Was This the Gas Leak Year?
MCU Phases IV & V
If you head out Online you can find any number of think pieces about "how much the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Phase IV sucked!" How, "the MCU is dying!". How, "this is the end of superhero films!" As much as I have written pieces (and made podcasts) discussing the failings of the MCU's Phase IV, debating its relative merits and flaws, I have always been clear that I think it's too early to stick a fork in Marvel's ambitions. They've made over $22 Bil so far across their cinematic universe. No matter how much one or two movies may have struggled, it's far too early to say they can just pack it in. You can't when you have that kind of money.
I mean, we can debate which items worked in the Phase IV and which did not. I loved WandaVision and Loki, thought What If...?, Hawkeye, and She-Hulk were reliably fun, was delighted by the throwback charms of Werewolf By Night, and would consider Spider-man: No Way Home to be the best SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. movie yet made. That's plenty of hits for the MCU, and while it also had plenty of misses (Falcon and Winter Soldier, Black Widow, and Eternals, just to name a few), I was nowhere ready to say, "I'm done with the MCU."
Admittedly I really can't be done with it until its wheels fall off and Marvel packs it in. I have this site and the MCU is a major topic I have to discuss due to what this site covers. I'll be talking MCU for as long as this site exists. That's the nature of the game. With that said, even if I were just a dude sitting on a couch, not reviewing shit, I'd still be watching the MCU right now just because it's fun. It has plenty of great items in it and it hasn't pissed me off to the point where I'd quit. Phase Iv wasn't bad enough to get me to quite this cinematic universe, not just yet.
With that said, if all of Phase V is like Ant-man and Wasp: Quantumania then, woof, we're going to have to talk. That movie is dreadful, a mis-created little abomination of CGI and green screens that really needed to spend another year in the hopper before it was even green-lit. It's not unwatchable, and I don't know if I'd even call it overall as bad as The Eternals (which was just a tedious slog), but for the film that was supposed to launch Phase V and set the cinematic universe on its definite path, it did everything except build buzz for the next phase of the MCU. But I have a theory as to why...
Now, this isn't going to be a brand new theory. It's absolutely not an original theory. It is, however, a great way to explain all the failings of the fourth phase of this cinematic series. That answer is, of course: COVID. The pandemic threw everything off. It changed the ways movies could be produced, how many people could be on set, where people could work. It changed everything, and Hollywood had to scramble to adjust. We have had a year of relative peace, but movies (and shows) take a long time to produce. Anything that released in the last year has been in the works for the two years prior, and those were most certain COVID come down years. Other projects were impacted in all ways by COVID, start to finish, and they struggled as well. It required the right minds, doing things the right way, to be able to actually make a good film during COVID times and have it be a success. Most production teams and directors weren't up for the task.
You can feel this most directly in Quantumania, which feels so very stagey. You can tell every time two characters are on a set by themselves, or when everyone is spaced out just right so they can be on screen together without masks on. It leads to limited blocking, a lot of standing around, and very bad set direction. A movie like the third Ant-Man and the WaspFirst developed by Hank Pym, the "Pym Particle" allows Pym (and a variety of successors) to transform themselves, shrinking (and growing) to amazing sizes. Joined by Pym's wife (and later his daughter), the Wasp is Ant-Man's ally and cohort in fighting crime. tries to cover for it best as it can, but the film is supposed to be epic and big, an AvengersMarvel's answer to DC's Justice League, this team features many of Marvel's biggest superheroes working together to protect the world and avenge its evils.-level event, and you can't do that on a bunch of small sets, little green screens, and The Volume. You just can't.
Not every work during Phase IV struggled with this, but the ones that worked understood how to make the most out of what COVID let them do. The TV shows were, by and large better than the films at this because TV is, by its nature, smaller in scope. Two people on a set together having a conversation is basic TV blocking and it works. The shows I really liked gave us street level action with street level heroes on small, properly designed sets. The shows that struggled were the ones (like Falcon and Winter Soldier) that wanted to raise the epic levels but just couldn't because COVID really didn't allow for it. They were hampered.
The best example I can think of for working within the bounds of COVID-19 was Spider-man: No Way Home. That film tells an epic, multiverse-crossing story that links all three Spider-man live-action movie franchises together, and it does it with grace and style. But when you watched it did you notice how infrequently more than three characters were in frame together? Did you see them spaced out in such a way they didn't infect each other? It's there but you have to look for it. The movie was smartly done to work within the bounds of COVID-19 but not show the seams of the production. It's brilliant.
