This article contains Black Widow spoilers.
The wait is finally over, as Black Widow has arrived in theaters and on Disney+ to end a two-year drought in which no new movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were released. Of course, the powerhouse company kept the flag flying with the premiere of three well-received series on its streaming platform — WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and the outstanding Loki — but the MCU was born on the big screen and there’s something reassuring about seeing it return there.
But now that Black Widow is out more than a year after it was first slated for release, what happens next? Ironically the film that is kicking off the MCU’s long-awaited Phase Four is a look back at the past, the filling in of a chapter in the back story of one of the founding Avengers. But aside from the introduction of the woman who is clearly going to take over as the Black Widow going forward (Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova) and a key post-credits scene (more on that later), Black Widow doesn’t offer up a ton of insights or clues into the future of the MCU.
For that we have to look ahead.
Now that the pandemic is (hopefully) fading into the rearview mirror, Marvel is getting aggressive with four new movies in the second half of 2021, four in 2022 and anywhere from two to four in 2023. But following Black Widow, the studio’s next two releases are perhaps its riskiest bets since Guardians of the Galaxy defied the odds and became a pop culture phenomenon back in 2014.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Ironically, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (September 3) harkens back to the earliest days of the MCU, with the Ten Rings organization first mentioned in 2008’s Iron Man. Of course, fans have been waiting for the real Mandarin as well since 2013’s Iron Man 3 fakeout, and they’ll finally get him in the form of brilliant Hong Kong actor Tony Leung. But the focus here is introducing Simu Liu as the title’s master of martial arts and the first Asian character to headline a superhero film — a groundbreaking move that Marvel no doubt would like to have the same response as Black Panther back in 2018.
Shang-Chi has two more unexpected MCU connection points that were revealed in its latest trailer: a brief scene at the end gave us a glimpse of a cage match pitting Doctor Strange right-hand man Wong (Benedict Wong) against the Abomination, a character last seen way back in 2008 in the nearly forgotten The Incredible Hulk. Scattered rumors suggest that the film may take place during the five years of the Blip or Snap or whatever you want to call it, which is how Wong ends up here; either way, he’s one link to the MCU, while the Abomination — also slated to return in Marvel’s upcoming She-Hulk series on Disney+ — is another.
It’s hard to tell which Marvel title is more obscure to the general public — Shang-Chi or Eternals, the latter of which arrives on November 5. Based on Jack Kirby’s cosmic tale of immortal humanoid beings called the Eternals waging a secret, ongoing war to protect Earth from the evil Deviants — with both sides the creation of ancient entities known as the Celestials — Eternals is directed by Nomadland Oscar winner Chloe Zhao. Its first trailer gave us a look at a film that doesn’t quite track with anything Marvel has done before, and it remains to be seen how this experiment feeds into the greater path of the MCU.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
There’s nothing obscure about Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the film — the third and possibly last co-production between Marvel and Sony — is expected to be a pivotal one for the MCU with the long-rumored introduction of the multiverse to mainline Marvel canon (although technically Loki has already broached the subject). Tom Holland returns as Spidey, Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Doctor Strange ahead of his own crucial movie in 2022, and while we don’t know yet who the main villain is, it’s the worst kept secret in the biz that Alfred Molina and Jamie Foxx are encoring as Doc Ock and Electro from previous Spider-Man iterations (thanks Al!).
No Way Home is due out in just over five months — on December 17 — and Sony (which controls the marketing for Spidey standalones) has yet to release a second of footage from the film. Has director Jon Watts (also back for his third go-round with the wallcrawler) packed his movie with too many surprises to show us anything at this point?
Each MCU film is important in its own way, but No Way Home may alter the very fabric of the mythology in a fundamental way, as will the movie coming hard on its heels. But before we get to that epic, however, let’s take a brief break and see where things stand with Marvel on the Disney+ platform.
With Loki about to close out its run, the next Marvel series will be What If…?, the first official animated series from the MCU. Just like the comics of the same name, the show will feature reimagined events from the history of the MCU, featuring characters like T’Challa, Peggy Carter, Thor, and more. While the show is speculative in nature and will likely have little or no direct connection to the larger MCU, What If…? (premiering August 11) certainly will promote the idea of alternate realities even more and help to pave the way for the emergence of the live-action multiverse later in the year.
Ms. Marvel will introduce the popular teen Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) from the comics and will also serve as a springboard for the Pakistani-American superhero and Captain Marvel fan to join her idol in The Marvels, which is due out in 2022. Full details about the plot and additional characters have yet to be disclosed, but the six-episode show will continue Marvel’s major push to diversify the MCU.
