COVID-19 may have slowed the world down in 2020 and 2021, but it couldn’t stop Kevin Feige’s cinematic warhorse from breaching the theatrical gates. 2021 is somewhat different from 2020 – the world is opening up, live gigs are a thing again and movie studios are confident enough to exclusively send their features to theaters. Yippe-ki-yay!
Now, Marvel is among these studios, with both Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home being theatrical exclusives this year. But they also thrived in their second-best home – streaming. The 2021 TV Shows released on Disney Plus have proven the Marvel Cinematic Universe can work in episodic bytes and still deliver the same thrills and chills the movies are best known for. But out of a plethora of Marvel-related content, which ranks among the studio’s best output of 2021? Let’s see…
9) What If?
Conceptually speaking, What If is interesting. What would happen if Peggy Carter took Steve Rogers’ super-serum? What would happen if T’Challa was abducted from Earth instead of Peter Quill? All of us, at some point, have examined a movie and wondered about alternate possibilities, so What If always had potential.
But of course, the big Thanos-sized elephant in the room is this – the series has little bearing on the MCU at large. Whereas the other shows are influenced by the movie’s events, this is merely a collection of 10 alternate outcomes (soon to be accompanied by 10 more). The cel-shaded animation also looked awkward and didn’t match the styles of the live-action films. Admittedly, there is one saving grace in that they managed to recruit some of the MCU actors to reprise their roles. It is great to hear Hayley Atwell reprise Peggy in the first episode, for example, and even Jeremy Renner comes back to voice Hawkeye in a later episode.
8) Black Widow
Black Widow is exactly the kind of film that gives superhero movies a bad rap. Starting promisingly following a young Natasha’s childhood, accompanied by a beautifully haunting cover of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, things quickly decline. The movie tries to be an espionage thriller and comedy at the same time and doesn’t manage to combine these genres satisfyingly.
David Harbour’s Red Guardian is easily one of Marvel’s most annoying comic relief characters, employing an exaggerated Russian accent and rambling about drinking urine. The movie’s villain, Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is a tedious, cliched puppetmaster who isn’t much more compelling than the emotionless Taskmaster. That said, Scarlett Johansson thrives as the lead and the action scenes are visually impressive. The problem is that this film doesn’t have the best stakes when compared to the other Marvel TV Shows and movies of 2021.
Eternals was always going to be a hard sell. While Spider-Man: No Way Home had lots of characters, they had the benefit of being established in previous films. Conversely, this superhero ensemble didn’t, and therefore had the job of introducing several new faces to the MCU. And it delivered…to mixed results.
The problem is, by the time Eternals hit theaters, we’d seen it all before. Heroes fighting earth-shattering cosmic forces, the same attempts to merge quirky personalities with incredible powers and the shooing in of big names to sell a bland product. While it’s nice to have the MCU’s first gay hero (Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos), Kit Harrington teasing a larger role, and seeing Harry Styles make his Marvel movie debut, Eternals is far from 2021’s best movie.
6) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Many critics predicted Shang-Chi would flop due to an apparent pushing of woke politics. Fortunately, the critics in question were wrong, both in terms of the movie’s Box Office earnings and its quality. Shang-Chi combines slick martial arts choreography and supernatural powers to give us an example of how Marvel can spread its wings on a creative level.
But while its Asian-American focus and stunts are commendable alongside the likeability of Simu Liu’s titular hero, it falls in the same traps as its Marvel predecessors. Yes, there are fun interactions (Awkwafina’s turn as a plucky comic relief sidekick getting special mention), but it also suffers from a predictable CGI-filled conclusion with shoulder-shrugging stakes. That said, its sympathetic villain and vibrant cast have us anticipating what Marvel does with the sequels.
Hawkeye does the seemingly impossible. It takes the MCU’s most boring Avenger, humanizes him while empowering him and giving him a naive young sidekick, Kate Bishop. Indeed, the two characters’ interactions force a maternal-mentor side from Jeremy Renner’s hero that makes him more likable than ever before. Meanwhile, Hailee Steinfeld is both hilarious and kickass as Clint Barton’s biggest fan.
Now, the character interactions are all well and good. But the main narrative is where things get iffy. Tony Dalton’s Faux-Villain, Jack Duquesne, is charming but decidedly two-dimensional and one-note. When the fan-pleasing Kingpin returns from MCU purgatory to reveal himself as the master villain, we barely feel his presence before he exits stage left. The series is good on its two leads alone. However, it’s also a bit haphazard in how it portrays the threats to our heroes.
Like the rest of us, Marvel can’t let go of Tom Hiddleston’s lovable antihero. Even his demise in Infinity War didn’t seal his fate, thanks to the heroes’ time intervention in Endgame. Loki escapes the heroes, only to get captured by the TVA for messing up the timeline. Thus ensues an adventure that delivers the best laughs while creating the foundation for a future threat also teased in other 2021 Marvel movies and TV Shows
Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson (who plays the witty TVA official, Mobius) make a surprisingly effective comic duo. Meanwhile, Loki’s interactions with his variant, Sylvie, and the Time-Keepers develop his character like nothing before. Loki is the gift that keeps on giving, with a second season rumored to be in development.
3) Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Falcon and the Winter Soldier is easily the MCU’s most mature entry to date. While the series exhibits the whiplash humor and CGI silliness of its theatrical brethren, it injects a dose of contemporary social commentary that the movies haven’t tread. What does it mean to be Captain America – and is the nation ready for a black hero to represent them in this treasured role? It’s a struggle that Falcon encounters, to the point he’s initially hesitant to take the mantle.
However, the audience never struggles to engage with this thrilling series. Both Anthony Mackie and Sebastien Stan make a great buddy-cop pairing while giving their characters previously unexplored humanity (Sam Wilson trying to get his sister a loan is a scene we never knew we needed). Meanwhile, the Flag-Smashers are powerful foes whose motives are sympathetic and thought-provoking, their determination to balance society following ‘the Blip’ eerily reminiscent of real-life movements. Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t perfect – but it’s one of the best Marvel TV shows of 2021.
While Wanda and Vision were sidelined somewhat in the theatrical entries, WandaVision gave them the spotlight. Not only that, but it also gifted us a delightfully novel premise. Wanda and Vision are mysteriously locked in a ‘sitcom dimension’ where they live out their lives in a similar vein to TV sitcoms across the decades. The premise simultaneously allows for an audience-gripping hook and doses of charm and creativity.
WandaVision is the best Marvel TV Show of 2021 because it proves the universe can tell stories that don’t involve CGI boss battles. Indeed, it demonstrates a capability to create mystery and suspense while utilizing its universe’s idiosyncrasies. The show made stars of Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and explored the trauma of Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlett Witch. The only drawback is that the series ends on a low note undeserving of the strength of its set-up.
1) Spider-Man: No Way Home
At first sight, Spider-Man: No Way Home had all the ingredients needed to go wrong. Five major villains, rumors of several cameos, and the promise of finishing Peter Parker’s MCU arc implied an overstuffed threequel. Additionally, the fact that Tom Holland himself admitted the script was changing constantly throughout filming didn’t inspire confidence. Spider-Man, after all, has been victim to Hollywood executive meddling a few times before.
Alas, those anxieties vanished once we saw the film in theaters. What occurs is an epic culmination of 20 years’ worth of Spider-Man cinema, from Raimi to Webb to No Way Home director Jonn Watts himself. No Way Home admirably balances its villains’ screentime, with special kudos going to Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. Featuring Tom Holland’s best on-screen performance yet, the third MCU Spidey adventure is the best Marvel movie since Endgame.
But that’s just our take. What are your best Marvel movies and TV shows of 2021?