In 2022, Marvel Studios’ Phase 4 ended after a volume of projects were released in theaters and on Disney+. It wasn’t going to be easy moving beyond the Infinity Saga, as it would always be in the shadow of Avengers: Endgame wrapping up what some may have felt was the franchise’s true end and the weight of expectation that erupted from it. Going by the Internet’s usual reactionary tale, there have been some mixed emotions at times in regard to how exactly Phase 4 has wrapped up. There have been highs and lows, but there’s something curious about the way the franchise has been developing for over ten years in.
Lightning in a Bottle
Cinema has been dominated by superhero films; there’s no denying that fact. Not just by Marvel Studios but any other studio trying to replicate the style and base concept that led them to what they are today. The Cinematic Universe remains a distant dream for some studios even as others built their own take that allowed them to at least attempt a similar style of world-building to make use of that glimmer of replication they’d been searching for.
Even Sony struggled to somehow get the Marvel license to work in their favor with various strange choices in characters to headline their own Spider-Man spinoff. After the DC Extended Universe failed to truly get going, they now are simply wiping the slate clean with Peter Safran and James Gunn spearheading the entire cinematic universe. As of now, they are Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav‘s only hope to create what Kevin Feige kickstarted back in 2008.
Going by how desperate the attempts have been throughout the years, it’s easy to just forget how insane it’s been that Marvel Studios’ held up a cinematic franchise for over ten years. It even ends in a grand finale that wraps up so many stories in a way that almost seemed impossible to accomplish a few years ago. Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame were game-changers for this approach and only Marvel could pull it off.
Limitations of a Studio
Imagine you’re in the same shoes as a production study that already managed to do the impossible. They build a cinematic universe and managed to wrap up its initial storylines in a way that had many come together in joy. What do you do next? They pretty much have to set up a sequel that not only welcomes a new era of heroes with some legacy actors leaving their respective roles behind while also paying tribute to what came before. It’s not an easy task for any studio to just whip up while still trying to leave one legacy behind.
Wherever one feels about Phase 4, Marvel Studios took on way more risks going into the latest generation. Not only did they have Disney+ but also had the opportunity to reshape the way we view what makes a Marvel film what it is. The Marvel formula trope has been around since the first Phase of the MCU, and just doing the same thing over and over again would not always yield results.
Don’t forget: Marvel Studios only has Marvel. The Internet may complain about the number of projects they put out and have the IP Marvel brand slapped onto it, it’s all this one production studio can use. They aren’t Lucasfilm that developed other projects based on various IPs besides their anchor of Star Wars. They aren’t Warner Bros. that can publish Don’t Worry Darling and Black Adam in the same year as distinct projects. Marvel is in their name and it’s all they can use.
Disney’s Plus on Pressure
Plus, the expectation of any project being part of the MCU adds to that pressure. Disney+ is a Disney-owned streaming service that needs to become competitive fast. It would’ve been dumb not to make use of your biggest brand to ensure its growth can compete with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and more. So, Marvel Studios now stands at the challenging crossroad to help Disney grow its streaming service while remaining bound to its MCU structure.
Marvel Studios didn’t just up their production without any forethought; no matter how some tried to paint that very picture. They absorbed Marvel TV, who had barely any projects moving forward and facing challenges long before they entered the streaming game, to make use of their experience. They had long-time employees that were involved since the early days take on producing roles to help these developments.
Now, they wanted to offer something unique while former Disney CEO Bob Chapek tried to shape the streaming service with his own unique team; something Bob Iger‘s return swiftly wiped out. There’s a lot that happened behind the scenes throughout the years that definitely made Phase 4 way more challenging than it truly needed to be. We don’t know all the details but somehow Marvel Studios still managed to produce some high-quality productions as they adapted to a new format under very challenging circumstances.
A Pandemic of Issues
Speaking of, we can’t forget that there’s another elephant in the room that is still showing its fangs to this day. COVID-19 changed everything we know and hampered many productions throughout the years. It forced the newly developed Volume technology, made popular through The Mandalorian, to take on a much bigger role for projects like The Batman, Thor: Love and Thunder, and more. VFX artists are forced to work from home trying to keep up the usual pace we saw before the pandemic.
