Phase 3 flipped the script with Avengers: Infinity War by making the heroes taste real defeat before eventually saving the world in Avengers: Endgame. The current Phase 4, however, is much different from all the rest, because there’s no longer such a clear-cut definition as to what makes a hero and what makes a villain.
Phase 4 kicked off with the Disney Plus series WandaVision and completely transformed the direction of the franchise with this show alone. For starters, it was the MCU’s first official television show, but it also smashed the barriers in place that defined good and evil, as well as right and wrong.
Wanda serves as the prime example of the MCU’s new favorite anti-hero character trope. Even throughout the earlier phases, Wanda has done whatever she can to help people, yet somehow she ends up accidentally hurting others in her attempts to be a hero. Wanda had no intention of tormenting the people of Westview during WandaVision, but she did anyway, holding them hostage for quite some time.
Even when Wanda turns herself into the villain, it’s still very easy for fans to sympathize with Wanda because of all the horrible things she’s been through. Since her heart is always in the right place, it’s easier for viewers to excuse her actions and root for her on her journey towards self-discovery.
Wanda isn’t the only Phase 4 character in search of redemption. Loki was the MCU’s second series to focus on an anti-hero with a complicated past, and the show ultimately transformed the God of Mischief from a stereotypical, power-hungry villain into someone capable of heroism and worthy of redemption. This was a massive shift in Loki’s character arc, especially since he was once the Avengers greatest enemy.
The upcoming Moon Knight series also marks a huge change in the tone of the MCU, delving into pretty brutal territory. The trailer depicts the main character, Marc Spector, being told to “embrace the chaos” before mercilessly beating someone on the ground, giving yet another anti-hero-style character his time in the spotlight.
Even Doctor Strange has been acting questionable in recent projects, most notably during Spider-Man: No Way Home, when he ripped open the multiverse to give Peter Parker another shot at getting into college. Although wanting to take care of Peter was a nice gesture, Strange was definitely abusing his power and messing with the natural order of the timeline.
In fact, Strange was being so irresponsible with his magic that fans actually speculated it was the villainous Mephisto masquerading as Strange, before No Way Home hit theaters and revealed it was truly Strange all along. His haphazard spell-casting is what gave way for the darker elements that will be present in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Not only will the sorcerer have to deal with an evil variant of himself, he’ll have to accept the fact that it was his mistake which led to the multiversal explosion terrorizing the universe.
WandaVision, Loki, Moon Knight, and Doctor Strange 2 all have a much grittier, intense feel to them, based on what fans have been able to see either on Disney Plus or in the respective trailers for each project. The characters still have external enemies that they need to defeat, but overall, it appears as if the MCU has started focusing more on creating stories where the protagonist of each project is mostly at war with themselves, their past actions, and are now being forced to reevaluate what it means to be a hero.
Now more than ever before, Marvel characters are struggling to know their limits and find the difference between right and wrong. Each new project seems to ponder whether the end justifies the means, and each hero has to take greater risks in order to defeat the bigger, stronger enemies that are compromising the safety of Earth.
When comparing Phase 4 projects with earlier films like Thor, or Captain America: The First Avenger, the characters and storylines carry an entirely different feel. Not only are the stakes higher, but there’s also a major tonal shift happening in the MCU. The characters are more complicated, more prone to making mistakes, and struggling with moral ambiguity, which in turn has bred a massive army of anti-heroes that are taking the franchise by storm.
Even characters like Bucky Barnes, who have taken on a background role in light of all the multiversal madness, are still amongst the list of fan-favorite characters and popular anti-hero front-runners. Moving forward, it’s clear that Marvel is ditching the traditional superhero narratives for something much more ghastly in tone.