The Marvel Cinematic Universe is known for its bright superhero action and comedic writing. Its stories have drama and tension, but they are usually also stuffed to the gills with jokes. Overall, the franchise tends towards the lighter side. Good triumphs over evil, endings are bittersweet at worst, and friendship and loyalty carry the day.
Not all the MCU’s films or TV shows follow this trend, however, as some take a distinctly dark turn. They might deal with more morose subject matter, take a more realistic look at the MCU’s storytelling, or just focus on sadder story beats and characters. However they manage it, not all Marvel projects are as feel-good and light-hearted as fans may think.
10/10 “But What Is Grief If Not Love Persevering?”
WandaVision is a surprising first entry for the MCU’s Disney+ TV series. It’s not the sort of light-hearted, quippy action fare that the franchise is known for. Instead, it’s a deep and character-driven look at grief and denial. Despite its sitcom trappings, Wandavision is one of the darkest and saddest entries in the MCU.
In WandaVision, Wanda Maximoff creates the Hex to avoid acknowledging her grief. In the process, she hurts hundreds of people who will never be able to forgive her. The Hex’s version of Vision dies, and the original gets rebuilt as a weapon by SWORD. The ending is bittersweet, with SWORD and Agatha defeated, but Wanda loses almost everything, including her children, in the process.
9/10 “Our Very Strength Incites Challenge. Challenge Incites Conflict. And Conflict… Breeds Catastrophe”
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America is one of the most idealistic and virtuous heroes in the MCU. However, that doesn’t mean his films are saccharine, happy affairs. Cap’s films tend to be the darkest in the MCU, and this comes to a head in Captain America: Civil War.
Helmut Zemo is one of the few MCU villains to actually win, succeeding in his goal of tearing the Avengers apart by making them fight one another. The film’s final fight is a brutal, emotional affair as Tony Stark punches his way through Steve Rogers to get to Bucky Barnes. Even with an optimistic ending note, the film sees half of its heroes become fugitives, a well-loved team fall apart, and many characters forced to face their personal demons.
8/10 “One Batch, Two Batch, Penny, And Dime”
The MCU’s Netflix series are known for being much darker in tone than the films or Disney+ series. They focus on grittier, more realistic stories focused around New York City’s underbelly. The Punisher is one of the darkest, centered on one of Marvel Comics’ most infamous antiheroes.
The Punisher follows Frank Castle as he becomes a vigilante following his wife and daughter’s death. The series deals with the effects of vigilantism, Frank Castle’s realistically-portrayed post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, and a great deal of shocking violence.
7/10 “We May Lose. Sometimes Painfully. But We Don’t Die. We Survive”
Loki expands the scope of the MCU dramatically and makes everything seem much darker. It reveals the existence of the TVA, an organization that exists to keep the Sacred Timeline in check. The TVA are ruthless with any divergence from the way things should be. They wipe out entire universes and turn people, like Sylvie Laufeydottir, into fugitives for no fault of their own.
However, the true darkness comes from the fact that the alternative isn’t better. The alternative to the TVA’s totalitarian rule is multiversal chaos that sets the stage for Kang the Conquerer. The climax of the first season of Loki poses Loki and Sylvie with an impossible choice, the consequences of which will cause plenty of pain for the MCU.
6/10 “All Gods Will Die”
Thor: Love And Thunder
Thor: Love and Thunder has faced plenty of criticism for its uneven tone. Much of the film follows a comedic, light-hearted plot as Thor, Jane Foster, and Valkyrie explore the universe, resolve their romantic differences, and get uninvited to Zeus’ orgy. Its villain, Gorr the God-Butcher, brings a very different tone.
Gorr is a man with legitimate grievances against the gods and seeks to wipe them all out across the universe. He kidnaps Asgard’s children and menaces them throughout the film. He utterly dominates the three heroes when they fight, and relishes every second of it. Many fans wish they’d seen more of Love and Thunder‘s darker storyline with Gorr, and less of the romantic comedy side of things.
5/10 “I’m Not Seeking Penance For What I’ve Done, Father. I’m Asking Forgiveness For What I’m About To Do”
MCU Netflix series tend to deal with street-level heroes, and they don’t get much more street-level than Daredevil. The show is a much grittier take on the MCU, and Matt Murdock deals with realistic, mundane criminals who commit acts much more reminiscent of real-world crime.
Daredevil himself is darker than the average MCU hero. He’s a brutal fighter who uses devil iconography to scare his enemies, and is open about the toll his superheroics have on him. Daredevil crossing over intoShe-Hulk: Attorney At Law surprised fans due to the two series’ very different tones.
4/10 “Death Follows Him Like A Shadow”
Avengers: Infinity War
Avengers: Infinity War‘s ending is one of the most infamous moments in the MCU. Several scenes of beloved characters dying helplessly cement just how dangerous a villain Thanos is, and set the stakes for Avengers: Endgame high.
However, Infinity War is dark long before its ending. It opens with another massacre as the Children of Thanos butcher Asgardian refugees. Victory throughout the film goes to whoever is willing to be as ruthless and callous as possible. The heroes get very little in the way of outright wins. It’s one of the darkest film entries in the entire MCU.
3/10 “Just Kill Me As I Am. Otherwise, There Will Be No Mercy, I Promise”
Werewolf By Night
Werewolf by Night is a rare MCU project that is overtly horror-themed. It focuses on the dark and gothic side of Marvel Comics, introducing characters like Elsa Bloodstone, Man-Thing, and the titular Werewolf by Night. Drawing on folklore and monster movies, it’s already darker than much of the MCU.
However, its plot twists go even darker. The monster hunters are the villains of the piece. At best, they’re misguided to think all monsters are threats. At worst, they’re zealots even worse than the things they hunt. The special as a whole lacks the quips and light-hearted asides of the MCU in favor of more straightforward horror fare.
2/10 “The Real World Is Not About Happy Endings”
Jessica Jones is potentially the darkest of the already-mature Netflix MCU series. The series deals with very realistic trauma through a fantastical lens. Kilgrave’s abilities are fictitious, but his abusive hold over Jessica and his obsessive stalking of her are things that real people have to deal with.
Jessica Jones is very direct with its allegory. It doesn’t pull any punches with how horrific and devastating actions like Kilgrave’s can be to people. Later seasons don’t lighten up any. In particular, the third season sees Jessica’s sister Trish become a murderous vigilante out of bitterness and personal pain.
1/10 “This Is Me Being Reasonable”
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is another MCU project that takes inspiration from horror. Evil Dead director Sam Raimi brings his visceral touch to the film and makes it far darker than most other movies in the MCU.
Personal demons are a major theme in Multiverse of Madness. Stephen Strange’s own private unhappiness and yearning are contrasted with that of villain Wanda Maximoff. After being a hero for many films and following the events of Wandavision, Wanda takes a sharp descent towards villainy, becoming prepared to massacre hundreds and kill a young girl for her own selfish desires. Even an upbeat ending moral doesn’t stop the film from being a downcast, nightmarish, gloomy, and very violent experience.
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