While Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame represented monumental financial gain for Marvel Studios, they also marked a huge loss for Earth’s most powerful heroes. Characters who had been in MCU since the beginning got heartbreaking broadcasts that made The Avengers a broken team and left audiences around the world with drops in their popcorn. Robert Downey Jr.‘s tenure, when Tony Stark ended poetically, when he and fan favorites Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) paid the ultimate price in trying to save the entire universe from complete extinction. After such a crucial chapter that finally ended what has now been dubbed The Infinity Saga, Marvel has immediately moved on from the story of the Infinity Stones and is burning up their next scattered epic: a war in the multiverse.
Through Disney +, Marvel’s foray into the streaming world has given MCU the freedom to discover new story potentials and dive deeper into several of its beloved secondary characters. Only in 2021 alone, WandaVision, Loki, and What if…? have each explored exciting new facets of the Marvel multiverse that not only form the basis of the things to come, but also focus on how its characters respond to the worldwide loss seen in the blockbuster movies. Be it through alternative timelines or reality-bending shenanigans, for as much as the universe has expanded, the further inward becomes the exploration of the grief of its characters.
WandaVision follows Elizabeth Olsen‘s Wanda Maximoff as she picks up pieces of her life in the wake of Playoffs. After being “blipped” back into existence after 5 years, Wanda is left with only memories of fallen loved ones and a reason that was to become her and Vision’s new home. Destroyed over the events of her recent past, Wanda uses her powers to hold an entire suburban city hostage so she can make her own fake gift. In this reality, Vision and her brother Pietro are still alive, she is the mother of twin boys and adored by a community of friendly neighbors who adorn a practical vivid soundscape of sitcom settings and tropics.
During the Infinity Saga, Wanda has suffered huge losses. She witnessed her parents’ death as a child, she lost her brother in the fight against Ultron and worst of all, she lost the vibrant love of her life in Thano’s hands. IN WandaVision, Wanda puts herself in denial of everything she has experienced to avoid treating her dizzying grief. She portrays an idealized reality for herself in order to escape from the truth; a reality where nothing can go wrong that, like a TV show, can go on forever in reruns. Along with resurrected illusions about loved ones, her reality is built up of childhood memories of watching American shows as Malcom in the middle and Dick Van Dyke Show with her family and brought her back to a nostalgic place with emotional security and the only pleasant memories she has left. It is when her magical facade of denial begins to hurt those around her and threaten reality itself that she begins to treat and accept the loss she endured, and become the almighty Scarlet Witch in the process. She may have become a World War II witch, but the grief of grief is what keeps Wanda Maximoff human.
Lokis approach to grief is unique. First of all, the always vicious Loki (Tom Hiddleston), which MCU has followed across five films, was killed in Infinite waropening scene! This series follows a new variant of Loki that was the result of a new branch in the time created in Playoffs. By trying to escape his punishment for the attack on New York in 2012 The Avengers, this Loki acted against the sacred timeline and was immediately arrested by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), which essentially cut him off from history. While in TVA’s custody, Loki learns of his ultimate fate in the ensuing events he was to live out: the death of his adoptive parents, the fall of Asgard, and even his own death. After gaining this spoiler-filled insight, Loki begins to question what his values are and how he treats trauma.
The series presents a host of Loki variants in different shapes and sizes (and also a crocodile), but what is persistent in all of them is their inability to win and maintain confidence. They lie, they betray, and they act only to their own advantage to gain power. It’s the very nature of a “Loki” to be a trickster, but the series’ main Loki begins to recognize in himself and himself that their compulsion to betray is due to a lack of control. What makes Loki a “Loki” is the fear of powerlessness and the belief that power will solve their insecurities and past traumas. It is when Loki is brought into TVA that he faces the most powerful force in the universe: the dissolution of time and events. At once, Loki experiences the loss that built his character up in the previous films and concentrated all that heartache for a moment. This is where Loki realizes the foolishness of his character: he manipulates and hurts people as a way to negotiate control over his own existence. He denies and exchanges the trauma that defines him to change or make sense of them, but when faced with the certainty of death (even his own) and the grief that comes with it, he learns that he is incapable of to control the nature of these events and must accept them. The driving force behind the series then becomes Loki, who faces his own worst features as personified by the junky variant Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), who jumps around alternative realities in a trick of absolute control over her fate, even at the expense of the very nature and existence of time. Loki, regardless of variant, is driven by grief, but what makes the series Loki different is his ability to accept their grief and not let it drive further pain in an illusion of control.
In the wake of the reality season finale of Loki, Marvel’s first animated series What if…? takes a look at the alternative timelines and stories created by the newly expanding multiverse. Familiar plot lines and characters are taken to bold new places to tell stories born out of simple changes and changed moments. If Thor had been an only child, he would not have become a hero. If Yondu had landed in Wakanda instead of Missouri, T’Challa would have become Star Lord. If Hope Van Dyne was killed in action, Hank Pym would have taken his revenge on Nick Fury by killing the Avengers. Most What if…? episodes use the death of his heroes to tell unexpected stories, especially the zombie, but one episode stands out as the most heartbreaking exploration of loss.
In “What if … Doctor strangely lost his heart instead of his hands?”, The car accident that originally cost Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) the use of his hands instead removes the love of his life, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Grief is now what drives Strange down the road to becoming Sorcerer Supreme, and with his newfound power, he seeks to accumulate enough dark magic to change the past and save Christine. Strange learns that Christine’s death is an absolute time that cannot be changed. No matter how many times he goes back to relive and change the night of the accident, death still comes to her somehow. Contrary to the objective nature of time and events, Strange risks his own humanity and the existence of the universe to save Christine. Very much like in WandaVision, Doctor Strange even uses his powers for selfish means to deny the weight of his grief. His love for Christine turns into an obsession with control; that death is something that can be corrected and negotiated with because he wants it. The narcissism that originally defined his character is reinforced here as he sacrifices himself, claiming that his love and sorrow are enough to justify his actions. In the end, his arrogance leads to accepting his loss to the destruction of his entire universe along with Christine. By continuing to make sense of the past and “correct” it, he poisons the future.
Through Wanda, Loki and Strange, each of these series shows that while the substance of MCU’s amazing reality is fallible, the nature of grief is still very real and identifiable human. Each series demonstrates that even though denial is a particular stage of grief, it is unhealthy to act on it and perpetuate it to ignore the objectivity of life and could cause greater harm, even on a universal level.
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