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A Look Into the 2021 Phase Four Marvel Shows

Circle split into five sections, each with an image representing one of the Marvel TV shows released so far on Disney+. Illustration by Everette Cogswell.

Spoiler Warning For Phase Four Marvel TV Shows

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began back in 2008 with the original Iron Man movie, casual viewers and comic enthusiasts alike would have no way of predicting where it would end up today. 27 movies, 14 years, and three phases later we settle here, at phase four. 

Reeling with the finale that was Avengers: Endgame, a new wave of Marvel media was announced in July of 2019 at a Comic-Con panel in San Diego, California. Alongside the announcement of the upcoming phase four films, Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios and producer of the films, revealed that multiple TV series would be released as well. This was a new venture for Marvel, who had produced TV shows in the past but had never incorporated them into the main storyline of the universe. 

Black Widow was to kick off the fourth phase but its release had to be postponed until 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following its success, Marvel planned to release the films, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Thor: Love and Thunder. Dispersed between these familiar projects was a new kind of storytelling, one that began with WandaVision.

Airing in January of 2021, WandaVision was the first Marvel show to be released on Disney+, with returning star Elizabeth Olsen featured as Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, alongside Paul Bettany as Vision and Kat Dennings as astrophysicist Darcy Lewis. The first few episodes played out as different eras of sitcom-style television episodes before bringing new characters and storylines into the picture. With the addition of Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), appearing for the first time since Captain Marvel, and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), we discover that Wanda, in an act of extreme grief, has closed off the town of Westview in a sort of bubble which she controls. Wanda displaying the full extent of her powers was a highlight of the show and really set her up to be a serious player in a new phase of heroes. Another highlight was the introduction of Agatha Harkness (Katheryn Hahn), whose story could’ve been contained at the end of the nine episodes but who is set to appear again in a future Marvel project titled, Agatha: House of Harkness. Maybe the most exciting scene, though, was the post-credit at the end of the show where we see Wanda practicing a new kind of magic, a kind that connected her directly to Doctor Strange. The storytelling of WandaVision was new, exciting, and made it stand out as a project. It set a very high bar for the rest of the shows to follow. 

Two weeks following the finale episode of WandaVision, the first episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier made its debut. Besides What If…?, Falcon and the Winter Soldier was the most stand-alone of all of the new projects; the characters were familiar but the storyline was more contained and was not as intertwined with the developing multiverse plotline. The show picked up after the events of Avengers: Endgame, where Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), fresh from his trip to the past, retires the Captain America mantle and passes it, along with his iconic vibranium shield, over to Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), formerly known as Falcon. Sam, being one of the most charismatic characters in the MCU, is an audience favorite and this show gave him a chance to develop and really come into his own as Captain America. One of the main parts of the story was Sam feeling the pressure of a racist society and government in terms of who Captain America could be. Sam and Bucky both were given a chance to figure out who they were without Steve, and grow into themselves and their hero identities. For Sam, a big part of this was helped forward by the introduction of John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the United States’s replacement pick of Captain America. Throughout the series, Walker’s actions prove him an inadequate Captain America, and someone who uses the title to demand respect and abuses his power. Sam grapples with the weight of the job that Steve has asked him to do, all the while dealing with Walker and the apparent antagonists of the series, The Flag Smashers. In the last episode we finally see Sam embrace the mantle, in a new spruced up suit complete with his Falcon wings and saying “I am Captain America.” 

Everyone’s favorite knife wielding, shapeshifting, trouble-causing god of mischief, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), returned from June to July of last year. Loki switches up locations, landing somewhere we’ve never seen before in the MCU, somewhere not even in the bounds of space and time: a place called the Time Variance Authority. The TVA recruits Loki to work for them, protecting and maintaining what they call the “Sacred Timeline.” The plot of the Loki series was not that integral to the central phase four storyline (for Marvel fans who never watched it) but the ideas it introduced for future projects were. The first idea is the existence of other universes and the people in them; the concept is that there is a multiverse, infinite possibilities of universes that are different versions of one another. The second is that the people in these universes are theoretically the same, but because their universes are different they aren’t identical; they are what the TVA calls “variants” of each other. We are introduced to this concept with the character Sylvie, played by Sophia Di Martino, who is a Loki variant. Throughout the show the two Lokis team up, meet more variants of themselves, and find the secrets of the TVA, including a man who reveals himself to be “He Who Remains” (Jonathan Majors). The show managed to take Loki right out of the original Avengers movie and give him the character development it took multiple movies and many years to get through, but in only a couple of episodes. The most important scene happens at the end of episode six, when the main timeline splits because of He Who Remains, and we can see it branch off from other timelines. The imagery is eerily similar to the scene in Avengers: Endgame where the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), explains the branching of timelines, and it works well to further the viewers’ understanding of the infinite ways future plotlines could play out. 

