So there I was, minding my own business, when BOOM, I realized out of nowhere that the MCU’s fourth phase is officially over! It was hard to tell because, unlike the first three phases, there was no big team-up movie to mark the end, just a collection of miscellaneous films. I guess there’s a multiverse involved somewhere? Maybe things will pick up when we get started on the Kang the Conqueror or Secret Wars storylines.
In the meantime, my course was obvious: examine the climaxes of each movie and rank them from worst to best, as the prophecy foretold! It’ll only take one article this time, since phase four has seven films compared to phase three’s eleven. But they were produced in half the time, so we’re still increasing the density of MCU release dates. That’s probably not helping my level of Marvel fatigue, which could also explain why this slate of movies felt so lackluster.*
Spoiler Notice: Black Widow, Shang-Chi, Eternals, No Way Home, Multiverse of Madness, Love and Thunder, and Wakanda Forever.
Whatever their flaws, most MCU films score well with both critics and audiences. The same cannot be said about Eternals, which absolutely bombed with critics. Audiences liked it better, though not with the same enthusiasm as previous films. That’s honestly surprising, as this movie is suuuuuper slow while also deliberately breaking the formula of previous entries in the franchise. Seems like something audiences would hate and critics would be all over!
Most of the film is spent gathering its overly large cast together, and I can only echo the common sentiment that this would have been a better show than a movie. There’s very little time to develop any of the characters, leaving protagonist Sersi and her friends largely blank. Except for Druig, who is a real asshat.
Even if the characters had more room to grow, the premise would still be bizarre. They’re not supposed to interfere with humans, except for giving humans a bunch of technology. And they’re only allowed to give humans the tech to build better weapons. And Druig quit because he hated seeing humans mistreated, so he started a cult to mistreat humans. Also they promise they were here for the whole Thanos thing but didn’t get involved for reasons. Oh boy.
Thanks to the evil Celestials casually telling the heroes what the big plan is, we have our climactic sequence lined up: a new Celestial will be born out of the Earth’s core, killing everyone unless Team Good stops it. Most of Team Good, anyway. One guy dies before then, and another just leaves ’cause he’s tired of being in the movie. Plus, a couple side with the Celestials for even more reasons. One of the now-evil heroes is Ikaris, who basically has all of Superman’s powers plus the power of carrying a thousand-year-old torch for Sersi.
At first, Team Good’s plan is to use something called a Uni-Mind to combine all their powers into Druig, so he can use his mind magic to keep the new Celestial asleep. It’s a decent plan, except they seemingly forget that Ikaris is trying to stop them, so he immediately takes Druig out of action.* Druig’s not dead, of course, as Ikaris’s eye-lasers are strangely nonlethal, but Team Good can’t use his powers anymore.
This is where it gets really weird. Sersi decides to use her own transmutation powers to turn the new Celestial into stone before it can fully emerge. After a mild case of getting stabbed through the abdomen,* she gets on that and seems to be doing quite well. Then Ikaris shows up to stop her, only to decide he can’t because he’s so in love with her. This could be a turning point if Sersi did anything to make it happen, but she doesn’t; Ikaris decides all on his own. Also, the scene is framed like he’d have to kill her, but all he needs is to give her a dose of the stun lasers. But I guess he doesn’t think about that.
Then, Sersi gets a boost of power from the Uni-Mind, which could also have been the turning point, but it’s not, because Sersi was already doing just fine. If she needed more power, the film did nothing to indicate that was the case. So you have an ending where the hero decides on a course of action, then executes their plan with no complications or obstacles. That’s… well, it’s something, for sure. It’s not exciting or dramatic, but it is something.
6. Black Widow
Oh boy, a Natasha solo movie, just seven years after the character wowed us in Winter Soldier and two years after she died! The marketing said we were gonna really learn about Natasha in this movie, and what we learned is that she’s always felt guilty over killing a child, but now feels better ’cause that child coincidentally survived.
Meanwhile, one of her plans sets off an avalanche that kills who knows how many people at a Russian prison. No word on if Natasha feels bad about that at all. We’re probably supposed to assume that all the inmates and staff had it coming, which is super messed up even if you don’t understand the problem with dehumanizing prisoners.
