.S Agent (Wyatt Russell).
But rumors that the plot was altered at the last minute, due to the proximity to the pandemic and potential storylines hitting a little too close to home with chemical warfare, were certainly reflected in the muddy storytelling. The chemistry seen between the pair in Captain America: Civil War (2016) is given short shrift among a plot which veers between campy espionage — Agent 17 (Emily Van Kamp) vamping around the lawless metropolis of Madripoor — and stifled attempts at imagining the post-blip world, a thread which deserved more of a showcase than it got here.
There are highlights: despite everything, getting more of the titular pair is still a good thing, and the way it handles Mackie’s Sam Wilson taking on the mantle of Captain America is nicely done. It also sees the debut of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Valentina Allegra De Fontaine, a new pillar around which various MCU titles are being built. But this is the weakest of their Phase Four output.
Thor: Love and Thunder
Taika Waititi’s return to the Thor universe covers what happens when Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) develops terminal cancer, and inherits the mantle of the Mighty Thor. Ostensibly it also covers the aftermath of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) deciding to leave behind his godly status and instead take up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, but this is dealt with swiftly towards the start of the movie.
The plus-size Thor seen during the latter half of Endgame is swiftly reverted to his usual physique with a montage; and the rest of the story deals with the jarring juxtaposition of Foster’s cancer storyline against Waititi’s humor. Thor: Ragnarok (2017) was an incredible exercise in redefining the Thor character into a comedy-first hero, pitting him against the malevolent powerhouse of a performance Cate Blanchett put in as Hela.
In this instalment, Christian Bale joins the cast, giving a committed and standout turn as Gorr the God Butcher. The formula doesn’t quite hit the same here though: the self-awareness remains, but a pair of relentless screaming goats, and Waititi’s commitment to undercutting most dramatic scenes with goofball or archly ironic humor undermine what could have been an affecting return to the big screen for the relationship between Thor and his long-time love Jane. Portman gets the chance to kick butt, but even she feels a little lost, a character adrift in a movie that similarly doesn’t quite know what it should be.
What If…? is Marvel’s animated debut, taking stories from the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) and inspired by the comic series of the same name. It presents a series of alternate reality scenarios — essentially glimpses into the multiverse, a theme which will prove important in the MCU’s future — as short animated features.
The animation style proved divisive, a cel-shaded digital look which holds the potential to age rather quickly. But the stories are a nice variety, ranging from a Marvel Zombies tale to one which posits what could happen if Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) had lost his mind in pursuit of saving a lost love. This latter tale is easily the standout, with some others being more throwaway (here’s looking at you, the ‘What if they were an only child’ story). But they’re fun and clearly will have some resonance with the rest of the MCU, with Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) and the aforementioned Strange Supreme making appearances in the Multiverse of Madness.
Moon Knight boasts a stacked cast with Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke at the center of the Egyptian superhero shenanigans. Isaac’s natural charisma carries him through a complex character — or characters, seeing as he is playing someone with Disassociative Identity Disorder, so gets to have a lot of fun dipping into different accents and body language as the show unfolds.
Although it does feel as though you get very little of the Moon Knight himself, a character which mostly seems to act in sequences unseen, with the audience usually rejoining in the aftermath of a fight. The Egyptian iconography and mythology is a rich place for the MCU to mine, adding the diverse range of gods to the established pantheons we’ve seen in Asgard and beyond.
One episode seems to play direct homage to the excellence of The Mummy (1999) with an escape sequence in a tomb and undead corpses hunting down our heroes. But as with some other Phase Four projects, things become drudgingly overcomplicated and somehow end in another large-scale CGI finale. It leaves things in a spot for more adventures, no doubt establishing Moon Knight as an entity to crop up in future titles. There’s no denying the excellence of the character design, and the diverse representation on offer — Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy puts in a great turn as Layla El-Faouly, the Scarlet Spider — is another positive impact Phase Four has had on the MCU as a whole.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
From Moon Knight to another hero’s debut. Simu Liu takes the title role in this movie, which brings martial artist Shang Chi to the table. The film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, rightly takes it’s lead from Chinese action cinema when it comes to some of the stunning elevated martial arts battles we see on screen. Liu is a charismatic lead, and he’s joined by the natural chaos of Awkwafina, Academy Award nominee Michelle Yeoh, legendary actor Tony Leung as main villain Xu Wenwu, and the welcome return of Ben Kingsley’s charismatic conman, Trevor Slattery.
Things somewhat inevitably devolve into the usual CGI blur, but there are some standout moments here. The film’s initial setting of San Francisco is put to use in a fun fight onboard a bus, and later on, a vivid fantasy world is conjured inspired by creatures from Chinese mythology. The problems on show here are those seen in the wider MCU: a tendency to go bigger for a finale and move further into visual fx, an unusual choice for a hero who could realistically be just as thrilling in hand-to-hand combat.
