Thursday, July 28, 2022

Jordan Peele's Wild Kingdom

Prior to its release, writer/director Jordan Peele's third film Nope looked like it was going to be a new entry in the alien invasion subgenre. Now that it's out, that continues to be how people are categorizing it but I think it actually should be considered as a stealth entry in the Man vs. Nature subgenre. The sky-dwelling creature that stalks the characters in Nope may not have fur or teeth or claws but it definitely is an animal. The common belief is that it's of extraterrestrial origin but I say that is not confirmed, only assumed. It may be extraterrestrial but it could just as well be extra dimensional or any number of unknown options. In the end, we don't know. In Nope, the characters make several false assumptions about what they're dealing with so for audiences to also automatically jump to the conclusion that it is an alien may also be a mistake. Whatever the creature is, it is a natural predator and how the characters of Nope react to it, for good and bad, hinges on their prior experience with animals. 

Nope is refreshingly clear of cliches in the way that only a diehard genre fan could conceive of. Peele knows the conventions of horror and sci-fi inside and out. He knows what's been done before, what expectations other genre fans will bring to a film, and he does an expert job of defying those expectations. Setting Nope up to be a traditional alien movie is a brilliant fake out. Peele invokes the classic image of the tin plate flying saucer that genre fans would recognize from classic '50s sci-fi films like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) but proceeds to do something entirely different with it. Even if you choose to take this at face value as a straight up alien film (which it may well be), Peele is still twisting expectations and not taking what genre fans would recognize as a familiar route. Watching Nope, I couldn't help but marvel at Peele's cleverness. I'm writing this review with the assumption that anyone reading it will have seen Nope so major spoilers the rest of the way out.

While Peele leads the audience (and his characters) to assume that the presence that hovers over the Haywood Hollywood Horses Ranch is a flying saucer that periodically descends from the clouds to bring animals, people, and various random objects aboard, it is eventually revealed to be a living creature that has become territorial and unwelcoming to intruders. Rather than the familiar trope of aliens scooping up specimens to experiment on, the creature of Nope is actually ingesting what it takes into itself. To our surprise, it isn't abducting anyone, it's feeding.

There are no scientists or experts in Nope to give their theories on what the creature is or where it comes from. As with the Graboids of Tremors, there is no origin provided. Is it a part of the natural world that hasn't been discovered until now? Is it an extraterrestrial? Is it some kind of mutated life form? Who knows? What it is and where it comes from is irrelevant to Nope's characters. Siblings Otis Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) are initially operating under the belief that they're dealing with alien visitors and that this is just a straight up UFO. So too is former child actor Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun) who runs the Western themed park Jupiter's Claim located close to the Haywood Ranch. All these characters have their own ideas on how to cash in on this new visitor. 

Otis ("OJ") and Emerald ("Em") see the chance to conclusively document a real UFO as a means to save themselves from the financial ruin that their family business has been facing since the sudden death of their father, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), six months earlier. For his part, Ricky wants to parlay the UFO into a hit attraction (the "Star Lasso Experience") for his theme park but none of them understand what they are even dealing with.

As someone who has spent their life as a horse trainer, once it is eventually determined that the object isn't a ship but a living being, OJ comes to recognize that it has to handled as one would a wild animal, with caution and respect. Ricky's fatal mistake is that he imagines that he has a personal connection with whatever it is. Ricky's back story is that he was a child actor on the set of a '90s sitcom called Gordy's Home, with the titular Gordy being an adorable chimp, until one day helium balloons being used in a scene floated up into the hot studio lights and exploded, which provoked a frightened Gordy into a violent rage. The other actors, including the young girl playing Ricky's sibling, were badly mauled while Ricky himself escaped unscathed. As Gordy was reaching under the table where Ricky was cowering to give him the fist bump that they performed in the show, a police bullet through his brain took out Gordy. 

