Intermezzo Phase: A Look At Marvel’s Phase Four

Nobody puts on an announcement like Marvel Studios; since the death of Steve Jobs Kevin Feige has become the number one “standing on a stage and announcing thing” guy in the world, and this year’s slew of reveals at San Diego Comic-Con was no different. Feige laid out Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although I don’t love this – we only got two years worth of releases, and no climaxing team-up as we have had in the previous three Phases. 

If Phase Four is just a bunch of movies, what even is a Phase anymore? I certainly would like this cleared up, because one of the things that has been great about the MCU to date is that each Phase has felt like a chapter, and they have all been leading up to something. Unless the Doctor Strange or Thor movies are some sort of culmination film, we’re dealing with a little wayward Phase here. An intermediary phase. Intermezzo Phase. And it could be Intermezzo because it lost the big player it was counting on Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3.

But first let’s talk about what is in Phase Four: Intermezzo Phase. It’s interesting that the new Thor movie closes Phase Four, meaning even in this phase of new franchises we’re bookended with OG Avengers movies. Leading the pack is Black Widow, hitting May 1, 2020. Set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Black Widow sees Scarlett Johansson’s superspy up against the Red Guardian – a Soviet take on Captain America – and the Taskmaster, whose superpower is that he can copy anyone’s moves perfectly, making him an incredibly difficult opponent. And in the midst of it all is Yelena Belova, another graduate of the Red Room program that turned Natasha into a killer. 

This is an interesting way to kick off the Intermezzo Phase. It’s a flashback film, not picking up from the events of Endgame, but likely setting up some sort of New World Order for the spy side of the MCU. After all, Yelena Belova is also the Black Widow in the comics, and I think what we’re seeing here is the beginning of a legacy character. Florence Pugh is such a great choice for this; I wasn’t that aware of her previously but she blew my socks off in Midsommar

In many ways Black Widow is a safe bet; she’s a known entity, the film is likely smaller and cheaper, and being heavy on hand-to-hand combat will make the film feel fresh in the Marvel line-up after a whole bunch of big, epic stories. Getting back to that Winter Soldier vibe will be great, and somehow we’re all old enough that it could even feel nostalgic.

The next MCU film, however, might be their riskiest bet since Iron Man. Yes, Guardians was a big risk, but it was a movie that had a couple of things going for it – James Gunn brought a specific tone that you could guess in advance, it was set in a space opera milieu that, while weird, wasn’t totally unknown, and the characters actually had some storylines to pick and choose from, and some different iterations to use as foundation.

But The Eternals? Damn. This is the biggest creative and financial risk the studio has ever taken, I believe. First of all, the Eternals are like D-list at best. Jack Kirby created them when he returned to Marvel after a sojourn at DC Comics, but he created them as a way of sort of continuing his masterwork, the Fourth World Saga of the New Gods. The Eternals are basically The New Gods Again, but without the larger narrative and mythological thrust that Kirby brought to the DC character. Nobody has ever made the Eternals work, not even Neil Gaiman, who sputtered out on a hyped relaunch of the property a bunch of years ago. And almost none of the Eternals have found success outside their core group; one character, Sersi, joined the Avengers for a while… but she doesn’t even seem to be in this movie. 

So who are the Eternals? They’re a race of beings created by the godlike Celestials (you saw one of them in Guardians of the Galaxy, using an Infinity Stone to wipe out the population of a planet) and who protect the Earth from their mirror-image race, the Deviants. The Eternals are the inspiration for a lot of the gods of the Ancient World (which is weird because in Marvel Comics many of those gods also exist, but whatever), and they’ve been running around in secret for centuries (which makes them a lot like The Inhumans, Kirby’s first run at some of the stuff that would coalesce into The New Gods). 

But that’s the Eternals in the comics. Who the hell knows what they’re gonna be in the movie; since the comic characters never took off and have no defining storylines, the sky’s the limit on this film. What makes it even more unknowable is that the director is Chloe Zhao, whose two features to date have been taciturn stories of modern cowboys and the American West – unlike Gunn we can’t look at her past work and say, “Oh, OF COURSE this is what The Eternals will be.”

