The essential onscreen superheroes of 2021: Marvel's Spiderman, Loki, Black Widow and more
CHICAGO - Superhero cinema was one of the first things to come to a standstill at the height of the pandemic. In 2021, however, it came roaring back to life on both the big screen and the small one — sometimes at the very same time.
The year kicked off with a bang as Marvel launched a new foray into TV with its mind-bending, much-discussed Disney+ series "WandaVision." Not to be outdone, DC dominated the spring by finally, improbably, releasing director Zack Snyder’s cut of his 2017 film "Justice League."
After "Black Widow" and "The Suicide Squad" made hybrid theatrical/streaming debuts in the summer, the flood gates officially opened. Superhero movies soared back into cinemas starting in the fall, even as new shows continued to delight home audiences.
In no particular order, here are the onscreen superheroes that defined 2021.
"Spider-Man: No Way Home" (premiering December 2021)
Tom Holland stars as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME.
Let's start with the one we haven't seen yet! It’s anyone’s guess as to how much the multiverse-hopping "Spider-Man: No Way Home" is going to change the MCU. But with a major role for Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the promise of a bunch of returning villains from the past two "Spider-Man" franchises, it’ll certainly be a splashy superhero event to round out this jam-packed year. Just ask Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman and Rhys Ifans’ Lizard. Rated PG-13. 148 minutes. Dir: Jon Watts. Also featuring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Benedict Wong and J. K. Simmons.
WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters Dec. 17.
"Black Widow" (July 2021)
Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh in "Black Widow." Photo: Disney+.
It may have taken over 10 years, but Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff finally got the solo film fans have been clamoring for since her years of holding down the fort as the MCU’s most prominent female character. Unexpectedly enough, it became a family affair, complete with standout performances from David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and especially Florence Pugh as Nat’s makeshift family. With a powerful thematic throughline about abuse and agency, and some stand-out Russian-set action scenes, "Black Widow" was worth the wait. Rated PG-13. 134 minutes. Dir: Cate Shortland. Also featuring: O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone and Olga Kurylenko.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Disney+ and VOD.
"Loki" (June 2021)
Tom Hiddleston in "Loki." Photo: Disney+.
It was a no-brainer to give Tom Hiddleston’s ever-popular trickster god Loki his own Disney+ show. What is surprising is the wonderfully wacky sci-fi tone this series took on in its multiverse-spanning, bureaucracy-satirizing first season. Banished to the Time Variance Authority for the crime of being a "time variant," Loki is tasked with tracking down a dangerous alt-universe version of himself. But the real joy of "Loki" is the friends he makes along the way, particularly Owen Wilson’s wonderfully empathetic Agent Mobius M. Mobius. Coupled with some big "anything can happen" swings and one of the best scores of the year curtesy of composer Natalie Holt, "Loki" set the stage for an ongoing series we’re excited to return to. Rated TV-14. Also featuring: Sophia Di Martino, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wunmi Mosaku and Richard E. Grant.
WHERE TO WATCH: 6 episodes streaming on Disney+.
"WandaVision" (January 2021)
Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in "WandaVision." Photo: Disney+.
It was only a quirk of pandemic scheduling that caused "WandaVision" to be the first show to kick off Marvel’s new slate of high-budget Disney+ TV shows. In retrospect, however, it was the perfect choice. The genre-bending series hooked Marvel fans and newbies alike by sticking superpowered Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her android boyfriend Vision (Paul Bettany) in a series of sitcom homages from throughout the decades. From trippy mysteries to catchy songs to a surprisingly affecting look at grief, "WandaVision" became a zeitgeist-y hit because it seemed to offer something for everyone in a package unlike anything Marvel had done before. Rated TV-14. Also featuring: Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Kat Dennings and Randall Park.
WHERE TO WATCH: 9 episodes streaming on Disney+.
"Zack Snyder's Justice League" (March 2021)
Ray Fisher, Ezra Miller, Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa in Zack Snyder's Justice League.
The phrase "never say never" has never been truer than for this film’s unlikely journey to fruition. It all started way back in 2017 when director Zack Snyder stepped away from his work on "Justice League" amidst ongoing production troubles and a family tragedy. When a clunky, clearly compromised version of the film hit theaters, fans started a (sometimes toxic) campaign to see Snyder’s original vision. Four years and $70 million later, Snyder and Warner Bros. finally answered the call with a four-hour behemoth that’s not quite a movie and not quite a miniseries. It is, however, a fascinating case study in how two directors can use the same characters and general story structure to make two vastly different movies. Rated R. 242 minutes. Dir: Zack Snyder. Featuring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on HBO Max, in both a color and black-and-white version.