We see this harrowing event play out in flashback from Ricky's terrified perspective as a child while the adult Ricky recounts the event to OJ and Em by describing the SNL sketch that lampooned it, with Ricky glowing with praise for Chris Kattan's portrayal of Gordy. Putting aside the question of whether SNL would actually perform a sketch based on an event involving the maiming of real people (one of whom was a minor), what is compelling about this scene is how Ricky chooses to view the great trauma of his life through a buffer of entertainment. This was a life-altering moment in which he watched his co-workers be brutally attacked and he saw an animal's brains blown out in front of him but rather than cope with the pure horror of that event, he references it not by way of his own first hand experience but through a second hand, satirical depiction.

This says that Ricky has never truly processed what happened to him. Talking about the event from his own perspective would require introspection. It would require sharing something that is unpleasant, uncomfortable and most of all, real. By referencing it by way of a comedy sketch, he is reducing it to a pop culture "moment" rather than an experience that emotionally scarred him. 

Ricky dubs the imagined occupants of what he believes to be a ship The Viewers, furthering the idea that Ricky sees everything as entertainment to be safely packaged and consumed. For his Star Lasso Experience presentation he has his kids dressed in alien costumes, he's got a stand of alien themed merchandise to sell, he's wearing a specially designed sequined jacket with a UFO on the back and he has a prepared speech to deliver to the crowd about the life changing experience they're all about to witness but all that's going to happen to any of them is that they're going to become this creature's lunch. The Star Lasso Experience ends with every attendant screaming their way to an agonizing death as they move through a creature's digestional tract. There's not even the relative dignity of being probed on an alien exam table. There's just the very unglamorous reality of being an animal's meal.  

Animals aren't trying to hustle anybody. They hunt, they feed, they protect their territory, they react unpredictably when they feel threatened (like the horse that OJ loses control of during a shoot thanks to a careless crew member). They do not enter into business agreements and they do not look to pose for any cameras. Las Vegas entertainers Siegfried and Roy are referenced at one point in Nope, the most famous instance of people who thought they had a deal with the animals they were working with only to discover to their horror how one-sided that arrangement was. 

The difference between man and animal as illustrated by Peele carries all the way through the film's final chase as the creature zeroes in on OJ and Em. Typically the final chase in a horror movie is purely about survival. Whether it's about staying one step ahead of Jason or Michael Myers or a zombie horde, the remaining characters at that point are always reduced to their own animal states, desperately focusing on staying alive. That is not the case with Nope, however. As desperately as OJ and Em are working to stay ahead of the creature in the final stretch, Em does not let go of her need to get that shot. We've seen countless final chases where it's all about the characters just wanting to get away with their lives and that's it. But this is a big final chase in a horror movie where it's not just about surviving the moment, it's about surviving. Em, who through most of the movie seemed to be the more flaky, less business focused of the two siblings, shows in the end how much she has her eyes on the prize. She knows that it won't enough for her and OJ to just evade this creature and live another day. This about living past that. If they don't get that shot of the creature, if they don't score that winning ticket that will get them out of their economic situation, they've got nothing. The idea of having its characters be in financial as well as physical peril is such a novel wrinkle for a horror film. The creature is only protecting what it sees as its territory. It's pursuit of OJ and Em isn't even personal. It's instinctual. But Em has to think beyond the moment in a way that the beast that's stalking her doesn't. 

