When Robert Downey Jr donned his now-iconic red-and-yellow armour in 2008’s Iron Man, few could have imagined that his successful portrayal of “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark would spawn a cinematic franchise the likes of which the world had never seen before. Indeed, since this opening instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – the massive movie franchise run by Marvel Studios, based off of characters from Marvel Comics – cinemagoers across the globe have fallen in love with Iron Man and his merry band of superhero friends, The Avengers.
Much of this ‘Marvel-lous’ world’s success lies in its deft ability to blend jaw-dropping action scenes, poignant storylines and irreverent humour, which have pretty much become the calling card of the Marvel movie-going experience, infecting even the most cynical critics with Marvel Fever and causing them to root for such out-of-this-world protagonists as a gamma ray-infused rage monster (The Hulk), an interchangeably-sized ex-con (Ant-Man), a talking tree (Groot of Guardians of the Galaxy), and everything in between.
It is precisely this magic formula that has allowed Marvel to far outstrip any studio competitor, leading it to spin one collective story across 22 movies and three separate phases in what is colloquially known as The Infinity Saga. This superlative success has also translated into lucrative financial gains, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe having grossed over US$22 billion worldwide to date.
However, now, with Iron Man dead, Captain America seeking post-retirement bliss and Spider-Man caught in a web of disputes that may see him exiting the MCU forever, it’s safe to assume that the recently-announced Phase Four line-up will be a very different beast from the 22-instalment saga that preceded it. While the films are almost all still in preproduction, Marvel fans the world over are already abuzz about what to expect. Kevin Feige, the franchise’s executive producer, has also added to the anticipation by dropping a few spoilers as well. So what, exactly, can we expect?
First, as confirmed by Marvel, we can expect nine different instalments – a mix of feature films and TV series – which will run from 2020 to 2022. The studio has already promised to bring back some familiar faces, including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, in addition to introducing several brand new characters. There have also been less-than-subtle hints that this will be the most inclusive line-up in MCU history, with its first Asian superhero, first openly-queer character and first deaf superhero, all soon to finally get their fair share of the spotlight.
The most well-known of the next slate may well be Black Widow, set for release on 1 May 2020 as the debut Phase Four outing. Given that Natasha Romanov (aka the Black Widow) forfeited her life in the fight against supervillain Thanos, the upcoming prequel will undoubtedly indulge in Marvel’s penchant for time-travelling shenanigans, transporting audiences back to a time when she was hale and healthy. If rumours are to be believed, the movie will take place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. A glimpse of the confirmed cast / character list, meanwhile, reveals that we will get a more in-depth look at the Red Room, the Russian superspy programme that spawned Romanov. Scarlett Johansson, reprising her role as the assassiness-turned-hero, will be joined by David Harbour (Stranger Things), and Academy Award, BAFTA and Laurence Olivier Award winner Rachel Weisz.
The God of Thunder also looks set to break with his traditional trope in Thor: Love and Thunder, the fourth instalment of the Thor series, which is slated for release on 5 November 2021. While the return of its star, Chris Hemsworth, and Ragnarok director Take Waititi were all but expected, the news that Natalie Portman (who acted as Jane Foster, Thor’s love interest, six years ago) would not only be reprising her role, but would take over the mantle of Thor from Hemsworth caused much uproar. Add to this the fact that Valkyrie, last seen becoming the new King of Asgard, will be looking for her Queen, and this is one movie that surely has everyone at the edge of their seats.
Meanwhile, the Sorcerer Supreme – ably portrayed by an American-accented Benedict Cumberbatch – is also set to return to theatres in Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness (7 May 2021). While its plot is yet to be revealed, the movie presents an exciting opportunity to introduce the MCU to the multiverse – where many universes coexist simultaneously. However, in a marked shift from the norm, Marvel has already announced that this will be the franchise’s first-ever horror film, so expect a higher-than-normal dose of spine-tingling thrills, all courtesy of the main villain, the chillingly-named Nightmare.
From here, the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase Four line-up gets more murky, with little real information available as yet. What we do know, however, is that – come 12 February 2021 – Marvel’s first Asian superhero will be getting his very own feature film in the form of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, starring Simu Liu of Kim’s Convenience fame as the titular character. The superhero, also known as The Master of Kung Fu, is pegged to come up against the real Mandarin (portrayed by Hong Kong’s very own Tony Leung), the villain falsely embodied in Iron Man 3 by Ben Kingsley and Guy Pierce.
Another somewhat-new introduction is The Eternals, starring A-listers like Angelina Jolie, Selma Hayek and Kit Harrington. It also features the first deaf superhero, Makkari, to be portrayed by The Walking Dead’s Lauren Ridloff. While these mythical characters have been hinted at in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they haven’t been explicitly name-checked until now. According to the comic books, though, the Eternals are a race of superpowered beings created by a group of space gods called the Celestials. Thanos, the supervillain at the heart of the franchise to date, was an Eternal, and the upcoming movie will introduce others still.
Interestingly, nearly half of Marvel’s Phase Four line-up consists of small-screen series. While the studio has had TV outings before, they’ve never been a part of its cinematic universe so far. Now, though, thanks to a partnership with the newly-announced Disney+ video on-demand service launched by Marvel’s parent company, Disney, fans can expect several of their MCU favourites to hit the small screen post-Endgame. The first of these series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, is set to release in the autumn of 2020, and follows the adventures of the new Captain America, Sam Wilson, and Bucky Barnes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and the God of Mischief, will also get his own spin-off show, which follows his adventures upon escaping with the Tesseract to an alternate dimension. Two other TV shows, one featuring Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and the other with Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s The Vision, round out the list.
In all, while Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will likely retain many of the facets that have made its movies such box-office hits, it is refreshing to see it move away from the tried-and-tested style of its predecessors. Be it through a wider array of characters or the use of mixed-media channels, it could be that this experimental style could yield even bigger profits for the studio. While it will be seven months before we can begin to see the results of this gambol, we can, in the meanwhile, contemplate the many Marvel-lous possibilities…
Text: Tenzing Thondup