*This article will contain spoilers for WandaVision and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier*
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) got its start when Tony Stark announced himself as Iron Man in 2009. From there the MCU expanded to 23 films (24 if you count the 2008 release of ‘The Incredible Hulk’) and a handful of television shows that may or may not be canon, depending on who you ask. These films are well-loved, both by the people who read the comics as well as the people who grew up on the films (such as myself). There have been well-deserved critiques of the MCU over the years, as in 49 hours of film there was an undeniable lack of diversity. Most of the Black characters outside of Black Panther are one-dimensional companions to their white counterparts, and representation of other races is even more limited. The films have also varied from questionable to outright sexist depictions of women, from overly sexual costumes to incomplete/outrageous storylines (let’s not forget Black Widow—a literal assassin—and how her darkest thoughts were about her infertility). The most recent additions to the MCU, “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier,” two Disney+ television releases, have completely changed the MCU and how it interacts with the real world.
Let’s start with the first Disney+ release. “WandaVision” was a nine-episode miniseries centered around Wanda Maximoff and The Vision. Mysterious with a brand-new format, “Wandavision” kept fans on the edge of their seats in a way the MCU has never seen before. There was a haunting quality to the show as it continued on, as the audience slowly came to the realization that Wanda was holding an entire town hostage. And while no one could’ve predicted it, watching Wanda work through her grief when Covid has forced so many of us to do the same was oddly therapeutic. And with the addition of Monica Rambeau, who lost her mother during the blip and wasn’t able to attend her funeral or properly grieve, it’s almost too close to modern times.
WandaVision was also the first time a woman in the MCU felt fully fleshed out. Wanda’s trauma is scattered throughout the films: the death of her parents, HYDRA experimentation, the death of her brother, being labeled a global threat after accidentally destroying a building (as if every other hero hasn’t caused their own share of fatal accidents), and having to murder her boyfriend after finally finding happiness. “WandaVision” allowed Wanda to work through everything that’s happened to her, and explore her character in new and unique ways. Wanda’s unexplained strength is also explored, as we all watched Wanda single-handedly destroy an infinity stone and nearly take out Thanos all on her own. While similar to the Dark Phoenix plotline in X-Men, Wanda’s explosion of power isn’t random, and it doesn’t corrupt her character to the point of no return. It’s literally Wanda’s trauma attempting to give her the peaceful life she wants, only this life comes at the cost of an entire town. Wanda is funny, intelligent, loving, protective, attractive, and powerful, and her desire for a family doesn’t feel awkward and forced like the aforementioned Black Widow scene. She simply wants the life she was robbed of when that Stark Industries missile crashed through her living room. (Not to mention her final costume, which was gorgeous and powerful without being overly sexual).
It’s impossible to discuss “WandaVision” without discussing Monica Rambeau. Seeing a Black woman develop superpowers on screen for the first time in the MCU, specifically in the context of her refusing to bend to a white woman’s will, was the most empowered I’ve ever felt by the MCU. (There is discourse over Wanda’s original comic book heritage, as she’s originally a Jewish Romani woman, but as Wanda in the MCU is played by Elizabeth Olsen, I will refer to her as white in this context.) Monica is brilliant, both academically and practically, and she’s personable and empathetic and only has more room to grow and evolve as a character. For once we get to see the beginning of a Black woman’s journey, we’re getting more than bits and pieces of a character who seemingly has no room to grow.
Now let’s talk about “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.” Admittedly, I wasn’t as excited about this one going in. I love Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan and was happy their characters were finally getting the chance to flesh out their previously one-dimensional characters. But I was expecting a lighter, buddy-cop-style action show, not the painfully relevant discussion of race and privilege in America. It tackles how America does nothing to support its veterans, which is how characters like John Walker are able to exist. This was also another surprisingly positive depiction of women in the MCU. Sharon Carter’s fight scene brilliantly shot; she was allowed to be just as powerful and aggressive as her male counterparts. There were no random shots of her body, no pseudo-sexual choreography where Sharon tackles random men with her thighs. This is rare for the MCU, where all the women either have unique abilities or fight in some other acrobatic style, rarely do they get to be the ones throwing punches and knives.
I, like many others, was hesitant to see how the MCU tackled race. Seeing Sam have normal struggles like trying to get a loan from a bank and being unnecessarily harassed by police makes him more grounded than most other MCU characters. His conversations with Isaiah Bradley represent a very real generational gap in the Black community, with those who fought in the Civil Rights Movement reaching a point where they’re simply exhausted fighting for a country that’s barely changed, and a younger generation with enough energy to continue fighting. Also, the decision to surround John Walker with blackness (his wife, Lamar, even the marching band and color guard at his school) when he’s the walking definition of white privilege and supremacy was a deliberate and brilliant choice. He’s exactly the kind of white guy to use “I have Black friends” as his excuse to say something racist, and it’s not clear if anyone around him would call him out for it. Compare John to Bucky, whose closest companions are also all Black, but it’s clear to anyone that Bucky has an immense amount of respect for those around him. John inherently views himself as better than those around him, he believes he should be Captain America even when Lamar consistently makes better judgment calls, is more levelheaded, and has more respect for Sam and Bucky than John will ever have.
This show finally allowed Sam to thrive. Sam was always the relatable member of the team, he’s a genuinely good person who simply gets pulled into the fold when he’s needed. He’s not only proving himself to the other characters in the show, but to the audience. Every action shows why Sam is the perfect person to become Captain America. He takes the time to listen to Karli when no one else has, and by doing so he gains the Flag Smashers’ respect. Sam is smart and resourceful and has a way with people no one else in the MCU has. His thought process to even consider if one of the hostages has flight training and can fly the helicopter once he takes out the hostile emphasizes his belief that it’s not super-soldier serum or anything else that makes a hero.
In conclusion, Marvel has shown how television is just as worthy of a blockbuster-level budget as film. These shows not only continue the storylines of the MCU but enhance them in ways a 2-hour film simply wouldn’t have been able to accomplish.