It should come as no surprise that Marvel had itself a banner year in 2021.
Riding on the heels of “Avengers: Endgame,” Marvel Studios was poised for a huge year in 2020. But the pandemic thwarted plans — delaying many of the planned Marvel Cinematic Universe films and television shows. Deadlines were pushed. Plotlines were scrapped. The entire MCU was put on pause as Marvel waited to finish filming and to see what the future of cinema looked like in the face of the pandemic.
We’re more than a year past the debut of “WandaVision,” which was the MCU’s first Disney+ show and the return to the MCU after the pandemic’s freeze. The show dominated the internet in 2021. Shows like “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki” followed soon after, showing us there’s a place for Marvel in streaming. There was even a brief detour into other universes with “What If … ?” We returned to the cinemas with legendary movies like “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” And even though “Eternals” and “Hawkeye” might not be living up to all expectations, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was a sign that Marvel can still win big.
Such a powerful year for Marvel does raise questions, though, about what comes next and if all MCU fans will be along for the ride.
To see where Marvel is going next, let’s take a look at where Marvel spent its time in 2021. There just might be some clues about what’s next buried in what we’ve already seen.
Marvel’s debut on your television set
Marvel’s year really began with “WandaVision,” which captured the heart of the internet in ways that still make waves today. The show focused on Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) living together in the town of WestView, an odd sight for Marvel fans since Vision died in “Avengers: Infinity War.” Regardless, we see that the town is not all that it seems.
The episodes created a number of theories and speculation about what was really going on with WestView. Marvel fans and internet sleuths to figure out what was actually happening and how the show’s dots were connected. During the final months of a pre-vaccine pandemic, the show was one of the few things keeping people chugging along.
Soon after, we were treated to the debut of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which. brought us back down to Earth. The show — which focuses on Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who are trying to stop a crime syndicate from creating super soldiers — was a reminder that Marvel isn’t always about magic, mystical elements and multiverses. Sometimes it’s about the problems at home. The show dealt with themes of racial injustice, economic struggle and what it means to be an American, which might have been too on the nose for the state of the world as it is now.
Then came “Loki,” a show that reminded us why we love Marvel. An instant internet darling, the show about how the villain Loki is trying to get home to his timeline brought us so mny new areas of the Marvel universe to explore. Aliens, multiverses, timelines, variants — there’s so much. We explored parts of that in “What If … ?”
If the first third of Marvel’s year told us anything, it was that the MCU is growing — and it’s growing fast. And that growth won’t be seen only in the stars, but here at home, too.
The return to the cinema
“Black Widow” brought people back to the cinemas after a long break. Sure, you had movies like “Tenet” that tried to get people back pre-vaccine. But as far as post-vaccine goes, “Black Widow” was one of the first projects out there. The film, an origin story about Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), was also available on Disney+, which was another first look at how a simultaneous release would look like for Marvel.
Months later, “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” made its debut in theaters only, showing us that Marvel Studios planned to release its MCU movies right in theaters. The film, about the fighter Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) was also a sign that new characters can thrive. Shang-Chi is new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and his film captured the hearts of critics and audiences alike. In fact, the film even performed better in the box office than expected, an early sign that the worries over seeing movies had dipped.
So not only did audiences fall in love with Shang-Chi as a character and the movie itself, but there was a strong indication that audiences wanted more Marvel. With Disney+ shows chugging along, it was clear Marvel had reached a new high for the year.
But “Eternals” may have brought down that high, and it may, in time, be seen as the low point in Marvel’s year. “Eternals” — which told the story of 11 god-like characters who reunite to save the world — didn’t hit the way many thought it would. There was a lot of hype for this film, much of which was not met by the complicated story, the underdeveloped characters and the confusing point of it all. Maybe down the road, there will be more to explore. But fans immediately began to question Marvel’s longevity after this movie. It didn’t feel like a Marvel film. It raised questions among some Marvel fans if the MCU had reached its last legs.
The future is full of characters and multiple universes
That question only continued with the recent run of “Hawkeye,” which has been seen as somewhat irrelevant to a pocket of Marvel fans. The show doesn’t deal with space invaders, huge galaxy-altering gauntlets or anything close to that. It’s a show about the boring superhero Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the new Kate Bishop, who is likely to take up the mantel. Some consider that it’s just another skippable MCU show that won’t have a point,. But the show does have a point — it’s a clear setup for the future.
If you’re wondering what’s next in the MCU, just look at “Hawkeye.” We’re seeing new characters develop on the show. And though it brings us back to Earth like “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” it’s a project that feels very much like the Marvel Comics. The episodes center around heroes fighting villains on the streets of New York — in your neighborhood and community. So while it might not be Marvel’s most popular project, it has the legs to stand on. It might not be everyone’s ideal project, but Marvel is clearly building out its world.
If you were to end 2021 with “Hawkeye” and “Eternals” as the final two MCU projects, you would have been left in a darker place. But “Spider-Man: No Way Home” arrived, which wass a sign that Marvel hasn’t lost it ... yet.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” absolutely crushed the box office, becoming the third-biggest global box officer opener of all time with $600.8 million through Sunday, according to Deadline. The film earned $260 million in the United States alone.
The new Marvel film — which was done in partnership with Sony — is a clear sign that Marvel’s plan to bring people back to the movies worked, and that there’s no shortage of comic book movie fans. For this film to perform that well in a pandemic — and without China’s box office — it’s a clear indication that the MCU is still alive and well. When the right story is told, the Marvel fan base will rush out of theaters in droves.
Marvel truly had itself a banner year. Despite worries in the pandemic and multiple delays, Marvel rebounded in 2021 with a year packed with content. There were high points and low points — with the lowest of the low wondering if Marvel could rebound or if it had reached its own endgame with its audience.
But the truth is that Marvel ended the year on a massive high note, which takes it into 2022 with a bunch of new characters on the way with an audience eager for more and more stories.