MCU Phase 4 and 5: What the Multiverse Means for the Future of Marvel Movies and TV

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now an MCU multiverse thanks to Loki. What does this mean for MCU Phase 4 and beyond?

MCU Phase 4 Multiverse
Photo: Marvel/Universal/Netflix/20th Century Fox/Sony

This article contains Loki spoilers and potential spoilers for the wider MCU.

The ending of the Loki season finale made one pretty substantial change to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The introduction of a full multiverse, caused by Sylvie killing He Who Remains, is an enormous shift in the cosmogony of the MCU. And it opens up some fascinating story possibilities for Marvel’s film heroes. So what does the introduction of a full, unlimited multiverse mean for the future of the MCU?

Hopefully, everything. Literally.

There are obvious near-term implications to Loki’s finale. It answered questions that Spider-Man: No Way Home (with its purported multiversal Sinister Six) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness asked back when Loki first premiered. Specifically: “What do you mean there’s only one universe?” 

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The beauty of time travel is that now, there is and has always been a full multiverse in the context of the MCU. Because whatever Kang War happened far in Loki’s subjective past (because the timelines were left to run wild when Sophie killed He Who Remains), the entire history of the MCU is now potentially subject to retcons as necessary. So the strong implication from Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse that that movie and all its various spider-people existed on Earths parallel to Tom Holland’s MCU can now be considered accurate, even though the movie came out years before Loki was even a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s master MCU spreadsheet. 

Time travel is a trip, man. It’s also beautiful. Literally anything is possible now. 

What Does the MCU Multiverse Mean for Marvel TV?

This sort of thing happens all the time in comics. The slang is “retcon,” comics-speak for retroactive continuity, where creators reach into their characters’ pasts to change something that impacts their present. 

Loki’s infinite multiverse sets up the entirety of Marvel history for any number of retcons that the folks in charge might deem necessary. It allows current MCU casts and crews to cherry pick what they liked from old MCU projects and fold them into this new normal. All those times Agents of SHIELD didn’t quite line up with what the movies were doing? The show was on an alternate Earth! Want Ghost Rider back without the TV baggage? Blame it on a Kang!

And grabbing the stuff that worked from old projects means porting in the good actors, too. That means people like J.K. Simmons, the Platonic ideal of J. Jonah Jameson, can continue playing the role across from three different Spider-Men, or Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio can show up as Daredevil and Kingpin in Spider-Man: No Way Home while Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings nukes Netflix’s Iron Fist continuity from orbit.   Wondering how Ms. Marvel could potentially deal with concepts from the Inhumans without ever mentioning that disastrous TV show? Now we know. 

Could the MCU Multiverse Retcon Marvel Movies?

This same ability to pick and choose the continuity most appropriate for the story applies to decisions the movies made, too. A full multiverse lets future filmmakers bring back Chris Evans as Captain America or Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow (OK…maybe not ScarJo) without burdening the MCU with yet another time paradox. As far as we’re concerned, pre-Marvel Studios curiosities like all those crazy old live action Marvel TV shows or Howard the Duck or Dolph Lundgren’s take on The Punisher are now officially canon somewhere within the multiverse.  

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Phil Coulson could show up in Phase 6 leading a Squadron Supreme (just like in the comics), out for vengeance against the Avengers because they let his Earth 20085 brother die. Hell, if they really wanted to get dirty, Nick Fury could hire Deadpool to kill Coulson in retaliation, like in the comics. Wait, that was Secret Empire,wasn’t it? Never mind, don’t do that. 

Anyway, you get the idea.

The possibilities are as infinite as the imaginations of the writers, limited only by Kevin Feige’s patience/sense of humor. Don’t expect anything too crazy: the time travel solution in Avengers: Endgame was wild, but before Loki, that was far and away the most ridiculous comic book science the MCU had trafficked in. Typical MCU adaptations include much more modest nods to comics’ wackier elements – Eternals pending – like secret societies that had taken over SHIELD or Kurt Russell being Chris Pratt’s dad. So that ultra-maxi series that starts out a movie, moves into a TV show, has a comic tie in that directly crosses over with the show, and wraps up in Avengers 6 that we’re all hoping will come to pass is probably not on the horizon.

