Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is the final film in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following six other movies and eight television shows on Disney+, plus a couple holiday specials. At Wakanda Forever’s premiere in Hollywood, Marvel’s Kevin Feige summed up Phase Four thusly: “The reason [Wakanda Forever] anchors Phase Four ... is because the phases are all about introductions. And Phase Four — think of all of the characters we’ve met here. And now, finally, in the finale here of Phase Four, looking at it by phases, we meet an entire new kingdom and an entire character who is the very foundation of what we do at Marvel.”

Certainly each new phase of the MCU adds new characters to the mix. Phase Two introduced the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man. Phase Three had Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Black Panther. And Phase Four has had more than its share of new Marvel heroes and villains, including Shang-Chi, Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, the Eternals, plus a new Black Widow, a new Hawkeye, a new Captain America, and (in Wakanda Forever) a new Black Panther.

So Kevin Feige is certainly not wrong that Phase Four included a lot of introductions. (He’s the guy overseeing all of these movies and shows, he should have a pretty good idea what they’re about.) But another theme has dominated every single Phase Four movie and show, even the ones that weren’t necessarily about introducing “new” heroes and villains. This theme cropped up in the first couple of Marvel series on Disney+. When the pandemic eased, and Marvel began releasing movies in theaters, it continued there, and in every single thing that the company has produced in the last three years for both the large and small screen. Marvel has dubbed Phases Four, Five, and Six of their ongoing universe “The Multiverse Saga.” Unofficially, this first phase of that saga has been all about one thing: Defining one’s identity.

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Over and over, Phase Four heroes (and even a few villains) have wrestled with existential questions like “Who am I? Who do I want to be? Am I bound to continue the choices I’ve made thus far in my story? Or can I change my path?” These questions go hand-in-hand with the notion of a “multiverse,” where there exists an infinite number of variations of every single person: A good Doctor Strange, an evil Doctor Strange, a zombie Doctor Strange, a Doctor Strange who is lactose intolerant, a Doctor Strange who harbors an irrational hatred of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and so on. These “variants,” as Marvel calls them, allows the studio to turn allegorical identity crises into literal battles for the future of the MCU.

The malleable nature of identity has been one of the most important and pervasive themes in Marvel Comics since the company’s earliest days. Spider-Man hid his secret identity to protect Aunt May, and often found himself struggling to decide which of his two roles — hero or humble science nerd — was his real and authentic self. The mutants of the Marvel Universe were constantly called upon to define themselves — as X-Men or members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants — and to grapple with how those allegiances placed them inside or outside the boundaries of the rest of modern society.

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Marvel’s early movies, in contrast, rarely explored this idea. Tony Stark ended the first Iron Man defiantly revealing his armored alter ego. From that moment on, the MCU largely abandoned the concept of secret identities as a source of tension and suspense. Everyone knew Tony Stark was Iron Man and that Steve Rogers was Captain America, and that Doctor Strange was a doctor turned sorcerer who lived in an impossibly posh mansion in the middle of Greenwich Village. (Seriously, who is his realtor? Can you imagine how many Infinity Stones you could buy with the proceeds from selling the Sanctum?) With very few exceptions, Marvel’s early movie heroes rarely questioned their superheroic destinies or struggled to juggle the needs of their public and private lives.

That changed dramatically with Phase Four of the MCU. Here is a movie by movie and show by show breakdown of how it happened.

How Every MCU Phase Four Movie and Show Is Connected

Seven movies. Eight shows. One theme unites them all — and here is how.

If superhero stories are power fantasies, then Phase Four of the MCU has been a fantasy of reinvention. Its heroes shed personas the way snakes shed their skin, discarding previous identities and allegiances for new (and occasionally contradictory) ones. Whether that fantasy is resonating with audiences is up for debate; while Phase Four has featured one of Marvel’s biggest hits (Spider-Man: No Way Home) it’s also included one of its biggest critical and commercial flops (Eternals). Perhaps it is Marvel itself, which has already churned through 30 films, many classic story concepts, and dozens upon dozens of its best characters, for whom the idea of reinvention seems particularly appealing.

It will be interesting to see whether this idea continues into Phases Five and Six of the MCU, or whether it will eased into the background for other thematic concerns. The first movie in MCU Phase Five is Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which co-stars Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror, a variant of a character who previously debuted in the Loki TV series — so these concepts won’t vanish completely from the MCU in the near future. It could very well be that we eventually look back on all of the Multiverse Saga as Marvel’s unofficial Identity Saga as well.

The Best Marvel Heroes Who Haven’t Joined the MCU Yet

These great Marvel characters have yet to make the jump to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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