In the man vs. nature subgenre, whether you're talking about Jaws (1975) or Grizzly (1976) or Razorback (1984), the final battle always comes down to the final survivor having to destroy their attacker. The goal is just to fucking end it. Preferably in spectacular fashion. But OJ and Em's motivation is never to kill the creature. Even though it is technically a threat, they're never worried about it, say, making its way to a populated area. They're not actively looking to stop it. Their entire conflict with it is purely driven by their hopes of scoring a life changing pay day rather than, say, righteous revenge. I think that is an aspect of Nope that is hard to audiences to wrap their heads around. It's just not how the conventions of the genre traditionally play out. Audiences are primed to expect that big payoff where they and the characters revel in the death of the creature. Brody making the shot that explodes the scuba tank in the shark's mouth, Val tricking the last Graboid into burrowing its way out of a cliff side at full speed, sending it plummeting to a splattery death. That is not what Nope is about. It's creature is never demonized in any way. It's never portrayed as purposely malevolent. The deaths it causes are either incidental or caused by people unthinkingly provoking it. To have the big climatic win in Nope be about Em successfully getting that picture rather than OJ and Em high fiving over the creature's shredded carcass is just not the kind of vindication that audiences are conditioned to expect and I think that has led to a sense of dissatisfaction. The fact that Nope doesn't play by the rules is to Peele's credit but it is also why it has not been an across the board crowd pleaser.   

Personally, I will say that my experience in watching Nope was one of being objectively impressed with the scope of its ambition and with the technical skill of the filmmaking rather than feeling viscerally drawn in. But as an example of craft, Nope continues to show Peele's considerable development. It offers images that are entirely unique to it along with an assemblage of excellent performances (shout out to the dryly funny Michael Wincott as a jaded, seen it all cinematographer). I don't believe Nope works as well as Get Out or Us but it's still a movie that deserves to be applauded, even as many fans and critics seem more than eager to slam it for not being exactly what they were expecting. 

Whether Nope is Peele's best film to date, his first misfire, or somewhere in the middle is ultimately irrelevant. The bottom line is that it's another original work by a writer/director who truly understands and loves the genre and whose work continually provokes discussion. That's something that every horror fan should be saying yes to. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Give Peace a Chance: Superman IV at 35

At yesterday's San Diego Comic Con, the big disappointment for many was that internet rumors of Henry Cavill making a surprise appearance to announce his return to Superman turned out to be a bust. No Cavill, no new Superman. That leaves the character's last big screen turn as being 2017's Whedon cut of Justice League. When superheroes are the hottest thing in popular entertainment and the character that every one of them is derived from is sitting idle, that seems like a major fuck up on somebody's part. Superman should be the crown jewel of Warner/DC's catalog but the best they can do for him these days is a low rent CW show. Tyler Hoechlin does a decent job as Clark/Superman but come on, this is Superman. This is a character who should have a blockbuster movie in theaters on a regular basis but instead his last solo film was almost ten years ago and he's slumming it on the CW. Doesn't seem right. 

Where it did all go so wrong for Big Blue? 1978's Superman: The Movie made the case that comic book heroes belonged on the big screen in the first place and 1980's Superman II was widely considered to be an improvement on the original (debatable, I say, but a case can be made). Superman's cape started to fray with the more comedic Superman III (1983) but it was 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace that backed a dump truck of Green K over the Man of Steel. It wouldn't be fair to blame Peace for why 2006's Superman Returns or 2013's Man of Steel failed to recapture Superman's former box office glory. The people behind those films made their own mistakes but Superman IV is undeniably where the Metropolis Marvel's flight plan started to go off course and it's never gotten right since. 

Released on July 24th, 1987, it was immediately clear that Peace would not represent a return to form for the franchise. The first three Superman films - the first two, in particular - had set the standard for special effect extravaganzas. They were top of the line Hollywood productions. As a Cannon Films production, however, Peace was not. As soon as the titles came up, it was obvious that this was going to be a much schlockier affair than audiences were used to seeing from Superman. III had its faults but there was no mistaking that it looked good. It was a summer spectacular that was still worthy of the brand. The only thing Peace had going for it was John Williams' signature Superman theme (adapted and conducted by Alexander Courage) and Christopher Reeve, the man who had defined Superman for a generation.

