Looking Back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2021

[Spoiler Warning: This article includes references to plot points and minor spoilers in several Marvel TV series and movies including WandaVisionFalcon and the Winter SoldierBlack Widow, Hawkeye.]

2021 brought a new phase to Marvel Cinematic Universe – the Disney Plus shows. Personally, one of my favorite bits is seeing the ramifications of what came to be known as The Blip. In WandaVision, we see firsthand Monica Rambeau returning to existence. We see the same from Yelena in Black Widow. Falcon and the Winter Soldier shows us a lot of the political and financial ramifications of having half of Earth’s population vanish for five years and then suddenly reappear. And Loki and What If? introduce alternate timelines.

Many of the year’s films were released at-home due to the pandemic, but towards the end of the year, we got a couple in the theater. Honestly, I prefer to sit at home and watch them from my couch.

Early on, I’d called What If? my favorite. Before that, I called WandaVision my favorite, and more recently I’ve been feeling that Hawkeye is my favorite. In the end, I’ve just realized that about 50% of what Marvel has put out this year is my favorite, so why choose?

My Favorites

Spider-Man: No Way Home: I recently finished listening to Jake and Mitch’s Watching Comics Podcast on the GeekDad Podcast Network about Spidey’s latest film, and while I don’t agree with all of what they said, it’s easily the best MCU film of 2021. The decision to make the previous Spider-Man films canon in different universes was a masterstroke. It allowed them to bring in the great Willam Defoe, arguably the only good thing in Tobey McGuire’s first film, and Alfred Molina, easily the best thing in the second film. I was also glad to see Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman, which I always thought was great casting despite the fact that Spider-Man 3 was trash. I think my favorite bit of Spider-Man: No Way Home may have been the brief moment with Matt Murdock. I nearly leapt out of my seat.

I’ll agree that in retrospect, Dr. Strange’s characterization in this movie seems far less responsible than he’s been represented in the past. And yet, I loved it all. Hard to say much more until I’ve seen it a second time.

WandaVision: The depth of creativity in this project, the mastery with which the script was put together, the set dressing, music, costuming, and the acting were all so insanely good in WandaVision. It did an outstanding job of recreating all the vintage situation comedy shows on which it was based, and used that set dressing to craft an intriguing mystery which was only revealed in episode four.

There was so much fantastic dialogue and so many great quotes in this series. Remember…

  • I have been a voice without a body, a body but not human, and now a memory made real. Who knows what I might be next?
  • The Vision vs Vision philosophy smackdown (Ship of Theseus)
  • What is grief but love persevering?

WandaVision deepened the lore of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by introducing notions like “Nexus,” which would later be picked up by Loki. It not only brought back Kat Dennings’s Darcy and Randall Park’s Jimmy Woo, it brought back Evan Peters as Quicksilver, which is the first taste of an X-Men character we’ve had in the MCU. It even addressed the issue of Wanda’s marvelous disappearing-reappearing accent. And of course, we’ve now got Kathryn Hahn’s Agatha Harkness, who will eventually have her own show, House of Harkness; Teyonah Parris’s Monica Rambeau, who becomes the hero Photon; and White Vision, whom I’m certain we’ve not seen the last of.

I can’t imagine how they might set up a second Season of WandaVision. It would obviously have to follow Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and I can’t imagine what the content might look like. But I’d trust the folks at Marvel to do it right. I just hope that if they do, they involve Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez again.

What If?: Until I’d had a chance to digest Hawkeye and decide that I could have multiple favorites, I’d placed What If? as my favorite thing Marvel had done this past year. The alternate storylines allow us to see our favorite scenes again, but have them play out slightly differently from what we remember.

The “What If T’Challa Became Star-Lord?” episode was an early favorite of mine. Seeing his interactions with The Guardians, with The Grand Master, with Thanos – it was amazing. The Zombie episode was another which I hadn’t loved initially, but it grew on me. But once we hit “What If Ultron Won?”, I was entirely hooked. I love the villain, and I often feel that Avengers: Age of Ultron, although I love the film more than anyone else seems to, didn’t give him all he deserved.

