The fourth official “Phase” of the forever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe proved to be the biggest and possibly most ambitious yet. In addition to the usual blockbuster film events that the mega franchise has built its empire on, Phase 4 included Disney+ streaming series and specials for the first time, adding even further hours of adventures and homework for fans to dig into. Previous Marvel television series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Daredevil, as wonderful as they may be, are sadly not considered canon. At least, not fully.
Whereas Phase 3 brought a climactic close to the Infinity Saga, Phase 4 acted as the kickoff to the Multiverse Saga. With Thanos defeated and the Avengers disbanded, this new chapter for the franchise was freed up a good bit to go for more intimate, bolder and weirder stories. It’s the start of an era that not only seeks to continue the legacy of what came before, but introduces a new and diverse roster of heroes set to take on upcoming threats to the universe. Or in this case, the endless multiverse.
With seven feature films, eight seasons of television and two specials, Phase 4 proved to be unwieldy at times. The Infinity Saga was the ultimate movie franchise experiment, weaving together its individual plots and characters into a successfully connected cinematic tapestry. By the time Avengers: Endgame arrived, it felt rightfully earned and genuinely cathartic. The setting up of the board this time around felt far less graceful, with various projects getting bogged down or derailed by tie-ins and teases that they would’ve been better off without. As it went on, it became increasingly difficult to determine where the focus was supposed to be, or if there was even one at all.
As a whole, Phase 4 is likely the MCU’s most disjointed outing. A disheartening direction towards quantity over quality has made things feel oversaturated, superhero fatigue has become all too real in general, and a catastrophic pandemic certainly didn’t help the studio’s already-hectic production schedule. Whether this is a warning of diminishing returns to come in the future or simply just a hiccup in the cultural domination of Marvel / Disney remains to be seen. Either way, the franchise doesn’t seem too interested in scaling things back anytime soon. The sheer size and diversity of this bulk of media makes it all the more difficult to rank.
But Marvel still proves themselves to be adept at what’s most important: creating strong and engaging characters that audiences want to see more and more of. The inner and outer journeys of the MCU’s various heroes (both old and new) were given more room to breathe than ever before. Phase 4 may suffer in some areas but it does still offer plenty of great moments for fans to love and get excited about, showing that Marvel’s reign is likely far from over despite the cracks it’s currently showing. From WandaVision to The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, here is our ranking of Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from the weakest to the strongest.
A solo outing for the Avengers’ most unappreciated original member was a welcome slice of smaller scale and lower stakes storytelling. The street level crime that semi-retired archer Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) winds up involved with during the holidays make for some fun yuletide hijinks, and the introduction of wannabe hero Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) is a standout. Toss in new fan-favorite antihero Yelena (Florence Pugh) from Black Widow and this series should’ve been an easy win. But everything comes crashing down in Hawkeye’s final pair of episodes, where the surprise appearance of none other than Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) comes across as incredibly clumsy rather than exciting. Everything that came before is shoved out of the way for an unnatural and often bizarre reveal that Fisk has been behind it all, only for him to be promptly and unceremoniously defeated almost as soon as he’s (re)introduced to us. For Daredevil fans, it’s an odd choice. For those that never watched Daredevil to begin with, it’s likely even more abrupt and confusing.
The first and only animated series of the MCU so far, What If…? serves as an uneven but interesting chunk of fan service for diehards. Each episode takes a hypothetical from the Marvel Universe (what if Peggy Carter took the super soldier serum, what if Ultron had won against the Avengers, and so on) and explores it in an alternate-universe story, complete with many of the original actors reprising their roles. There’s some impressive visuals that’re able to fully embrace the MCU’s comic book roots as well as some intriguing directions each individual story is able to veer off into, but for the most part, What If…? never feels like it fully embraces the freedom it’s been afforded. Much of the series comes across as far too stiff; some cool ideas but not much else. And despite some of it bleeding into the bigger universe in the latest Doctor Strange, this series feels like the most skippable of the bunch.
‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’
A short, disposable but sincerely heartwarming holiday special featuring the galaxy’s most dangerous goofballs. Phase 4 ends with this merry palette cleanser following the emotional whirlwind of Wakanda Forever and deploys a pair of its funniest characters for the job, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista). The two travel through to Los Angeles in search of Kevin Bacon (who plays himself), who they plan on kidnapping in order to give Peter (Chris Pratt) what they think will be a perfect Christmas. It’s goofy fun that delivers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments thanks to the cast and of course, James Gunn both writing and directing as always. Klementieff in particular really shines as Mantis here in a surprisingly emotional plotline for the character. This special also works as a nice sneak peek for where the current Guardians are at before Gunn sends them off in next year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
‘Werewolf by Night’
Perhaps the biggest outlier of Phase 4, Werewolf By Night was Marvel’s first Special Presentation and its first full foray into monsters and horror. Released in October to help celebrate Halloween, the special is scored by legendary composer Michael Giacchino (who’s no stranger to the MCU) and more notably, marks his directing debut as well. Some refreshing practical effects and a distinct black-and-white look are what make the special really stand out from the pack, as well as a neat in-universe take on the “Who’s the real monster?” riff that so many classic monster stories have played with. Gael García Bernal brings a nice warmth to his leading man / beast and Giacchino proves to be just as proficient in the director’s seat as he is leading an orchestra. It’s a spooky little detour with a sweetness hidden at its center.