 After the introduction of the concept of the multiverse in Loki, the release of What If…?, takes us away from the main storyline for a little while to explore what kinds of unique stories could be told. Each episode of What If…? explores a character or characters in the MCU at a pivotal moment in their stories, except if a different decision was made, or action taken. For example, the first episode of the series proceeds with the origin of Captain America as usual, up until the injection of the super soldier serum. Except before Steve can be injected, he is injured and Peggy Carter (Hayley Attwell) steps in to receive it instead, effectively creating a new soldier by the name of Captain Carter. As the episodes go on we see characters interact who have had little or no contact before in the MCU, including T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) with the Guardians of the Galaxy and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) with Tony Stark (voiced by Mick Wingert). Because of the complicated mix of plots and characters, the episodes got messy very quickly and felt crammed for the amount of story in a thirty minute episode. What If…? was a good introduction to the multiverse, and a simple starting point for the complicated story that Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is sure to be

In November 2021, Hawkeye finished out the year with a bang. Running through December, Hawkeye managed to give depth to a character often overlooked in the MCU. Drawing inspiration from the Hawkeye comics written by Matt Fraction and David Aja, the show managed to make Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) infinitely more interesting by giving him an on screen personality and a life. The show also included Clint’s hearing loss, although since it had not originally been incorporated, the origins were different. Along with Clint being deaf, other aspects of the comics made it onto the screen, including the Tracksuit Mafia and two of the comics’ best characters: Kate Bishop aka Hawkeye, and the loveable and furry Lucky the Pizza Dog. Not only did the show give closure to Clint after his time as Ronin, but it did so in a way where Kate, played by Hailee Steinfeld, was able to get her footing as Hawkeye before Clint passed the torch and the show ended. While the character arc for Clint Barton ends up packaged nicely in a neat bow, the same cannot be said for other featured characters. Hawkeye’s ending hints at future storytelling to be developed around Laura Barton (Linda Cardellini), after establishing the fact that she was a former SHIELD agent (we can’t forget that Tony Stark called it first), and Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) aka Echo, after her final scene with Kingpin. There are also many questions surrounding the appearance of Yelena Belova, played by the charming Florence Pugh. Although there is no question that her appearance and subsequent banter with Kate Bishop was the best part of the show, audiences wonder about what her future with the MCU could look like. 

The appearance of new characters is so far the most exciting thing to come out of these shows; for many characters it feels like their storylines are coming to a close and are being replaced with a new wave of characters and stories. Marvel comic fans will recognize the slow introduction of a team of characters, one appearing after the other in the shows. Falcon and the Winter Soldier is where audiences get their first glimpse of Eli Bradley (Elijah Richardson), aka Patriot, a member of the team called the Young Avengers. Other members of this team are sprinkled throughout the show with Kid Loki (Jack Veal) appearing in Loki, Billy and Tommy Maximoff (Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne) making an appearance in WandaVision, and Kate Bishop as a leading character in Hawkeye. You can also see America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), or Miss America, who has the ability to hop between universes, in the background of the trailer for the upcoming Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness film (which could be a very helpful talent for the direction that the new Doctor Strange movie is leaning). Including these characters could be a coincidence, but an unlikely one, and there is a very high possibility that we will be seeing a lot more of them in the future, hopefully fighting together as a team. 

The future of Marvel looks bright and promising, and there are already many new projects in the works to look forward to, including Ms. Marvel, She Hulk, Moon Knight, Secret Invasion, and Ironheart. We have to wonder, will these stories keep coming or will there be a day that there isn’t a Marvel project to look forward to? I find it unlikely; after all, it is a universe forever expanding.                

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