"The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" (March 2021)
Anthony Mackie (left) and Sebastian Stan in Marvel's "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier."
The globe-hopping, action-packed story of Sam "Falcon" Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky "Winter Soldier" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) didn’t always reach its potential. But in its best moments, "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" offered a bravely complicated look at what the legacy of Captain America means for a Black man taking up the mantle. Plus it gave legendary genre actor Carl Lumbly the chance to give one of the best guest performances of the year. Rated TV-14. Also featuring: Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Daniel Brühl and Emily VanCamp.
WHERE TO WATCH: 6 episodes streaming on Disney+.
"Invincible" (March 2021)
"Invincible." Photo: Prime Video.
An essential reminder: not all cartoons are for kids. File Prime Video’s excellent "Invincible" in that category (alongside HBO Max’s crackerjack "Harley Quinn," which, alas, did not come out to play this year). It’s nigh on impossible to describe this faithful adaptation of the comic series of the same name without giving away a heck of a twist — a nasty one. Suffice it to say this superhero father-son story and its all-star voice cast go to some dark places, from a bloody murder mystery to an even bloodier reminder that epic catastrophes come with a body count. Rated TV-MA. Featuring: Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, J.K. Simmons, Gillian Jacobs, Andrew Rannells, Zazie Beetz, Mark Hamill, Clancy Brown.
WHERE TO WATCH: 8 episodes streaming on Prime Video.
"The Suicide Squad" (August 2021)
Joel Kinnaman, Idris Elba and John Cena in "The Suicide Squad."
Yes, the "heroes" of "The Suicide Squad" are supervillains. But they’re fun supervillains, and in James Gunn’s soft reboot of David Ayer’s 2016 film "Suicide Squad," that makes all the difference. They’re such a good time, in fact, that it’s all too easy to overlook the odd sociopathic tendency and fall a little bit in love with the whole bunch of them, including — or especially — the giant talking shark. ... For every cranial explosion, there’s another of color and sound. Gunn’s inventive, playful approach counterbalances the gore nicely, mixing the two like sweet with salty. No two battle sequences are alike. The punchlines come fast and furious, and are as merciless as our not-quite heroes. It’s the kind of movie that makes a critic want to use a bunch of adjectives and exclamation points: Rowdy! Rambunctious! Exuberant! Rated R. 132 minutes. Dir: James Gunn. Featuring: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Sylvester Stallone, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Viola Davis.
Read Allison Shoemaker’s full review of "The Suicide Squad".
WHERE TO WATCH: Available to buy or rent on VOD; streaming on HBO Max Dec. 23
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" (September 2021)
Awkwafina, Ronny Chieng and Simu Liu in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." Photo: Disney.
It’s been a while since Marvel fully nailed the origin story template, which is why it’s such a delight to see "Shang-Chi" hit it out of the park. Co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton mixes with formula by letting his titular hero (Simu Liu) be ahead of the audience for once. As Shang-Chi’s mysterious past returns to haunt him, we come to understand the identity crisis that stems from being raised by a heroic mom (Fala Chen) and a villainous father (a tremendously captivating Tony Leung). Throw in some martial arts action that’s among the best Marvel has ever delivered, and "Shang-Chi" offers the perfect blend of something old and something new for the MCU. Rated PG-13. 134 minutes. Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton. Also featuring: Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang and Michelle Yeoh.
WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Disney+ and VOD.
"Venom: Let There Be Carnage" (October 2021)
Tom Hardy in "Venom: Let There Be Carnage."
The delightfully demented "Venom" franchise once again struck box office gold this year, and with an even goofier film this time around. No, "Let There Be Carnage" didn’t feature Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock randomly climbing into a lobster tank, like the first film did, but it did turn his symbiotic relationship with bloodthirsty Venom into a sort of twisted romantic comedy. With Woody Harrelson’s Cletus Kasady/Carnage there to chew the scenery, fans of the first film got all they could want from this fleet, self-aware sequel. Rated PG-13. 97 minutes. Dir: Andy Serkis. Also featuring: Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Stephen Graham and Reid Scott.
WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters and available to purchase on VOD now; available to rent on VOD starting Dec. 14.
