Phase 4 shows the MCU is running on empty

No, I’m not being paid by Warner Bros. or DC to write this.

Honestly, for the longest time I rejected this notion. Marvel Studios had a really good track record here at this site. Aside from “Thor: The Dark World,” most entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe received a 3 out of 5 or higher from yours truly.

For those who may not know, that’s enough to get a “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes. That was true right up through the summer of 2019.

Let’s go back about five years. Marvel had released “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Captain Marvel,” “Avengers Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” A pretty damn good streak for the studio, building off an already solid track record.

Not only were many of those films fine action pictures with their own merit, they were all clearly building up to something. That something was “Avengers: Endgame.”

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The Battle of Earth in “Avengers: Endgame.”

Despite it feeling a bit messy at times, I found “Endgame” to still be a good film and gave it a 4 out of 5. At the time, I found it, and Spidey’s little adventure after, to be a fine conclusion to that era. Today, I maybe think it should have been an end to the whole thing.

I thought Marvel was going to be able to take things in an interesting, new direction. Instead, the very large infrastructure Marvel has built has become sort of a freeway without any exits.

Warning Signs

In the days of the Infinity Saga, I would stick around with many other moviegoers during the credits to see the stinger scene tacked on at the end.

After sitting through the credits of “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” I was greeted to a sequence where it turns out Nick Fury and Maria Hill were actually the aliens featured in “Captain Marvel.”

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The post credit scene in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

We then find out that Nick Fury is on some sort of ship in the middle of space preparing for a new mission. I get that these are used to tease future movies, but it didn’t sit right with me that they put this on a movie that was meant to be a little epilogue after “Endgame.”

What was worse, though, were the implications. The character Nick Fury, who was introduced in 2008, was someone audiences could sort of trust, and it was interesting seeing him and Hill work together with a young hero like Spider-Man.

Then it turns out it wasn’t Fury the whole time. The movie doesn’t go into how long this has been going on, maybe Fury was actually an alien at Iron Man’s funeral, too.

The problem with this is the character of Nick Fury we knew and got to experience in this film turned out not to be that person at all. And why? For a simple Marvel tease to continue building the MCU system.

This continued in Marvel’s venture into Disney+ shows, too. While I liked “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” for its buddy cop-like style and its exploration of racial issues, there were some troubling aspects, too.

The show inserts many things that strip away from established characters for what seems like a set-up for future endeavors. One example is the character Zemo. The individual who was partly responsible for the Avengers’ Civil War being brought back and treated as an almost humorous advisor.

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Zemo and Sharon Carter stand to the sides of Captain America and the Winter Soldier.

He went from a villain driven by grief that morphed into hate and turned into a somewhat antagonistic rich guy, with the series almost making him an anti-hero. Then, there was Sharon Carter, who went from being an agent willing to stand up to HYDRA operatives at SHIELD to becoming a villain known as the Power Broker.

It seems like both of these characters were dramatically shifted from their roots to simply be used in future MCU projects. It was especially disappointing with Carter, who audiences had come to appreciate as a good ally.

Phase Four

Marvel Studios split up its films into three “phases.” The first going from 2008-2012, concluding with the first “Avengers,” the next from 2013-2015 ending with “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and the final going from 2016-2019 with the finale being “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

So far, the latest phase has been a major step down. As previously stated, most of my reviews concluded with MCU films getting at least a 3 out of 5. In Phase Four, though, the ratings have been as follows:

  • “Black Widow” – 2 out of 5
  • “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” – 3 out of 5
  • “Eternals” – 1.5 out of 5
  • “Spider-Man: No Way Home” – 4 out of 5
  • “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” – 2 out of 5

Outside of the “Spider-Man” film, which somewhat felt more like a stand alone Spidey flick considering the guest appearances featured, the lone bright spot has been “Shang Chi,” which wasn’t the most amazing MCU entry. What has held many of these pictures back is how immensely formulaic they’ve all seemed.

With nearly 30 movies, it’s becoming harder and harder for these pictures to set themselves apart from their counterparts. This is despite the fact that the studio has attracted some great directors to the projects.

I gave tremendous praise to Chloe Zhao’s films “The Rider” and “Nomadland,” the latter becoming my No. 1 movie of 2020. “Nomadland” also wound up having a great night at the Academy Awards. Yet I found “Eternals” to be my least favorite MCU entry.

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Scene from 2021’s “Eternals.”

It’s a similar story with Sam Raimi. An iconic director with a signature style whose work I’ve enjoyed a lot over the years. To this day I will even defend his films “Spider-Man 3” and “Oz the Great and Powerful,” despite them not being well received by my fellow critics.

