The Great MCU Catch-Up: 2021 Edition

2021 was a huge year for the MCU and I spent Christmas doing my best to catch up on everything from Loki to Eternals.

2021 was a big year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for me it proved too big. While I try to keep up to date with all the films, and now Disney+ series, the sheer frequency of releases gave me that most subjective and personal of afflictions: franchise fatigue. I hate to say it but after The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a show I enjoyed, I was exhausted to the point I just stopped watching and even stopped caring. But after months of being clean I started getting the urge to start watching again, an extended Christmas break being the perfect opportunity. Thanks to Disney+, everything but the most recent releases were there on my television, and I crammed as much Marvel content into the holiday season as I could in a desperate attempt to catch up.

It was midway through Loki when I grew tired of the MCU and I started my catch-up by finishing up the last couple of episodes months after watching the first. It’s hardly the best way to watch it and when season 2 rolls around I’ll put the effort into rewatching the show and giving it more of a fair chance. As it stands, it’s my least favourite of Disney+ shows and that shocks me. Loki should be my kind of series. It’s doing weird, cosmic, trippy stuff but I never felt it truly committed to its strangeness, or at least thought it was doing more than it actually was. Everything was either underexplained or then overexplained – the finale revolving around one long expositional conversation. The structure too felt too much like an elongated movie, with each two episodes covering the act of a traditional film, not taking advantage of the medium. But there are undeniably some fun moments, largely featuring the Loki variants, particularly Sylvie, and the character work was done well. Oh, and the music was excellent.

Next up was Black Widow, a film I wasn’t looking forward to. “Why now?”, I thought, “and why not set it during that fascinating but unseen five years after the Blip?” The first question doesn’t have a good answer – the film should have been released before Infinity War – but I was won over by the idea of setting it just after Civil War. Having Natasha be on the run, estranged from her superhero family, is a great setup for the spy story and her character journey. Those are the two elements I enjoyed. It’s a fun spy movie with not only Bond influences but a great opening sequence with the vibe of The Americans. The interpersonal drama between the family members I found surprisingly effective, and loved when the film slowed down to just have characters talk. The issue is that the more generic MCU aspects bring the film down. Interesting conversations are interrupted by action scenes that feel unnecessary, sometimes characters fight for reasons I can’t fathom, and the villains are weak, with Ray Winstone doing another dodgy accent and Taskmaster wasted. Black Widow succeeds at intimacy and espionage but fails when it tries to be like its massive MCU contemporaries.

I loved Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Knowing next to nothing about the film, it was a wonderful surprise. As with Black Widow, what often lets MCU films down are the uninteresting action sequences but Shang-Chi took the franchise’s weakness and made it its strength. The fight scenes are so well choreographed, directed, and executed by everyone involved, particularly the bus scene which is phenomenal. The film also has a real sense of cinematic wonder, even with all the CGI. Everything in Ta Lo was great and I like having a new mythology and world inside the wider MCU to get invested in. I will defend Iron Man 3, a top 5 MCU movie, to my dying breath but Shang-Chi does do a good job of explaining the controversial Mandarin switcheroo with an interesting point about appropriation, and it was wonderful to see Trevor Slattery again. I have very few criticisms, there being some bad CGI cars and the flashbacks became a little excessive, but that’s it. Shang-Chi reawakened my love of the MCU, getting me reinvested after a lull of relying on familiar characters. It felt like a fresh new direction and I’m excited for what’s next.

Hawkeye was just really good fun and the type of show I hope we see more of in the coming years. It wasn’t trying to be a big blockbuster movie and instead embraced the smaller, human side of the MCU. I liked spending time with the real people of this world. The ones who have to nurse their injuries after a fight, overcome their disabilities and become stronger for it, or just want to get home and spend Christmas with their family. They’re heroes but relatable and profoundly human. The show is also funny in an endearing way – Kate Bishop maybe being my new favourite MCU character. Hawkeye pushes the franchise forward with new characters but also delivers a satisfying swan song for Clint, tying up all his character threads by the end of the season. Some of the plotting is subpar, some motivations hazy (why were the Tracksuit Mafia after the watch?), and some twists obvious (Kate’s mom being a baddie), but overall, Hawkeye was very enjoyable and felt very much like one of the Marvel Netflix shows (even without the direct connection) but with actual pacing, which those shows never had.

Eternals is the latest MCU film to grace Disney+, and I found it to be slow and sprawling, a subdued epic, in desperate need of a clear focus. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I did – or at least I think I did – it’s just that there were so much potential and interesting thematic ideas at the heart of the story that felt muddled by the end. Eternals took on too much for one movie to handle and either needed to remove some characters (Angelina Jolie’s Thena could easily be jettisoned) or allow the narrative to breathe as a miniseries. Despite the runtime, when the third act began and characters made huge decisions, their motivations made little sense to me, and it culminates with one of the worst deaths in the franchise. However, I do like the deconstructive idea of a diverse team of superheroes essentially being the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey personified, each with a Prime Directive complex, and struggling with their own humanity while deciding the fate of humanity as a whole. There’s certainly some good exploration in there somewhere. It’s also a beautiful film, shot incredibly well. The film can be a slog but there are moments, scenes, ideas, visuals, and performances within that are unique and engaging; Eternals ultimately being lesser than the sum of its parts.

What are your thoughts on what the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to offer in 2021? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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