We know, thanks to the post-credits scene in Black Widow, that the next Marvel series in the chute, Hawkeye, will directly play off events occurring on the big screen. In that scene, which takes place in the present, Yelena is standing over Natasha’s gravesite (which is presumably empty since she died on Vormir in Avengers: Endgame) when she is approached by Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) about seeking revenge for Natasha’s death against Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner).
Pugh is all but confirmed to appear in the Hawkeye series, which will likely focus on Barton’s recruitment and training of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) as the new master of archery for the Avengers. Louis-Dreyfus is not listed in the cast yet, but seems likely to appear as well.
As usual, Marvel is playing its cards close to the vest and will adapt the comic book characters and narratives as it sees fit, but the introduction of heroes and anti-heroes like Bishop, de Fontaine, John Walker/U.S. Agent (from TFATWS), Belova and others point to everything from the Young Avengers to the Thunderbolts and Dark Avengers.
Both Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye are expected in late 2021, with premiere dates TBA.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
With 2021’s theatrical MCU slate focused on introducing both new characters (Shang-Chi and the Eternals) and new concepts (the multiverse), the four titles scheduled to arrive in 2022 will bring out some of the universe’s biggest guns.
First out on March 25 is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, directed by the great Sam Raimi (Spider-Man), and you can bet that this will be one of the most important titles of Phase Four. It says it right there in the name: the multiverse is coming, and there’s no question that the film will play off events in both Spider-Man: No Way Home and WandaVision, since the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) will be showing up in this movie too (Olsen described the movie to Glamour as having a “horror show vibe”).
Loki head writer Michael Waldron has written the latest draft of Doctor Strange 2, which is very encouraging news, with Rachel McAdams (Christine), Benedict Wong (Wong) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo) all returning and Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez in the latter’s long-awaited MCU debut. Plot details are non-existent, but we can fully expect this film to have an enormous impact on the MCU as it barrels into the future — or many different futures.
Thor: Love and Thunder
Thor: Love and Thunder will blast its way into theaters after that, on May 6, and promises to be one of the biggest and most fully stacked spectacles of Phase Four. Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi returns, as does Chris Hemsworth (of course), while Natalie Portman will reprise the role of Jane Foster (and also debut as The Mighty Thor) for the first time since 2013’s Thor: The Dark World (not counting her repurposed Endgame footage).
As we said, this looks like a packed film, with the Guardians of the Galaxy showing up as well (for how much of the picture remains to be seen), Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, Jaimie Alexander’s Sif, and Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster all returning, and Christian Bale making his MCU debut as Gorr the God Butcher. How it might or might not connect to the events happening back on Earth and the introduction of the multiverse is also unknown at this point, but we expect this film to be perhaps even bigger in scope and more outright bonkers than Ragnarok.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Also shrouded in perhaps more mystery than usual is Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. But considering the circumstances — losing the lead actor, Chadwick Boseman, who defined the character of T’Challa for tens of millions with just a handful of appearances, it’s something of a miracle that cameras are now actually rolling in Atlanta on this motion picture.
What’s it about? No one knows, but if movies like Doctor Strange 2, Eternals and No Way Home will delve into the cosmic and/or mystical side of the MCU, than we suspect writer/director Ryan Coogler may keep Wakanda Forever firmly rooted in the geopolitical end of the universe, especially since some of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje turned up in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Of course, Marvel geopolitics may involve nations like Latveria or even Atlantis, but that’s another story.
With nearly everyone returning from the first Black Panther — aside, of course, from its newly minted and now fallen king — we suspect that Wakanda Forever (out July 8, 2022) will address the loss of Boseman in a way that is full of grace, heart and majesty. Just don’t ask us how the hell to pull it off.
Captain Marvel 2: The Marvels
As you can see, the further down we get in the schedule, the vaguer the details are. Which brings us to The Marvels, formerly known as Captain Marvel 2. The title makes sense, since Ms. Marvel will cross over to the big screen with this November 11, 2022 release, but we also know that the adult Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) — now imbued with powers of her own — will be coming over directly from WandaVision. From what we recall, Monica wasn’t too pleased every time the name of Carol Danvers was invoked on that show either, so there’s potentially a lot to explore in that relationship.
Nia DaCosta (Candyman) is directing The Marvels, which will also feature Zawe Ashton as a yet-to-be-disclosed villain. With Monica Rambeau and Kamala Khan both in the mix, it seems as if this adventure will be a bit more Earthbound…but don’t forget, the Skrulls are still out there too, which leads to our next section.
The Marvel Studios series slate on Disney+ gets a little fuzzier once we get into 2022, but we know that Moon Knight, She-Hulk and Secret Invasion are all going to premiere, along with possibly Ironheart, Armor Wars and an untitled Wakanda-based show.