The sincerity that Reeve had always brought to the role served Peace's topical storyline well. Moved by a letter from a young fan who wondered why Superman didn't take it upon himself to do something to prevent Earth's superpowers from annihilating the planet in a nuclear conflict, Superman rounds up all the nuclear weapons and hurls them into the sun. Of course that doesn't sit well with everyone. Specifically it doesn't sit well with black-market arms dealers who want to restock the world with nuclear weapons. With Superman's arch foe Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) having just been busted out of prison by his nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer) and, as usual, looking to play an angle that will make him rich and Superman dead, Luthor gets in bed with these arms dealers and with a stolen strand of Superman's hair attached to a nuclear missile that Superman intercepts and throws into the sun, Luthor (through very vaguely described means) causes the birth of the solar powered and glittery costumed menace known as Nuclear Man. 

Storywise, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Peace. The plot hinges on Superman making a moral decision that has worldwide repercussions. As Superman should, he acts on his conscience, with only good intentions, and the complications of the story arise from a cynical world pushing back against his idealism. In the end, Superman is forced to concede that he can't make unilateral choices on behalf of the world, even as he implores the leaders of the world and its people to make it their mission to choose peace. Along the way, there's big action, enjoyable mischief from Luther, romantic complications for Clark and Superman, drama at the Daily Planet as the paper is bought out and turned into a tabloid, and the usual comedic antics related to Clark juggling his dual identities. This is all classic Superman stuff. 

Superman IV's failures all lie in the execution and those faults all come down to the fact that the money wasn't there. When you're doing sequels, you have to continually raise the bar and the makers of Superman IV were forced to do it all on the cheap. The final product couldn't help but send the message that Superman wasn't a character that mattered anymore, that he was no longer worth the top shelf treatment that he used to get. 

I believe if Peace had shared the same level of production values as the first three films, it would have been seen as a comeback for the series because even with the shoddy special effects, a lot of cool shit happens. The battles between Superman and Nuclear Man are, in concept, the same kind of epic action seen in Superman II when Superman fought the Phantom Zone criminals in the middle of Metropolis. In Peace you've got action set in an exploding volcano, at the Great Wall of China, and in the heart of Metropolis as Nuclear Man rips the Statue of Liberty off her foundations (I guess we just go with the idea that in Superman's world, there is no New York City and the Statue of Liberty calls Metropolis home) and hurls it as a projectile. Superman even fights Nuclear Man on the moon. This is all prime Superman spectacle that feels torn from the panels of a comic. The fact that the money wasn't there to give these scenes their proper due doesn't mean that they aren't worth appreciating. Especially given that no Superman movie since has shown any interest in having this much fun. 

It's a crime that with all the money and technology at his disposal, all director Bryan Singer wanted to have Superman do in Superman Returns is lift stuff. And also have him spend Returns' last half hour or so in a coma. To have Superman spend pretty much the entire last act of a movie - and not just any movie, mind you, but what is supposed to be the character's big comeback after almost twenty years - in a hospital bed, that's a problem. Kind of makes you think that no one involved knew what the hell to do with Superman. On the upside, at least Zack Snyder believed in bringing big scale spectacle back to Superman when he did Man of Steel. Unfortunately that translated to letting Superman turn Metropolis to a pile of rubble in a reckless battle with General Zod and then having him murder Zod by snapping his neck. Definitely sent the message that good times were back. 

Come on, bring the kids! 

Superman IV may have not had two pennies to rub together but at least the creative people involved understood what the proper spirit of a Superman movie should be. When Nuclear Man is torching Metropolis to get to the object of his obsession, Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway), the daughter of the Planet's new media mogul owner, Superman acts immediately to get Nuclear Man off the streets and spare Metropolis any further destruction. What a novel concept! 

This is also a movie where Superman is fully allowed to be his sincere self, steadfast in his convictions to the point of appearing corny. When he lands on the moon in the process of dealing with Nuclear Man, he pauses to make sure the American Flag is straightened. When it is knocked over during his battle with Nuclear Man, he doesn't leave without setting it right again. After he rounds up Luther and Lenny, before taking Luthor back to jail he delivers Lenny to a Boy's Home telling the clergyman at the gate that, hey, this was just a kid under a bad influence. And when Luthor asks Superman whether the world is going to be vaporized now that the world's superpowers are getting their nuclear arsenals back, he says that, no, the world is always where it was, "on the brink, with good fighting evil." Whatever stumbles Peace made, it absolutely got Superman himself right.

