With each passing year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands its domination over pop culture, and in 2021, the franchise made some huge new strides. Not only did Marvel start taking full advantage of both theaters and Disney+ as platforms for storytelling, delivering five new TV series in addition to four films, but there was a whole new sense of inclusion both on screen and behind the camera. With nearly every release, the MCU amplified representation of different genders, races, sexualities, and abilities like never before.
To be clear, there is still a lot of progress to be made across all these categories. But the dominant force in pop culture (at least, if box office receipts are any measurement) put serious focus on ensuring that a larger contingent of the global audience feels seen by their projects. So, as 2021 comes to a close, we look back at the year in Marvel, and how it got closer than ever to reflecting the diversity of the world we live in.
— Liz Shannon Miller
01. WandaVision (January 15th)
Typically when a comic book movie takes on mental illness, it’s in the form of a villain with dissociative identity disorder a la Norman Osborn in Spider-Man: No Way Home. WandaVision gave us an examination of trauma, grief, and rage with actual depth, allowing us to witness a psychological break trigged by real pathos. It’s a landmark in superhero entertainment in general, let alone the MCU.
On top of that, WandaVision is a women-first property all the way. Women are center stage at every level — hero, villain, secondary hero, sidekick — and the whole thing was run by head writer Jac Schaeffer. Heck, even the series’ themes were co-written by a woman (Kristen Anderson-Lopez, alongside her husband, Robert Lopez).
— Ben Kaye
02. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (March 19th)
The Falcon and the Winter Solider made good on one of the most emotion-filled promises of the MCU: Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) becoming Captain America. Although he took the shield at the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, the journey of a Black man assuming the responsibility of the Captain America mantle deserved a series-length exploration. Part of that arc involved Sam’s sister, played by Adepero Oduye, who frequently provided a strong foil for all the weight that went into Sam’s choices.
Then there’s Bucky/Winter Solider’s (Sebastian Stan) battle with PTSD, the teasing of a Latin-American Falcon (Danny Ramirez’s Joaquin Torres), and the introduction of a major female mastermind (Julia Louis-Dreyfus‘ Valentina Allegra de Fontaine). For a show often seen simply as an international action-adventure (directed by Kari Skogland, no less), they sure packed a lot of variety into these characters.
03. Loki (June 9th)
Behind the scenes, Loki featured the second female director to helm an entire season of an MCU/Disney+ series, and Kate Herron tackled the assignment with vigor, drawing upon countless points of inspiration to craft a uniquely skewed look at the world of the Time Variance Authority. Along with invoking memories of Mad Men and David Fincher, Herron was also passionately committed to the most groundbreaking moment of the season: official confirmation that like the comic book character himself (and love interest/Loki variant Sylvie, played by Sophia Di Martino), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was bisexual.
While sexual orientation is yet another area where the MCU is still struggling to catch up with the rest of the world — no disrespect meant to that groundbreaking moment with Unnamed White Man in Avengers: Endgame — Loki quietly confirming a basic fact about his identity had major resonance. Season 2 could go further with this, including exploring the concept of Loki being not just bisexual, but genderqueer (something already hinted at by the existence of Sylvie and a tease in the title sequence, not to mention the character’s own roots in Norse mythology). But this was a start.
In addition, Episode 6 of Loki got the honor of introducing Jonathan Majors as at least one variant of Kang the Conqueror, whose future role in the MCU is a bit unknown beyond a confirmed appearance in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. But those familiar with the comics know that there’s a real possibility that Kang is being positioned as a Thanos-level nemesis for Phase 4, proving there’s room for diversity even amongst supervillains.
04. Black Widow (July 9th)
Black Widow has the official distinction of being the first Marvel movie solely directed by a woman (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck co-directed Captain Marvel), and Cate Shortland tore into the material, taking the opportunity to celebrate the legacy of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in the context of an Avengers: Infinity War prequel.
WandaVision head writer Jac Schaeffer also has a “story by” credit here, and amongst the film’s best qualities are the found family dynamic explored between Natasha, sister Yelena (Florence Pugh), and surrogate parents Melina (Rachel Weisz) and Alexei (David Harbour). Plus, there’s the simple pleasure of seeing the MCU’s one-time token female superhero finally get a story of her own.
Most importantly, the film offered an important opportunity to re-examine one of the MCU’s most controversial moments: the Avengers: Age of Ultron speech where Natasha correlates being sterilized by her brainwashers to being “a monster”. With an assist from acclaimed screenwriter Nicole Holofcener, a notable Black Widow scene approached Natasha’s reproductive status for what it really is: a part of her as a character, but not something that defines her.