Other than that, the movie is mostly fine. We have some drama with Natasha’s fake spy family, and Yelena joins the MCU as its possible Black Widow replacement, depending on how well she does with Disney+ focus groups. Naturally, Natasha and Yelena have a fist fight in their first scene together, because this is a superhero movie!
The climactic sequence is a raid on the Red Room, a giant sky base that stays hidden from the world… somehow. If the characters ever say, I missed it. There are initially some clouds around it, but those dissipate as the scene continues, and I don’t think they’d stand up to radar anyway. Natasha’s objective is to eliminate antagonist Dreykov and free the brainwashed widow assassins, which sounds fine.
From there, the climax is separated into three distinct sections, each with their own turning point:
- Confront Dreykov
- Fight the other widows
- Escape the falling sky base
In part one, Natasha can’t shoot Dreykov because he’s got magical pheromones. After they banter for a bit, we’re let in on a hidden plan: Natasha knows about the pheromones, and she can nullify them by bashing her face on the table. Sure. It’s hard to see why that would work, but at least Natasha has to demonstrate persistence against pain. Dreykov technically gets away, but killing him will be little more than an afterthought later.
Then we have to fight the other widows. This time, Natasha just fights them until Yelena arrives with a bomb full of anti-brainwashing antidote, which ends the fight. That’s a rather perfunctory turning point, but it’s technically better than nothing. The other widows run off, and probably escape? We see them at the landing pad, and then we see some planes taking off, but we never actually see them get on the planes.
The escape sequence has the best moment of the climax. Natasha finds Antonia trapped in a cell as the base disintegrates around them. Antonia is the child Natasha thought she killed, now all grown up and brainwashed to kill Natasha.* By freeing Antonia from her cell and certain death, Natasha puts her own life in danger. Whether this balances the scales of the original crime will vary from person to person, but it at least means something.
The rest of the escape sequence is a lot of flashy CGI falling, and it ends with Natasha using the antidote on Antonia. You might notice this is the same way the previous fight ended, and also a couple of earlier fights. It’s a bit repetitive. The climax also suffers from a number of points where it really feels like Natasha should have died, since she doesn’t have any powers, which is a running theme for this movie.
But the most significant problem with this climax is that it doesn’t really escalate. Defeating Dreykov feels about as hard as fighting the widows, which is about as hard as escaping the sky base. Instead of building to something, it’s a flat line of moderate tension. Presumably, the line is beige. It still has turning points, which puts it ahead of Eternals, but just barely.
5. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
If you’re one of the dozen or so people on Earth who hasn’t already heard of this movie’s awesome bus fight scene, let me assure you that it is in fact very good. Top-notch martial arts choreography and some excellent acting by Simu Liu ensure we always have emotional context even when Shang-Chi is getting punched in the face.
What you may not have heard is that the movie actually keeps going after the bus fight, at which point it gets a little crowded. Katy and Trevor compete for the role of comic relief, and it feels like Trevor is mostly included out of obligation to Iron Man 3 rather than because the film needed him. Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing, is also in the movie for some reason. They both have issues with their father, but Shang-Chi’s are by far the more prominent, so Xialing fades into the background pretty quickly.
Speaking of their father, he’s the movie’s main antagonist! His name is Wenwu, and he’s trying to bring his wife (Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mom) back from the dead. The only problem is that he’s been tricked by a clever ruse. A demon called the Dweller-in-Darkness is pretending be Wenwu’s wife, and Wenwu’s plan will actually set the demon free. Unfortunately, Wenwu has 10 magic rings/bracelets that give him whatever powers the writers feel like in a given scene, so he’ll be hard to stop.
The climax begins when Wenwu launches his assault on the Dweller-in-Darkness’s prison, intent on breaking it open. While there’s a big battle between minions on both sides, the important fight is between Shang-Chi and his father. This is another excellent martial arts battle, with the magic rings used sparingly to punctuate important moments. It’s even got a good downward turning point: Shang-Chi gains the upper hand, but he stops to gloat. This moment of hubris lets Wenwu toss him into a lake. Very good so far.
