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The Biggest MCU Surprises Of 2021

The year 2021 was an odd one for the MCU. After a pandemic-induced hiatus, the franchise returned to both the big and small screens with a wide range of content to kick off Phase 4. Highly-anticipated films like "Black Widow," "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," "Eternals," and "Spider-Man: No Way Home" were all released, but the year also saw the Marvel Cinematic Universe shift to a hybrid model, with a majority of its content (at least, hours-wise) appearing on Disney.

"WandaVision," "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," "Loki," "Hawkeye," and "Marvel's What If...?" all delivered longer-form stories to the MCU in 2021, expanding the roles of villains and supporting characters while also building out the universe in new and exciting ways. Time travel and alternate realities were explored, new systems of magic were introduced, and a ton of new faces were brought to live-action from the comic book world. Overall, it wasn't the most climactic year for the MCU, still working to regain momentum after an audience-approved conclusion to the Infinity Saga. It was, however, a year of laying foundations; new worlds, villains, and collections of characters seemed to be arriving monthly all year long, setting up adventures to come.

Of course, just because the MCU focused more on setups than payoffs in 2021, that doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of twists and turns. From the context of individual movies and shows to larger consequences, there were plenty of surprises to be found. With that in mind, here is a breakdown of some of the biggest MCU twists of 2021, and what they could mean for the future.

14. The return of Vision

Marvel kicked off 2021 with a bang in the form of "WandaVision," which centered the two titular characters in the MCU's first official streaming series on Disney+. Of course, one of those characters seemingly died for good at the end of "Avengers: Infinity War," making his return in Phase 4 something of a mystery. As WandaVision continued through its nine-episode arc, the show slowly revealed the nature of Vision's resurrection, culminating in an excellent confrontation between the original Vision that Wanda revived though magic and the new, more mechanical Vision created by SWORD.

Vision's return in "WandaVision" was a big twist, but it also brought up some interesting questions about the limits and moral implications of wielding power within the MCU. While Wanda does end up having to say goodbye to him again by the time credits roll on the finale, a version of Vision still survives, presumably traveling the world to ponder the nature of his existence and his true purpose. It's unclear when and where MCU fans will see Vision next, but the way his story wraps up in "WandaVision" leaves some interesting possibilities. Plus, with Scarlet Witch only becoming more central to the MCU going forward, there's a lot of potential for them to meet up again somewhere down the line.

13. The Scarlet Witch

Speaking of Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff officially took on her comic book title in 2021 — a move that might seem obvious, but which still came as a big twist. That's because magic in the MCU was still quite vague and unexplored going into 2021. The introduction of witches, chaos magic, the Darkhold, and other bits of darker, eldritch Marvel lore in "WandaVision" took the MCU in a very different direction, and declared Scarlet Witch as the patron saint of that tonal shift.

By embracing her true title and the chaos magic implicit in it, Wanda has fully elevated herself to the upper echelon of the MCU power rankings. With new threats coming in the rest of Phase 4 and beyond, she could be a main line of defense for the forces of good for years to come. The next test of her new abilities will come in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," which should be a telling sample of what's to come for Wanda.

12. Falcon becoming Captain America

Admittedly, there's an argument to be made that Falcon becoming Captain America doesn't really count as a twist. After all, Steve Rogers left Sam Wilson his shield at the end of "Avengers: Endgame," making it pretty clear who he wanted as his successor. But as the events of "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" kicked off, it became unclear whether or not that wish would actually come true. The U.S. government clearly had misgivings about a Black man taking on the Captain America title, others were vying for the role, and Sam gradually became disillusioned with the idea of being a symbol to a nation that had done so much to hurt him and those like him.

Still, against the odds and his own misgivings, Sam ended up taking on the shield and the title of Captain America before the series concluded. Seeing him flying through the sky in his classic wingsuit, tossing around the vibranium shield was an MCU highlight for the year, and with a "Captain America 4" starring Sam officially in the works, it's only the beginning.

11. Sharon Carter's villainous turn

"The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" featured a couple other big twists in addition to Sam's Captain America promotion. One of those was the reveal that Sharon Carter — niece to Peggy Carter and former agent of SHIELD — was the notorious Power Broker, an underworld kingpin of deadly repute. As the Power Broker, Sharon had been instrumental in the proliferation of the super soldier serums that ran rampant in the show, and she walked away without anyone ever discovering her secret, malicious motives.

What exactly Sharon's villainous turn will mean for the future of the MCU remains uncertain. She seems mostly self-interested, but that doesn't mean she couldn't be bought or allied with some other, great power later on. "Secret Invasion" is approaching swiftly, and with many different characters likely to appear, she could have her own role to play in the mysterious saga. Will she go down fighting for her evil ambitions, or will she find redemption? Only time will tell.

10. Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine

Sharon Carter isn't the only newly-minted longterm MCU villain introduced in "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier." The Disney+ series also featured the debut of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, played spectacularly by "Seinfeld" and "Veep" star Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Though Val is a character in the Marvel comics, her MCU incarnation seems a good deal different, and her true intentions have yet to be revealed. In her various MCU appearances throughout 2021, Val has recruited a number of talented characters to her mysterious cause, including John Walker and Yelena Belova.

Could Contessa Valentina be assembling her own Avengers-style team? If so, for what purpose? She clearly wields immense power, and the twist of her introduction in "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" has created some exciting possibilities. For now, Val seems content to play her game in the shadows, but it may not be too long before she takes the spotlight for some direct action. What the result of that public debut will be, however, remains to be seen.

9. The MCU multiverse

Marvel Studios' Infinity Saga ranks among the most ambitious cinematic projects ever undertaken. For over a decade, Disney built and built and built, periodically adding in new heroes, villains, lore, plot devices, locations, and more, all leading to the two-part climax of "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame." Shockingly, it all came together perfectly, delivering a great finale to the MCU's first three phases that shattered box office records. After the dust cleared, one big question remained: Where would the story go now that Thanos was defeated?

In 2021, the MCU finally answered that question by introducing the multiverse. Begun in earnest in "Loki" and continued in "What If...?" and "Spider-Man: No Way Home," the multiverse has been a huge twist on the classic MCU formula, opening the floodgates for infinite possibilities to follow. Old versions of popular characters have returned, alternate variants of heroes and villains have complicated the balance of the Marvel universe, and brand new faces have been introduced via the multiverse who could have massive repercussions on the story going forward. In short, the revelation of the multiverse is the single biggest development in the MCU this year, and it should be incredibly exciting to see where the franchise takes its new model in 2022 and beyond.

8. He Who Remains

"Loki" Season 1 can be summed up as a series of villain reveals. Sylvie's reveal leads to her confrontation with the Time-Keepers, who turn out to be fake and ultimately point to the true mastermind behind the TVA: He Who Remains (aka Kang the Conqueror). Kang had been announced for the MCU before "Loki" premiered on Disney+, and it was known that Jonathan Majors would be playing the classic comic book villain in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania." The fact that Majors made his MCU debut a bit earlier than expected, however, was a pleasant surprise.

Seeing Kang in "Loki" isn't just a fun twist because of how it tied together the story of the show, but also because of the implications He Who Remains has for the future of the franchise. After his confrontation with Loki and Sylvie, the Sacred Timeline is dismantled, unleashing the full MCU multiverse. That fundamental shift has already led to some fun storylines, and there are lots more to come. He Who Remains also sets up Kang as the next big bad of the MCU, an ambitious, exciting proposition.

7. Infinity Stone Ultron

"Marvel's What If...?" became a fascinating experiment for the MCU, one blending anthology storytelling, animation, and the newly-christened multiverse. The result was a show that jumped between many different kinds of stories, ranging from lighter comedic fare to more serious and emotional plotlines. Classic characters like T'Challa, Spider-Man, and Captain America were all reimagined in new circumstances and different kinds of stories, opening the MCU up to the infinite possibilities allowed by its new multiverse model.

One of the biggest surprises in the first season of "What If...?" was the return of Ultron — a less-than-enthusiastically-received "Avengers" villain who many believed would never be seen again. Not only did Ultron come back with a vengeance in the animated series, but his new form was stronger than ever, bolstered by all six Infinity Stones. nearly destroying all of existence in just a couple of episodes, making him an even bigger threat than Thanos was at the peak of his powers, Ultron seemed to win back the haters. 

After such a huge and unexpected comeback, it seems once again that Ultron may have had his MCU swansong. But with so many different worlds and eras now opened up, anything could happen.

6. The return of Abomination

Somehow, 2008's "The Incredible Hulk" has become the black sheep of the MCU. Though it was released after the original "Iron Man" and remains part of the franchise timeline, it's been effectively forgotten because of its lack of overall impact. Bruce Banner was recast after the film was released, and none of the other core characters from the movie have returned beyond the occasional William Hurt sighting. That is, until "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" came out featuring — shockingly — Abomination.

Played by Tim Roth, Abomination was the primary villain of "The Incredible Hulk." After more than a decade away from the franchise, the character finally came back via cameo in "Shang-Chi." While this twist certainly wasn't the most impactful the MCU would see in 2021, its sheer shock value makes it a memorable moment. After so long, no one expected to see old "Incredible Hulk" characters in the modern MCU — but lo and behold, that's exactly what happened.

5. Venom joining the MCU

The lead-up to the release of "Venom: Let There Be Carnage" featured mixed expectations from ... well ... everyone. The first film had been a huge box office success, but it was critically panned and felt like something of a "lightning in a bottle" preserved on film. While the live-action debut of a popular symbiote like Carnage seemed to have great potential, there was a healthy level of hesitation around the movie. The reviews for "Venom 2" ended up being far better than those of the original, but they still weren't great (it hovers around 58% on Rottentomatoes.com). However, the film did deliver one truly shocking twist that got the internet talking.

