The fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe testifies to its success. Most successful film franchises don’t last very long, with even the most notable—Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings—having their time in the sun before petering away.
The MCU, on the other hand, has grown bigger and stronger over time. Having capitalized on the success of its earliest cinematic phases, the MCU saw their most significant expansion yet with its ambitious Marvel Phase Four, venturing into the medium of television and introducing several pre-existing cinematic universes into the MCU’s greater continuity.
1 – Spider-Man: No Way Home
Spider-Man: No Way Home combined three pre-existing Spider-Men into one expansive film; it was a crossover every bit as ambitious as the original Avengers movies—if not more so.
After Spider-Man’s (Tom Holland) secret identity is made public knowledge, Peter Parker struggles to adapt to his new life now that everyone knows he’s Spider-Man. Seeking a solution, Peter enlists the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose botched spell results in Spider-Man villains from alternative dimensions entering their world.
No Way Home has a miraculous quality—a movie that most fans probably had never imagined and that more than managed to deliver on its promising concept. The prospect of seeing Andrew Garfield or Tobey Maguire excited fans enough, but seeing all three Spider-Men working together to bring down Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock or Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin made for Marvel Phase Four’s most exciting moments.
2 – Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel has a knack for making fantastic movies featuring lesser-known heroes. Oftentimes, the initial announcements of these movies have fans raising their eyebrows in confusion, perplexed at Marvel’s decision to adapt obscure characters into feature-length solo films.
Thanks to Marvel’s ingenuity and ability to translate forgotten heroes into the modern era, though, viewers have been gifted entertaining films based around such B-heroes as Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and—more recently—Shang-Chi, Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu who peaked in popularity in the 1970s.
In this film, Simu Liu plays Shang-Chi, a skilled martial artist trained as a master assassin by his father (Tony Leung). Trying to start anew, Shang-Chi confronts his father, who longs for immortality. A complex examination of family, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings served as the perfect Marvel Phase Four introduction for Shang-Chi’s character, dusting off the little-known superhero and elevating him to critical popularity among Marvel fans.
The movie’s predominantly Asian cast and crew also helped break down barriers when it comes to representation in the superhero genre, shedding many troublesome aspects of Shang-Chi’s character and backstory (a lot of which was mired by racist undertones and harmful stereotypes).
3 – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
After Chadwick Boseman’s tragic demise in 2020, it seemed like the potential for a Black Panther sequel disintegrated. To everyone’s surprise, director Ryan Coogler went ahead with his plans for an additional Marvel Phase Four Black Panther film in 2022, one that paid respect to the late, great Boseman and his unparalleled contributions to the MCU.
Grieving the loss of their prince T’Challa (Boseman), the inhabitants of Wakanda brace themselves for an impending battle against the underwater kingdom of Talokan, led by the isolationist warlord Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía).
A two-and-a-half-hour homage to Boseman’s tenure as Black Panther, Wakanda Forever opens itself up to a world of distinct possibilities, marking a transitional period in Black Panther’s history rather than serving as a final chapter. With the fan-favorite character Shuri (Letitia Wright) inheriting the role of the eponymous superhero, Wakanda Forever proved the Black Panther name was here to stay well into Marvel’s future.
4 – Black Widow
Set shortly after Captain America: Civil War, the world labels Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) a fugitive for her role in violating the Sokovia Accords. Now on the run, she’s soon contacted by her surrogate sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who asks for Natasha’s help freeing the other Widows from a mind-control plot.
The first movie in Marvel Phase Four, Black Widow harkens back to the espionage-heavy style of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, featuring Cold War-era plotlines, spy thriller tropes, and a morally gray presentation of the characters. The movie’s introduction of Pugh, Rachel Weisz, and David Harbour also made for an interesting dynamic, with the four main characters developing genuine familial connections with one another as time goes on.
An enjoyable enough movie to watch for its exploration of Romanoff and her past role in Russian spy circles, the movie’s main weakness can be directly attributed to its chief villain: Dreykov, a two-dimensional spymaster played by Ray Winstone. Other than that, Black Widow is a well-crafted Marvel Phase Four film, ending Scarlett Johansson’s tenure as the character at an all-time high.
5 – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
After a prolonged break from filmmaking following the release of 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, influential director Sam Raimi returned to spearhead the Doctor Strange sequel, In the Multiverse of Madness, an ideal follow-up to the universe-bending nature of No Way Home.
Happening across a teenager (Xochitl Gomez) capable of traveling through the multiverse, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) protects his new acquaintance from a relentless Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen).
Continuing Strange and Wanda’s story from No Way Home and WandaVision, In the Multiverse of Madness does a great job redefining each character’s trajectory in Marvel Phase Four, retooling Wanda as a sympathetic villain, and illustrating Strange’s gradual growth as a sorcerer. The film’s basis in horror also provides a welcome break from the typical comedic hijinks of the MCU’s previous films, setting In the Multiverse of Madness apart from anything that came before it.
6 – Thor: Love and Thunder
Embarking on a cosmic journey side by side with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns from semi-retirement to stop a murderous alien (Christian Bale) intent on killing every god in the universe.
The Thor movies have a lack of consistency from film to film. Whereas the first two Thor films were far too tedious, Ragnarok struck a fine balance between comedy, sci-fi, and action, something that appeased most fans who had grown tired of Thor’s slow-paced, dire adventures.
With Love and Thunder, though, director Taika Waititi tipped his hand, doubling down a bit too much on the comedy and not enough on the story. While the performances of Hemsworth and a returning Natalie Portman are stellar, most fans took issue with the Marvel Phase Four movie’s more comic moments, with Hemsworth himself responding, “It just became too silly.” No matter what, at least Love and Thunder is still miles ahead of the second Thor – itself a serious low point in the MCU.
7 – Eternals
Eternals proved that not even the MCU could make 26 good films in a row. One of the lowest-rated Marvel movies to date, as well as the first MCU movie to have a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes, the flaws found in Eternals stem from how “game-changing” it was supposed to be, with the movie trying to accomplish too much.
After the events of Avengers: Endgame, an ancient race of immortal aliens known as the Eternals emerge from hiding to defend Earth from their centuries-old enemies, the Deviants.
Eternals has plenty of scope and ambition, with Marvel meaning for the picture to have a similar impact as their earlier Avengers films. However, the movie floundered a bit when it came to character development and pacing. Director Chloé Zhao had the difficult task of introducing ten new heroes to the MCU with Eternals, and making a movie engaging enough to keep viewers interested throughout its lengthy runtime (two hours and 37 minutes).
The film does contain some positive aspects, including its impressive visuals, sense of inclusiveness, and the performances of the actors involved (Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, and Kit Harington). And yet the movie’s abundant weaknesses overshadow its highlights, resulting in a film too uneven and too complicated for its own good.
Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).