So we just don’t know what the heck they’re doing with this movie. They’re definitely not being fully committed to the comic – Kumail Nanjiani is playing Kingo, who in the comics is a Japanese Eternal who dresses like a samurai. They’re definitely doing their own thing, some of which involves almost breathtaking diversity – The Eternals will be the first Marvel movie to feature a disabled hero, with deaf actress Lauren Ridloff playing Makkari. In the comics Makkari is male and hearing, so we can really see how much they’re changing up.

What makes The Eternals feel riskiest is that I don’t know there has ever been a movie of this sort that has been successful; I can think of a handful of films about groups of gods who hang out, but none quite worked (not even the brilliant Gods of Egypt). I don’t know if this film will have the Eternals living in their capital city of Olympia (not Washington) or if they’ll be living among humans around the world or what, but this feels like a real leap into something new, and without a good roadmap.

Which makes it exciting, of course. 

Also exciting: the Disney+ shows. When the Marvel/Netflix deal happened everybody was told these shows were in continuity, that they were canon. They were not. I mean, the movies were canon for the shows, but the shows were not canon for the movies. This was the result of a lot of things, including sibling rivalry between Marvel Studios and Marvel TV. But now Marvel Studios is doing TV, so the shows that are coming to Disney+ are actually part of the MCU, and in a big way. 

The first one will be The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, picking up on Sam getting the shield at the end of Endgame. Baron Zemo will be the villain of the series, and it seems as if he’s actually wearing his comic book mask in this show. What’s fascinating is that the Disney+ shows will likely be about six episodes each, meaning we’re functionally getting a whole trilogy worth of content from them – six hours of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is basically three movies! 

It’s interesting that they’re moving these characters off to TV; on the one hand you could say that it indicates a feeling that they’re B or C list. But I actually feel differently – putting this show on Disney+, and making it the first Disney+ Marvel show, is a strong opening volley for the streaming service. And the news about Wandavision makes me think that the events of TF&TWS will be very important for the MCU moving forward.

That news is that Wandavision will lead directly into Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness. But that isn’t even the most exciting thing we heard about the series at SDCC – what got me excited was word that Monica Rambeau would be in the show. We met Rambeau in Captain Marvel, where she was a kid in 1995. Now a grownup, she’s played by Teyonah Parris, who you might recall as Dawn from Mad Men.

Monica Rambeau is my Captain Marvel; she had the name in the 80s and was the leader of the Avengers for a while, and so during some of my most malleable comic-reading years she was a character I loved and looked up to. Carol Danvers is fine, if hollow to me (and the movie version doubly so), but Monica Rambeau was always a tough-as-nails yet compassionate leader who had very cool-looking powers. She’s also had a multitude of names, including Spectrum and Photon; I’d love if they called her Photon in the MCU. 

What is Wandavision? It’s unclear, but it does take place after Endgame, so the Vision remains dead. What we’ve heard is that it takes place in an idealized 1950s suburbia where the Vision and the Scarlet Witch are married, which sounds like a riff on Tom King’s recent (and great) Vision maxiseries. In the comics Wanda has always been unstable, and mixed with the scope of her (often ill-defined) powers this has manifested in wild ways. Once she made all the mutants on Earth become unmutants by simply saying “No more mutants.” Another time she manifested children who were part demon (I think? It’s complicated and I’m not doing my research as I write). She has a real track record of changing reality to suit her immediate needs, and so the idea of her creating a pocket of 1950s suburbia where she and the dead Vision can be happy tracks.

But wait, we skipped another movie. Coming at the beginning of 2021 is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, to be directed by indie darling Deston Cretton. This is one I’ve been really curious about – Shang-Chi was created in the 70s to capitalize on the popularity of Bruce Lee. He has no real powers (at least originally, he got some a few decades after his introduction), but he’s a Master of Kung-Fu and basically, Lee-style, kicks everybody’s ass. Shang-Chi had a good run in the 70s, but he’s a deep cut, and his main storyline is problematic: he fights against his criminal father, none other than Yellow Peril personified Fu Manchu, from the highly racist Sax Rohmer novels. Fu Manchu is problematic because a) Marvel no longer has those rights and b) he’s racist as fuck. 