It's hard to imagine any subsequent Supermen delivering the line Reeve says outside of the United Nations as he surrenders the idea of taking the nuclear option off the table but urges the people of Earth to see better days for themselves, telling the world "...What a brilliant future we could have." 

Sadly, Superman did not go on to a brilliant future post-Peace. Outside of the tragedy that awaited Reeve in real life, this iconic character that served as an inspiration for generations became stuck in the hands of people who didn't have the first clue of what to do with him. Ideal candidates like Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill have been cast but their potential for greatness in the role has been let down by everyone else charged with guiding Superman back to the screen. 

No one even knows how to get the costume right anymore. I would say that, yeah, I get that it can't be the same as what Reeve wore but, you know, that kind of was the costume. If you're doing Superman, you can't really improve on it and the subsequent variations have only proven that. Update all you want but two things have to be spot on: the look of the 'S' chest emblem and the colors should be correct, starting with actually having colors. Bizarro recently appeared on Superman & Lois as the "dark" Superman and it's not an exaggeration to say that you could hardly tell who was who. It's enough to make you want to ask the people handling the live action Superman these days, "Why are you purposely fucking this up?" 

At this point, it's hard to imagine the classic version of the character (or frankly, even a shitty version) ever making its way back to the big screen. So as much as Superman IV was a crushing disappointment back in '87, the fact that it will surely remain the last theatrical appearance of a truly iconic Superman has turned it into something worth treasuring. It's the Man of Tomorrow, as lit by yesterday's glow.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Halloween (Never) Ends

The trailer for the much-awaited conclusion to director David Gordon Green's Halloween trilogy has arrived and it promises yet another wild night in Haddonfield. It also promises to bring the Halloween series to a close with Jamie Lee Curtis' iconic Final Girl Laurie Strode having one last battle with Michael Myers. 

However, we know that these things never truly end, which I think actually only makes Halloween Ends more interesting to consider. That this will be the last time we see Curtis in a Halloween movie seems certain at least but Michael Myers is another matter. As I'm sure someone in some Halloween movie has said, "evil never dies." And if it hasn't been said, well, it's definitely been implied. They definitely have said that you can't kill the boogeyman and that's the whole ballgame right there. The fact is, Michael Myers will continue to go on forever, even after this particular chapter comes to a conclusion. Everyone knows this. I remember sitting in the theater for Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in '84 and let me tell you, when that final freeze frame of Corey Feldman looking into the camera came up and the screen faded to white, no one in that theater thought they had watched the Final fucking Chapter. Jason, Freddy, Michael, Leatherface, all of these guys, they never go away for good. The only thing that keeps any of them down for long is real life legal bullshit.

Of course, they did really did try to honestly end Michael back in '81. Halloween II was seriously supposed to be it for him. Dr. Loomis took both himself and Michael out in a massive explosion, allowing Laurie to survive her brother's wrath. Putting aside the fact that Halloween truly should have never had a sequel, II at least gave Michael an epic exit. The sight of Michael burning from head to toe still walking towards Laurie remains one of the most memorable images in the entire series, a sight that recalls the Thing engulfed in flames in The Thing from Another World (1951). 

But no one wanted that to be it for Michael Myers. The public rejected the attempt to turn the Halloween series into an anthology with 1983's Halloween III: Season of the Witch and from 1988's Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers on, Halloween has been, well, what it's been. The second attempt to really end him was with 1998's H20 but as decisive as that may have looked, it was so clearly insincere that I don't even count it. Unlike with Halloween II, I didn't buy for a second when the end credits rolled on H20 that anyone involved in the series believed that was it. As cool as it was to see Laurie chopping off Michael's head, it didn't feel like the end of anything. I don't believe anything could at this point. So does that make whatever happens in Halloween Ends an automatic eye roll? Nah. If you're a horror fan, there's no such thing as feeling ripped off by a final chapter not actually being the final chapter. If anything, knowing that Green is himself a fan who has no illusions that this will be the true end of Michael makes me more curious to see how he and his collaborators are going to handle this. 

