The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an incredible place. What it has achieved over the course of 13 years is phenomenal. We’ve seen characters ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics and almost flawlessly adapted to the big and small screen. However, I say almost because the MCU keeps glossing over an essential element to keeping these characters relevant and relatable: The characters of Marvel Comics are human, not pure paragons of justice.
In the comics each hero has had their moment in the shadows. Whether it be Tony’s debilitating alcoholism or Hank Pym’s disturbing domestic violence, these are heroes — but they are also flawed human beings. However, the MCU focuses on superhuman stories over human stories. I’m not condoning any of the actions of these heroes when they fall off the wagon or hurt those around them, but these actions are part of the characters’ DNA. It is what made Iron Man so fascinating a figure. Here’s a degenerate, a fool, a man who lives a privileged life on the bones of countless victims. When he comes to understand this, that’s when we the audience connect with him.
Now look at Tony and his decisions in all the films he headlines. He is usually the inciting incident. He creates all his villains, all the villains are targeting the Avengers because of his actions, and when he dies it is his legacy that follows young Peter Parker from beyond the grave. But all anyone thinks of when they see him is Iron Man the metal messiah. No one in any of the films truly calls him out on his questionable actions. No one even once says, “Hey Tony, why the hell are you bringing a 15-year-old into a warzone!?” We hear about it, but we never see it. We have glimpses of it and the directors within the MCU flirt with the darker hues of these characters, but only for moments.
The MCU Doesn’t Have Time for Alcoholism or Bad Governments
During promotional rounds for Iron Man 2, Jon Favreau addressed Tony Stark’s alcoholism and the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” comic arc that captured his descent. That storyline was a major moment in comics and a pivotal moment in the journey of Iron Man. However, for Iron Man 2, Favreau vaguely explained, “Stark has issues with booze. That’s part of who he is. I don’t think we’ll ever do the Leaving Las Vegas version, but it will be dealt with.” When I sat down to watch Iron Man 2, all I saw was Tony getting tipsy at a party and getting into a slapping match with Rhodey. Then to absolve him of any accountability, the film stated that he was being poisoned by his arc reactor. After a quick montage he was able to save himself and stop being such a jerk, for that film.
Tony isn’t the only one who gets off scot-free. The writers and directors don’t want to make the hard decisions that could make their characters’ journeys more monumental. Another wasted opportunity came in the shape of the big reveal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It turns out in Winter Soldier that S.H.I.E.L.D. is maybe using its almost unlimited power to infringe on human rights. That is hypothetically bold and terrifying: Cap and the Avengers may have to go up against the very institution that helped them become a team in the first place.
Oh wait, never mind. Hydra just took them over decades ago, once again absolving S.H.I.E.L.D. of any of its questionable actions. It’s a shame because this would have been fascinating to see Cap actually have to deal with the fallout of a government that he believed in. Instead we have him simply rooting out a parasite, and it eventually leads to S.H.I.E.L.D. coming back with the shiny new title of S.W.O.R.D. further down the line. I know in the comics S.W.O.R.D. is a separate entity to S.H.I.E.L.D., but I think we can all agree there were definite S.H.I.E.L.D. vibes when S.W.O.R.D. was investigating Wanda in WandaVision.
The MCU is lacking the horror that Marvel Comics can surprisingly excel at. After all, the majority of the heroes are experiments gone horribly wrong. Big boy Bruce Banner provides an example of the lack of character study in this regard within the MCU. After all, when did we truly see a Hulk freak-out? I would argue there have only been two instances across the entirety of the MCU timeline, despite Hulk being there since the very beginning, right behind Iron Man.
Firstly, in The Avengers, Bruce transforms into the Hulk on the Helicarrier, and you could see genuine fear in his eyes. After all this, Bruce tells the Avengers that he once tried to commit suicide via bullet, but “the other guy spit it out.” It’s tragic and has shades of horror about it. But after that, it’s never addressed. Later Bruce reveals he is actually always ready to Hulk out.
Secondly, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Bruce is manipulated by Wanda Maximoff and goes on a more chaotic rampage, but that quickly turns into fan service as the Hulkbuster suit arrives on the scene.
Fast-forward a couple films, and where is Hulk? He doesn’t exist. He’s dead because Bruce Banner decided one day to basically lobotomize the Hulk part of his psyche so that he could have the brain as well as the brawn, and no one addresses this terrifying decision.
The fact that Bruce Banner has taken the monster who had his own dreams and desires and put him to sleep is never talked about. Instead he takes selfies and dabs. Alternatively, if Bruce earnestly succeeded in integrating Hulk’s personality into his own, that too is a problem in that his character development occurred entirely off-screen.
Agatha All Along
The most recent wasted opportunity in the MCU is certainly WandaVision. The series presented an opportunity to set up Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch as someone who rightfully had a reason to go dark. She had lost so much, given everything for cause after cause, and in return she was ostracized as well as feared.
She takes a town full of innocent civilians and turns them into her dolls to play house. It’s disturbing, and right as it gets to the point where she can’t be forgiven, the show introduces the line that saves Wanda from taking any responsibility for her actions: “It’s been Agatha all along.” The show even goes out of its way to distract you from what Wanda has done by having Agatha kill a dog.
When all is said and done and the townspeople are freed and rightfully horrified by Wanda, Wanda is absolved by Monica Rambeau, who states, “They’ll never know what you sacrificed for them.” What this is saying to the audience is that these normies shouldn’t be so angry they were her meat puppets because she had to give up her imaginary family for them. This doesn’t hit home like it should because the writers are so busy trying to absolve Wanda of any guilt in our eyes.
I don’t understand the MCU’s aversion to allowing its heroes to get their hands dirty or at least admit that they’re not the paragons of virtue they claim to be. Maybe it’s that these stories are for children and it’s children that make their parents buy all the merchandise, or maybe they just don’t get the characters quite as well as they think they do.
After all, I’m a huge Marvel fan, but I’m a fan of these characters warts and all, and it’s those warts that add character, depth, and, most importantly, relatability.