Productions like Black Adam pushed back its release to work on its VFX longer, but this still led to the similar issues anyone has accused Marvel of throughout the year. There’s a bigger issue at play with how VFX artists and the industry’s general abuse of its systems, but it’s not a singular problem even if the most popular franchise became a quasi-popular choice to point it out. Productions like Moon Knight or Falcon and the Winter Soldier couldn’t film in locations due to travel restrictions, forcing them to adapt as quickly as possible.
All these small issues add up and can be seen in some productions. Not just that, Marvel Studios even with its TV merger was still new to this game. They not only had to adapt their usual structure to a format they weren’t adjusted to but during times when you’re not given many choices in how you adapt. Most productions that have released up to this point were all still filmed during the high point of the pandemic. There’s an interesting irony in how two of the only productions to beat box office expectations in 2022, Minions: Rise of Gru and Top Gun: Maverick, are holdovers from 2020.
Phase 4’s Gamble
Under all these circumstances, there’s something fascinating about how Phase 4 felt the most creatively free of any phases. Fittingly, it felt like a callback to the early days when Marvel Studios was still learning the ropes during Phase 1. The studio took a gamble with Phase 4 by simply diversifying rather than relying too much on what worked in the past. In a way, they may have worried that the superhero fatigue would set in eventually; even if it has been mentioned since Avengers: Age of Ultron all the way back in 2015.
So, they seemingly took more chances with their projects. She-Hulk had a very specific audience in mind that opens up their portfolio to new viewers. Moon Knight was an actor-driven project while Secret Presentations introduced a more open concept for further exploration of the MCU in short film form. Even the films had some rather strong director-driven elements like Chloé Zhao introducing indie filmmaking elements with Eternals, Sam Raimi doing his thing in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Taika Waititi going full comedy in Thor: Love and Thunder.
Playing the Long Game
As much as people want to focus on the now, this gamble is something more for the long term. If they diversify and try out new things now, they’ll benefit from it further down the line as the new Saga, confirmed to be the Multiverse Saga, finds its legs. Still, they haven’t lost all their momentum and power at the box office, especially after a harsh year like 2021.
2022 was the first year of recovery for the box office since the pandemic hit and Marvel Studios still stands strong at the box office with most of its entries pulling in strong numbers. People tend to point to them not passing a billion with any of the projects as one warning sign, but it’s not too surprising given China’s exclusion, two key markets currently at war, still adjustments post-pandemic, and a generally dead year for releases.
Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun Maverick are the only films this year showcasing any strong legs; ironically both being the same type of nostalgia-driven entry building upon a long absence combined with good word-of-mouth. Marvel is still going strong and all that in a post-Endgame blues phase that would require some reshaping and reorganizing to keep going.
Phase 5 and Beyond
We’re about to enter Phase 5 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s got a lot of interesting projects that seem like they continue this trend of what we saw before. The projects may continue to get more interconnected moving forward as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania builds upon the main antagonist of the saga, who may also appear in the second season of Loki. Secret Invasion and The Marvels may build upon each other reshaping our understanding of the world; perhaps even past projects. Daredevil: Born Again and Echo act as a pair further exploring more grounded elements of this world with Captain America: New World Order and Thunderbolts‘ rumors hinting at the MCU continuing to expand in creative but exciting ways.
The MCU is not going to end anytime soon and we may slowly see a shift back to those elements that people fell in love with. Marvel Studios may also adapt its pacing with the shows and films; especially after taking some lessons from what they learned. Bob Iger is back in charge at Disney and he may give some more freedom back to the studios that were lost during Chapek‘s reign and the needs built around Disney+. We may also see some lessons learned from the pandemic on how to best optimize and further develop their projects.
Change isn’t something immediate, just like how the Phase 4 gamble may not pay off for everyone right now. While the outcry machine that is the internet remains the way it is, there’s more to what is currently happening. Fatigue may be building up for some but others may have just found themselves joining a world they only heard about from friends. Maybe everyone is just waiting for that one project to catch their attention like the franchise used to; especially with our nostalgia for what once was many years ago. Like any long-running franchise, we sometimes remember “what once was” with different glasses than when it was released especially after the emotional rollercoaster that was Avengers: Endgame. Perhaps there’s a good reason why there hasn’t been another Avengers film since and won’t be until 2025.