After soaking in the lake for a moment, Shang-Chi rallies for round two, which isn’t quite as good. This fight involves a lot more use of Wenwu’s magic rings, and it feels like Shang-Chi should have lost several times since he doesn’t have any overt powers of his own. The turning point is Shang-Chi taking control of several rings, but there’s no indication of how he does that or anything to make us feel like he deserves it now more than before. The closest we get is a flashback where his mom tells him that both she and his dad are proud of him,* which just isn’t enough.
Then the father-son fight is abandoned in favor of two CGI monsters duking it out.* Shang-Chi is technically still there, but he doesn’t do much. Instead, Katy gets the final turning point with her suddenly acquired archery skills. The main character only gets involved at the very end, when the evil monster is largely defeated.
Like Black Widow before it, Shang-Chi’s climax is in three parts. But instead of not escalating at all, it escalates backwards. We start with a high-tension, grounded martial arts battle. Then we have a lower-tension, more cartoony martial arts battle. Both sequences depend on the family drama between Shang-Chi and Wenwu. The third part has no martial arts and no family drama, just the MCU’s worst CGI tendencies on full display. I still give this movie a slight edge since it at least started strong, but the choice wasn’t easy. Oh well, at least the soundtrack is good!
4. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
This entry is less a movie and more of a two-hour escort quest. Doctor Strange needs to keep America Chavez from having her powers stolen, something that would also kill her. This premise leaves her with about as much agency as a malfunctioning portal gun. Meanwhile, Wanda wants to take America’s powers. You see, Wanda’s evil… again, kind of.
Wanda’s position in this movie is very strange. If you take the events of WandaVision literally, she mentally kidnapped an entire town and only stopped when it was no longer viable, so it’s no surprise she’d do more evil stuff. But if you believe in her supposed character arc of becoming a better person, then all that growth is undone because she read an evil book. Either way, I do not believe that she’s going to so much effort for a couple of fake kids that she created as part of her sitcom spell.
Few of the other characters make any sense either. Wong leads Wanda right to a new source of world-destroying power so that he won’t have to sacrifice innocent lives, but later he’s fine with sacrificing America’s life to stop Wanda. Sure. We also see an entire team-up movie’s worth of alternate heroes get destroyed in about a minute because, as cameos, they only have a quarter of the hitpoints of a normal character.
As you’d expect, the climax is Strange confronting Wanda when she’s about to take America’s powers. The first good thing I can say about the climax is that I like the way Strange has to possess the corpse of his alternate self. That’s a cool idea. It’s somewhat less cool that he’s suddenly able to control spirits of the dead because his alternate-universe girlfriend gave him a quick pep talk, but as we’re about to see, that’s something of a theme here.
Then there’s some fighting where Wanda doesn’t look very strong, but she wins anyway. MCU powers are all super arbitrary, but the little red blasts she throws just don’t feel like they have much power behind them. When they somehow overcome Doctor Strange, he deploys his secret weapon: another pep talk. He tells America that she can totally control her powers if she believes in herself, and that does the trick.
If you only start counting here, the rest of the climax actually works pretty well. America opens a portal to the real versions of Wanda’s imaginary kids, and as you can imagine, they’re terrified of her. This is clever on America’s part, and it’s plausible that Wanda would now realize she was the real monster all along. Unless you have a less charitable view of her personality from WandaVision, in which case those kids should be in for a serious case of mind control.
So I can’t say that Multiverse of Madness has a good climax, as more than half of it depends on contrived pep talks. But it’s passible once those pep talks are over, which puts it a little above the way Shang-Chi specifically ends on a sour note. And hey, at least this one doesn’t end with Doctor Strange getting an overpowered time-loop ability like he did in his first film.
3. Thor: Love and Thunder
With all the chaos and upheaval of the last few years, it’s nice that 2022 gave us a return to at least one aspect of normalcy: Thor movies are bad again! I thought Taika Waititi had taken that from us forever, but thankfully no.
Instead, we get a movie full of completely bizarre choices. Jane is dying of cancer, which the movie thinks is fertile ground for snappy quips. Mjölnir is back somehow and has only gained more powers after being destroyed. That would have been good to know back in Ragnarok. Also, Mjölnir is supposedly protecting Jane, but it’s also killing her? Sure, why not. Did I mention that our villain, Gorr the God Butcher, does all his god butchering offscreen?