Black Widow, in a story fitting of the quiet determination and stoicness of the character, marked the MCU’s return to the big screen after global lockdowns and delays for the COVID-19 pandemic. It opened Phase Four, but flashed back to a key time in the earlier Marvel story, when Black Widow disappeared post-Civil War and discovered more about Natasha Romanoff’s roots in Mother Russia.
Positioning the movie first was almost a tease for what was to come. Before moving forward, the MCU made us gaze in the rear view mirror, arguably giving Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) the send-off and screen time she deserved more of in Endgame. It delivered on spy antics and provided fun additions to the world in the form of Rachel Weisz and David Harbour’s aged-out Russian agents. Could we have done without Ray Winstone doing… Ray Winstone as the big villain? And maybe one less flying airship in a finale? Yes, probably, to both. But it still gave us an electric opener, a tense, gloriously shot escape from suburbia, alongside Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, and for that, we’ll say take one last bite from this spider.
If Phase Four debuted a lot of new heroes, it debuted ten of them here. The Eternals was epic in scope and scale, stacking a cast with Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan and even a surprise appearance from Harry Styles for its story of intergalactic deities and century-spanning conflicts. Directed by Academy Award winner Chloe Zhao, it carries her distinctive visual style of naturally lit visuals and a hefty runtime.
It’s an ambitious departure for Marvel Studios, a gesture in the direction of giving some of it’s directors slightly more auteurship over their projects, and while it is certainly not for everyone, it’s an admirable attempt at bringing an unusual visual flavor and a impactful, diverse cast to the big screen.
Everyone’s favorite god of mischief made his return in this Disney+ show. Tom Hiddleston lead, joined by Owen Wilson’s Mobius M Mobius for a mindbending trip into the Time Variance Authority (TVA). Dealing directly with the timelines which create the wider multiverse, Loki explored his destiny, found alternate versions of himself — including the anarchic Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) — and ultimately played one of the most important roles in setting up where the MCU goes next.
The reveal of He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors), a variant of future big bad Kang, was a big commitment from the studio, who leaned into Majors’ charisma and the magnitude of the appearance by dedicating a great portion of the finale to one long monologue from the character. A lot of the show was dedicated to attempting to unspool the concept of the splitting timelines, memory and fate, sometimes to the point of further confusion. But a distinctive visual palette, making use of a retro aesthetic (which gave us the excellent animated Ms Minutes, played by voice actress extraordinaire Tara Strong) and having fun referencing classic Loki moments from the pages of the comics, made for a fitting tribute to this much-loved villain.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Wakanda Forever might be the outright success of it’s predecessor Black Panther (2018) — it’s slightly too stuffed with future exposition and not-fully-baked storylines for that — but for the way it handles grief and the loss of star Chadwick Boseman, it deserves this spot higher up the list. The parts of the movie which deal with the different ways the Wakandan royal family handle the grief of their immense loss are some of the MCU’s most beautiful, from a celebratory funeral procession to a mother and daughter grieving by the water.
And that water plays a large part too, introducing Namor (Tenoch Huerta), another standout adversary for our heroes and leader of his underwater kingdom. The production design for the fictional kingdoms both above and below ground continues to impress: there’s intricate, clever detailing which gives each deeper, rich cultural history than an hour of exposition could.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
I’m sure me not putting No Way Home at the top of this list is going to cause some stirs, but here me out: at points, this movie isn’t the prettiest to look at. Sure, we’re in a sandbox of some of Spider-Man’s most iconic iterations and nemeses, but did it really need to take place in so many uninspiring environments?
Luckily, those self-same icons are also the film’s saving grace. Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire returning to save the day might have been one of the MCU’s worst kept secrets, but to see them alongside some of the all-time big villain performances — here’s looking at you, Willem Defoe and Alfred Molina — is a thrill. And Tom Holland himself remains a delight in the role, a sprightly, but also weathered take on the hero who joined the Avengers in high school and is forging his own path with what it means to save the world.
The Guardians of the Galaxy: Holiday Special
The Guardians returned in this Holiday Special, part of the Special Presentation series of not-quite-shows, not-quite-movies that land straight on Disney+. It sees them try to save Quill’s Christmas and sends Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) on an adventure in Los Angeles. The magic of the Guardians movies is in the characters, and this, more than anything, is a character showcase. The unlikely pair work great and get much more of a chance to shine outside of their counterparts, who are mostly sidelined for this festive romp. But we do get a chance to become acquainted with the newest member of the team, Cosmo (Maria Bakalova) who seems to be a comedic canine delight. It’s frothy, but not entirely throwaway, with the reveal that Mantis knows she is Quill’s half-sister.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law
Much has been made of this show’s VFX and yes, there are definitely times it can be criticized: but let’s lay off the under-pressure digital artists. Instead, focusing on the merits of She-Hulk, we get a fun sitcom take on the MCU, taking inspiration from Ally McBeal and lighter fare to give us a totally different angle on what it’s like living in the world of Marvel (and being related to one of it’s biggest, angriest heroes).
