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Marvel Phase IV: Obliterating the Walls Between Film and TV

Marvel’s Hall H presentations are legendary. At the start of the evening, there’s Kevin Feige alone on a stage with a giant screen behind him displaying a timeline of exactly when the next movies will come out. By the end, the timeline has been filled in with actual titles and a motley crew of famous guests have graced the stage, officially joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe or announcing their surprise return. The crowd loses it mind, Twitter explodes, and the world immediately prepares itself for the newly announced movies that will define pop culture for the next couple of years.

Last night was no different, in that regard. We started with a bunch of blank spots on the release calendar and ended it knowing the next five MCU movies, in order, are as follows: Black Widow (5/1/20), The Eternals (11/6/20), Shang-Chi And The Legend of the Ten Rings (2/21/21), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (5/7/21), and Thor: Love and Thunder (11/5/21). Plus, announced but undated are Captain Marvel 2, Black Panther 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy 3 as well as apparent new movies for Blade, Fantastic Four and X-Men, though Feige only referred to the latter as “those mutants.”

Newly joining the MCU are actors like Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Florence Pugh as mysterious co-stars in Black Widow, Mahershala Ali as Blade, and a crapton of famous people in The Eternals (Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, and Salma Hayek). The big surprise returnee this time around is Natalie Portman, who will be joining Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in Thor: Love and Thunder in a loose adaptation of Jason Aaron’s fantastic run on Thor: Goddess of Thunder in which, spoiler, a cancer-stricken Jane gains Thor’s superpowers and hammer but at the cost of seriously exacerbating her illness.

All perfectly newsworthy and sure to lead to countless deep dives on obscure comic book histories. Furthermore, we are still left with a ton of questions, like:

Where are the Avengers? When will we get Spider-Man 3 or, as I’m just this very moment choosing to call it, Spider-Man: Can’t Go Home Ever Again? What new can of storytelling worms is going to be opened up by Doctor Strange officially exploring the multiverse? How is it going to work out that the next Thor movie is due before Guardians of the Galaxy 3 even though last we saw them Thor had left the real Asgard to Valkyrie and ran off with his “Asguardians of the galaxy”? Is there an overlapping narrative behind all of this like The Infinity Saga? Or are we entering a transitional period of more relative standalones?

Wherefore art thou, Ant-Man and Wasp?

And, since they happen to be my personal favorites, when will we see Scott, Hope, and the Ant-Man characters again? As had been previously speculated, are they among the MCU characters being sidelined in favor of a Tony Stark post-Iron Man 3 phase where they have no set franchise and simply roam in and out of other movies as supporting players? (No wonder Paul Rudd was so happy to join the new Ghostbusters.)

However, before we get too deep into the weeds on all of this there is a bigger picture to appreciate, and it is this: Marvel’s phase IV isn’t about defeating an intergalactic titan or advancing the cause of diversity with more non-white/non-male superheroes, although of the five new movies due through 2021 two will be directed by women and three by people of color. It isn’t even about, in a more general sense, putting out a bunch of tentpole movies which loosely interconnect. No, Phase IV is quite clearly about finally breaking down the walls between film and TV.

For example, there will be 7 MCU releases in 2021 alone. For a moment last night during the presentation when the exact titles had yet to be announced, the internet pondered the apparent madness of releasing 7 Marvel movies in a single year.

But Marvel doesn’t need to flood the theaters with that many movies (the rest of the industry suddenly exhales). The studio has, for all intents and purposes, already conquered that particular arena and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The next great frontier is obviously streaming, which is why the company will have more Disney+ streaming shows in 2021 than it will movies.

Tucked in-between Shang-Chi, Doctor Strange 2, and Thor 4 will be the previously rumored, but now officially confirmed and (sorta) dated shows WandaVision (spring 2021), Loki (spring 2021), What If?… (summer 2021), and Hawkeye (fall 2021). These will follow The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which will debut in fall 2020 and feature the return of Daniel Brühl’s Baron Zemo.