Most of the plot can be summed up as “shenanigans,” where the heroes run around completing tasks that don’t seem important until it’s finally time for the climax: Gorr has stolen Stormbreaker, and he’s using it to unlock a space door. Once he does that, he can get a wish to kill all the gods. He’s also got a bunch of Asgardian children that he kidnapped earlier, but he doesn’t need them anymore, so they’re just waiting for the movie to be over. I feel ya, kids.
Thor shows up to fight Gorr, but the power of rhyming names won’t be enough to defeat the God Butcher’s army of CGI monsters. So obviously, Thor recruits the kidnapped children by giving them all superpowers! Wait, no, that’s not obvious at all. The tone of this movie is often zany, but it’s not at the point where making kids fight for their lives feels right. This moment also raises questions about why Thor didn’t just grab a few human adults and give them powers, to say nothing of whether he’ll ever use this power-granting ability again.
If you can get past those hang-ups, the resulting battle is a standard MCU fight against a faceless CGI army, though at least it has some of Waititi’s signature flair to keep things interesting. The real action is Thor’s fight against Gorr, especially when Jane shows up to help.
After exchanging blows for a while, the first major turning point is when Jane sacrifices herself to destroy Gorr’s sword, which is the source of his power and also most of his evil. This is a standard show of selflessness, and it works fairly well, even if Jane was already going to die soon. She’s shortened her remaining time to stop Gorr.
But the movie’s not over yet, so Thor gets distracted and lets a nearly powerless Gorr into the wish-granting chamber anyway. This is a bit frustrating, but it happens so fast that a lot of people won’t notice. Here we have a second turning point: Thor and Jane* convince a now less evil Gorr not to wish for the death of all gods.
This second turning point is definitely the climax’s high-water mark, as it’s one of the few times that the movie is tonally consistent. No one’s cracking jokes as Jane takes her last few breaths, and the humorous child soldiers were thankfully left in the other room. It does feel a little random when the good guys offer to take care of Gorr’s daughter if he uses his wish to resurrect her,* but still more believable than Doctor Strange’s pep talks.
The falling action and epilogue are a little puzzling, as Thor apparently forges a parental relationship with Gorr’s daughter offscreen, but the climax itself generally gets the job done. Can it make up for the rest of the movie? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. But the answer is no.
2. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Considering that this movie lost its main character when Chadwick Boseman passed away, it did pretty well for itself. Personally, I’d have made Nakia the next Black Panther rather than Shuri, but I see why the filmmakers made the choice they did, as this plot requires the main character to be Wakanda’s de facto leader. I’m also relieved that they didn’t recast T’Challa or try to recreate him with CGI. That would have been a bad time.
Wakanda Forever isn’t as good as its predecessor, but it’s still quite enjoyable. Shuri and Okoye have great chemistry when they go on secret missions together, and it’s fun to watch Wakanda embarrass France at the UN. Deal with it, France! The film is also a moving exploration of grief, though it sabotages itself a bit in that regard by having Shuri’s mother die while she’s still grieving her brother. There’s not enough movie left for Shuri to properly process both deaths, so she has to emotionally speed run through the second one.
The film’s main weakness is its villain, Namor. His underwater kingdom is very cool, and the film is clearly trying to make him a sympathetic villain, but he just comes off as a jerk. Unlike Killmonger, Namor isn’t the target of systemic oppression; he’s the leader of a state even more powerful than Wakanda. He loses what little sympathy he might have had when he kidnaps Shuri, then gets really mad when the Wakandans break her out. Namor, I have notes: if you don’t kidnap the head of state’s child, your people won’t die during a rescue operation.
The climax starts with Shuri declaring that after being kicked around all movie, Wakanda will finally go on the attack. Hell yeah, let’s do it! What are we attacking? Oh, I see. By “attack,” she means sail a giant boat out into the middle of the ocean and wait for Namor to do the actual attacking. This would make more sense if this were some kind of trap that would only work on the water, but it’s not. They could have just stayed in Wakanda and fought him there. It’s also a bit underwhelming to see all these soldiers fighting each other when we know it’s just gonna come down to a duel between the leaders, but that’s a problem endemic to the superhero genre.
