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How the Marvel Cinematic Universe Now Captures the Nuances of Grief

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Editor's Note

This story contains spoilers from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Grief and loss has always been a staple of the superhero genre, part of the backstory mentioned in passing that makes a superhero who they are at their core and what prompted them to fight the good fight. Often however in the past, this loss and grief was glossed over without anguishing detail. We all know how Peter Parker lost Uncle Ben, and how Tony Stark lost his dad who was killed by the Winter Soldier. While that grief existed as a cornerstone and building block, it often resided in the past more as a footnote than as a chaotic sea of emotions in the present. In the past year however, loss and grief within the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded and taken center stage.

Superhero stories are a guilty pleasure for many of us because they play into our innate desire to help others and be genuinely good at our core. We all hope that if we were ever put in one of those impossible positions, we’d step up to the plate and be heroes, too. We hope we’d be strong enough. As Stan Lee says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” One of the other draws to superhero stories is their relatability. So many of the Marvel heroes are just regular people at their core, people who have found themselves in extraordinary situations. Superhero stories are also frequently a reflection of the times and the people living in them. Perhaps because as the pandemic raged on throughout 2021, and more of us experienced great loss and grief ourselves, that reflection of reality within the Marvel universe began to display a more thorough example of loss and grief, as well.

Looking over the Marvel movies and shows over the last year paints a broad and expansive canvas of loss and grief that mirrors so much of the grief many of us have felt ourselves over the last twelve months. The five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — exist now within the Marvel universe in droves.

In the series “Wandavision,” Wanda Maximoff lost the love of her life and it devastated her so deeply that she created an alternate world for herself where they could be together. Her loss felt too deep and too great that she could not bring herself to live without him, even if it meant tearing the rest of her world apart. Her loss was not a glossed over backstory, but rather it was ever-present, ever-raw. “What is grief, if not love persevering?”

In the series “Loki,” after the titular character is captured by the TVA, he is forced to face the fact that his mother — the one person who was always loving and supportive of him — was dead directly because of his actions and choices. Though his mother’s death took place a few years back in the Marvel timeline, Loki’s devastation of learning her fate and his responsibility for her death visibly shook him to his core. That level of heartbreak gave his character more depth and relatability in one minute of screen time than he had in multiple Avengers movies as a villain.

Throughout the series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” Bucky was in therapy to cope with the aftermath of all the devastation he caused while he was the Winter Soldier, struggling to make amends to everyone he wronged. So many characters in that show, from Falcon to Bucky to Karli to John Walker to Sharon Carter to Zemo to Isaiah all mourned their loss of self, of identity, and of community to different extents.

Many episodes of the multiverse series “What If…?” dealt with loss and grief in some way. The first episode flipped the roles of Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers, with her losing Steve and becoming the captain instead. In another fragment of the multiverse where earth was in the throes of a zombie apocalypse, Vision kept T’Challa alive as he fed him piece by piece to his love, a zombie Scarlet Witch. Perhaps the most poignant was the episode where Doctor Strange lost his love instead of his hands and tried again and again unsuccessfully to save her life, until he was consumed by dark magic and destroyed the world itself. Again and again, over a multitude of universes, we watched as the superheroes we have come to love were torn apart by grief and loss that was agonizingly relatable.

In the “Black Widow” movie, Natasha grieved so much loss. The loss of the surrogate family she had for a brief time, the loss of her ability to have children, the loss of the little girl she believed she killed when trying to escape her dark past. Natasha’s life was so full of loss that she wasn’t even sure how to be happy anymore.

In the movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” we watched Shang Chi’s father drown in a grief so deep at the loss of his wife that he almost destroyed the world trying to get her back. The level of his grief mirrored Wanda’s in “Wandavision” and Doctor Strange’s in “What If…?” to the point where he was willing to do anything, destroy anything, just to have the love of his life back at his side.

In the series “Hawkeye,” Clint exists in a perpetual state of grief wherein he cannot even bring himself to enjoy the campy Steve Roger’s Musical with his children because he is haunted by the loss of Natasha. Likewise, Kate Bishop is put on her path by the death of her father, one tragic moment in time that served as the catalyst for everything else in her life. Even two of the main villains of the show are driven by loss and grief — Maya by the loss of her father whom she blames on Ronin, and Yelena by the loss of Natasha whom she blames on Hawkeye. So many people are grieving, yet nobody seems to know how to cope, leaving them all to act out irrationally.

Again and again over the last year within the Marvel universe, loss and grief has appeared and taken center stage. It no longer exists as a footnote to explain what made our superheroes into the people they are today. This past year Marvel has thrown the grief and the loss of their characters on the table to mirror our own, giving them more depth, and more relatability than ever before. When we watch superhero movies, we want to put ourselves into their shoes, to be a hero like them. And now, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe walking a mile in our shoes, taking our grief onto themselves, they have gone full circle, becoming fully human, as heart-wrenchingly painful and relatable as those feelings of loss can be.

Header image via Epic Movie Clips/YouTube

Originally published: December 15, 2021
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