It seems to me that there's three choices on the board. One, Laurie kills Michael in some definitive way and the movie leaves no possibility that he will ever stalk Haddonfield again and Laurie is completely free. Two, Laurie kills Michael but dies herself in the process and both their stories end. Or three, Laurie kills Michael but it's left ambiguous as to whether he is truly dead. I don't think there's a fourth option where Michael kills Laurie and that's that. Although, damn, it would be ballsy as hell if they went that way with it. 

If I had to put money on any of these options, I'd go with 3. I don't think any future Halloween's will continue on from this timeline (expect a brand new remake in time for the original's 50th anniversary in 2028) but I also think that Green and his co-writer Danny McBride don't believe that Michael can die. They'll give Laurie her win and they'll make it clear to the audience that she won't have to keep looking over her shoulder every October 31st, but I think they will also leave it off with Michael still haunting Haddonfield in some capacity because, in the end, you can't kill the boogeyman. 

Them's the rules.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Overview: MCU Phase 4

Full confession: I am a hardcore Marvel fan and the MCU is 100% my jam. I am not wishy washy on Marvel at all. Nope, I'm all in. I don't necessarily love everything they do but so far I have at least always liked every project. With that said, I've found Phase 4 to be one of my favorite Marvel phases to date and I'm going to use this space getting nerdy in cataloging all its additions to the MCU. But first I'm just going to get nerdy about Marvel in general because oh, why not? 

When Iron Man premiered in 2008, with its end credit scene that introduced Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury telling Tony Stark about the "Avengers Initiative," the MCU - even if that particular term hadn't been coined yet - was born and the goals that Marvel Studios were looking to accomplish starting with that initial outing were ambitious and not at all guaranteed to succeed. The idea of having a set of individual films that would share an interconnectedness and that each film would eventually lead into one film in which the characters from those previous movies would come together seemed like a steep mountain to climb, both creatively and logistically. How many would-be film franchises have instantly gone into the tank? A lot is how many. Cinema history is littered with failed franchises so to launch four separate franchises - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America - in the hopes that each of them would do well enough to support one massive crossover was a legitimate gamble. 

That producer Kevin Feige and the writers, directors, actors and other creative and technical people involved pulled off the goals of the MCU's Phase 1 is something that does not get enough credit in my opinion. To many, the MCU's success seems like it was predestined or some kind of no-brainer but it could have just as well have been a spectacular face plant. Every studio, everyone who owns the rights to a connected universe - whether it be the DC Universe or the Universal Monsters or what have you - would love to be doing what Marvel does but they haven't been able to. Feige and his collaborators have shown an uncanny ability to be laser focused on the project at hand, to always be keeping their eyes on the ball, and yet also be able to see far down the road at the same time. That is not a widely shared skill.


You only have to look at how Sony can't figure out how to properly coordinate their Spider-Verse set of characters or how badly Fox bungled their X-Men films (as well as the Fantastic Four and Daredevil in the time that they held the rights to them) to understand that this shit ain't easy. Just because a studio has the rights to a universe of characters doesn't mean they automatically know how to properly serve those characters. Making one successful individual film doesn't always pan out. Never mind being able to do it on a consistent basis and then to also make every one of those films part of a connected universe in which each movie feeds into the others. That's on a whole other level. You can look at what Marvel does, you can study it and analyze it but even though it seems like there's a blueprint of sorts to follow, no one else has been able to follow in their footsteps.


Even by Marvel's standards, though, what they're doing in Phase 4 is a whole new ballgame. Previously, they had been out to prove that they could, film by film, successfully get from Point A to Point B. It was all very linear, as Phases 1-3 established the various corners of the MCU, brick by brick, from the Norse God mythology of Thor to the mystical world of Doctor Strange to the cosmic end of Marvel with Guardians of the Galaxy.

