Heroes are becoming fewer and farther between in the Marvel Cinematic Universe today. While the abundance of remarkably superpowered characters who fight villainous forces is unmistakable across the studio’s steady annual stream of blockbuster films and mini-series, the traditional notion of being a “hero” has changed and even become obscured in the 10 years since The Avengers. With the exception of a few key players, the resonance of the classic “true hero” archetype has lost its place in the now crowded MCU.
Throughout most of its modern history, the superhero genre at large has sought to re-examine the glorified image of the idealized hero through tongue-in-cheek satire like Deadpool and The Incredibles or character-driven deconstructions like Invincible and Watchmen. Since the inaugural Iron Man (2008), Marvel Studios’ main approach to reinventing the genre’s presence, at least in film, has been through permitting its ever-growing assortment of heroes from concurrent franchises to team-up and mingle in bombastic ensemble events, making their big-time heroes only a small part of a greater universe.
By having their market capital be based on how vast their ever-expanding cinematic roster is, the MCU has successfully been able to populate their universe with a wider array of heroes than the screen has ever seen before. Between Avengers, Guardians and everything in between, where once the Marvel name was primarily associated with Spider-Man and the X-Men, characters like Black Widow, Ant-Man and Captain Marvel have fast become household names through their presence in the MCU. But for as crowded and diverse as the kinds of characters and abilities introduced into the MCU has been, the broader their definition of what makes a hero has become.
Being a hero in the MCU has become less of about being a traditional superhero that uses their abilities to defend the innocent and embody noble ideals and more about being a genre-specific protagonist able to meet the needs of a story, with a common denominator being that they can deliver jokes and engage in fight scenes. Every lead hero in the MCU carries their own motivations that drive them to fight, but most of them now have achieved their “hero” status either out of chance circumstance or as a sense of personal duty.
Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, for example, reluctantly became the Ant-Man at the behest of the Pym family to help them in their endeavors and protect his own daughter. Characters like Thor, Doctor Strange and Black Panther are positioned as righteous protectors, but are circumstantially granted their hero status out of a higher cause given to them. Black Widow, The Winter Soldier and Wanda Maximoff become Avengers mainly to absolve themselves of their past or their own character flaws. The Eternals are only heroes within the thin perimeters in which they are instructed to protect humanity by their creators.
The heroic actions of these and other characters are driven by, as William Shakespeare put it, “greatness being thrust upon them”. Marvel’s method of broadening the lens of what makes a hero has made them stand out from the competition for decades. Marvel’s niche in the superhero genre, even in its comic book history, has been to humanize the idea of the costumed hero by demonstrating their flaws and motivations beyond the solid morality of the classic hero role. Compared to the godlike righteousness of someone like DC’s Superman, Marvel’s heroes have been depicted as mere mortals with motivations and origins relatable to the average reader, giving them grounded problems and pathos beyond their powers. They are victims of circumstance, prejudice and tragedy that rise to the challenge presented to them, whether they are personally capable of doing so or not. In this spirit, the heroes of the MCU are people first, superheroes second. Characters like Iron Man and Captain America became heroes by doing what they believed was right as people, not because they found themselves in the position of “hero”.
This is where the difference between being “heroic” and being “a hero” comes into play. Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and Black Widow undoubtably do heroic things, but do so as a means of fulfilling a job that they were fated or even instructed to do out of the convenience of their individual plots or to protect their own inner circle. The MCU has shown its characters doing heroic things, but not for the reasons a traditional hero would. Being a hero in the MCU has become an occupation, not a creed, and fewer MCU protagonists are compelled to be heroes by selflessness and a genuine desire to do good by the world over their own personal conflicts. This is in the relatable Marvel spirit, but the abundances of superheroes in the MCU is commodifying the act of being a hero into something that one is prescribed to be, not what someone chooses to be. The prologue recruitment of Simu Liu into the Avengers at the end of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels more like a job orientation than a heroic call to action.
The MCU has become so massive and the superhero genre cycle turned so fast that it is becoming more of a novelty to see a superhero act like a true hero. In the absence of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, the most prominent character left to illustrate true heroism is Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. On top of venturing on his own to be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" well before Tony Stark even recruited him in Captain America: Civil War, the ending of Spider-Man No Way Home in particular stands as a stirring reminder of the tragically selfless virtue that makes Spider-Man a genuine hero. By sacrificing the world’s very knowledge of his existence, even amongst his remaining loved ones, Peter Parker demonstrated a greater act of selflessness in the service of protecting the world than seen anywhere else in Phase 4. He made a dire call for the sake of his world and a multiverse of others because he felt it was the right thing to do.
No Way Home in general captured the heroic ideal of great power coming with great responsibility that has made Spider-Man an icon for decades and the truest hero the MCU still has.
These big-name heroes should have started on the small screen.