Marvel Movies: How will the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four unfold?

When Robert Downey Jr donned his now-iconic red-and-yellow armour in 2008’s Iron Man, few could have imagined that his successful portrayal of “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark would spawn a cinematic franchise the likes of which the world had never seen before. Indeed, since this opening instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – the massive movie franchise run by Marvel Studios, based off of characters from Marvel Comics – cinemagoers across the globe have fallen in love with Iron Man and his merry band of superhero friends, The Avengers.

Marvel Cinematic Universe - Phase 4

Much of this ‘Marvel-lous’ world’s success lies in its deft ability to blend jaw-dropping action scenes, poignant storylines and irreverent humour, which have pretty much become the calling card of the Marvel movie-going experience, infecting even the most cynical critics with Marvel Fever and causing them to root for such out-of-this-world protagonists as a gamma ray-infused rage monster (The Hulk), an interchangeably-sized ex-con (Ant-Man), a talking tree (Groot of Guardians of the Galaxy), and everything in between.

It is precisely this magic formula that has allowed Marvel to far outstrip any studio competitor, leading it to spin one collective story across 22 movies and three separate phases in what is colloquially known as The Infinity Saga. This superlative success has also translated into lucrative financial gains, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe having grossed over US$22 billion worldwide to date.

Marvel Cinematic Universe - Iron Man

However, now, with Iron Man dead, Captain America seeking post-retirement bliss and Spider-Man caught in a web of disputes that may see him exiting the MCU forever, it’s safe to assume that the recently-announced Phase Four line-up will be a very different beast from the 22-instalment saga that preceded it. While the films are almost all still in preproduction, Marvel fans the world over are already abuzz about what to expect. Kevin Feige, the franchise’s executive producer, has also added to the anticipation by dropping a few spoilers as well. So what, exactly, can we expect?

First, as confirmed by Marvel, we can expect nine different instalments – a mix of feature films and TV series – which will run from 2020 to 2022. The studio has already promised to bring back some familiar faces, including Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, in addition to introducing several brand new characters. There have also been less-than-subtle hints that this will be the most inclusive line-up in MCU history, with its first Asian superhero, first openly-queer character and first deaf superhero, all soon to finally get their fair share of the spotlight.

Marvel Cinematic Universe - Black Widow

The most well-known of the next slate may well be Black Widow, set for release on 1 May 2020 as the debut Phase Four outing. Given that Natasha Romanov (aka the Black Widow) forfeited her life in the fight against supervillain Thanos, the upcoming prequel will undoubtedly indulge in Marvel’s penchant for time-travelling shenanigans, transporting audiences back to a time when she was hale and healthy. If rumours are to be believed, the movie will take place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. A glimpse of the confirmed cast / character list, meanwhile, reveals that we will get a more in-depth look at the Red Room, the Russian superspy programme that spawned Romanov. Scarlett Johansson, reprising her role as the assassiness-turned-hero, will be joined by David Harbour (Stranger Things), and Academy Award, BAFTA and Laurence Olivier Award winner Rachel Weisz.

The God of Thunder also looks set to break with his traditional trope in Thor: Love and Thunder, the fourth instalment of the Thor series, which is slated for release on 5 November 2021. While the return of its star, Chris Hemsworth, and Ragnarok director Take Waititi were all but expected, the news that Natalie Portman (who acted as Jane Foster, Thor’s love interest, six years ago) would not only be reprising her role, but would take over the mantle of Thor from Hemsworth caused much uproar. Add to this the fact that Valkyrie, last seen becoming the new King of Asgard, will be looking for her Queen, and this is one movie that surely has everyone at the edge of their seats.

Marvel Cinematic Universe - Thor

Meanwhile, the Sorcerer Supreme – ably portrayed by an American-accented Benedict Cumberbatch – is also set to return to theatres in Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness (7 May 2021). While its plot is yet to be revealed, the movie presents an exciting opportunity to introduce the MCU to the multiverse – where many universes coexist simultaneously. However, in a marked shift from the norm, Marvel has already announced that this will be the franchise’s first-ever horror film, so expect a higher-than-normal dose of spine-tingling thrills, all courtesy of the main villain, the chillingly-named Nightmare.

From here, the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase Four line-up gets more murky, with little real information available as yet. What we do know, however, is that – come 12 February 2021 – Marvel’s first Asian superhero will be getting his very own feature film in the form of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, starring Simu Liu of Kim’s Convenience fame as the titular character. The superhero, also known as The Master of Kung Fu, is pegged to come up against the real Mandarin (portrayed by Hong Kong’s very own Tony Leung), the villain falsely embodied in Iron Man 3 by Ben Kingsley and Guy Pierce.

Marvel Cinematic Universe - Dr Strange

Another somewhat-new introduction is The Eternals, starring A-listers like Angelina Jolie, Selma Hayek and Kit Harrington. It also features the first deaf superhero, Makkari, to be portrayed by The Walking Dead’s Lauren Ridloff. While these mythical characters have been hinted at in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they haven’t been explicitly name-checked until now. According to the comic books, though, the Eternals are a race of superpowered beings created by a group of space gods called the Celestials. Thanos, the supervillain at the heart of the franchise to date, was an Eternal, and the upcoming movie will introduce others still.