But now Marvel is cutting loose in a way they hadn't been able to before, with the addition of the Disney+ shows meaning that they no longer have to wait for the movies to introduce new characters and concepts. It isn't just one movie leading into the next anymore, it's shows and movies bouncing off each other. Days after it was revealed in Hawkeye that Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin was officially in the MCU, Charlie Cox's Matt Murdock made a cameo appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home. And Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness wasn't just a sequel to the original 2016 Doctor Strange or the character's latest appearance after Spider-Man: No Way Home, it was also a sequel to the WandaVision series as well being informed by both Loki and What If?. That kind of cross coordination between multiple projects is unlike anything that anyone else is even close to being able to duplicate.

Because there's so much coming out of Phase 4, and because it's coming from various directions, the biggest complaint has been that it isn't clear where Marvel going with it. What's happening now isn't as easy for audiences to wrap their head around as the straight forward build-up to The Avengers had been or how the progression to Infinity War was but, for me, that's what I'm loving about Phase 4. This is Marvel with no brakes, completely confident in their plans, introducing concepts and characters at a breakneck speed. 

They aren't building to just one thing anymore, they're building to multiple things at once and the pay offs, when they hit, are going to be enormous. 

Even though no one has been able to duplicate what Marvel has done, even though no other studio has pulled off their own Infinity Saga style multi-film epic yet, Marvel is already past that, going full steam onto an even more complicated level, inventing an entirely new, much vaster game board that only they have the capacity to play on. Critics of the MCU view its interconnectivity as crass commercialism but, as a comic fan, I see it as just fun. This is what the comics have always done, what they were built on - crossing over, bringing characters together, having a unified universe - and I love that Feige has been able to successfully translate that to the MCU.

With the recent release of Thor: Love and Thunder in theaters and Ms. Marvel on Disney+, I believe we're at about the halfway mark for Phase 4. We'll find out more with the Marvel presentation at SDCC this weekend (update: turns out we're almost at the end of Phase 4, with Wakanda Forever closing it out) but ahead of that, given how much has already been introduced, I wanted to put together a rundown of the highlights so far. I'm not attempting to speculate where any of this is going or to analyze anything, I'm just, for my own very nerdy interest, cataloging where things stand in Phase 4 so far, making note of the major concepts and characters. I'm probably missing a few things here and there but I think I hit all the big ones. 

I'll continue to update as new info comes in.

WandaVision (Disney+)

9 Episodes, originally released to streaming from January 15th to March 5th, 2021

Introduces S.W.O.R.D..

Introduces Spectrum/Captain Marvel version of Monica Rambeau.  

Introduces the Darkhold. 

Introduces Agatha Harkness. 

Vision becomes White Vision.

Introduces Wanda and Vision's twins, Billy and Tommy.

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (Disney+)

6 Episodes, originally released to streaming from March 19th to April 23rd, 2021

US Agent is introduced.

Sam becomes the new Captain America. 

Introduces Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. 

Sets up Thunderbolts. 

Black Widow

Released in the U.S. on June 29th, 2021 

Introduces Yelena Belova as new Black Widow.

Introduces Antonia Dreykov as MCU Taskmaster.

Introduces Alexei Shostakov as Red Guardian.

Loki Season One (Disney+)

6 Episodes, originally released to streaming from June 9th to July 14th, 2021

Introduces the Time Variance Authority (TVA) and The Time Keepers. 

Introduces Loki alternate Sylvie. 

Introduces Kang, aka Immortus, aka He Who Remains.

Introduces the Multiverse.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Released in the U.S. on September 3rd, 2021 

Introduces the mystical domain of Ta Lo.

Introduces the real Mandarin.

Introduces Razor Fist.

Re-introduces Abomination to the MCU.

Reveals that the energy of the rings are acting as a beacon. The Avengers know this but what it's signalling to is unknown. 