05. What If…? (August 11th)
Finally, zombie Americans get their moment in the sun! In all seriousness, this animated series was led by female head writer A.C. Bradley, and the show’s two flagship characters ended up being Captain Carter (a super-powered Peggy, once again portrayed by Hayley Atwell) and T’Challa the Star-Lord (Chadwick Boseman‘s final performance as the character) — the latter proving to be way better at Star-Lording than Peter Quill.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the series officially starred Jeffrey Wright as Uatu the Watcher, a significant character from the comics who canonically had been made to resemble a (somewhat strange-looking) Caucasian man. The Watcher’s ethnicity here reflects the actor playing him, and while the question of how What If…? might end up crossing over into the live-action world is unknown, with Wright already on board at least in a voice-over capacity, it seems likely that this could be a permanent change.
06. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (September 3rd)
What can really be said about Shang-Chi’s representative milestones that hasn’t already been widely discussed and deservedly praised? The film features the MCU’s first Asian-American superhero (Simu Liu), surrounded by a nearly all East Asian cast of co-stars delivering truly wonderful performances (Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Menge’er Zhang), paying homage to Chinese-American lives as well as Chinese culture both traditional and mystical in a project that should be a breakthrough for the Japanese-American filmmaker at the helm (Destin Daniel Cretton).
For a movie like this to be released during a period that’s seen a rise of anti-Asian racism and violence makes it undoubtedly more meaningful. But it’s everything on screen and behind the scenes that makes it such a resounding success not just as a superhero blockbuster, but a landmark cultural event.
07. Eternals (November 5th)
Eternals represented a massive breakthrough for the MCU, as it was the first film to be directed by… an Academy Award-winning director. Yes, it was also the first to be directed by an Asian woman, and Chloe Zhao brought the same lyrical qualities that made 2020’s Nomadland a critical favorite to the most diverse team of superheroes to date.
The multi-racial cast featured Black, East Asian, South Asian, Latino, and mixed-race actors (the latter of whom, Lauren Ridloff, is also deaf, playing a deaf character), with the ultimate protagonist of the film being Gemma Chan as Sersei. Also, the film not only introduces the first official LGBTQ+ MCU superhero, but features Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) actually kissing his husband Ben (Haaz Sleiman). These are small steps towards progress, but steps nonetheless.
08. Hawkeye (November 24th)
In terms of behind-the-scenes representation, half of Hawkeye was directed by the team known as Bert and Bertie, two women who broke out with the YA comedy Troop Zero, and delivered some truly wild action sequences in their episodes. In addition, Hawkeye introduced the character Maya Lopez, played by deaf Indigenous actor Alaqua Cox (who also happens to be an amputee); Cox is set to return as Maya in the upcoming Disney+ spinoff series Echo.
Maya and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) both share the issue of hearing loss, something which is an important part of their dynamic within the series. As head writer Jonathan Igla told Consequence in November, “I think Clint has a very different experience of it than Maya. I was glad to get to have a couple of different representations of that experience in the show.” Plus, there’s the introduction of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) — the potential heir to the title of Hawkeye.
09. Spider-Man: No Way Home (December 17th)
Admittedly, a movie more about a bunch of white dudes teaming up to fight a bunch of white dudes and one Black dude doesn’t exactly scream “representation advancement.” Spider-Man: Homecoming had previously gone out of its way to recast MJ as a Black girl, so we can’t give credit to No Way Home for that, either. Still, there’s one little moment that teases fans with the long-awaited live-action possibility of Miles Morales, and it’s done in a way that both pays tribute to what the biracial Spider-Man means on a cultural level and what’s always been part of the character’s widespread appeal.
In an interview with Larry King, the late Stan Lee once said of Spider-Man’s costume, “He is completely covered, so any kid could imagine he’s Spider-Man because no color of the skin shows… He could belong to any race. And that wasn’t done purposely, it was done accidentally, but I think it was the best thing we did: making him so that he could be anybody under that costume.” There’s gotta be a Black Spider-Man somewhere, right?
2022 wasn’t just a blip (pun intended) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s plans for furthering representation within its massive collection of stories. In fact, it’s the beginning of the new norm. Over the next year, we’ll get Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, expected to introduce a woman as the title hero (Letitia Wright‘s Shuri, if all goes to plan); a female Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder (Natalie Portman’s returning Jane Foster), which will also see Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie formally assuming her role as Queen of Asgard and addressing her bisexuality; and a new Latin LGBTQ superhero by the name of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) in the second Doctor Strange film.
Then over on Disney+, fans will meet a female Hulk (Tatiana Maslany) who holds down a professional job while smashing heads on She-Hulk, a series run by Asian-American writer/producer Jessica Gao. Then there’s Ms. Marvel, with newcomer Iman Vellani as a Muslim superhero leading a series spearheaded by a Pakistani showrunner (Bisha K. Ali) and directed by a team of filmmakers with Moroccan (Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah), Pakistani (Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy), and Indian (Meera Menon) heritage.
Finally, we’ll see Moon Knight, a potentially powerful exploration of mental illness led by Guatemalan-Cuban star Oscar Isaac (it’s unclear if the character will be Jewish like his comic counterpart) and directed largely by an Egyptian filmmaker (Mohamed Diab). There’s always more work to be done, but it’s clear there’s a concerted effort to expand the colors, creeds, and identities of both the characters and the real-world caretakers of the MCU.