It’s March 2023. Ant-Man & The Wasp in Quantumania has been released, and is marked as the official beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)’s “Phase 5.” We’re now 15 years, 31 movies, and hundreds of TV episodes into the experiment that is the MCU, making it the biggest and most successful film franchise in Hollywood history.
Retroactively, the first three phases have been dubbed “The Infinity Saga” by marketing people, as it revolves around the villain Thanos and his collecting the Infinity Stones to put his schemes into effect.
But what are these phases?
In short, they’re a guideline to help each film slot better into viewing order. For example, you can watch pretty much any of the Phase One movies in order, as long as you watch Iron Man 2 after Iron Man 1, and watch Marvel’s The Avengers (titled Avengers Assemble outside North America) last. After that, move on to Phase Two. Watch those films in any order, and be sure to end with Avengers: The Age of Ultron, and you’re good (Technically, Ant-Man is the final film in Phase Two, but you can watch it anywhere in the timeine and it’s fine).
Phase 3 is a little trickier. It kicks off with Captain America: Civil War. Then you can watch Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel* in any order. Then move on to Avengers: Infinity War, then Ant-Man & the Wasp**, and Avengers: Endgame. Finally, phase 3’s denoument is Spider-Man: Far From Home. Events in Endgame inform the plot of the 2nd Spider-Man film, so it has to go at the end.
*Captain Marvel can actually be watched at any point during the first three phases before Avengers: Endgame.
**The events of Ant-Man & The Wasp happen BEFORE Infinity War, but the mid-credits sequence happens DURING Avengers: Endgame, so to avoid confusion and spoilers, it fits best between the 3rd and 4th Avengers films.
And each Phase has a theme. The first Phase was about assembling the Avengers. Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America each got solo origin movies. Black Widow debuted in Iron Man 2. Hawkeye cameoed in Thor before being properly introduced in Avengers. And if that was the end of the shared universe thing? Bravo. A perfectly fine ending. But after the credits, we caught a smirk from the villain that Loki had been working for: Thanos. And anybody who knows their Marvel comics knows that Thanos is one of the most powerful, most dangerous characters there is.
If Phase One was about building heroes up and them coming together, Phase Two was about breaking everybody down and separating them. Iron Man 3 started with the titular hero’s PTSD after the events of Avengers. Thor: The Dark World was about all not being as it seemed in Thor’s life. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a political thriller showing that corruption is always present. Guardians of the Galaxy was about introducing and exploring the cosmic side of the MCU, and gave us some more information about the Infinity Stones and Thanos. Avengers: The Age of Ultron introduced us to Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, and showed how Iron Man’s PTSD affected his judgement, furthering the corruption shown in Captain America: The Winter Solder. Finally, Ant-Man was a story of redemption for a criminal, showing that everybody deserves a second chance.
Captain America: Civil War brought all of the Earth-based characters introduced so far in the MCU together and gave us the MCU versions of Black Panther and Spider-Man. And while it’s marketed as the beginning of Phase Three, it’s really the end of Phase Two. In the end, the heroes are supremely divided.
Doctor Strange, Guardians vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and Black Panther all introduce us to new heroes, while characters from Phases One and Two stick around to keep the shared universe tied together.
And then Thanos attacks. Everybody sees that any differences they had are not as big as whatever this prune-faced madman from space is doing. Friends-turned-enemies become friends again. Everybody works together. They re-assemble, if you will. EVERYBODY comes together, and in the end, the heroes win. There are some casualties along the way, but good triumphs over evil and the galaxy is avenged.
So where do you go from there? The Avengers saved the Earth at the end of each of the first two phases, and they saved the universe in the third. Fiction needs to keep escalating, so what’s bigger than saving the universe?
Multiple universes that are all a little bit the same, but also different. Maybe there’s a world where everybody is zombies. Maybe there’s a world where Steve Rogers didn’t become Captain America but Peggy Carter did. Maybe there’s a version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the Inhumans TV show wasn’t a complete failure. It’s LIKE what you already know, but some event at some point in the timeline triggered a change bringing about a reality differently than what you remember.
