The Marvel Cinematic Universe is practically synonymous with the superhero genre, and yet in looking over their impressive stable of characters, there's something crucial missing: actual superheroes. While the protagonists of the MCU's biggest films may battle for the fate of the galaxy, defeat terrorists threatening the integrity of civilization and protect the world from its greatest threats, there are very few who fulfill the trope of the masked crimefighter patrolling the streets for the safety of normal people.
Though there have been a few in the MCU's history, and even more when looking beyond the silver screen, this may be the new direction the MCU will most change with upcoming projects like Ms. Marvel and Moon Knight.
After over a decade of successful movies, the MCU has more heroes than ever, and yet very few of those heroes truly fit the prototypical ideal of what a superhero is. There are powers and costumes and courageous personalities galore, but more often than not, the protagonists the MCU features are not crimefighters with a secret identity stalking the streets to protect the cities they inhabit. Even just looking at Phase One, the heroes that set the Marvel mold were Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye. And none of those heroes fit the mold of a masked crimefighter. Indeed, they could not even be said to have secret identities, and the adventures they underwent in the early days of the MCU were massive battles against superpowered threats.
Yet with the teased looks at heroes like Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel, that seems to be changing. Glimpses of both heroes showed the iconic imagery of the masked figures looming over the cities they seek to protect, and the wonder they inspire is far more akin to the classical superhero ideal than the MCU reached before. Indeed, the one notable exception from the major MCU feature films thus far was Spider-Man, and even then his activities as a street-level hero were largely relegated to Spider-Man: Homecoming and quickly elbowed to the side in favor of larger-than-life science fiction threats.
For a while, it was the Marvel Television programs like Netflix's Daredevil or ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that addressed the smaller-scale dramas seemingly below the notice of Asgardian gods and world-traveling super agents. With the canonicity of those installments up in the air, the MCU has been left with the absence of an important part of its world, one which even the Disney+ additions failed to address. Loki, WandaVision and What If...? all were occupied with reality-bending threats of a dizzying scale beyond common muggings or gang violence. Even Falcon and the Winter Soldier concerned itself with international terrorists, begging an important question of Marvel's heroes: who is out there looking out for the little guy?
That's exactly the question the MCU seems dead set on answering, as a new stable of heroes steps forward to fill a gap that has loomed over the world for too long. Ms. Marvel embodies a classic teen superhero, with the added edge of being something of a superhero nerd herself. While she styles herself after Captain Marvel, the young Kamala Khan operates on a much more relatable scale than the star-spanning adventures of her idol. Similarly, the mentally unstable Moon Knight is often considered to be Marvel's answer to Batman as he employs his world-class talents and depth of resources toward avenging urban crimes in the dead of night.
Indeed, Batman can easily be seen as the major influencing force to the established cliché of the masked vigilante. The MCU has had a dozen different Supermen, but Moon Knight might be its first Batman. In a lot of ways, the shift in focus toward the streets should be refreshing in the wake of projects like Shang-Chi and Eternals that once again focused on the fate of the entire world.
Even the upcoming Hawkeye series shows that the Disney+ MCU projects are not wholly focused on the massive scale of the movies, and that could well be a promising direction for the franchise. As the stakes grow larger and larger with each MCU movie, focusing on smaller-scale heroes can provide more human-scale stakes more relevant to a wider audience.
To see how Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel put superheroes back in the MCU, both series premiere in 2022 on Disney+.
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