Most of Marvel's struggles for this whole phase come down to COVID-19. I won't blame all of it on the pandemic, mind you. Some productions, like Eternals and Black Widow were ill-conceived from the beginning. However, it does explain how so many of those movies devolved into CGI muck by the end of the film. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings tells a very personal, very affecting story that, right when you expect to lead to a confrontation between father and son and they hash out all their issues with their fists, devolves into a CGI kaiju fight because, one has to assume, they couldn't put all the characters on screen at once and having one guy fight a CGI monster was safer (for COVID infections) than a close-up battle between foes. The best sequences in the film pit out hero against one or two foes at a time, in controlled ways. The worst action is just CGI muck. And this happened a lot in Phase IV.
Now, Marvel has always had a villain problem, and its not like CGI muck can't happen on the regular in this cinematic universe. Hell, Avengers: Endgame had a lot of CGI muck in its climactic final fight. But it also had a lot of characters iterating together and working as a whole to make you feel their connection. Battles during COVID time often substituted CGI for connection. That was the material that was lacking, and you can feel it.
This isn't to shit on Marvel, though. Like everyone else they had to figure out how to keep cranking out their product in an era where that was made more difficult. They produced 17 films, shows, and specials combined, a staggering feat considering it all came out during the pandemic. Pulling that off, despite the restrictions, is impressive. My assumption, though, is that we're through this now and as Phase V stretches out in front of us we'll see something more akin to the Marvel of old shine through. What gives me that hope? The teaser for the new The Marvels teaser trailer.
When you watch that trailer there's a few things that are pretty clear. For starters: actual sets. While some parts of the film do have CGI backgrounds, they're used with purpose. How else, for example, do you depict someone floating in space? In 2023, that's CGI. But there are a ton of practical sets, plenty of people all together in rooms, and just this breathed in, lived in space, which was lacking from Ant-Man's third adventure. It feels much more like a Marvel movie of old.
But, more importantly, it also looks fun. It has that right blend of bringing characters together to have them hang out (like the Marvel crossovers we were getting before the pandemic), while a bright and shiny adventure goes on around them. It looks fun. It looks epic. It looks like the kind of film that should have kicked off Phase V. I can't say it will be a hit, but this is the kind of magic Marvel needs to bring and, for now, I think they've actually managed (for this film anyway) to get that old mojo back.
So yes, I think that the last phase of the MCU was just a blip (or a Blip, if we want to use their term). I liken it to Community: Season 4, which is commonly referred to as the "gas leak year" (due to a tossed off comment in Season 5 to explain why the previous season sucked ("it was a gas leak in the school"). That season was the one season of the show were series creator Dan Harmon wasn't involved and his inability to guide the show was felt by everyone. Season 4 has its charms but it's nowhere near as good as what came before (or after) for the series. It's a gas leak year.
That's what I think of Phase IV: it was a gas leak year (well, three years or so). Shit got out of their control, they couldn't right the ship while the pandemic was going on, but now, with that behind us and productions getting back to normal, the MCU can get back to focusing on quality product. Hell, I even think the decision to back off on putting out so many movies, shows, and specials in a year is a good thing. They made 17 works in a single Phase, all during the pandemic. Like, that's amazing... but it's also stupid. A lot of resources were spread thin and it was hard to get anything of quality done and done well. Now, though, Marvel can breath and they can give each work in Phase V the dedication and time they need and deserve.
So, yes, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania sucked a big one. It's small charms could not overcome its big flaws. It should not have been the launch point for the Phase V. But, had it been released during the Phase IV, with an acknowledgment, "hey, this is pandemic media," I think we all might have been more accommodating to its flaws. It would have sucked, but like an old and ratty dog you could find it's slobbering charms fun. It should not have been called, "the start of Phase V". It just should have been, "this is a movie."
As for Phase V, I have hope. If we can all just accept Phase IV as a gas leak year and let the new phase work its own magic, I think we'll all be happier. This isn't the end of the MCU. This isn't the death of superhero films. Not yet on any front. Maybe that comes one day, but not yet. It was a gas leak, so let's see what happens now that the ship seems to have been righted.