Warning: This article contains some mild spoilers for all the movies of MCU Phase 4.
How do you follow the Infinity Saga? With more, with bigger, with better. That’s got to wind Thanos up. Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) came to an almost abrupt conclusion when Marvel Studios redefined its fourth and fifth phases in the summer of 2022. Having been used to each new Marvel phase being larger than the one before, Phase 4 was a gear change as it intertwined the narrative of movies and series.
The small screen is arguably where Phase 4 has been most adventurous, with the genre and reality-skewering Wandavision and the animated anthology What If..? being just two examples. That’s where we met Lady Loki, Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, Agatha Harkness, She-Hulk, and Kate Bishop for the first time.
On the feature side, Phase 4 set out to increase the box office potential of the MCU (as much as the pandemic would allow) and diversify the franchise. That’s made it MCU’s most awkward chapter so far — almost an anti-Phase 1. If anything, it ripped up the Avengers template we knew and hasn’t rushed to replace it. It’s tried to balance the past and future, but its role in setting up the Multiverse Saga may not be clear for a while. Here’s our complete ranking of MCU Phase 4 on the big screen.
7. Eternals (2021)
It had been a while since we went into a Marvel film thinking it may be a one-off and Phase 4 delivered two in one year. Eternals was a big ask — a ready-made superteam created in some of the great Jack Kirby’s most colorfully surreal comics, but without the zany edge of Guardians of the Galaxy. Eternals signaled Marvel Studio mastermind Kevin Fiege’s plan to diversify the sprawling franchise. One way to do that was to snap up distinctive directors.
Chloé Zhao was an eye-catching hire. She was an Academy Award-winning director before this ensemble epic was released, but Eternals didn’t capture the public’s imagination. The film diluted the mythological source material, and it set records for critical and audience responses that were unfamiliar to Marvel. The jury’s out on whether it was a painful sign of how the multiverse can deepen and mature.
6. Black Widow (2021)
It was a bold move kicking off a phase using a well-liked character with no future. We’ve subsequently seen the future that emerged from Black Widow, but it couldn’t escape feeling a bit like a dead-end. It didn’t help that the pandemic pushed it onto Disney+ and into contractual disputes. Given a chance, it’s a good slice of the action, and the franchise doesn’t miss the opportunity to stage its own James Bond film.
In between the movie’s sadistic and manipulative threads, there was a super team of spies, safe houses, global excursions, and a villain who’s saddled with a curious accent and a giant secret cloud base. Perhaps its most significant contribution to the phase was setting up the important theme of dysfunctional families.
5. Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)
It was no surprise that Taika Waititi returned to the Thor franchise after the massive spectacle of Thor: Ragnarok. But that movie, for all its vast additions, could at least rely on the epic comic arc Planet Hulk. Love and Thunder’s exploration of love, thunder, and destiny — I mean revenge — may be one of Marvel’s most disjointed films.
It’s very watchable — how could it not be with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and nods to Jean-Claude Van Damme? All the cast puts in sterling work, particularly Christian Bale’s showreel of performance as villain Gorr. But it may be the phase’s least subtle handling of the past and future. The cynical cameos and booting off of the Guardians are just one example. Thor has to be careful in case his even-numbered movies start getting a bad rap.
4. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
While Black Widow dragged Natasha Romanoff back to her dark past after high-kicking Avenging adventures, Shang Chi’s debut elevated him from a shadowy childhood to be a great hope for the MCU. Shang Chi is purposefully lighter and more magical than other terrestrial Phase 4 movies. In movie theaters, you could feel the cobwebs left by Phase 3 being blown away.
Shang-Chi’s debut wasn’t just colorful, magical, and action-packed — it carried its heart on its sleeve. It delivers a charismatic turn from Simu Liu while solving the long-running puzzle of the Mandarin. It’s probably Phase 4’s best nod to the past and future. Expect Shang-Chi to be around for a long time.
3. Wakanda Forever (2022)
The Black Panther sequel had to do a lot: To continue the story of the MCU’s first Oscar-nominated movie, to close Phase Four and deal with and honor the loss of the much-missed Chadwick Boseman. The result features some of the most powerful emotional scenes in a Marvel movie. But Wakanda Forever is more about pulling some success from its immense burden than developing its predecessor’s triumph.
It’s a thrill to see Namor take flight in the MCU, although his struggle with the Panther doesn’t match T’Challa versus Killmonger. For all its spectacle, it’s mostly a personalized study of grief and consequence. While it messily sets out the stall for a vibranium-backed Phase Five, it misses the opportunity to explore important themes of capitalism and social progress as the MCU moves further from reality. It’s also a step away from the twists and popcorn-spilling moments that defined the top two movies on this list. After the intrigue that hid returning Spider-Men, and the misdirection of the Scarlet Witch’s fall, its solution to how to continue Wakanda’s legacy is what most fans expected, and many feared.
2. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Sony’s eighth Spider-Man film underlined the franchise’s mantra about great power and great responsibility. No Way Home was a cinematic event, but its entertaining nostalgia masked a sharp turn for the franchise. For years, Spider-Man’s movie adventures went hand-in-hand with speculation about comic arcs and the formidable villains that would cross from page to screen. This time, from its secretive cameos to Lego Star Wars figures, No Way Home was all about the web slinger’s 20-year film career — a noticeable break from the character’s comic roots.
No Way Home delivered some of the biggest cheers heard in movie theaters in 2021, but six months on, it’s hard to see how stomping down the walls of the multiverse will pan out. Doctor Strange’s solo follow-up didn’t provide any answers, and they may still form as Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 4 or Andrew Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man 3.
The movie’s biggest warning may be the realization that we wasted 20 years wishing Mysterio, Vulture, and Electro onto the screen when the most savage and utterly terrifying villain was there from the start, with Willem Defoe’s Green Goblin devastatingly proving that he’s Spider-Man’s greatest foe. As Spidey has a chance to draw in the web, the Spider-Verse needs all the luck it can get following this.
1. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
A controversial list-topper, but Doctor Strange’s sequel might be Phase 4’s most significant entry. The Sorcerer Supreme is a prime candidate to be the second A-Lister to follow Thor to four films, and when you compare this to the dullness of Thor: The Dark World, there’s a clear winner.
Multiverse of Madness was another attempt to broaden the depth of the franchise — a painful but necessary process. We never believed the rumors that the MCU would serve up a horror film until we saw it. Doctor Strange 2 nods to at least ten scary sub-genres, the biggest of which is ‘Sam Raimi’. Growing the idea of a witch and wizard at war, it’s incredible what the director got away with — and that’s a great realization walking out of the 28th movie in a franchise.
Unlike Spider-Man, Strange’s nostalgia threw back to 80s horror, leaving movie theaters in occasional quiet and shocked silences. The fingerprints of The Evil Dead were all over it, and it will take years of freeze-framing to uncover the darkness of some scenes. Unlike Eternals, Multiverse of Madness showed how a director’s sensibilities could adapt and steer important parts of the MCU juggernaut. Most importantly, it rose like a deadite from early drop-off and fan ire to land not far off Spider-Man’s phenomenal haul a few months before.
Multiverse of Madness is a fine companion piece to No Way Home, although it could have benefitted from drawing out Strange’s multiverse angst before he and his third eye start bouncing around it. Of all the heroes we’ve caught up with or been introduced to during this phase, Doctor Strange’s potential remains the most exciting.