And that’s a pretty far-out concept for general audiences. People who are already entrenched in Marvel Comics history, or even pretty deep into science fiction, will be familiar with the idea of a multiple, alternate universes and timelines. But MOST people don’t think that way. For most people, who they are and what they know is all their is, and the thought of things being any different is TOO strange to wrapt their heads around.
So Marvel needed to ease people into that idea.
Spider-Man: Far From Home introduces the idea that Mysterio is from another world. That turned out to be a lie for that movie, but it planted the seed of the idea of alternate realities. And while it’s not offically part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse confirms that, yeah, there ARE alternate versions of Spider-Man from different realities. Okay, so Spidey can deal with alternate realities. But what about the Marvel Universe as a whole?
The Disney+ show, Wandavision, is about the Scarlet Witch using her reality-warping abilities to change the reality around her, and make it more like the sitcoms she watched as a child. She took a single town and kept changing it into different realities, based on sitcom tropes of different decades — Different universes, if you will. The Loki show took the villain from the Thor films and the first Avengers film, re-cast him as a timeline-hopping detective, and teamed him up with an alternate-reality version of himself. Eventually, he meets The One Who Remains, an alternate-reality version of the villain known as Kang the Conqueror. (More on Kang later.) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gives us a fight at the end of the film that has dragon-like beings from another world, as well as a mid-credit sequence showing that the Ten Rings are… probably not from the main Marvel Universe?
And then we get a bit more direct: Spider-Man: No Way Home just says “fuck it” and gives us nothing but multiverse shenanigans, by officially putting the previous two live-action Spider-Man film franchises as part of the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse. What If…? is an animated series that is literally all about possible alternate realities. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness just straight-up has Multiverse in its title, and has Dr. Strange and the Scarlet Witch jumping between realities and meeting other versions of Marvel heroes, as well as meeting some the MCU hasn’t introduced yet. Ms. Marvel fights villains from another world. She-Hulk: Attorney At Law just straight-up breaks the fourth wall, because she knows she’s in a TV show — An alternate reality. Thor: Love and Thunder deals with Thor teaming up with an alternate Thor, confirms that all gods from all religions exist in the MCU, and even gives us a brief glimpse into the reality of the afterlife.
Wandavision, Loki, What If…?, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Shang-Chi, Spider-Man: NWH, Dr Strange: MOM, and Thor: L&T. NINE entries into the MCU just to set up the concept of a Multiverse.
Note: I haven’t watched Eternals or Moon Knight yet, so those might also be part of the multiverse deal? I dunno, I can’t watch everything!
Meanwhile, Disney+’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t about alternate universes, but it deals with the fallout from Thanos’ attacks, and continues the political espionage action from the Captain America films. Similarly, the Black Widow film actually take place during Phase Three. And Disney+’s Hawkeye ties the MCU into the Defenders shows that were produced by Netflix, meaning that Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, The Punisher, and The Defenders are now all officially MCU canon (they probably were before, too, but they were always kind of off to the side). And Black Panther: World of Wakanda shows the world dealing with the loss of T’Challa the Black Panther, and introduces us to Namor the Sub-Mariner and the underwater Talokan empire. Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Black Widow, Hawkeye and World of Wakanda all feature cameos by Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I’m not exactly sure what’s being set up there, but I would wager it’s going to pay off in Phase Five’s Thunderbolts film.
Finally, as mentioned at the beginning, Ant-Man & The Wasp in Quantumania is the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 5. And it takes place in ANOTHER alternate reality, the Quantum Realm — One that was set up in the previous two Ant-Man films. Plus, this movie gives us Kang the Conqueror — Or, at least, a different version of him. Remember, an alternate reality version of the same character appeared in the Disney+ Loki show. And Marvel have already confirmed that one of the upcoming films will be titled Avengers: The Kang Dynasty.
So in the end, I’d say that Phase Four was about two things: Cleaning up some of the mess from the Infinity Saga, and setting up what we’re about to get in Phase Five.
I don’t think every one of these films or shows are perfect. I even understand why some people might not like them. But I think each of them has a purpose, and we won’t know fully know what that purpose was until the end of Phase 6.
So sit tight, True Believers! More Marvel is coming.