Marvel studios head Kevin Feige confirmed last month at San Diego Comic-Con that the Marvel Cinematic Universe film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and the TV event The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special would be the final installments of the franchise's Phase 4. The franchise's Phase 5 of storytelling will kick off with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in 2023, and as we head into new storytelling avenues for the franchise, many fans are looking back at the themes of Phases 1, 2, and 3, with each narrative arc having more obvious objectives. With Phase 4 seeing the debut of TV series on Disney+ to tie into the theatrical releases, this presented exciting new opportunities to expand the mythos of the MCU, especially in the fallout of the momentous Avengers: Endgame. While an obvious Phase 4 theme might not immediately be apparent, with its closure just around the corner, it becomes clear that Phase 4 of the MCU was meant to explore trauma, loss, grief, and how those things impact not just individual characters, but the universe (and multiverse) as a whole.
The idea that Phase 4 of the MCU is about exploring trauma isn't exactly a surprise. The arc comes after two back-to-back massively traumatic events with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame which saw half the population snuffed out of existence in an instant and then snapped right back in another instant, albeit five years later. That's a lot of trauma to unpack and even Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness producer Richie Palmer noted that Phase 4 is absolutely shaped by it, previously telling Empire Spoiler Special Podcast that Phase 4 is very much a reaction.
"Phase 4 is all a reaction —and I don't mean on our part as filmmakers, I mean the characters…It's a reaction to the trauma of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame," he said. "We're still feeling those effects in these movies years later."
But while that is absolutely true, a closer examination of much of the actual Phase 4 content reveals stories that are about far more than just a reaction to those world altering events. Black Widow, for example, is set before Infinity War and Endgame, but still deals with the impacts of trauma — and healing from it — had on Natasha Romanoff leading up to Infinity War and ultimately her sacrifice in Endgame. Spider-Man: No Way Home is less a reaction to Infinity War and Endgame and more of a reaction to a different sort of trauma — specifically, what happened when Peter's identity was exposed. One could even go so far as to argue that both WandaVision and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness are themselves not entirely reactions to Infinity War and Endgame, either in that they both center strongly around a much larger pattern of trauma, grief, and loss experienced by Wanda Maximoff, a pattern that started long before Infinity War.
When you separate those aspects out of things, what emerges is an arc that is less driven by one major story and instead, important character beats that takes viewers into the humanity of those who make up these stories. By telling a collection of these stories, Phase 4 in a sense functions more as an anthology of trauma and loss with varied outcomes on how people approach and deal with it. Loki faces his issues and begins to emerge a true hero. Wanda Maximoff's path goes in a markedly different direction. Thor finds himself emerging with new purpose and plenty of new heroes begin to emerge as well. And, as a bonus, it worked out in terms of timing with the real-world as well. With coronavirus pandemic, we were all going through our own life-altering experiences and being faced with our own grief and our own trauma. Phase 4 let us process our own losses with our heroes. It's an approach that doesn't necessarily line up with the rich continuity of story that Marvel fans have come to expect from the MCU, though the stories do undoubtedly link together, but this sort of pause to explore more individual tales serves as a foundation for the next big swing — one that could be even more intense and complex thanks to the arrival of Kang in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
And that, ultimately, is the point of MCU Phase 4. It's both an exploration of the experiences of its characters and a pause to dig into those more intimate and important, complex character stories as a way to set the stage for the next big world event. Stories really only work when audiences are invested in the characters. By taking Phase 4 to really understand some of these players, Marvel has set up for a Phase 5 and a Phase 6 that may just rip our hearts out and simultaneously thrill us beyond anything we saw from the Infinity Saga. We may still need plenty of tissues and even a bit of therapy, but we'll be ready.