The solution that Marvel Studios has found is elegant – the bad guy will be the real Mandarin. You’ll recall that the Mandarin and his terrorist group the Ten Rings were a major figure in the Iron Man mythology, with the fans freaking out when Iron Man Three revealed the Mandarin was actually a doofus actor fronting a less mythically-weird tech group. But it was later revealed there is an actual Mandarin, and that he wants to kill Trevor Slattery, the fake Mandarin, for besmirching his good name. 

The Mandarin will be the villain of Shang-Chi, and I’m betting he’s Shang-Chi’s dad, just as Fu Manchu was. And to make up for the fake Mandarin (for which I believe no one should apologize, it ruled), Marvel has cast Hong Kong legend Tony Leung in the role. This is a huge get – not only is Leung a god, he’s bank in China. All of a sudden this C-list character takes on a new economic sense. 

The studio has cast Canadian-Chinese actor Simu Liu in the title role. The guy is basically a nobody (he’s well-liked on a Canadian sitcom), so it looks like Marvel is about to make a star here, or try. Awkwafina is also in the movie, making her the absolute go-to Asian-American woman. After The Farewell we have seen that she has more range than we might have previously thought, so the possibilities of what kind of role she’s playing are open. 

The whole thing is open; Marvel Phase Four is full of characters and stories that are not beholden to decades of continuity, that don’t have deep wells of story from which to pull. Marvel has shown that they’re willing to pick and choose elements from comics, some of them good, some of them bad, and remake them in their own image – Phase Four is taking this to the next level.

So then what to make of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (aka Doctor Strange In Your Mom)? The title doesn’t call to mind any specific storyline the way Civil War or Infinity War did, but it does give us hints. The title is Lovecraftian, and one of Strange’s villains is Shuma-Gorath, a name snatched from a Robert E Howard story and a creature who is basically one of Lovecraft’s Old Ones. But it’s the Multiverse bit that has people really excited, as that’s following up on Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and the jokey little reference in Spider-Man: Far From Home

Director Scott Derrickson has said that this will be Marvel’s first horror movie, and that reinforces the Lovecraft vibe. My big question: is this when Blade, played by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, enter the MCU? It’s weird to have had him onstage to announce a movie that isn’t dated yet, but it makes more sense if he’s going to be making his debut in another Marvel movie, much as Black Panther did in Civil War. A horror film, with a multiverse, opens the door for a vampire slayer. 

There have been rumors of Keanu Reeves being in talks for a Marvel movie, by the way. He’s worked with director Derrickson before (The Day the Earth Stood Still) and he’d make a great Nightmare, one of Strange’s most reliable villains. Who would, you know, fit perfectly in a horror movie…

After that it’s a trio of TV shows. There’s Loki, which will follow the time-hopping adventures of the God of Mischief after he stole the Tesseract in Endgame. That means it’s evil Loki, circa the first Avengers, and not the reformed, self-sacrificing Loki, which means it’ll be more fun… and maybe will fill in the gaps as to how he got to being the good guy.

Then there’s What If…?, an animated show. The premise of the comic What If…? was that it would explore a famous Marvel storyline and throw in a new element, or switch up an outcome. Issues included “What If… Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?” and “What If… Doctor Doom Had Become a Hero?” and “What If… Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?” (more on that later), and they were usually either super dark or quite funny. 

Nobody knows what What If…? will be on TV, but the cast includes just about 80% of Marvel’s actors. The rumor I was told was that the show would do season-long arcs, with the first being “What If… Peggy Carter Had Taken the Super-Soldier Serum?”, but I guess we will find out soon. There are a lot of questions about this, including what the animation style will be, and I’m reserving all judgment until I know more. 