Chloé Zhao’s Eternals sought to rectify some of the complaints that have been thrown Marvel’s way over the years, namely the overload of CGI and green screens that had made the franchise start to feel overly sanitized and manufactured. Zhao’s film is a centuries-spanning epic with some of the MCU’s most ancient, God-like superheroes, but one that still retains much of the naturalist style that made her a recent Oscar-winner. Real outdoor sets and natural lighting, a diverse cast not only in color but in age, and even a little actual romance make Eternals almost feel refreshingly detached from the rest of the MCU. There’s a bold blend of operatic grandiose and quiet intimacy, with the film offering up some of the biggest and most existential ideas the franchise has ever tackled. Unfortunately, it struggles greatly with pacing and exposition overload, leaving far too many of those ideas severely undercooked by its ending. For one of the MCU’s longer movies, it still winds up feeling like it needed twice the runtime.
‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’
This series was originally planned to be the official start to Phase 4 but was swapped out for WandaVision instead. It’s easy enough to see why; where WandaVision offered something different for the MCU in terms of structure, tone and presentation, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier felt too much like more of the same. Still, the story of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) struggling to accept the mantle of Captain America and reconciling it with his identity as a Black man is an engaging one, especially with this series having come so soon after the events of the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020. Mackie’s chemistry with co-star Sebastian Stan and Wyatt Russell as new character John Walker are also highlights, but the series often struggles with the episodic structure and a lack of focus. The biggest problem that the series faces, however, are its vague and underdeveloped villain group The Flash Smashers. Their ambitions and viewpoints are glossed over in the most neo-liberal of ways, a problem that weakens the actual effectiveness of the series’ social and political commentary, which seemingly advocates for a change in the status quo. It’s what makes the series’ ending, with our new Cap giving his first big speech and accosting some politicians, lose some of its initial effectiveness. But there’s a good amount of hope in what the next Captain America film can build on from what this series gives it.
The first feature film of Phase 4 is Marvel attempting a bit of damage control; after years of demands from millions of fans and three delays due to the pandemic, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) finally got her own movie. Black Widow is the kind of action-packed spy flick that the character always deserved and a great showcase of her more grounded fighting skills. There’s plenty of cool practical stunts and hand-to-hand combat to be seen, even if much of that frustratingly goes away once it reaches the CGI heavy climax. Florence Pugh’s Yelena is an obvious highlight yet at the same time part of the film’s problem; there's a bit of a hollow ring to the whole affair not only because of how late in the game the film is (Natasha is already dead in the current timeline) but how much it makes her the least interesting part of her own story. It feels like more of a kickoff for new characters than a sendoff for one of the originals. Even so, Black Widow is a good bit better than most people seem to give it credit for.
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‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’
I don’t really like putting something as emotionally impactful as Wakanda Forever so low on this list, but therein lies part of the problem with trying to rank works of art such as movies. Ryan Coogler’s followup to the 2018 cultural phenomenon that was Black Panther was always going to be a severe challenge, but the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman threw the film into obvious disarray. Coogler and his cast and crew are thankfully able to channel their own collective grief into the story, turning this sequel into a moving tribute that honors Boseman’s irreplaceable legacy. With vulnerable yet powerful performances from its main cast of Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o, Wakanda Forever features some of the MCU’s very best moments. The issue? A messy and constantly changing script that had to deal with the sudden loss of its main character halfway into production. The Talokans and their king Namor (a very good Tenoch Huerta Mejía) are cool concepts that feel too rushed, the shoehorning in of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character from other MCU projects is distracting, and if you had complaints about the CGI of the first movie’s final fight then brace yourself. The entire thing suffers from wonky effects that are both unconvincing and turn some of the once-grounded heroes into weightless and gray CG sludge. It’s a frustrating film to say the least - a mix of the best and the worst of the MCU. Speaking of which…
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‘Thor: Love and Thunder’
I’m well aware that there’s plenty of seething hatred for Taika Waitit’s second crack at a more colorful and comedically-minded Thor. Some of that hate is rightfully earned, like how it showcases more of those rushed effects and troubled productions that plague much of Phase 4, or how the jokes this time around are far more aggravating than actually funny. But the idea of Kill Your Masters / Idols / Gods is usually reserved for media and art that’s a bit more extreme (or at least more thoughtful) than your average House of Mouse superhero movie, and Love and Thunder tackles it with surprising force and nuance. Despite its litany of issues, the film’s real strength is in how it manages to burst through the muddled and disjointed themes of Phase 4 and helps put all of them in a clearer and more connective context. Natalie Portman returning as Jane Foster helps Thor’s story come full circle in a meaningful way, exploring the question and feeling of what happens when the party’s over, so to speak. When the longest and most important chapters of your life have seemingly come to an end, when the ways of life that you once knew are long gone, and the things you put your faith in have failed you, where do you go from there? And as cheesy as it is, Marvel’s current conclusion is that all that matters is love – that we should always open our hearts to it and that we can always find renewed purpose in it. Shoddy effects and bad jokes be damned, this franchise has still got it where it counts. But please don’t ever bring Korg back, enough is enough.
