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Stephen Strange looking at a castle in Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Image: Marvel Studios/Disney

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The Multiverse Saga gives the MCU more focus — but not what it needs most

Here’s the biggest element that Marvel Studios still needs for Phases 5 and 6

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

One of the longstanding complaints about the post-Avengers: Endgame era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that, three years in, it seems to lack direction. To a certain extent, this is a problem fans can only have with the benefit of hindsight: When Iron Man premiered in 2008, the only big promise made was that the Avengers would eventually show up in the franchise. Once they did, in 2012’s The Avengers, that film’s post-credits scene introduced a new apparent focus for the MCU: the arrival of Thanos, who was eventually revealed to be after the Infinity Stones. While the road to Infinity War and Endgame was long and circuitous, there was always some kind of destination clearly signaled to the audience.

Current MCU projects don’t have these visible goal posts. For years now, the franchise has focused on Endgame cleanup, telling stories around and after what’s already happened, and mostly looking backward: What happened to Wanda Maximoff after she was forced to kill her husband? What’s Hawkeye been up to? What did the late Black Widow feel so guilty about all this time?

When recent projects like Eternals and Shang-Chi have introduced new characters, those projects have largely been unconcerned with the big picture, the question of how the new arrivals will factor into the comic book world we’ve been getting to know. Instead, audiences have just been teased with the idea that these characters will matter. The origins of Shang-Chi’s 10 rings are kept a mystery, but still teased as important. Or Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman in Eternals is set up for a larger role in a future film, thanks to a post-credits scene where he’s about to claim a magic sword.

Wenwu (Tony Leung) wielding the Ten Rings in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Image: Marvel Studios

From a charitable point of view, this aimlessness is just part of the buildup process. Unlike in comic books, where characters can stick around in perpetuity and show up for cosmic traffic jams ad infinitum, actors cannot commit to an endless stream of films. The end of Marvel Studios’ 11-year Infinity Saga is the kind of soft reset the studio needs until it decides to risk a bigger one. Currently — and this is something the studio’s Comic-Con presentation made clear — it’s focused on introducing new characters to fill the void left by those who’ve moved on in one way or another. By this rationale, Phase 4 has been about introductions, both to new people and also new places and new ideas.

The bet is that this will all establish the foundation for something a little less aimless. But slightly more plot focus isn’t enough to carry the MCU forward, not when it’s built around a concept as diffuse and inherently unfocused as the idea of infinite multiverses. What the MCU needs right now is more of a human touch — and it’s the most bafflingly absent part of the Marvel Studios equation.

The Multiverse Saga

If any one overriding purpose drove Marvel’s bevy of San Diego Comic-Con announcements, it was the need to address the MCU’s lack of direction. The studio’s Hall H presentation was largely about the MCU’s future structure, recasting a formless void of upcoming movies and shows as Phases and organizing those three Phases into a new Saga. Hence, The Multiverse Saga, and its Endgame equivalent: Avengers: Secret Wars, currently scheduled for Nov. 7, 2025.

Those two bits of info are enough to let informed comics fans grasp the shape of what’s in store over the next three years. The multiversal ideas being probed in What If…?, Loki, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will only grow in significance as the films and TV shows continue to roll out over the next few years. Conveniently, the ultimate stakes of this saga were already plainly laid out by the version of Reed Richards (John Krasinski) who appeared in Multiverse of Madness. As Reed explains, universes are collapsing into each other, wiping out entire alternate worlds. Eventually, the film implies, that cosmic disaster will come for the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’ve already come to know.

Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Image: Marvel Studios

This is a messy premise to build the next three years of movies around, only partly because audiences haven’t yet spent that much meaningful time in these alternate universes. Thus far, they have been more suggestions than actual places, often seen so briefly that few audiences would be invested in rooting for them to survive, if any of them has to square off against the primary MCU.

And those are the kinds of ultimate stakes implied in Marvel Studios’ new lineup. Avengers: Secret Wars is a title directly lifted from one of the best Marvel Comics stories in recent memory, an epic that pits the primary Marvel Universe against the newer Ultimate Universe, where a few fan-favorite characters like Miles Morales originated.

As exciting as the idea of a multiverse is, there’s nothing multiversal in these movies to get excited about — nothing lasting or endearing or important. Most of the new things brought about via a romp through the multiverse in the MCU are either wiped away by the time the credits roll (like the Illuminati in Multiverse of Madness), raised and then dropped as comic relief (like President Loki and his group in Loki) or offered as inconsequential thought experiments (like the entirety of What If…?). But enthusiasm can quickly give way to indifference if there is no clear way for all this potential to be realized.

The X-factor

Given the dizzying cadence of its many movies and TV shows, it’s hard to remember how slowly the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually moves. Back to the goal posts of the first Phases: It took Marvel Studios four years to assemble the Avengers, and it took another seven to gather all the Infinity Stones in one place for a big climactic battle. In spite of the immense coordination and careful wrangling of individual movie plots to make sure these big events were properly set up, the overarching mega-story of the MCU circa Infinity Saga is fairly simple. Good guys meet each other and learn to work together, bad guy gathers magic rocks and challenges that unity. That’s the secret to a dozen years of box office success!

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Image: Marvel Studios

The MCU’s current sprawling state of affairs invites a lot of speculation as to how that success will continue. Most of the announced slate of movies are installments in established sub-franchises. Two of the stand-alone films (Blade and Fantastic Four) are MCU remakes of characters adapted by other studios, while the third (Thunderbolts) is the payoff of a slowly gestating plot thread following Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as she slowly recruits violent characters for her own mysterious purposes.

