A Look Back on The MCU in 2021
So, 2021 didn’t turn out to be the year of recovery everyone hoped for. Thanks to COVID Omicron, we’re almost back at square one Pandemic-wise. However, all’s not lost: after a year in exile, the MCU returned with a vengeance, giving fans five shows and four movies. That’s more content than any year since the MCU’s inception. Truly, 2021 was the year of Marvel.
Before we ring in the new year, we’re reviewing all of the MCU content we got in 2021. Besides offering our candid opinion, we’ll discuss where this will take the franchise going forward. It goes without saying, but major spoilers ahead.
Starting off the year of Marvel was the MCU’s dark take on sitcoms, WandaVision. Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, Wanda Maximoff and a seemingly-alive Vision are living an idyllic life in Westview, New Jersey. Only, the entire world starts off black-and-white and runs on classic sitcom tropes. And whenever anyone mentions past events, strange things seem to happen. In other words, something is very, very wrong with the world, and it’s up to those outside of town to figure out what before its too late.
WandaVision took the Internet by storm when it first came out. Fans and critics alike praised the miniseries premise of paying homage to sitcoms from the 1950’s up to the present day. Every episode would mimic the look, feel, and tropes of a particular decade, going from I Love Lucy all the way up to Modern Family in the present day. What also drew fans in was the fact that we had absolutely no idea what was going on. How was Vision still alive? Was Wanda responsible for everything, or was someone else pulling the strings? The overarching mystery kept fans guessing right up until the very end.
WandaVision laid the groundwork for a lot of new stuff for the MCU. Besides bringing back Vision, it also marks the first time Wanda was referred to by her comic book codename, the Scarlet Witch. Secondly, it marked the first appearance of the now-adult Monica Rambeau and how she gets superpowers. Lastly, it marks the birth of Wanda’s sons, Billy and Tommy. If you read my series on Scarlet Witch and the Young Avengers, then you know that these two kids will likely return to the MCU down the line. What a great way to start the year of Marvel.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Next up, we have The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which continues the story of the two heroes following the end of Avengers: Endgame. With Steve Rogers having retired from being Captain America, the question on everyone’s minds is who will be the new Captain America. Or rather, should there even be a new Captain America? As Sam Wilson struggles with his insecurities about becoming the next Cap, Bucky tries to put his past as the Winter Soldier to rest for good. With the rise of the anti-nationalist Flag Smashers, the US Government’s chosen successor for Steve Rogers, and the return of Zemo, things only get more complicated for everyone.
To be honest, the outcome for this miniseries was a given from the get go. Most fans knew that it would end with Sam embracing his role as the new Captain America; if it wasn’t him, Bucky would do it. However, TFatWS was less about choosing the next Captain America and more about how we got to that foregone conclusion. By doing so, it helped Sam and Bucky overcome a lot of their hang ups from previous films and become better people. In addition, the series also dealt with the uncomfortable reminder that racism is still a big problem in America. Admit it, we all know it’s true.
The series ends with the way many people would expect: Sam Wilson the new Captain America and Bucky as his new partner, meaning that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of them in the future. What wasn’t expected was what happened to John Walker, the unfortunate, disgraced replacement for Rogers. He’s set up to become the anti-hero known as US Agent. Fans of the comics know that could end up leading to trouble down the line. Also, it introduces another future Young Avenger.
What happened to the alternate Loki that stole the Tesseract during Avengers: Endgame? The MCU decided to make a whole series about it. As it turns out, there’s a group that polices the space-time continuum and prevents too many branching timelines from being created, and Loki wound up on their radar. Instead of erasing him, though, they end up recruiting him to help them stop another Loki from messing everything up. But if you think this is going to be a normal cop show, think again. Our new Loki quickly learns that not everything is what it seems, and the lines between good and bad get blurred like crazy, all while a new, more sinister threat looms in the background.
The first season of Loki was a hit with fans and critics, with praise going to Tom Hiddleston for playing a version of Loki that ends up on a different path from the one we’ve known. Seeing the TVA Loki’s character growth is like seeing years of what the original one went through in accelerated time. The end result is a character that’s still recognizably Loki, but more moral and responsible. The addition of the alternate, female version of Loki, Sylvie, was a great foil for him and showed how bad it would be if he kept pursuing what he wanted at the expense of everyone else.
More than any more material in the year of Marvel, Loki has the biggest impact on the MCU. Firstly, there’s the obvious fact that it introduces the multiverse to the MCU in full-force. That opens the door to let Marvel come up with whatever crazy idea they want for the franchise, just like they’ve been doing in the comics for years. However, a more subtle ramification is how it sets us up for who may be the new big bad for the MCU: Kang. If you read the comics, then you know that this guy is bad news!
Next, we have the first film in Phase 4 of the MCU, the long-awaited Black Widow. Set in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff finds herself on the run from the authorities for siding with Cap. Despite her attempts to remain off the grid, her past comes back to haunt her. After reuniting with her adoptive sister, Yelena Belova, Nat learns that the man who ran the Black Widow program is still alive and is now using the program as his own personal spy network. Knowing there are dozens of girls out there like her, Nat works with her foster family to put an end to the program that created them.
In a world without COVID, this would’ve been the first piece of media to come out of Phase 4 of the MCU. However, COVID saw it delayed more than three times, much to everyone’s dismay. Needless to say, when this finally came out in July 2021, everyone was happy to see it. It was about time that the Black Widow took centerstage without her fellow Avengers to overshadow her. Unfortunately, Nat’s death in Endgame means that any future appearances will be relegated to flashbacks.
Thankfully, the film also establishes that there are dozens of other Black Widows that the MCU can use in the future. The post-credits scene also sets Yelena to be the next main main Black Widow. And, as many people guessed, she ended up appearing in another 2021 MCU title…
Hot on the heels of Loki blowing the door to the multiverse wide open, What If..? explores this new setting for all its worth. In the first season to this anthology series, we follow the enigmatic Watcher as he observes the new multiverse and alternate versions of MCU characters that inhabit it. By doing so, though, he ends going from being a mere observer to an active particpant in protecting the multiverse.
As said before, if Loki blew open the door to the multiverse, then What If…? gave fans a taste of how much this setting has from a storytelling perspective. From alternate versions of characters we know, to alternate versions of events we’re familiar with, the multiverse is open to infinite possibilities. Granted, not all the stories may be that interesting, but that’s besides the point. What If…? is basically a blank check letting writers do whatever they want with the MCU without messing with the main timeline.
It’s not without its own consequences, though. With Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness coming next year, we may end up seeing the return of these alternate versions of characters. If fans are right about the trailer, then one version of Doctor Strange may be making his live-action debut, and that could be bad news for everyone.
Remember Iron Man 3 and how everyone thought we were finally getting the Mandarin, only it turned out to be an imposter? That upset a lot of people who thought Marvel was wasting the Mandarin. This film more or less corrects that mistake by giving us the Mandarin we wanted to see…and his son.
Living an unassuming life in San Francisco, Shang-Chi, the son of the leader of the Ten Rings, is doing his best to avoid the attention of his father. However, he cannot outrun his past forever, and when his dad’s followers come knocking, he has to answer the proverbial door. What follows is a globe-trotting adventure packed with fights that would be the envy of martial arts films, other worlds, and ancient monsters.
Shang-Chi is basically a fusion of Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther injected with every kung-fu movie ever made. From its portrayal of Asian culture and traditions to use of actual martial arts, the film was like a breath of fresh air for the MCU. In a year of new Marvel content, Shang-Chi is one of the best things that we’ve gotten.