"Eternals" (November 2021)
Marvel's Eternals: Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Ma Dong-seok as Gilgamesh, Angelina Jolie as Thena, Richard Madden as Ikaris, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Gemma Chan as Sersi, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Barry
There’s at least a movie and a half’s worth of story here about the immortal super-powered aliens who have been gently guiding humanity’s evolution since they first arrived to beat some alien beasties back in 5000 BC Babylon. Coupled with a tone that’s more ponderous than quippy, "Eternals" makes for an alienating first watch. That could be why the movie has been met with such a divisive reaction. Dig a little deeper, however, and this behemoth of a superhero flick has its rewards too. It’s not just that writer/director Chloé Zhao has purposefully diversified what superhero line-ups traditionally look like, it’s that she’s radically changed the tone in which these sorts of stories usually operate. In place of quips, conflict and macho posturing, "Eternals" is about collaboration, cooperation and empathy. It’s a superhero blockbuster that filters its questions of power and purpose through a feminine lens rather than a masculine one. And that makes for a welcome change of pace, even when the movie stumbles. Rated PG-13. 156 minutes. Dir: Chloé Zhao. Featuring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harrington, Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Lauren Ridloff, Brian Tyree Henry, Don Lee, Lia McHugh, Bill Skarsgård.
Read Caroline Siede’s full review of "Eternals".
WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters now.
"Hawkeye" (November 2021)
Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld in "Hawkeye."
One of the most charming things about "Hawkeye" is that it knows most people think Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton is the lamest Avenger. So it leans into the idea that he’s a grumpy dad, pairs him with infectiously energetic protégé Kate Bishop (a winning Hailee Steinfeld) and gives the whole thing a warmhearted Christmastime sheen. Between its comedic tone and street-level adventure, "Hawkeye" is proving to be an unexpected breath of fresh air for the MCU. Plus it gave us Rogers: The Musical, what else could you want? Rated TV-14. Also featuring: Vera Farmiga, Alaqua Cox, Tony Dalton and Linda Cardellini.
WHERE TO WATCH: New episodes released Wednesdays on Disney+
Our critics pick the best of the year
Left: "WandaVision." Right: "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."
These selections were made before screening "Spider-Man: No Way Home." If Spidey shakes things up, we’ll update accordingly.
Allison Shoemaker’s pick: "WandaVision." Whoever thought to throw the history of the sitcom in a blender with Marvel’s Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and all seven stages of grief might be a bit of a mad genius. While Marvel, DC Comics and all the rest produced flashier titles this year, this stylistically daring, surprisingly funny series did what few on-screen superhero stories have managed: It let us into the mind and heart of a complicated, wounded person who also happens to have superpowers. Is she a superhero? Maybe not. But Wanda Maximoff sure had a heck of a story to tell.
Caroline Siede’s pick: "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." "WandaVision" was a quarantine godsend, but the most superhero fun I had all year was going into "Shang-Chi" knowing absolutely nothing and being blown away by its stylish fight sequences and surprisingly moving look at a complicated superhero family. This origin story felt innovative and original in a way that’s not always true of Marvel properties. Plus it certainly doesn’t hurt that nobody wears a rolled sleeve like Tony Leung.
... and more!
The CW’s expansive "Arrowverse" soldiered on with new seasons of "The Flash," "Legends of Tomorrow," "Batwoman" and "Stargirl," as well as farewell seasons for "Black Lightning" and "Supergirl" and the debut of the new series "Superman & Lois."
"Doom Patrol" aired its third season on HBO Max. Netflix released and subsequently canceled "Jupiter's Legacy." And Hulu debuted the stop-motion adult animated series "M.O.D.O.K."
Plus Disney+ delivered the animated anthology alternate universe series "What If...?," which featured one of the final vocal performances from the late, great Chadwick Boseman.
More superheroes—streaming for free on Tubi
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017): It turns out there’s more to Wonder Woman’s (real world) origin story than we knew. This thoughtful, sexy biographical drama looks at the psychologist and comic book writer who first created the Wonder Woman character, and the two women who helped him do it. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Angela Robinson. Featuring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt.
With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story (2010): What better way to prep for Spider-Man (and just maybe Spider-Men?) than with a look at the life and times of Peter Parker’s co-creator? This 80-minute documentary explores the incalculable reach of Stan Lee, the most famous name in comics and the undisputed king of high-profile movie cameos. Rated TV-PG. 80 minutes. Dir: Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes, Will Hess. Also featuring: Samuel L. Jackson, Avi Arad, Sean Astin and Kenneth Branagh.
About Tubi: Tubi has more than 35,000 movies and television series from over 250 content partners, including every major studio, in addition to the largest offering of free live local and national news channels in streaming. The platform gives fans of entertainment, news and sports an easy way to discover new content that is available completely free.
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About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.