It seems hard for some critics to take the MCU seriously. Though many of the franchise’s films have achieved at least some measure of critical success, they’ve often been knocked for avoiding the “big issues” of the present. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, for example, recently wrote that “In pursuit of profit, Marvel has largely surrendered the ability to explore grown-up questions about sex and romance and prioritized a certain political neutrality.” While she does grant Black Panther a bit of praise, she overlooks the MCU’s most recent high-profile screen offerings: WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, both of which debuted this year on Disney+.
Tempting as it may be to dismiss these shows as mere escapism — offering viewers entertainment and sensory stimulation but little intellectual engagement — the truth is that MCU TV has forced viewers to sit with some of the irresolvable contradictions of the 21st century, engaging in some very big questions, ranging from grief and trauma to nationalism, terrorism, and the American dream.
Take WandaVision. A haunting exploration of grief and the horrible acts that it sometimes engenders, from the beginning there was a sense that something quite sinister was going on. At first it seemed that the gravest threat would come from outside the disarmingly pleasant town of Westview, but as the series goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that Wanda is both hero and villain. In her grief at the death of her beloved Vision, she’d created an entire alternate reality, heedless of the terrible cost inflicted on the unsuspecting denizens of the town. As a result of Wanda’s actions, they exist in a state of terror and anguish; one even begs her to kill them if she’s not willing to release them.
Where a less-complex show would have painted Wanda as either a hero or a villain, WandaVision instead asks viewers to recognize the complicated and often terrifying nature of grief. It allows the audience to both sympathize with her pain and also feel horror and revulsion at what she’s done.
If WandaVision forced viewers to inhabit the dark spaces of grief and personal trauma, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier widened the scope, drilling down into the psyche of America itself. Throughout the series, both Sam Wilson/Falcon and Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier have to work through their personal traumas and the chaos engulfing the world in the aftermath of Captain America’s death and the restoration of those that Thanos had sentenced to oblivion. The series also focuses on the fraught personal journeys of Karli Morgenthau, the leader of the Flag Smashers (a radical anti-nationalist group) and John Walker, a former soldier elevated to the position of official Captain America by the United States government.
Morgenthau and Walker serve as mirror images of Sam and Bucky, and each is full of contradictions. Morgenthau is driven by a genuine desire to make the world better, but faced with impediments to her mission -- to return the world to the way it was during the Blip: unified rather than divided -- she turns to increasingly brutal acts, all the while insisting that what she does is in the service of the greater good. Walker, meanwhile, labors under the burden of Captain America’s shield and America’s promise, neither of which he can fulfill. Like Karli, he turns to violence, his own journey an inversion of Steve Rogers’. As with WandaVision, neither of these characters is entirely good or entirely evil. The questions that the series poses — is Karli a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Is Walker a patriot avenging the death of his best friend or an avatar of toxic masculinity? — remain frustratingly unanswerable because they depend on one’s perspective.
Of course, the series’ most pressing and resonant narrative concern revolves around race in the United States, as Sam has to contend with the ugly legacy of racism in both his personal life and in his role as the Falcon and later as the new Captain America. Just as his sister and her family struggle to keep their family business afloat (both literally and metaphorically), Sam has to decide whether he can continue to fight for a country that has made the brutal exploitation of Black bodies a key part of its very identity. He eventually decides to take up the shield and suit of Captain America, and though he refuses to accept the twisted mentalities of either Karli or Walker, he also doesn’t give his full-throated support to the governmental powers of the post-Blip world. In his climactic speech, he takes them to task for their unwillingness to acknowledge the forces that gave birth to the likes of the Flag Smashers and, in doing so, reminds those sitting in the audience of the precarious state of the real world and the tectonic shifts disturbing its fragile equilibrium.
Ultimately The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks: what is America? The fact that it refuses to provide a clear answer to that profoundly existential question is what makes it such a brilliant piece of television. It refuses to give the audience an easy way out, and even Sam’s speech doesn’t fully resolve the many issues that the series explored. Likewise, Bucky’s journey of atonement ends on a bittersweet note as his long-standing friendship with an elderly man ends when he tells him that he was the one responsible for his son’s death. In this world, just as in ours, there are no unalloyed happy endings.
It remains to be seen whether Loki, the MCU’s next television production, will engage with similar sorts of big questions as its predecessors and force the same sorts of audience discomfort, but given that it explores the nature of time itself, it seems like a fairly safe bet to say that it will.
Dr. Thomas J. West III is a freelance writer and co-host of the Queens of the B's podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.