In Phase 4 of the MCU, for the first time, Marvel Studios made television series (streamed on Disney+) that were tied to the stories of the films as much as the films had been with each other. They set up storylines for the movies and even shared actors.
Most lists of Marvel Cinematic Universe stories are broken into separate lists for the cinematic releases, Disney+ series, and the special short films. I think it is more useful to see the full combined list arranged only in order of release date. This shows us the order that dedicated fans will have watched all of the stories of Phase 4, and potentially the order Marvel Studios intended them to be watched.
This also helps give a different perspective on the phase than seeing only a list of movies. For example, the first movie in the phase, Black Widow, does not reveal anything about the broader storyline of the universe. However, the first Disney+ series of the phase, WandaVision, did.
The last story in the list, Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas Special, is described the the director James Gunn as “the epilogue of Phase 4”. Maybe you will agree that it does a better job of this than the last film in the phase, Wakanda Forever.
Some have argued that Phase 4 was weaker than the previous three phases, but this arguement is always based on the cinema releases. When all the stories are considered, you could come to a different conclusion.
Avatar 2 recaptures the magic of the first film without feeling like a retread — mostly.
With the world of Pandora and the way of the Navi explained in the first movie, the sequel seems like the time to build on those foundations and tell a new, more complex story.
I wanted Avatar: The Way of Water to do Star Wars: expand in a far flung, arms sweeping sort of way. Flamboyantly. Big space politics, new sentient species, strange ideas that are more than a step away from what we’ve already seen.
Instead, Cameron meanders pleasantly to a nearby island cluster, where the locals still have blue skin, but a slightly different shade of blue.
If this sounds like criticism, wait until you see it in motion. The world of the water tribe is worth a film to itself. It is not with dramatic, superficial variety that Cameron is expanding his world, but in the aggregate of many meaningful details.
In a way, it is the opposite of Star Wars, where you can cross a billion miles in a second to meet a thousand interchangeable aliens. On Pandora, you leave your forest and the other blue people laugh at you for having a different shaped tail. Honestly, much more realistic.
Deeper fidelity, deeper sentimentality: those seem to be the goals of Avatar 2. Sully’s new children (some biological, some adopted, each with a personality of their own) make up the emotional core of the film.
The multiple times I got choked up, the children were to blame.
When the film took a few seconds to slow down and lovingly explore the details of the new environment, it was Kiri’s unique connection with this nature that elevated these affecting moments above similar scenes in other movies.
When the danger ratcheted up, it was the heightened adrenaline of the children and the parents that totally encompassed me in the action.
I’m a sucker for a family dynamic in films, and The Way of Water does it well.
In some regards, Cameron doesn’t move far enough away from the first Avatar. In particular, the villain, Colonel Quaritch, who is no more interesting that he was in the first film.
He learns the way of the Na’vi, which seems like a great excuse for a redemption arc. This would have left a vacancy for a new antagonist at the end of the film… but alas. This film, as did the previous one, resolves itself with a showdown between Sully and Colonel Quaritch. A good fight scene, but a tedious narrative repetition.
Another disappointment is the scale of the conflict. The sequel starts well in this regard, jumping immediately into a new planetary war. But at the height of the third act, the stakes are no greater than Sully’s family, a few tens of water tribe warriors, and a school of large fish.
I’m happy for a sequel getting more personal, but when the conflict is already similar to the first movie it is hard not to make comparisons. In Avatar, the fate of the whole forest was palpable. In this film, does the fate of the ocean hang in the balance? It doesn’t seem so.
At the end, we are left with open conflicts for the next film to deal with. The sacred words of the water tribe state that “the way of water has no beginning and no end”. As a middle film in this franchise, that is unfortunately what this feels like.
In the one-day complete Avatar five-film epic cycle, if The Way of Water hadn’t introduced new characters then it would have risked being skipped in marathons. That’s how little has changed in the broader conflict by the end.
But’s it’s not the franchise building that matters. It isn’t the climax that makes this film a worthy sequel and blockbuster. It isn’t the wit of the writing or even the plot, which frankly requires Sully to make some very questionable decisions. It is the slower second act, which once again transports us to a fantasy world that no other film has the ambition to attempt. Love it or hate it, Avatar did it, and The Way of Water did it again.
Many of the MCU movies and shows can be enjoyed without having seen any of the other MCU movies or shows. However, most of them are improved with some context gleamed from the other stories. Therefore, I would like to suggest which shows I think you should try and watch before going to see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, if you have time.
Doctor Strange 2 is out on May 2. I am writing this in April. These are only predictions for what films and shows will be relevent to best enjoy the new Doctor Strange movie, based on having seen pretty much everything in the MCU myself.
This list is in release order:
Doctor Strange: It is very likely Multiverse of Madness will assume you have watched the movie that introduces Doctor Strange. If you watch the sequel first I’m confident you’ll be able to pick up the key points, but it’s still a good idea to have an introduction to the characters. Likelihood of being important: 4/5
Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame: Charcters from Doctor Strange had major roles in the two Thanos movies, but more than this, a large number of the stories released after Endgame have referred to the events of these movies in some way. Putting this on the list opens a can of worms, because if you want to watch Infinity War you really should really watch some of the other films first, but that’s just how the MCU is now. It’s only a guess that this will be relevant, though. Likelihood of being important: 2/5
WandaVision: This seems to be the story that directly preceeds Multiverse of Madness. Wanda is featured heavily in all the marketing materials for the new film, and WandaVision tells you how she got there. Likelihood of being important: 5/5
Loki: This films dives heavily into the multiverse aspect of the MCU. I don’t think there were any direct indications that Doctor Strange 2 will pick up threads from Loki, but it’s very easy to guess that it will, just based onthe fact that both stories centre around the multiverse, and Loki did leave some big ol’ threads lying around. It’s totally possible they won’t be touched until Loki Season 2, though, so this one is just a guess. Likelihood of being important: 2/5
Spider-Man: No Way Home: It was the last movie released inthe MCU and Doctor Strange had a starring role. The plot revolved around the multiverse. I would be surprised if this wasn’t referenced in some way. As with the Avengers movies mentioned above, you probably don’t want to watch this without seeing some of the other Spider-Man movies. Likelihood of being important: 3/5
What films do you need to watch before Doctor Strange 2?
The films most likely to have significance to the plot of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness are the original Doctor Strange movie (for introducing the characters and rules of magic in the MCU) and WandaVision (as the direct prequel from Wanda’s perspective, and for introducing ideas that will likely make a return in this movie). Endgame and Loki could be significant as well.