Now that Marvel Studios is knee-deep into Phase Four, it’s impossible not to draw connections between these stories and characters. Multiverse aside, there is one common theme every Marvel blockbuster has shared this year—each one more tear-jerking than the last. Here’s a look into the studio’s 2021 trajectory, recapped.

A Family Cinematic Universe

It’s no secret family has always been the heart of the MCU. As dysfunctional as the core Avengers were at times, they became a family nonetheless. The heroes argued, disagreed, physically fought on several occasions, but always protected each other when the world needed them most. It’s what the Infinity Saga was most successful at—pushing these bonds to their breaking points and steadily building them back up again.

After watching this year’s Black Widow, Shang-Chi, and most recently, Eternals, it seems as though the idea of family is at the forefront now more than ever. 

Black Widow: Natasha’s Complicated Past

One of the main criticisms of Natasha Romanoff, before her solo debut, was the lack of background her character received. Her haunted past as a spy and assassin was hinted at but never explored in-depth until now. There was always an air of mystery around the loner agent, but Natasha’s trust issues kept her from discussing her past life.

In Black Widow, audiences finally see the world from Natasha’s point of view and why she was closed-off for so long. In short, her family life played a huge part in who she was and who she became. The strongest bond and focal point of the film comes from Natasha and her younger sister, Yelena.

As a child, Natasha was fiercely protective of her sister. And to a young Yelena, Natasha was her whole world. But as they grew up, they grew apart to lead two separate lives after learning their entire family construct was a lie. Their “adoptive” father, Alexei, is a goofball who doesn’t take anything seriously and loves attention. On the other hand, their mother Melina is calculated—she never loses sight of her mission.

What really grounded Black Widow was the emotional unpacking of all that pent-up anger both sisters held for each other and their parents. They experienced extreme levels of violence at such a young age and no one ever batted an eyelash. But aside from the horrors they faced, the one thing they craved was acknowledgment and love from the adults who raised them. Ultimately, the cast was the heart and soul of Black Widow. Throughout the film, you realize this family may never be perfect, but they are always each other’s first home.

Shang-Chi, Xialing, & Daddy Issues

Like Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings also feature two broken siblings. With Shang-Chi representing a new cultural aspect to the cinematic universe, it was interesting to see where the studio would take his character. Ironically, his arc mirrors Natasha Romanoff’s in a way—both trained as assassins against their will and need to confront their dark past. While Nat’s parents sent her off to train, Shang-Chi’s father took matters into his own hands.

If there’s one thing Marvel has a knack for, it’s misguided and often toxic fathers. This time, it’s Wenwu, also known as The Mandarin and leader of the Ten Rings organization. After the death of his wife Ying Li, Wenwu became blinded by rage and abandoned his children, Shang-Chi and Xialing. Technically, he didn’t leave them, but he did emotionally neglect them to the point of traumatization. 

While he focused his energy on turning Shang-Chi into a child assassin, he ignored Xialing entirely, all because she reminded him of his late wife. Understandably, this drove a wedge between the family as both siblings eventually fled and avoided all contact. Again, Shang-Chi and Xialing’s sibling reunion is much like Natasha and Yelena’s. But, instead of both parties having it out for each other, it’s Xialing whose anger hasn’t subsided towards her brother.

Through this journey, Shang-Chi deals with its titular hero navigating the hurt his father inflicted while also regaining the trust of his sister. While it’s unclear whether Xialing was on the road to forgiveness to her father, Shang-Chi at least seemed to contemplate it in the end. Hopefully, both characters find solace in where they are now and where they’re heading next.

Eternals: A Forever Family

Lastly, Marvel Studios’ Eternals is the most recent entry to drive home the idea of “family.” In a nutshell, the ten main Eternals introduced have been on Earth for thousands of years but have known each other for millions. To some, their bond would seem unbreakable—spanning over centuries and a lifetime of memories. But, like any family, the Eternals eventually do not see eye-to-eye on everything.

Ajak, the Prime Eternal, is the maternal figure to the rest of the group. She looks out for them, protects them, and loves them as if they were her blood. However, even Ajak will keep a secret or two from her fellow Eternals when it comes to her superiors.

As the film progresses, the audience learns there’s much more friction to this group than meets the eye. Through jealousy, deceit, and even murder, this family is quickly torn apart from within and forced to pick up the pieces. 

Sprite, who lives in the body of a 12-year-old, is snarky at times, but it’s her jealousy that becomes her downfall. Druig, although he means well, tends to get under everyone’s skin because of how openly he criticizes their mission. But Ikaris, although he’s like the “Superman” of the group, is the one family member you never thought would break your heart.

Eternals takes you on a fascinating and emotional journey with its ten main characters. Even with the limited amount of screentime some have compared to others, you immediately love and connect with them. As CinemaBlend’s Sean O’Connell said in his film review, Avengers questioned how all these different heroes—who are strangers to each other—could get along? While Eternals focuses on how to complicate an already-established family with layers upon layers of history together. Their journeys, both individually and as a collective, are as beautiful and complex as all relationships are.

The Beginning of a New Era

After an exhausting year of movie delays, it is safe to say that 2021 has been the year of redemption—specifically for Marvel Studios. Within this year alone, the studio has introduced dozens of new characters, explored new worlds, and even extended the arcs of some fan favorites. But, with the upcoming releases of Hawkeye and Spider-Man: No Way Home, the year is far from over for comic book fans.

Whatever the rest of Phase Four has in store is a toss-up, but the MCU is known to leave an impression one way or another.

Want more Eternals coverage? Check out our piece on BTS’ single, “Friends,” featured on the film’s soundtrack, here.

Thumbnail images courtesy of Marvel Studios, graphic by Niamh.