That scene wasn't in any part of the core movie, but rather in the post-credits scene. Eddie and Venom are seen relaxing in a hotel room when a freak earthquake shakes the ground beneath them. After the shaking stops, they realize that they're in a different room altogether, and a news program on the TV shows the unmistakable face of Tom Holland's Spider-Man. 

The realization that Sony was officially crossing over its movies with the MCU was huge, and it became the predominant narrative surrounding the film's release. Sadly, Venom didn't get to do much during his cameo appearance in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," but there may be more to come for the character in the MCU.

4. The true nature of the Celestials

The Celestials have sat in the background of the MCU for quite some time. First alluded to in the original "Guardians of the Galaxy" film, the ancient race of super-beings are much the same as in the Marvel comics — massive, godlike, primordial forces who create and destroy life and matter with waves of their enormous hands. There were clearly some belonging to the race who ascribed to more violent and villainous beliefs, like Ego, but there was little evidence as to the overriding philosophy or intentions of the Celestials as a whole. That is, until the release of "Eternals" in 2021.

Chloé Zhao's film featured a twist about the true nature of the Celestials, one that turned them from mysterious deities to abject bad guys. Essentially, the race's goal of protecting life on Earth, and other planets, was simply in the interest of birthing new Celestials — an act necessitating the destruction of planets. Fortunately, the Eternals were able to save Earth from that terrible fate; now, with their faith in the beings who created torn asunder, it will be interesting to see where this story goes next.

3. Harry Styles as Thanos' brother

"Eternals" features another big twist in its mid-credits scene, which introduces Eros, the brother of Thanos, played by Harry Styles. As one of the biggest global names in pop culture at the moment, Styles would have been a big reveal no matter which character he ended up playing. His appearance as kin to the Infinity Saga's primary antagonist takes the twist to a whole other level.

With Eros appearing on the side of good, it opens up a lot of interesting questions, which Phase 4 and the rest of the MCU beyond will hopefully be able to answer. How exactly is he related to Thanos? Was there a Celestial connection to the Mad Titan's scheme? Why isn't Eros purple? And is Thanos actually an Eternal? The franchise is spending more and more time exploring the bigger cosmic mysteries of time and space in Phase 4, and it should be exciting to see how closely Styles' Eros sticks to the comic book character — and what role he plays going forward.

2. The return of Daredevil

Netflix's "Daredevil" series is one of the most critically acclaimed live-action Marvel projects of the past decade. From the stellar cast and high production value to the writing and killer style, there was a lot to love about the series. That made it all the more disappointing when it was canceled, and for a long time it looked like there was no hope of a revival. But at the end of 2021, the MCU resurrected multiple characters from the beloved series, creating hope that "Daredevil" could return — while also officially making it part of the MCU.

The MCU's "Daredevil" renaissance consisted of two big twists. First, in "Hawkeye" Episode 5, the show's secret villain was revealed to be none other than Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin. Then, in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," Charlie Cox's Matt Murdoch cameoed as Peter Parker's lawyer. Seeing both Cox and D'Onofrio back in character was a lot of fun for fans of the Netflix series, and their respective reprisals give hope to the possibility of "Daredevil" being properly revived on Disney+. Whether or not that actually happens is yet to be seen, but there's a lot of potential for Kingpin and Daredevil to play bigger roles in the universe going forward.

1. The MCU Spider-Verse

Last but certainly not least on this list is the twist that will likely go down as the biggest MCU moment of 2021— the establishment of an actual, live-action MCU Spider-Verse in "Spider-Man: No Way Home," featuring Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire's Spider-Men and a menagerie of villains from their respective film series. Rumors of Maguire and Garfield co-starring in "No Way Home" circulated for months leading up to the film's release, but Disney did a good job of keeping the truth uncertain until the official debut. Sure enough, the film features three distinct versions of Peter Parker, delivering an acclaimed "Spider-Man" story filled with perfect fan service.

The "No Way Home" Spider-Verse isn't just fun nostalgia — it makes the movie a sequel to not only the previous Tom Holland films, but also the Sam Raimi trilogy and "The Amazing Spider-Man" movies as well. Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus, Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, and both returning versions of Peter Parker get real character arcs with powerful, emotional moments. They atone for past mistakes, dedicate themselves to being better than they were, and pass on what they've learned to the next generation.

It would have been easy for Sony and Marvel to turn "No Way Home" into a simple cash-grab. Instead, they delivered a heartfelt love letter to two decades of "Spider-Man" movies. That's a twist of massive proportions, and it's a perfect way to send the MCU off into 2022.