Now, Hawkeye I’m feeling a bit more judge-y about. The logo shown, and the fact that it will focus on Hawkeye teaching young Kate Bishop to be a hero, tells me it’ll be heavily influenced by Matt Fraction’s run on the comic, which was a meme bonanza. It’s a good comic, but frankly it’s not a Hawkeye comic – the character in that book does not resemble the Marvel Comics character from other titles. And he really doesn’t resemble the MCU Hawkeye. I’m curious just how close to that story/tone they’ll stick. 

Kate Bishop is the interesting part of this; a forerunner of the current wave of young, often gender or sexuality swapped versions of established characters, Bishop has a big following online. I’m never sure if those followings translate to book sales – I suspect they don’t. But that doesn’t matter for something like TV; an activated and vocal fanbase will buzz up the TV show in a way that benefits Disney+. 

Honestly, they should have just done a Kate Bishop show; I am baffled that anyone likes Renner’s Hawkeye, and besides I thought he was canceled after Endgame, where I am told he is a racist genocidal maniac (I have definitely read this argument). Maybe it’s me – I find Renner as a lead unpalatable in the extreme; he’s always better supporting. 

And so we come to the finale of Phase Four, Thor: Love and Thunder, and it’s a doozy. Taika Waititi is back (hey by the way did you notice there’s one white man directing a Marvel movie this cycle?) and he’s shaking shit up. This is the first MCU fourth movie, and I’m curious if this is considered to be starting a new phase for the character, a new trilogy. After all, this time we’re getting Valkyrie as an openly bi King of Asgard, we’re probably gonna have Good Time Guy Thor in space, and, we’ve been told, Jane Foster is returning and she will become the Mighty Thor.

This is a recent comic book storyline; Thor lost the hammer and was unworthy. Jane, battling cancer, picked it up and transformed into the Mighty Thor. The story is great because when she’s a human Jane is sick and dying, but when she’s Thor she’s strong and conceptually immortal. This aspect seems absolutely key to me, but will they give Jane Foster cancer in the movies? 

Whatever they do, they somehow got Natalie Portman back. The actress was vocally unhappy with her part in the Thor movies, but I guess giving her the hammer is the kind of thing that allows her to see past old disagreements. And I’m glad! Portman is great and has been woefully underused in these films, and she really has the charisma and chops for fun franchise filmmaking. 

I guess people are/will really get mad about this, but fuck ‘em. And I mean that in the most loving way; let’s not focus on the handful of ding dongs who have reactionary responses and instead focus on what an interesting and cool story this can be. I think there’s a lot to be plumbed in a tale wherein Thor, on his way back to his old self, has to contend with the fact that Jane Foster somehow becomes the Goddess of Thunder (the machinations to get her there, with Mjolnir destroyed, are interesting in themselves, I imagine) while also dealing with the idea of Valkyrie running Asgard. I suspect that once he’s back in the game his laissez-faire attitude about that might dissipate and he could find himself with some opinions about Asgardian politics. 

Is this the big culmination movie of the Intermezzo Phase? I think Doctor Strange will be; I think opening up the Multiverse is what will open the door for the Fantastic Four and maybe even mutants. The fact that it’s tied directly into Wandavision also gives it a sense of weight and importance. But I really am getting the feeling that this is an in-between phase, and that whatever is happening here is just setting up the pieces for Phase Five, which is gonna have Black Panther 2, Captain Marvel 2, maybe Spider-Man 3 and Guardians 3 and who knows what else. 

Before these announcements I thought for sure we were headed towards the Kree/Skrull War or Operation Galactic Storm, especially after that Spidey post-credits scene, but nothing in this Phase speaks immediately to interstellar action. Is it possible that this turned into the Intermezzo Phase because Guardians 3 dropped off the schedule? That film was supposed to come out in 2021, at least until James Gunn was fired and then rehired. We know that Gunn was instrumental in building up the cosmic side of the MCU; Guardians 3 could have launched a whole cosmic focus that would have continued through Captain Marvel 2 and Avengers 5, but now that’s all been moved back and switched around. If Phase Four has no focus, this could be part of the reason why – when you’re making an interconnected universe of stories, moving or losing one piece has a domino effect on everything else. So yeah, maybe Phase Four is the breather, the calm before the Galactic Storm.

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