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.
9 Episodes, originally released to streaming from January 15th to March 5th, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One shot special, originally released to streaming on October 7th, 2022
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.