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‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’
Multiverse of Madness is filmmaking icon Sam Raimi’s first film in over nine years and marks his triumphant return to the superhero genre, having previously revolutionized it with his Spider-Man trilogy in the early 2000s. The Doctor Strange sequel allows the dynamic director to play with the kind of over-the-top horror elements that he truly became loved for (having helmed the cult favorite Evil Dead franchise) and deliver a chapter of the MCU that stands out from the pack in a fun and stylistic way not seen since Waititi initially saved the God of Thunder with Thor: Ragnarok. The film is a genuine feast for the eyes, with Raimi delivering exciting and kinetic action beats along with plenty of horror-inspired camerawork and imagery. Yet despite an amazing cameo-heavy scene featuring an alternate Avengers lineup, Multiverse of Madness never really feels like it lives up to its title. The film feels like a lot and yet not enough at the same time; Strange and the others only visit a couple of alternate universes, neither of which are all that different from their own. Where’s the unabashed weirdness that the setup of this movie offers itself? Benedict Cumberbatch’s surgeon-turned-sorcerer feels shortchanged this time around as does new hero America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who’s more plot device than an actually realized character. It’s Wanda, and in turn Olsen that carries the film as the villain, delivering a powerhouse performance that’s both frightfully delightful and heartbreaking all the same. Wanda’s villainous quest to be with her children is the most compelling part of Multiverse of Madness, so much so that it might as well be a Scarlet Witch movie more so than a Doctor Strange one. Raimi’s imagination hasn’t gone anywhere in his time away from Hollywood, nor has his unapologetic cheekiness. It would be wonderful to see him come back for another round with either Strange or a different character in this franchise – just let him also write his own script too.
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‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’
I preferred the more grounded feel and action that Shang-Chi delivers in its first half. This tribute to martial arts movies of old truly delivers on some of the MCU's very best action to date. Both the bus brawl and the scaffolding sequence are kinetically exciting scenes that feel like you're watching something completely different from the usual Marvel fluff. But once the film left that behind and moved on to bigger, spectacular elements – eventually becoming a full-scale war with magical weapons and creatures – the further it got away from me. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s past work is praised for its exceptional emotional tones that are entirely dependent on the characters and their choices; here, it feels like part of his storytelling gets swallowed up by the big Marvel machine like other filmmakers before him. Liu is a fine actor and his physicality is on point, but the character of Shang-Chi himself feels lacking in urgency. The titular hero struggles to find an arc of his own and is often simply propelled through the plot by outside forces rather than anything of his own accord, and when he finally does make a significant decision in the film’s climactic battle, it feels tacked on and ends up largely being for naught anyway. It’s Tony Leung who steals the entire show here, delivering a performance that’s all at once menacing, confident and sympathetic. Wenwu quickly establishes himself as not simply the best villain of Phase Four but a top tier villain of the MCU as a whole. The longtime legend of Hong Kong cinema basically makes the film all his own, to the point that once you realize his character’s journey ends up being far richer than even the protagonist’s, you won’t even mind too much.
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‘She-Hulk: Attorney at Law’
After a clunky introduction, She-Hulk gets itself into a very nice comedic groove thanks to witty and genuinely funny writing and a refreshingly lighthearted tone. It’s nice to have a short-format series in the MCU that’s focused on humor, even if it takes it a couple of episodes to find its footing. But once it does it glides right along, making for some of the franchise’s easiest and breeziest viewing. The day-to-day life of luckless superhero lawyer Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) proved ripe for clever comedic situations and it allowed the appearances of characters like Emil Blonksy (Tim Roth) and even Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) to be far more fun than any gratuitous and distracting cameo would've been in a more “serious” project. But She-Hulk’s genius comes in the way it not only predicted the sexist ire it would be met with from the most obnoxious online communities, but directly integrates it into its plot. It was astounding to watch the series confront the reactions to itself seemingly in real time, eventually leading to its gutsy 4th wall-breaking final episode. Marvel’s done meta plenty of times before, but the main character of a series directly arguing with their corporate overlord for a change in the formula is undoubtedly a top tier moment.
