The coronavirus pandemic has complicated the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thanks to the MCU’s interconnected storytelling, it has grown into a richly woven fabric of episodic narratives. Unfortunately, that has made the entire franchise particularly susceptible to any changes in the schedule. The release delays forced by COVID-19 have rejiggered Marvel’s entire schedule and we’re still not entirely sure when Phase IV’s films will arrive.
But arrive they shall, whether it be on their current release dates or new ones set later on. In many instances, these films represent strikingly new directions for the MCU. In some ways, we’re witnessing a soft reboot of sorts following the conclusion of the Infinity Saga spearheaded by Thanos. As we venture out into the unknown wilds of Marvel, here are the singular elements we’re most looking forward to from each upcoming Phase IV film.
Black Widow (May 7, 2021)
Some fans may look at Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, which takes place in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War on the Marvel timeline, as a step backward. But just as the comparatively small stakes Ant-Man and the Wasp served as a pallet cleanser following Infinity War, so too will Black Widow after the universe-altering consequences of Avengers: Endgame (and its epilogue, Spider-Man: Far From Home).
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Johansson’s Natasha Romanova debuted in the MCU in 2010’s Iron Man 2 as a fully formed instrument of badassery. She was a firmly established top-level spy for Nick Fury and SHIELD. As we learned in 2012’s The Avengers, she also came from a dark past and carried red in her ledger. Marvel fans are still very much in the dark as to the specifics of her past, what happened in Budapest with her and Hawkeye, and how she ultimately chose to join the good guys. These are integral elements of her character and while it’s disappointing that we’re only getting answers after the character’s death, they’re still welcome additions to the MCU lore. If well-received, Black Widow should retroactively make the characters Marvel appearances even more meaningful.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (July 9, 2021)
Based on the character Shang-Chi, this blockbuster directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (who spoke to us about the film last year) will be Marvel’s first film with an Asian lead. On a macro level, the title reveals the film’s connection to the Mandarin and his Ten Rings organization that appear throughout the MCU, most notably in Iron Man 3. That’s exciting on its own and made even more so by the fact that Chinese star Tony Leung will be taking on the iconic villain this time around (opposite Simu Liu in the titular role). But we’re most thrilled with what Shang-Chi promises to bring to the MCU.
The character is famous for his elite martial arts skills, a quality that has been severely lacking throughout the MCU’s run. While Captain America: The Winter Soldier features the best one-on-one fight scenes in the entirety of the big screen Marvel universe, the rest of the MCU’s action has been rather vanilla compared to contemporary action features such as The Raid or John Wick franchises. On the small screen, Netflix’s Daredevil raised the bar in terms of fight choreography, only for Iron Fist to immediately lower it again.
We’re hoping Shang-Chi can inject some much needed creativity and energy into Marvel’s fight scenes.
Eternals (November 5, 2021)
As a sprawling cosmic family drama with all new characters, Eternals may be the MCU’s biggest risk in a post-Endgame world. But that’s what makes the film Marvel’s most intriguing by far. Eternals, directed by Chloe Zhao whose Nomadland is the toast of Tinsel Town on this year’s film festival circuit, has the potential to expand the scope of Kevin Feige’s universe.
Thus far, nearly the entirety of Marvel’s stories have fallen in a brief 30 year period (1990s-Present Day) with just one film (Captain America: The First Avenger) taking place outside of recognizable territory for Millennials. At this point, 12 years and 23 films in, the Marvel setting is beginning to feel a bit cramped. But the Eternals, an immortal alien race created by the Celestials, have secretly lived on Earth for more than 7,000 years. The movie has the opportunity to transport us to different time periods across the MCU spectrum and visit pivotal moments throughout history.
From caveman to World War I, there is so much unexplored ground related to the development of superheroes and the cosmic forces that rule our greater universe. Plus, if we hear one more contemporary pop culture quip, our heads are going to explode.
Untitled Spider-Man: Far From Home Sequel
As of right now, it very much looks like the untitled third Spider-Man is going to introduce a live-action Spider-Verse in which previous Sony franchises will be folded into the MCU to a certain degree. This is far from confirmed, but the rumor webbing is on the wall for Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker and Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker to join Tom Holland’s in the untitled third Spidey movie. The next logical step after that is for Holland’s version to crossover with Tom Hardy’s Venom.
There are plenty of pros and cons to work through for such an ambitious swing and we’ll admit that we aren’t fully sold on the idea just yet. But if true, a multiverse spanning narrative opens up an endless array of possibilities moving forward that will redefine the meaning of canon in modern superhero franchises.
Plus, there’s an elemental coolness to the idea of Maguire, Garfield and Holland all swinging through Times Square together.
Thor: Love and Thunder (February 11, 2022)
The return of Academy Award-winning creator Taika Waititi to the MCU is only a good thing. As I’ve been arguing for, Disney should do whatever it takes to sign the multi-talented filmmaker to an overall deal (with an upcoming Star Wars movie and multiple Disney-Fox projects in the pipeline, they may have already). Thor: Love and Thunder marks the first time an individual character-led Marvel franchise has exceeded beyond the typical trilogy structure with a fourth film. But rather than simply bang out another movie for the box office profits, this endeavor has a clear purpose.
Though Chris Hemsworth may stick around the MCU for years to come, Love and Thunder will see him pass the mantle of Mjölnir to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Badly misused in the first two Thor films, Portman’s Oscar-winning greatness will finally be put to good use as she takes up a central role in the MCU moving forward as the new God of Thunder. We’ve already seen Captain America pass off his shield to Falcon. Now, another passing of the torch will take place and presumably set up the next several years of Thor storytelling.
With the endlessly talented Portman in a central role, Marvel’s future looks exceedingly bright.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (March 25, 2022)
Most people are excited to see the multiverse shenanigans taken to their logical extreme in the Doctor Strange sequel, which will be arriving six years after the first film. We can’t fault anyone for that as the multiverse clearly represents the next big narrative thrust of the MCU (hello, Fantastic Four and X-Men). But we’re more interested in the structural composition this movie represents.
Feige has previously announced that the events of Disney+’s WandaVision will feed directly into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. This will be the first instance of Marvel’s direct cross-platform storytelling traversing different mediums and being interlinked to a significant degree. As such, it’s an important experiment for the future of Marvel storytelling.
The benefit of a vertically integrated conglomerate like Disney that controls multiple platforms is the ability to ping-pong characters and storylines between mediums while driving interest to both. But will audiences be lost if they aren’t up to date on every single last Marvel project? Is the barrier of access and size of commitment too grand for casual viewers to contend with?
How the WandaVision > Doctor Strange 2 experiment fares will directly impact how Marvel delivers content moving forward.