Moreover, following up on something Feige had previously promised these shows – well, not so much What If?, which is an animated alt-history anthology series returning a bunch of MCU actors, including some Agent Carter alumni, for voice-overs roles – will impact the MCU. WandaVision, we learned, will directly lead into Doctor Strange 2, which is why Elizabeth Olson will star in both. How exactly Vision factors into all of this remains a mystery, even to Paul Bettany, who quipped, “Last thing I knew, I died in Infinity War, so I literally have never been this confused in front of this many people in my whole life.”

That all of this happening should come as no real surprise. Much of last night’s presentation contained news which had already leaked, such as Taika Waititi returning for Thor 4, or had been heavily rumored, such as Scott Derrickson returning for Doctor Strange 2, Jeremy Renner returning for Hawkeye to hand the bow to Kate Bishop, or Loki focusing on Endgame’s alt-universe iteration of the trickster. The Natalie Portman reveal is a legit surprise and does introduce questions about whether Chris Hemsworth might be more of a co-star than outright star of Thor 4, yielding even more screen time to Portman and Thompson.

However, it’s one thing to know much of this is already coming and it’s another thing to finally have it confirmed and look up at a timeline which has just as many MCU streaming shows as movies.

It used to be that after every Marvel Hall H presentation you could circle a bunch of dates on a calendar and know that if you lived in the US that’s when you’d get to see the big new movies. Now you have to do that but also keep up with a $7-a-month subscription fee to Disney+, knowing full well that such a loss-leading price point is bound to go up in a couple years. Moreover, if you live outside the US it’s suddenly very important to know exactly when Disney+ will be made available in which territory:

The Marvel people have obviously toyed with this in the past, expanding the MCU to Agents of SHIELD and the Netflix shows. However, there was always a wall between them. You didn’t need to read any shocking behind-the-scenes report to sense that the people making the TV shows were not the same people who made the movies. They co-existed, sure, but not harmoniously. The Marvel movie people simply didn’t want to risk alienating general audiences by obligating them to watch certain TV shows to understand the movies, and the TV people were stuck making shows which were sometimes additive, often times wholly independent, but definitely not integral to the overall story.

Those days are over. To see what happens next with major movie characters like Falcon, Winter Soldier, Scarlet Witch, Vision, and an OG Avenger and villain like Hawkeye and Loki respectively you have to subscribe to a streaming service. Details on who exactly will be writing and directing those shows remains fuzzy as do the little things, like exact episode counts. Either way, Marvel’s streaming is suddenly a landing spot for very well-known characters whereas the movies will be more of a mix of new and old.

For the past 11 years, Marvel Studios has reshaped Hollywood and trained a global audience to consume movies like comic books, completely hip to wonky continuities, creative changes whenever a new director comes along, and a sense that everything is connected. Now Marvel is pushing us to again take our geekdom just a little bit further and give into a year-round assault where the experience of heading to a theater to take in the latest movie or sitting at home and binging the latest Disney+ series will be almost be indistinguishable. (The movies, presumably, will have bigger budgets and more explosions.)

Meanwhile, the rest of the traditional movie industry is crumbling around us. I wonder, how many theater owner right now are pondering if Disney would ever let them exhibit some of the Disney+ shows for those fans who might fancy binging a show about movie characters at an actual movie theater? After all, the movies and TV shows – the differences between them matter less and less.

To be sure, it is a great time to be a Marvel fan. They literally have more characters than they know what to do with right now and a rich, new platform like Disney+ to use for all the overflow. However, last night’s Hall H presentation was both familiar and new, signaling a future where movies and streaming shows are given equal weight in the company’s promotion. It’s an obvious next step, but a rather significant one. An already well-fed audience is about to have more Marvel content than they ever could have imagined.

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One comment

  1. Great post. For me personally, the most exciting announcement from ComicCon was Elizabeth Olsen joining the cast of the Doctor Strange sequel and the events of the WandaVision show having major links to the movie. IMO, Doctor Strange mentoring Wanda to unlock her true potential makes for a logical and compelling arc, and opens up so many intriguing possibilities, including ‘House of M’. I’m really hoping that this will be the movie that also lays the groundwork for introducing the Fantastic Four and the X-Men in the MCU.

    If you are interested, please check out my thoughts on the MCU Phase 4 as well.
    https://letstalkcinema.movie.blog/2019/07/21/comic-con-2019-mcu-phase-4/

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