Oscar Isaac in anything, Marvel or not, is something to celebrate, but in Moon Knight, we’re treated to him pulling double duty in the Disney+ series as two men - Marc Spector and Steven Grant - fighting for control over the same body. Thanks to that dual performance, some spectacular action, a standout Egyptian-inspired score from Hesham Nazih, and some uninhibited weirdness (even for the MCU), Moon Knight is one of the more successful swings of Phase 4. While not perfect (what is even going on during that climactic final fight?) it is actively engaging, boasts some increasingly compelling characters and is able to take advantage of the episodic structure rather than suffer from it like many of the others. Still, the stranger and darker tone as well as the story’s refreshing detachment from the rest of the universe does make you wish they’d committed to making this thing a movie - it certainly feels worthy enough.
The playful chemistry between Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson is enough to carry this show on its own, but Loki also quickly proved itself to be the most fascinating corner of Phase 4’s massive bulk. Exploring the multiverse in earnest, the story moved everyone’s favorite God of Mischief around time and space as he faced off against the only one he considers a worthy adversary: Himself. The series approaches some of the universe’s most grand, existential and purpose-seeking questions in a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi way, which should come as no surprise since showrunner Michael Waldron came from the crew of Rick and Morty. The shocking pair of final episodes are what really seal the deal here. Out of all of the Marvel Disney+ series, Loki is the one that leaves you hungering for the second season most of all.
Phase 4 came out of the gates swinging in just the right way. WandaVision was the first chance for a pair of supporting Avengers to get the spotlight and usher in a new era for the MCU and the series certainly delivered on its own terms. With its half-hour sitcom setup and the enticing mystery of figuring out just what the hell is going on throughout each episode, there was no better way to let audiences know that Marvel was back in a big and different way. Memorable performances from Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany also served as a reminder that even the smaller roles in the MCU go to bonafide stars. It’s only fitting that Olsen got a chance to co-lead one of the big screen affairs a year later with Multiverse of Madness. However, for as great as most of it is, WandaVision falls apart a bit in its finale, where a CG-heavy magical showdown veers dangerously close to Disney Channel Original Movie territory. It almost undoes the good will of the series up to that point, but thankfully the last episode manages to end on an emotional note that truly counts, sticking the landing well enough after a serious stumble.
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‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’
When you take the nostalgia or the fan service or whatever you wanna call it away, No Way Home doesn’t really work at all, does it? The film (the end of director Jon Watts and star Tom Holland’s MCU Spider-Man trilogy) simply can’t function outside of the context of not merely the MCU and both generations of Sony’s Spidey movies, but the real-world cultural impact they’ve all had as well. There’s perhaps no superhero movie that’s ever been more self-indulgent or self-insistent than No Way Home, where the appearances of fellow Spider-Men are literally held for applause and where internet memes become reality on the big screen. It’s an ungainly movie, acting as not just a perfect encapsulation of where Marvel has been in this stage of the franchise, but of today’s entertainment in general, where nostalgia and references take the place of actual ideas or story. And yet, and yet, it’s hard not to be suckered into the celebration of it all, because if there’s one thing this current Spidey finale gets right, it’s Peter Parker himself. Holland’s version of the timeless character, boosted by the groundwork that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield laid before him, is given a properly moving sendoff that truly seems to understand his sense of self-sacrificing righteousness. It’s a bittersweet ending (for now, at least) that earns its lasting emotional effect, and serves as a perfect reminder of why we can’t seem to stop loving our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
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Out of all the new generation of Avengers we were introduced to in Phase 4, there was no one more compelling than Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan. Played to tremendous charismatic effect by Iman Vellani, the superhero-obsessed Kamala is a perfect surrogate for the young audience that her series is aimed at. While it seems at first that her unique powers are something she’s always dreamed about, she quickly learns the hard way all of the complicated and dangerous things that go along with them. It’s a familiar and basic superhero setup, to be sure, but it becomes a powerful asset for Ms. Marvel, which delivers the kind of coming-of-age story that made people fall in love with Marvel to begin with. It’s certainly why we continue to get a Spider-Man movie every other year. Dripping with rich thematic symbolism throughout that taps into the Muslim culture of Kamala’s family and the realities of living in an Islamaphobic America, as well as finding time to explore the impact of Partition, Ms. Marvel is the most fully realized of all the Phase 4 projects with cathartic action to boot. It’s a series that deserves to win over a new generation of fans.