The Crisis on Infinite Earths Problem

An infinite multiverse doesn’t just mean possibility. It has a trap built in, too. The biggest multiverse story of all time, probably the one that set the template for future interactions with the concept, was DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earths. That book set the standard for multiversal destruction, collapsing DC’s infinite comics timelines down to one single Earth and one single timeline. Gone were the separate Earths for the modern Justice League and the World War II Justice Society, replaced by one, unified timeline. And while the comic itself was a masterpiece, miraculously balanced by Marv Wolfman and beautifully drawn by George Perez; what it wrought on the DCU was 30 years of explainers why the Green Lantern of World War II still looked 35, or why Batman has only been operating for five years but went through six Robins in that time.  

The cautionary tale here is one of inward looking stories versus expansionary choices. Post-Crisis DC retcons were about fixing problems the writers and editors perceived with the new timeline, and not about telling the best story they could with the characters and continuity they had. This is an easy trap for a new, expanded (but not all the way expanded) MCU to fall into. There are key pieces of the comics that haven’t been ported to the films yet. 

The Fantastic Four

The temptation is likely huge to use this new, beautiful, infinite multiverse to introduce the Fantastic Four and the X-Men to the MCU. That’s probably half of a good idea.

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The cosmogony of the multiverse is ingrained in who the Fantastic Four are. Their story begins as explorers of the unknown – Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, and Johnny Storm are bombarded with cosmic radiation after an unauthorized space launch. That origin is very of the time when they were created, and would probably hit different now when the only unauthorized space launches are led by giant assholes. So why not take a page from the end of Secret Wars and have them get their powers exploring the new multiverse? It makes so much sense to do it that way that one is almost suspicious of this entire retcon. But that doesn’t make it any less cool.

The X-Men in the MCU

While introducing the Fantastic Four to the MCU by saying they’ve been off exploring the multiverse would make a certain elegant sense, if Marvel tried to introduce the X-Men that way, it would be hugely problematic. 

The core concept of the X-Men is the mutant metaphor, the idea that mutants are hated and feared because of who they are. On a completely superficial level, this is nonsense: what’s the difference between Cyclops’ eye blasts and Captain Marvel zapping Kree ships with fist beams? Why are mutants singled out for scorn and bigotry when someone like Doctor Strange has MUCH more terrifying abilities?

The difference is the idea that mutants are humanity’s destiny. There’s no concern that the majority baseline human population is going to someday be replaced by handsome super-soldiers or radioactive Catholic lawyers. But that genetic distinction – the idea that Magneto and Apocalypse and Pixie and Skids all share a distinct identity, while Captain America and Daredevil and Dr. Druid and Tigra do not – creates tension that allows real world out groups to superimpose their struggles onto X-Men comics and makes them infinitely relatable.

As superficially attractive as the idea of plopping the mutants on their own parallel Earth might be (and trust me, this definitely seems like the simplest justification for keeping Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool in the MCU while jettisoning anything else that is less appealing for audiences or studio execs), putting the mutants on their own separate Earth strips that struggle from the story and makes them just another cape crew.

Worse, using the multiverse as justification that suddenly mutants are here because they came from a parallel timeline disrespects the marginalized people who identify with the X-Men who, like left-handed people, have been here the whole time. Whether society noticed or not.

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The Sony Spider-Man Problem

What keeps me up at night about the new Marvel multiverse is the Spider-Man family. The Marvel/Sony relationship has always been…complicated. 

While the new multiverse provides creators with endless storytelling opportunities that could expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it also sets up an easy out for the studios to separate the Spider-Man movies from the rest of the MCU. Cleaving off the Spider-family movies wouldn’t be great – I don’t need to be reminded of complicated business deals while I’m at the movies. Dedicating all of a future Spidey movie to explaining why Pete isn’t in the master MCU and can’t talk about Iron Man anymore would almost certainly be a nightmare.

But these inward-looking continuity fixes are the types of stories that Marvel, on page and on screen, has generally avoided (before you jump in the comments to shout “CLONE SAGA” please take into account how much work “generally” is doing in this sentence) with its big multiverse stories. Hopefully they’ll keep making those wise decisions going forward.