Interestingly, nearly half of Marvel’s Phase Four line-up consists of small-screen series. While the studio has had TV outings before, they’ve never been a part of its cinematic universe so far. Now, though, thanks to a partnership with the newly-announced Disney+ video on-demand service launched by Marvel’s parent company, Disney, fans can expect several of their MCU favourites to hit the small screen post-Endgame. The first of these series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, is set to release in  the autumn of 2020, and follows the adventures of the new Captain America, Sam Wilson, and Bucky Barnes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and the God of Mischief, will also get his own spin-off  show, which follows his adventures upon escaping with the Tesseract to an alternate dimension. Two other TV shows, one featuring Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and the other with Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Paul Bettany’s The Vision, round out the list.

Marvel Cinematic Universe - Civil War

In all, while Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will likely retain many of the facets that have made its movies such box-office hits, it is refreshing to see it move away from the tried-and-tested style of its predecessors. Be it through a wider array of characters or the use of mixed-media channels, it could be that this experimental style could yield even bigger profits for the studio. While it will be seven months before we can begin to see the results of this gambol, we can, in the meanwhile, contemplate the many Marvel-lous possibilities…

Text: Tenzing Thondup
Photos: AFP

Un-Ironed: Stripped of his Marvel alter-ego, can Robert Downey Jr win over his villainous darkside?

Well, did he? Or didn’t he? Was he? Or wasn’t he? As all true believers can testify, such questions can only be a reference as to whether superhero Tony Stark – the role the ever-dissolute Robert Downey Jr was surely born to play – survived Avengers: Infinity War.

Despite the fact most of the world has already seen the big screen outing that Marvel has been building up to over the last 10 years, it would be invidious to spoil the pay-off of this most behemoth-like intergalactic-bad-guy-bashing motion picture. Suffice to say, post Infinity War, the universe is a little less super.

As for Robert Downey Jr, are his electro-magnetic flight boots among those that need filling? Well, that would be telling. If, however, the Marvel universe has said goodbye to its pre-eminent playboy turned metal-clad crusader, it could prove as big a threat to its continued existence as any magic diamond-wielding apocalypse junkie.

Robert Downey Jr and co broke box office records with Avengers Infinity War

Since 2009, when Marvel took its first tentative steps into the multiplex with the original Iron Man movie, Downey has been the uncrowned king of the franchise. This is almost wholly down to the actor’s immensely likeable take on Stark, a man with a nuclear plant for a heart, an eye for the ladies and a nice line in snarky putdowns.

Back in 2007, though, when Marvel was first casting for its Iron Man, Downey was something of a gamble, largely an account of his tumultuous personal life and his unrivalled reputation for unreliability.

Robert Downey Jr in front of an Iron Man suit

Unlike many other Marvel heroes who got their powers after being bitten by a radioactive rabbit or inherited them from their semi-deity dads, Stark had to fight to become Iron Man, desperately assembling the metal suit he needed to keep his damaged heart beating. It’s not too much of a stretch, then to see certain parallels with Downey, an actor who slowly rebuilt his reputation after a series of sackings, prison sentences and drug-related escapades.

By rights, though, his career should never have hung by such a slender thread. Born in 1965 to Robert Downey Snr, a counter-cultural filmmaker, and Elsie Ann, herself an actress, a movie career for Robert Downey Jr seemed almost pre-destined. Making his first film appearance aged just five, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor 22 year later, after playing the title role in Chaplin, Richard Attenborough’s acclaimed biopic.

By rights, Robert Downey Jr's career should have been iron-clad

Just as his success seemed assured, his long-simmering drug problem began to spiral out of control. Soon, a litany of repeated arrests, imprisonment, failed attempts at rehab, divorce and unemployability laid waste to both his personal and professional life.

After several highly-publicised and notoriously-unsuccessful attempts to get straight, Downey finally began to turn his life around in 2003, a transformation that he puts down to a combination of meditation, a twelve-step recovery programme, yoga and martial arts. Reflecting on his current booze and pharmaceutical-free existence, he says: “I don’t drink these days. I am allergic to alcohol and narcotics. I break out in handcuffs.”

These days, Robert Downey Jr avoids alcohol and narcotics

It was Mel Gibson, a long-time friend, who underwrote Downey’s movie comeback by paying the insurance bond required for him to take the lead in The Singing Detective, a 2003 musical. Although the film was panned, Downey’s performance was considered a tour de force, leading to him taking the starring role in a series of high-profile movies, including Gothika, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tropic Thunder. Downey was back, baby, and big style.

Robert Downey Jr is the uncrowned king of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

It was Iron Man, though, that truly anointed him as one of Hollywood’s favourite sons and marked his first appearance in a box-office beating, cineplex-packing, all-action blockbuster. It also triggered a huge upturn in his financial fortunes, with his earnings rivalling even those of billionaire Stark, his cinematic counterpart.

With the Avengers assembling yet again next year, Marvel is set to replenish his coffers at least one more time.  After that, Robert Downey Jr is signed to play a rather more modest superhero in 2019’s Voyage of Doctor Doolittle. There are also rumours that he will return to his other movie franchise, once again reprising his surprisingly muscular take on Baker Street’s finest – the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. 

After the next Avengers movie, Robert Downey Jr might reprise his role as Sherlock Holmes

It is Iron Man, however, with whom he will be forever synonymous While we will have to wait 12 months to see if the armour-clad Avenger can truly save humanity, it’s clear he’s already been the salvation of at least one of the movie world’s most wayward sons.


Text: Suchetana Mukhopadhyay
Images: AFP