The next part of Shuri’s plan is to get Namor inside a Wakandan hovercraft to dry him out, which will make him weaker. This step is also hard to take seriously since we’ve seen that Namor has the strength to break out of vehicles no problem, but he fortunately doesn’t think of that. Then they fight on a beach, where Namor is theoretically weaker for being dried out, and the water is right over there. Just jump in the water, fishy guy!
As with a few of the previous entries, the big turning point to this climax isn’t in the actual fight, but in Shuri’s character arc. She does find time to get impaled through the stomach without any lasting effects though.*
Finally, the turning point comes when Shuri rejects her desire for revenge and makes peace with Namor instead. I really want to like this ending, because it’s not how the MCU usually deals with villains. They’re usually killed or, in Loki’s case, slowly redeemed over half a dozen movies. It’s pretty cool to have a conflict that can be resolved by finding common interests instead.
The problem is that Shuri and Namor don’t have a common interest. At least, not more than they did before this scene. Instead, it’s just Namor’s word that he wants peace, and he has no motivation to keep it. Everything he was upset about before is still relevant, except that he lost a 1:1 match in a battle his forces were otherwise winning. It’s still better than the previous entries purely for trying something different, but that’s largely an indictment of how weak the field is.
1. Spider-Man: No Way Home
It’s hard for me to tell if this is a great movie in an otherwise unremarkable selection or if Marvel has just found a new way to mine nostalgia. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man movies were certainly some of the last untapped reserves of non-MCU Marvel content left, but at the same time, they were deployed remarkably well. Not only are Maguire-Peter and Garfield-Peter critical to Holland-Peter’s arc, but they each also get a small arc of their own. Very nice.
I also enjoy how the good guys’ big goal for this movie is to cure the villains so they’ll stop being villains. It’s much more concrete than most superheroes get in their plans, and it offers a permanent solution without getting into the weeds of a “should heroes kill people” debate. Granted, while Green Goblin, Lizard and Doc Ock are clearly not themselves when they do evil stuff, it’s a bit of a stretch for Electro and Sandman. They’d probably still be evil even without their powers. There could be ableist implications here as well, but honestly, I’m not the one to speak on them.
With five villains to cure, the climactic battle is quite long, but there’s enough variety that this isn’t a problem. This is also where Holland-Peter’s arc concludes, as he must hold to his convictions rather than killing Green Goblin in revenge for Aunt May’s death earlier in the movie. It’s always nice when the internal and external conflicts align!
Sandman and Lizard are minor villains, so taking them down doesn’t get a ton of attention, which is fine. We also have a quick sequence where the three Peters learn to work together via a group huddle. That’s perhaps not the most realistic resolution, but since it’s largely for flavor, I can’t hold it against them.
Electro is the first big villain to take out, and it’s done via Doc Ock switching sides in a well-executed prior achievement turning point. The three Peters did a lot of work to help the good doctor earlier in the movie, so it’s very satisfying when he shows up to return the favor. This scene also teaches us that Spider-Man is really resistant to electricity, and it gives the characters a moment to tease Miles Morales possibly joining the MCU later.
Finally, it’s time for Holland-Peter’s showdown with Green Goblin, who is still a great villain based entirely on Willem Dafoe’s acting. This is an emotional conflict more than a physical one, so the turning point only comes after the bad guy is on the ground. Holland-Peter struggles with his desire to kill Green Goblin, but manages to overcome it with a little help from Maguire-Peter and a lot of acting.
It’s not exactly breaking new ground in the superhero genre, but it’s very well executed, and it has more emotional weight than most MCU films of the last few years. There was no reason to stab Maguire-Peter through the abdomen as a fake-out though; that could have been cut.*
Looking back, No Way Home’s climax was fantastic, Eternals’ was really bad, and the rest were just kinda there. That describes phase four as a whole pretty well too. It’s missing some of the truly awful stuff like Thor: The Dark World, but very little of it stands out as good, either. Maybe that’s to be expected after defeating Thanos, a villain 11 years in the making, but it’s certainly not motivating me into a theater for phase five.
Maybe this is just a temporary dip, or maybe it’s a troubling sign for the rest of the Multiverse Saga. Or maybe Marvel will just keep printing money on inertia. Who can say?
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