Xailing becomes the new leader of the Ten Rings, training women alongside men.  

What If? Season One (Disney+)

9 Episodes, originally released to streaming from August 11th to October 6th, 2021

Uatu is introduced.

Captain Carter is introduced.

Sinister Strange is introduced.

Marvel Zombies are introduced.

Introduces Guardians of the Mulitverse.

Introduces Infinity Ultron. 

The Eternals

Released in the U.S. on November 5th, 2021 

Sersi, Phastos and Kingo are taken away by Arishem who plans to use their memories to decide whether humanity and the Earth is worth saving, Judgement pending. 

Thena, Druig, and Makkari are on the Domo when Pip and Star Fox arrive to join their search for other Eternals. 

Dane Whitman prepares to wield the Ebony Blade but the offscreen voice of Blade asks whether Dane is prepared to do so. 

Hawkeye (Disney+)

6 Episodes, originally released to streaming from November 24th to December 22nd, 2021

Kate Bishop is introduced. 

Echo is introduced. 

The Swordsman is introduced.

Kingpin is introduced into the MCU.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Released in the U.S. on December 17th, 2021

Tobey Maquire Spider-Man and Andrew Garfield Spider-Man and their respective movie continuities become part of the MCU.

Daredevil is introduced to MCU.

All memories of Peter Parker being Spider-Man have been wiped out via Doctor Strange's spell. Peter is on his own in NYC. 

Moon Knight (Disney+)

6 Episodes, originally released to streaming from March 30th to May 4th, 2022

Khonshu is introduced. 

The broader Egyptian mythology and its various Gods are also introduced.

Scarlet Scarab is introduced.

Marc/Steven's third personality of Jake Lockley is introduced.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Released in the U.S. on May 6th, 2022

Introduces America Chavez.

Introduces concept of The Illuminati.

Introduces Reed Richards and the concept of The Fantastic Four.

Introduces Black Bolt and the concept of the Inhumans. 

Introduces Charles Xavier and the concept of The X-Men.

Introduces concept of incursions, set-up for Secret Wars. 

Introduces Clea.

Doctor Strange is corrupted by use of Darkhold. 

Thor: Love and Thunder

Released in the U.S. on July 8th, 2022

Thor has adopted the revived daughter of Gorr, a being that also wields the gifts of Eternity. 

Hercules is introduces as Zeus' son. Zeus instructs Hercules to destroy Thor and all superheroes. 

Jane Foster dies in battle and arrives in Valhalla. 

Ms. Marvel (Disney+)

6 Episodes, originally released to streaming from June 8th to July July 13th, 2022

Introduces the race of the enhanced beings known as the Clandestines, who are also referred to as Djinns.

Introduces the Noor Dimension. 

Introduces the Red Dagger. 

Introduces Damage Control.

Reveals Kamala to be a mutant, officially opening the door for X-Men in the main MCU. 

Werewolf by Night (Disney+)

One shot special, originally released to streaming on October 7th, 2022

Introduces Jack Russell, aka Werewolf by Night.

Introduces Ted Sallis, aka Man-Thing.

Introduces monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone, daughter of the late Ulysses Blooodstone.

Introduces the Bloodstone, a gem that grants its users powers, formerly held by Ulysses Bloodstone. 

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (Disney+)

9 Episodes, originally released to streaming from August 17th to October 12th, 2022

Introduces lawyer Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk.

Introduces Titania.

Introduces The Wrecking Crew.

Introduces Mr. Immortal.

Introduces law firm of GLK&H and the concept of Superhuman Law. 

Introduces Man-Bull, Saracen, El Agulia, and Porcupine.

Introduces Daredevil's yellow and red suit.

Introduces a romantic connection between Matt and Jen. 

Introduces Leap-Frog.

Introduces K.E.V.I.N. (Knowledge Enhanced Visual Interconnectivity Nexus).

Introduces Hulk's son, Skaar.


Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Released in the U.S. on November 11th, 2022