WandaVision has a tall order to fill. It’s not only the first Marvel project of Phase 4, it’s the first MCU streaming series and the first project released after a longer-than-expected year-and-a-half hiatus for the franchise. All of that makes for a lot of weight riding on this show’s shoulders.
The scheduling for Phase 4 and beyond has gone through a lot of changes. Many of them have obviously been due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was shifting going on well before the crisis hit. For instance, had James Gunn not been fired (only to later be rehired) as director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it would have shot in early 2019 and most likely been the first project to be released in May 2020 (you know, if the pandemic didn’t happen).
The third Guardians movie would have been a natural fit to open Phase 4, as the plan appeared to be for it to close the book on the current iteration of the team while introducing some new ideas as well (there was said to be some set-up for Eternals in the film’s original script, which has surely changed now that Guardians 3 is set to come out well after that movie). But the Gunn firing controversy happened, and now we have The Suicide Squad coming out this year and Guardians 3 postponed (presumably to 2023).
Since the early May (or sometimes late April) date is the prime one for Marvel Studios, the decision was made to drop the planned July 2020 release date and push Black Widow forward to the May one. To me, this never seemed like quite the right way to open Phase 4 (even though its place as the opener was circumstantial). Even though it would have worked in a similar way as Spider-Man: Far From Home to tie up some loose ends and set up some new stuff for the future, a midquel starring a character who has already died in the main timeline that appears to be a much smaller-scale project than the most recent ones being the big comeback after a relatively long break for the MCU just seemed a tad underwhelming. These concerns weren’t about the movie’s quality so much as the level of hype it could bring and “Marvel’s back, baby!” statement it could make not seeming as potentially impactful as other projects, for various reasons.
Here’s the thing: The MCU keeps setting the bar higher and higher for itself, and it’s going to be hard for them to top it in terms of scale a la Avengers: Endgame, at least for awhile; for now they need to try to work on other ways to dazzle and surprise audiences. So after Guardians 3 moved back a few years and we started learning more about the first batch of MCU Disney+ series, I honestly wished Marvel would be able to get one of those done in time to be the project to kick off Phase 4, even though the shooting schedules clearly didn’t allow for it. All three of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, and Loki looked to be exciting and future-building for the MCU, taking it to new places via new genres. And the new-to-the-MCU medium of streaming for these projects would help them get away from some of the inevitable comparisons to what we saw in the Infinity Saga and allow them to stand as their own sort of thing.
Of these three, I would have chosen The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to be the first Phase 4 project out of the gate. (I know it’s because of production scheduling and the pandemic that it’s not going to be the first series anymore, but let’s pretend it was a possibility, okay?) There looks to be some level of focus on recovery from the Blip and setting things up for the MCU’s future. It looks like it’s going to be different enough to feel fresh and exciting, but not so different as to throw everyone into the deep end first thing and alienate potential viewers…which is a concern I have for what is actually going to be the Phase 4 opener, WandaVision.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very excited for WandaVision (even more than TF&TWS, actually). I’m glad the MCU is taking big swings with this show, and I expect it to be a critical hit. But those who have seen the first three episodes – including our own Charles Murphy – have said the episodes they were shown are very much focused on the domestic life of Wanda and Vision, and while that was pretty much what I expected based on interviews and promotional footage, I’m worried it’s going to be a turn-off to certain audiences. I can’t help but wonder what people who want a lot of action and big set pieces right out of the gate when getting their MCU fix, might feel when the first content they get in a year and a half is a 1950’s sitcom homage with no action and little supernatural or magical elements, especially when it seems like we’re going to be getting several weeks of these sitcom antics before getting to the more typical superhero fare.
As I said, I’m personally very excited for all of this, and am glad the MCU is exploring new formats and genres. But this particular project being the first taste of Phase 4 – an era that is already sort of “primed for hate” no matter what it produces because what came before it was so well-received – is definitely a big risk. I do think it’s a better fit for the opener than, say, Black Widow would have been precisely because it’s going big in certain respects (likely in ways that are atypical) and I can only hope that MCU fans will keep an open mind about WandaVision (and the rest of the upcoming slate) and that it may even draw in some new viewers to the franchise. If this works out well for Marvel, we’re sure to get an even wider array of stories in the future.