There’s been plenty of uproar against it, mainly, I think, because it doesn’t stick to the regular template. It neatly side-steps the Marvel formula of big CG finale for one that takes a wry glance at the MCU machine as a whole. The stories are more romantic or emotional than the usual, and the case-of-the-week format means there’s not really a grand overarching plot. But that’s no bad thing, giving it the chance to neatly sidestep the boggy mess that exposition sometimes creates. It also has a charismatic central performance in Tatiana Maslany, who makes Jennifer Walters an immediately likeable, fourth-wall breaking foil for some of the MCU’s worst instincts.
Hawkeye steps aside from the more superpowered antics and instead embraces a more grounded — but no less fun — version of the MCU. Following Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton on one particularly eventful trip to New York City, it builds further on the world and introduces Kate Bishop (the excellent Hailee Steinfeld), continuing their sly formation of the Young Avengers’ key players. The Christmas setting gives everything a rosy glow, and there’s even a lovable dog sidekick to get invested in. Some of the action is also stunning, one car chase in particular an eye-catching exercise in how to turn a bow and trick arrows into a real spectacle.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Yes, this is my highest pick of the movie output this phase. I might be biased for being a bit of a horror and Sam Raimi fan — but in the moments the director is given leave to let rip, this movie gives it both sling rings. From the screeching demons to a musical note fight, let go and embrace the madness. Star Benedict Cumberbatch has fun but it’s Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch who is the real star, vamping her way through the film and even at one point, metamorphizing into a relentless zombie in the pursuit of her goals. It suffers from some ropey CGI at times — although recently, what Marvel project doesn’t? — but for sheer originality and making something a little different to the Marvel norm, it wins my vote.
Who could have predicted that my top three would all be Disney+ outputs? Well, considering the quality of them, absolutely me. Ms. Marvel tells the tale of Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), Avengers and Carol Danvers super fan, who find herself imbued with heroic abilities and at the center of a interdimensional conflict which has roots stretching all the way back into the Partition. Vellani is an instant favorite, and the show starts strong with layering scenes with graphics and music evocative of her Gen-Z generation. That stuff gradually eases off, but her likeability remains.
It carries the audience through a story bold enough to challenge viewers to learn more about a culture not their own and hopefully, entice them to learn more about. It stays resolutely a high-school drama, even when the events and action go big, and is another example of the MCU becoming big enough to incorporate all sorts of genres and visions — something it needs to do to prevent from becoming stale. If Ms. Marvel is anything to go by, there’s promising stuff to come — and I can’t wait to see Kamala on the big screen herself in The Marvels (2023).
This phase started incredibly strong with WandaVision, perhaps the clearest… vision of what Marvel could achieve on the small screen. Following Wanda and Vision’s life in a pseudo-suburbia, it made inventive use of the episodic format to take the audience on a journey through sitcom history, gradually revealing a conspiracy plot that excited fans online and made for essential weekly viewing. The joy of WandaVision is unravelling it’s secrets, but another was seeing the stars given such a diverse sandbox to play in. We can’t not mention Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn), a villain so iconic she gets her own theme song.
WandaVision was a great example of how to turn the episodic format into something special: a limited series that captured the imagination and also took the characters and world into exciting new places. It was unmissable television.
Werewolf by Night
In the top spot is this Special Presentation, a (mostly) black-and-white hour long trip into a world of iconic monsters and those who hunt them. Gael Garcia Bernal’s Jack Russell is summoned to a remote estate to take part in a hunting competition, to win the leadership of a global group of monster hunters. Along the way, he encounters Harriet Sansom Harris’ grand dame, heading up proceedings, and Laura Donnelly’s femme fatale Elsa, as well as a host of other creative characters.
Committing entirely to the Universal Monsters style bit, things are stylishly directed by regular Marvel composer Michael Giacchino, who has a lot of fun embracing the opportunity to showcase how vast the Marvel world is and the wild and wonderful monsters which inhabit it. More than anything, it entertains, delivering chills and thrills over it’s pacey runtime and serving them all up with a level of consideration to visual flair that isn’t always on show. It’s campy fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, something superhero cinema could remember a little more now that they have become mainstays of the local multiplex. But more than anything, Werewolf By Night showcases the hope that directors and the wider MCU could feel more free to go in wilder directions as the multiverse expands. Hopefully the audience dares to join them.