Superheroes living in the Marvel Cinematic Universe deal with all sorts of threats, ranging from the local to the extraterrestrial. Killer robots, aliens searching for a celestial MacGuffin, or just Hydra being Hydra: they all pose an immediate threat to humanity. And like the best of superheroes, these characters prioritize rescuing civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as much as they do punching bad guys in the face.

Civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Captain America protecting the public, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

However, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanded over the past decade, this emphasis on civilian existence has diminished. Not to the extent that they no longer exist, but rather their presence feels detached from the character’s individual journeys. One only has to compare THE AVENGERS’ battle of New York with INFINITY WAR’s Wakanda battle to recognize these differences. The Avengers still fight villains, but we don’t see much of the faces who risk getting caught in the crossfire.

Note that I’m not referring to the people inadvertently killed by a supervillain — induced destruction. Rather, the lack of ordinary characters inhabiting MCU conflicts over time has changed how recent films frame their stakes. After all, without plausible or believable stakes, an antagonist’s threat level is either diluted or rendered non-existent. What better, or cliched, way to emphasize a hero’s struggle than to show how the fight impacts ordinary civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Protecting the Little Guy

Part of what makes the core MCU Avengers so compelling is their human connections to the “real world.” Tony Stark has Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan. Steve Rogers had Bucky and Peggy Carter. Thor had family problems with Asgard and a relationship with Jane Foster in Midgard. Even Hawkeye reveals himself to be a family man in AGE OF ULTRON, making the character more than just a guy with a bow.

Civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Don’t worry citizens. Iron Man is here: Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

These dynamics grounded the MCU’s fantastical moments. They also added weight to the third-act destruction sequences beyond the playground for action spectacles. With lives on the line, the heroes had to keep innocents out of harm’s way at all costs. This selflessness even contributed to character arcs, such as Thor sacrificing himself to protect a small town and, in the process, regaining his ability to lift Mjölnir.

THE AVENGERS re-emphasized this focus on civilians by making them essential to the Avenger’s motivations. During the battle of New York, we see the six rescuing citizens from Chitari invaders while directing the police to secure a perimeter. The film emphasizes their vulnerability against these alien threats, making the fight more than just punching or blasting faceless goons. It’s also about containing collateral damage so that people don’t get hurt.

Civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Superheroes in New York? Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

You can see the global impact through Nick Fury’s observation of media outlets documenting the battle’s fallout. The focus is on civilian reaction to the Avengers: who they are, how they’ve inspired others and what their heroics mean for the future. These reactions mark the point where the Avengers’ actions take reveal far-reaching consequences for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s future.

Raising the Stakes: Lowering Civilian Contact

Thankfully, the Marvel Cinematic Universe never adopted a MAN OF STEEL route by prioritizing wanton destruction porn over protecting the innocent. If anything, the number of Phase 2 and 3 entries feels like a direct rebuttal to those controversial scenes. Whether individually or as a team, the films still emphasize these heroes’ commitment to rescuing people from an evildoer’s assault on populated cities.

Civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Evacuating Sokovia with a big-ass helicarrier: Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and AGE OF ULTRON exemplify such acts of heroism. ULTRON’s finale might be dedicated to smashing Ultron’s robo-clones, but the Avengers balance this with evacuating a floating city’s inhabitants. They must physically wait until everyone in Sokovia is safe before finishing their assault on the bad guy. Likewise, GUARDIANS’ finale threat — the bad guy who wants to blow up the planet — is shown from a ground perspective alongside the space battles. With Ronan’s forces attempting to kamikaze Xandar’s civilians, the Guardians and Nova Corp must organize a defense while the airborne heroes launch their attack.

However, with each new film, our protagonists began spending more time with their enhanced, godlike or bureaucratic supporting cast over the outside world. It detaches the characters, and by extent the audience, from real-world reactions to superpowered activity. So when a film drastically shakes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s status quo – such as CIVIL WAR’s Sokovia Accords — we can only imply a public fallout. It’s not necessarily an organic observation of events.

Where Are the People Again?

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’s big fights? An abandoned airport runway and Russian laboratory. ANT-MAN? Miniaturized train set. DOCTOR STRANGE? Set in an alternate dimension designed specifically to prevent magic from affecting the real world. Notice the pattern?

Civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
No one in the airport but us heroes. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Each of these set-pieces feels like isolated incidents detached from citizen interference. Neither heroes nor villains have to worry about killing someone because there’s a convenient reason for their absence. Narrative-wise, this makes it easier for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to create spectacle without bringing up moral ambiguity.

This shifts the MCU’s focus away from public reactions to the Avengers and more towards the Avenger’s interpersonal dynamics. Where Ultron wanted to destroy the world, CIVIL WAR’s Zemo just wanted to pit the Avengers against one another. Other conflicts are more self-contained, like T’Challa and Killmonger’s final fight never leaving a few Wakandan locations and only featuring military tribal members.

Civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Defending the Asgardian refugees, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Similarly, INFINITY WAR’s deliberately ensures a lack of civilian interference by having its heroes move Earth’s Infinity Stones away from the public. This resulted in two epic battles with zero bystanders: the Avengers/Guardians vs. Thanos fight on Titan and the Avengers/BLACK PANTHER cast defense in Wakanda. Both fights deliver on spectacle and fan service but never touch upon the world’s reaction to this conflict.

Ironically, Phase 3’s best use of “ordinary civilians” in peril is THOR: RAGNORAK. Here, the Asgardians hiding from Hela’s assault are families with little warrior training.  So when Thor and Loki help evacuate the Asgardian refugees on their newfound transportation, suddenly RAGNORAK has meaningful stakes. Thor’s subjects are in danger and he must do everything possible to ensure their survival.

The Future of Civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

AVENGERS: ENDGAME, however, poses a unique scenario for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Thanos killing half the universe, every surviving Avenger feels impacted by the loss of so many innocent people. This failure aligns the heroes’ motivation with that of every average citizen they pledged to protect.

Civilians in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Time to revive the dead: Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

We can see this impact in the ENDGAME trailers, which emphasizes the Decimation’s fallout throughout planet Earth. The Avengers, in Black Widow’s own words, owe it to “everyone not in this room” to fight back. No one knows whether this plan will succeed or fail. It’s a Hail Mary pass at best and, based on whose contracts are expiring post-ENDGAME, will likely result in some fan-favorite character’s death.

But these final trailers reinforce the Avengers’ defining trait: always protecting the innocent. Just like Phase 1, these non-powered relationships define the highest stakes the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever seen. And like the best of narratives, these stakes make the Avengers’ journey all the more impactful. We don’t know how AVENGERS: ENDGAME will play out, but we know they’ll sacrifice everything to avenge everyone this time around. Whatever it takes.

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