Yet despite his abilities, I found the latest “Doctor Strange,” which he helmed, to be a disappointment.

While both directors left their stylized stamp on the respective projects, both pictures felt sort of forced to stay in the Marvel lane. “Eternals,” for example, seemed like an overly comedic feature, meant to keep with the MCU’s well known penchant for humor.

“Multiverse,” meanwhile, seemed stale despite its coat of horror genre paint, having a lot of narrative devices that seemed formulaic. Both films were stifled in terms of creativity.

This was true with “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi” as well, with both taking very stereotypical story-telling routes while over playing their comedic hands. A dysfunctional family unit mostly used for laughs made it difficult to take “Black Widow” seriously, while a previously established comic-relief character reappeared in the latter.

All of these films also were forced to bend over backwards to fit in as cogs for the MCU machine. It seemed like Thanos’ snap, other Avengers and recent in-universe events all had to be referenced in these pictures to ensure continuity.

It’s especially true with the most recent film, “Multiverse of Madness,” as one is basically required to watch “Wandavision” to know what’s taking place. Also, like they did with Sharon Carter, the MCU basically shoved Wanda over into villain territory with little care for the established character, just so it could continue off of “Wandavision.”

The movies’ dedication to sequel teasing is also growing tiring. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re preparing audiences for the next movie that’s irking. The problem is the difficulty in continued threat elevation.

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Arishem, a new global threat, at the end of “Eternals.”

“Eternals” ends with basically a giant space god thing threatening all of Earth. The “Doctor Strange” sequel concludes with the titular character becoming seemingly corrupted by an evil scripture of immense power.

The issue, in a sense, is it’s hard to really get invested in these threats. Ultron was minutes away from destroying life on Earth while Thanos eliminated half the population across the universe. It took all of the combined MCU heroes working together to take down the latter threat.

“Endgame” basically featured a battle with everything on the line. It’s sort of hard to top, so these mega battles and potential for Earth-destroying situations don’t hold water.

The Batman and The Invisible Man

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been monumentally impressive as a product. With it making so much money, it’s not surprising other companies wanted to follow suit.

Some results included the DC Extended Universe with the likes of “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and the Dark Universe from Universal Pictures. The latter only really had one notable movie, which was “The Mummy.”

Despite building up the Snyder fanbase empire, the DCEU never hit the levels of the MCU, in terms of both critical reception and box office returns. The Dark Universe, meanwhile, was basically a complete disaster from the start.

In the time since “The Mummy” and the DCEU’s team-up movie “Justice League,” both companies have been going in a different direction than the shared universe concept.

Universal, for example, made the standalone thriller “The Invisible Man” in 2020. It was a really good feature with a memorable performance by Elisabeth Moss and some great usage of special effects to create exceptional scenes of suspense.

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A scene from “The Invisible Man.”

DC and WB in the meantime  released “Shazam,” “Birds of Prey” and a new “Suicide Squad.” While these films had loose ties to the DC Extended Universe, they very much stood on their own and were all solid movies that were a bit refreshing.

“Shazam,” for example, was a family drama, while the new “Suicide Squad” was a dark action comedy with absurdist moments.

WB even deserves credit for taking a chance on a project like “Joker.” While I found the film to be fairly mediocre, it was certainly a different enough direction for an adaptation and its lead actor won an Academy Award.

Maybe the best example of how good a comic book film can be when it returns to a grounded, stand-alone level, though, was released in March. The new “Batman” was a fantastic film and it took place in a completely independent universe.

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Batman and Gordon in the 2022 film.

“The Batman” was a tremendous crime drama and a fantastic character study on obsession. Despite being a great film, though, it was a bit of a risk for WB.

There were clear question marks in the lead up to the release, considering this was the third version of the Batman in a  decade on the big screen. Yet the faith the studio put in the director paid off. It showed how good a project can be when a filmmaker is allowed to truly put their vision together.

Notice how my headline says the MCU is “running on empty.” I mean it’s run dry of creativity and vision. I’m not saying the MCU should have its plug pulled, this isn’t an MCU should stop type of piece.

What I am saying is that a new direction would be refreshing. Make a standalone film or two under the Marvel Studios banner. Try a few new genres. For example, make an actual horror film, not just a movie with some horror elements like “Multiverse of Madness.”

Jon Favreau started this whole thing off with a movie that felt new and exciting. Allowing another director to take an off ramp from that Marvel infrastructure I mentioned earlier and do something really different in another universe and genre would be a welcome change.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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