Of those, Moon Knight may have the least direct connection to the overall shape of the MCU in Phase 4. Oscar Isaac will star in the title role, with The Exorcist TV series creator Jeremy Slater as the head writer/creator on this one, but we suspect that Marc Spector and his multiple personalities will pursue his own journey onscreen, at least in the short term.
She-Hulk may pursue a similar tack, least of all because it’s said to be in a more comedic vein, although it’s confirmed that Tatiana Maslany’s Jennifer Walters will be joined in the show by Marc Ruffalo as Professor Hulk and Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky/Abomination. Does the latter’s now-confirmed appearance in Shang-Chi (or at least a CG version of him) take on greater significance as a result? Or does simply plant a seed for his return in She-Hulk next year? Stay tuned.
With Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn returning as Nick Fury and Talos respectively after their stints in Captain Marvel, it’s obvious that Secret Invasion will feed directly off the Skrulls storyline that was started in that film.
While the Skrulls we’ve met in the MCU so far are ostensibly “good guys,” there certainly seems to be room for Fury and Talos to have to defend the Earth from a rogue Skrull faction looking to infiltrate the highest levels of human society and government. “Secret Invasion” was a major Marvel Comics storyline, so it will be interesting to see whether Marvel Studios keeps it contained to this Disney+ series or expands upon it in the movies as well.
As for the others, Armor Wars is the one we have the most info on, since Don Cheadle has been tapped to lead the show as War Machine. With the show reportedly revolving around the black market for Stark Tech — and Sharon Carter now apparently very much involved in that black market — some elements of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may find their way into this narrative (same with Ironheart, since that show’s main character, Riri Williams, develops her own version of the Iron Man suit).
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Arriving on February 17, 2023 is a film that could — believe it or not — be the most important of Phase 4. We say “believe it or not” because until now, the first two Ant-Man movies stood largely on their own, with little direct relevance to the bigger MCU storylines.
But with the Avengers traveling through time via the Quantum Realm in Endgame, with the multiverse becoming a major factor in Phase Four, and with the name of the damn movie actually being Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, we suspect that the true nature and potential of the Quantum Realm will finally be tapped.
But just as importantly, Quantumania will introduce a villain who is very likely to be the big, Thanos-sized baddie of Phases 4 and 5: Kang the Conqueror. With Jonathan Majors confirmed for the role, Kang’s MCU debut has widespread implications for the overall arc of the franchise. Putting in simple terms, he’s intent on conquering the universe and travels freely through time to achieve his goals. In the comics, he’s a descendant of Fantastic Four leader Reed Richards and also has a relationship with Ravonna Renslayer, who we just met on Loki.
While some of this may turn out to be nothing more than Easter eggs deliberately planted by Marvel to make fans nuts (which it does), the truth is that we may even be seeing the seeds of Kang’s agenda right now on Loki, and there’s a very good chance that he will be one of the main antagonists faced by a new iteration of the Avengers either late in Phase 4 or in Phase 5.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
The galactic end of the MCU will again take center stage in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, set for release on May 5, 2023. Writer/director James Gunn has hinted that this is the last film to feature the squad he first assembled in 2014, but other than that — and the long-awaited and heavily hinted debut of Adam Warlock — little is known about the plot except that it will follow the events of Thor: Love and Thunder, in which the Guardians also appear.
Fantastic Four, Blade, Captain America 4, and more!
That is all we have for the known, confirmed MCU Phase 4 movies. Fantastic Four, with Spider-Man director Jon Watts at the helm, is definitely in development, as is a reboot of Blade with Mahershala Ali as the title character. There are also three unfilled Marvel release dates in 2023 — July 28, October 6 and November 10 — so two of those could be filled by those two films, with a third to be determined (possibly Captain America 4? Or Deadpool 3?).
The Big Picture
The MCU is clearly moving along several narrative tracks: the Earthbound, geopolitical drama most clearly defined by movies and shows like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Hawkeye and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; the bizarre multiverse madness of Doctor Strange, Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home; and the galactic intrigue of Thor: Love and Thunder and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Lurking in the background of all this is the arrival of Kang; the impending MCU debut of the Fantastic Four — which may lead in turn to the appearance of such major Marvel figures as Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer and Galactus — and eventually the presence of mutants and the X-Men, who themselves may arrive through the collision of multiple universes.
Whether Marvel Studios chief creative officer Kevin Feige and his team have all this mapped out, and all these narrative strands eventually coalesce, remains hidden from us at the moment. But make no mistake: Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now underway, and barring unexpected changes, catastrophes or the worst kind of apocalypse of all — the box office kind — it’s going to get a lot bigger.
Black Widow is out in theaters and available via premium access on Disney+ now.