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The animation style was excellent, as was the voice acting. I am very much looking forward to a second season.

Hawkeye: I nearly wrote an entire article about how much I love Hawkeye. Perhaps it’s about the influences from the original Matt Fraction and David Aja comic. Perhaps it’s the excellent way the Christmas music is woven into the soundtrack. It could be all about how much I loved Yelena’s introduction on the rooftop, or how much I freaked out when I first saw Vincent D’onofrio’s Kingpin at the end of the penultimate episode.

Murphy’s Multiverse puts it well in the article Clint Barton Succeeds Where Tony Stark Failed, in comparing Tony Stark’s inept mentorship of Peter Parker to Clint Barton’s much more apt mentorship of Kate Bishop. The characterization of a hero who grew into a father who grew into a mentor is very well done.

I love the bumbling track suit mafia. I love seeing Lucky the Pizza Dog. The only thing that would have made it better is inclusion of my favorite gag from the original comic.

Marvel’s Other 2021 Content

Between what was on Disney+ and what was in the theater, Marvel had a lot of content this past year. And from where I’m sitting, the worst thing Marvel puts out is generally better than anything else out there.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: Shang is an excellent new addition to Marvel’s hero roster. The set piece on the bus was phenomenal, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung was an outstanding villain, and I loved seeing Michelle Yeoh play a second character in the MCU. Ben Kingsley’s return as Trevor Slattery was another highlight – I absolutely love his commentary about Planet of the Apes.

It’s too bad that Jessica Henwick couldn’t reprise her role as Iron Fist‘s Colleen Wing for the film, as that would have been amazing, but she turned it down to star in The Matrix Resurrections. To use a term I recently learned from my 14-year-old, I stan Jessica Henwick.

That bus set piece was amazing, but I’m hoping that future sequels to Shang-Chi up the martial arts game in the same way that the action in the Captain America movies improved from First Avenger to Winter Soldier. Watching Steve Rogers take down the mercs on that ship was really something.

Loki: So much of the show is about introducing the concept of the multiverse. Alternate timelines, variants, pruning timelines, the “sacred” timeline, and of course He Who Remains, who keeps it all in order. It’s dazzling when you consider the power involved if they can destroy an entire universe with one of their orange bombs. You know that the TVA will be huge moving forward. The moment in the final episode that incepted the multiverse was a big one.

The split-second appearance of Throg was fun, as was the emergence of classic Loki, kid Loki, and Alligator Loki. They’re certainly doing a second season of Loki, and it will be interesting to see where the Time Variance Authority goes after this.

Black Widow: Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was an outstanding and foundational character. It’s only too bad that her film came out in 2021 rather than back in 2015. The character deserved a film while she was still relevant. Florence Pugh’s Yelena is an excellent addition, David Harbour’s Red Guardian was hilarious, and Taskmaster was well done.

Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Even though it’s at the bottom of my list, Sam and Bucky’s show was still excellent. The way it addressed the financial and socio-economic impacts of the blip was awesome in its depth, and Sam Wilson as Captain America was a long time coming. I loved that they included Batroc the Leaper, who’d been a favorite of mine since his appearance in Captain America and the Winter Soldier.

Wyatt Russell as US Agent had a great character arc, and the Wakandan Dora Milaje making an appearance was an excellent surprise.

Eternals: So very different from other Marvel films, with a huge cast of heroes, and a story spanning millennia. The plot focuses on relationships more so than other Marvel films, and yet it’s not without its share of action. I enjoyed the movie, and amongst other things, it gave interesting insight into Celestials, of which Ego was one.

With 2021 being perhaps the best year for Marvel Cinematic Universe content on record, I’m excited to see what 2022 brings.

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This post was last modified on January 27, 2022 12:09 am

Greg Howley

Married white male, avid indoorsman, enjoys long walks in West Hartford center, lindy hop, heavy warjacks, the circle of fifths, common table expressions, and THAC0.

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