There is not a lot of new there, and a multiverse suggests the opposite — something Multiverse of Madness feints at when briefly depicting its characters in a world where everyone is formless globs of paint, for example. For fans that love the guessing game of how Marvel will weave its many disparate threads together, this potential for forthcoming films to operate outside, or even break, the MCU’s established rules is the most compelling part of the next two MCU phases. There are, after all, a lot of open slots in that Phase 6 calendar, and one big puzzle piece still missing: the X-Men, the last major Marvel property to not yet have a place under the MCU banner.

Clever fans could imagine several ways these characters could enter the MCU, based on what has happened in Phase 4 thus far. A subtle hint on Ms. Marvel suggests a slow and gradual plan. The multiversal escapades of Loki, Multiverse of Madness, and Spider-Man: No Way Home open up the possibility for something more sudden and dramatic, a yet-unseen universe where new versions of beloved characters have been waiting for audiences to meet them. Expectations for the X-Men’s arrival are high, but time still feels short, if Marvel does in fact plan to introduce them sometime in their newly announced Phases 5 or 6.

This makes what Marvel isn’t interested in talking about all the more troubling — namely, who’s going to be making all this stuff.

Secret identities

One of the reasons Comic-Con endures as an institution is that, for all its modern emphasis on corporate communication, it’s still a place where audiences can see and even interact with the people who make their favorite things. Like a lot of studios, Marvel is aware of this; it weighs its desire for publicity against its secretive rollout plans, and dangles what tidbits it deems appropriate. Tenoch Huerta is introduced as Namor, Chukwudi Iwuji makes a dramatic appearance as the High Evolutionary. This is good, fun showbiz.

The schedule for MCU Phase 5 Photo: Austen Goslin/Polygon

Yet for the umpteenth time, Marvel has once more asked the world to get excited over what’s primarily just a list of film titles, sight unseen. And this comes at what’s probably Marvel Studios’ most unsteady moment. Again, the Phase 4 films feel aimless. Even if the filmic Secret Wars brings a smart reset to the films the way the comic book version did, that’s still several years out, with many more shows and films accruing atop the already-overwhelming pile. Movie and show titles alone shouldn’t be enough to get fans excited anymore. Comic book references ought not be the end of Marvel’s pitch to its audiences. The pitch should be in who’s putting these stories on screen, and how they want to make them new and engaging.

Consider Thor: Love and Thunder. While its critical reception isn’t as glowing as Thor: Ragnarok’s, there was still a palpable hope that returning director Taika Waititi would deliver another film that blended his idiosyncratic comedy with Marvel spectacle. Waititi and the cast and crew assembled for Ragnarok and Love and Thunder helped reinvigorate audience enthusiasm for Thor, a character who wasn’t necessarily disliked, but certainly wasn’t the MCU cornerstone he became in Waititi’s hands.

Fourteen years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, audiences are well aware of what they’re getting when they see the Marvel Studios logo. This is the strength and weakness of any established brand — regular customers feel they won’t be disappointed, and non-fans, having sampled the MCU’s wares, can feel confident that they aren’t missing anything important. It is therefore difficult to tell someone why they should care about “The Kang Dynasty” or the Fantastic Four when the studio won’t (or in many cases can’t yet) introduce the filmmakers on the same stage that introduces the titles they’re tackling.

Winston Duke in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever Image: Marvel Studios

Increasingly, a personal touch is the most exciting thing about a Marvel project. Enthusiasm for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness largely focused around the sensibilities of director Sam Raimi. The trailer for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, unlike most Marvel trailers this side of Guardians of the Galaxy, stops to note the film is “from director Ryan Coogler,” because his name carries weight. But somehow, Marvel doesn’t seem eager to promote what its filmmakers will bring to its burgeoning multiverse.

That’s all the more noticeable when the studio quietly announces, mere days after Comic-Con, that Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton will also tackle Avengers: The Kang Dynasty. While the titles got all the Comic-Con hoopla, Marvel relegated the writer-director pairings to a side confirmation to The Hollywood Reporter. Shang-Chi proves Cretton is a director who strives for visual splendor and achieves it, particularly in the film’s folktale-esque prologue and magical third act. But as far as the public can tell, none of that matters to Marvel. He’s just the guy they hired to do the job. There’s plenty of time to reverse course on this, but so far, in this phase of the MCU, people don’t seem that important.

This is beginning to become apparent in increasingly public ways. Anonymous reports, allegedly from the visual effects artists on Marvel projects, keep decrying the studio’s penny-pinching and rush jobs. At the same time, Marvel films have come under scrutiny for the effects work that looks cheap and rushed. At the same time, the MCU’s most high-profile alumni, the Russo brothers, are beginning to show us what Marvel bombast is worth without beloved, recognizable IP, and the results are tepid.

Kamala Khan waves in her Ms. Marvel costume as bright lights and confetti sprays around her Image: Marvel Studios

Marvel built its empire on the idiosyncrasies of filmmakers and talent that could work within the boundaries set by overlord Kevin Feige, but still shine through: the scrappy improvisation of Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., the dark oddball sensibilities of James Gunn, and the warmth and care of Ryan Coogler. It’s a frustratingly narrow palette, but it’s one that built a universe.

A multiplicity of universes should widen that field to include even more voices. In some ways, it has them: Bisha K. Ali’s work on Ms. Marvel expands the texture of the MCU in wonderful ways, and as the director of The Marvels, Nia DaCosta has the potential to do the same. But it’s hard to know how much more of that expansion of voice, ambition, or individual flavor we have to look forward to. Marvel seems loath to create another Taika Waititi or another Russo brothers team, creators who can leave the studio behind and still be powerhouse creators (mediocre or otherwise). Until Marvel can find its way back to letting its creators do the talking, it’s just giving us a set of familiar titles and empty promises: a multiversal map to nowhere in particular.


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