Avengers: Endgame was the MCU’s biggest success to date, setting up so many of Phase 4’s best scene and themes. But it also set up its failures…
Avengers: Endgame set up many of the best moments in the MCU‘s Phase 4, but it was also unfortunately responsible for some of the worst problems. The climax of Phases 1-3, Avengers: Endgame assembled Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in battle against Thanos, the Mad Titan. It was an epic story, a celebration of everything that had happened in the MCU to date. The plot device of time travel allowed Avengers: Endgame to literally revisit some of the franchise’s greatest moments, and even to retrospectively improve flms that had failed.
Marvel’s phased approach to storytelling follows a set structure. Every phases features a climactic story, one that radically changes the status quo. The Avengers saw superheroes become public knowledge at last, featuring an alien invasion that was impossible to cover up. Avengers: Age of Ultron changed the nature of the game, with the potential danger posed by superheroes becoming clear after Sokovia was left in ruins. But Avengers: Endgame was the most spectacular so far, setting up a five-year time period in which half the living creatures in the universe had been erased. Heroes died in Avengers: Endgame, sacrificing their lives that others may live. Phase 4 spins out of this, revealing the true nature of the changes wrought by Thanos and the Avengers.
Avengers: Endgame Led To Phase 4’s Strongest Themes
The MCU’s Phase 4 is best seen as an exploration of the themes of grief and loss. This is set up by Spider-Man: Far From Home, an epilogue to Phase 3 that also serves as the foundation for what comes next. Peter Parker is the one principally affected by Tony Stark’s death, simply because Stark had become a father-figure for him. The apparent death of Steve Rogers left the world reeling, because Captain America is a symbol of American self-identity in the MCU; its effect was explored in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier. Meanwhile, Black Widow’s sacrifice was mourned by her “sister,” Yelena Belova, who was misled into believing Hawkeye responsible. Phases 4’s themes build to a head in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which is a tribute to the real-life passing of Chadwick Boseman.
Another Phase 4 theme spins out of this, however; that of legacy. Phase 4 introduces several key legacy heroes from the comics; members of the Young Avengers, Jane Foster’s Mighty Thor, Sam Wilson’s Captain America. These stories stress the Avengers’ continuing impact, whether they are still active or not. Ms. Marvel‘s young heroine may be in awe of Carol Danvers, but she gains her powers at an event that’s a tribute to all the Avengers, and while there she takes a moment to reflect on those who died to save the world.
Avengers: Endgame Created Some Great Post-Blip Storylines
Avengers: Endgame‘s five-year time jump is yet to be explored, but it’s been thrilling to learn more about the new, post-Blip status quo. The Falcon & the Winter Soldier focused on the geopolitical dimension, with the world desperately trying to come to some semblance of normality in the aftermath of all this chaos. WandaVision, in contrast, stressed a more personal dimension; Monica Rambeau’s story was symbolic of the millions of small tragedies that would have occurred because of the Blip. This even provided a context for Wanda Maximoff’s grief for Vision, because she was dealing with a world where everybody else has returned – but the one she loved had not. The loss of Tony Stark left Peter Parker in a very vulnerable place indeed, one capitalized on by Mysterio, thus setting off Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Avengers: Endgame Is (Partly) Why Phase 4 Is So Messy
The MCU’s Phase 4 has been pretty divisive, largely because it has felt quite disjointed. The build-up to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame led viewers to experience each film as a step in a journey towards a known destination, but Phase 4 lacks that cohesive feel. Its themes of grief, loss, and legacy are abstract, with no clear narrative throughline running through them. But that is precisely because Avengers: Endgame was too big, making changes to the status quo that are greater than any seen before. There are simply too many narrative threads to explore – from geopolitcs to the multiverse, from Clint Barton’s grief to the search for a new Captain America.
Marvel eventually announced that Phases 4-6 are officially “The Multiverse Saga,” providing structure to the ongoing narrative. To be fair to Marvel, this too sprang out of Avengers: Endgame, most notably through the survival of a Loki variant in a timeline the Avengers failed to cut off. But Avengers: Endgame‘s time travel rules were confused and contradictory, and it took Marvel far too long to figure out how their model of temporal mechanics works (leading to sometimes amusing contrasts between the portrayals of Loki and Marvel’s What If…?). It’s still difficult to say how Steve Rogers’ time travel retirement fits into all this.
Avengers: Endgame Made Continuing The MCU More Difficult
There’s a strange sense in which Avengers: Endgame was too good. The grandest story in the MCU so far, it felt so very final – not least because of Iron Man’s death. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark ushered in the MCU, and it felt right that he should be there when the story came to a climax. The absence of a post-credits scene reinforces this sense of finality; Marvel has used these post-credits scenes to tease their next story, and the decision not to include one felt as though even the studio was admitting this was a good jumping-off point.
Now, everything is being compared to the build-up to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The criticisms over Phase 4’s disjointed nature really represent the absence of the narrative momentum viewers experienced as Marvel prepared to unleash the powerful threat of Thanos. The theme of legacy ironically means many of the new characters feel as though they stand in the shadow of those who went before, rather than capturing imaginations for themselves. Marvel’s Multiverse Saga announcement seemed to acknowledge the problems, trying to provide a structure while also promising an epic that would hopefully exceed Avengers: Endgame – Avengers: Secret Wars, the culmination of the Multiverse Saga. This in itself is a problem, though, because it means the MCU is in danger of becoming locked in a spiral of ever-increasing scale. Marvel will encounter all these problems again in Phase 7 – and they’ll need to figure out how to handle them better.