With INFINITY WAR fast approaching, the battle match-ups are…interesting, to say the least. The idea of Black Widow or Captain America going toe-to-toe with Proxima Midnight gave me — and a few other comic fans — pause. However, the fudging of power levels isn’t exactly something new for the MCU. In fact, it’s essentially necessary for the world the MCU has tried to build.

The creators of the MCU have crafted it int a very specific representation of Marvel’s world and Marvel’s characters. The MCU is its own universe, with its own aesthetics and tone. Because of this, some comic powers — and power levels — simply aren’t realistic for the universe the MCU has presented.

What Changes Matter?

I’d like to note that this isn’t so much about who’s strongest — it relates to different ways the MCU has made characters weaker, including taking certain powers away entirely. After all, it doesn’t matter sometimes if a character is simply weaker than the comic book counterpart when it comes to brute strength.

For example, Hulk in the comics is stronger than Hulk in the MCU, but does that really matter? As long as the Hulk is still strong enough to smash what he needs to smash, it doesn’t matter if he can’t stack up pound-for-pound against his comic counterpart. Instead, the most notable “nerfed” characters in the MCU that stand out because of major losses.

Black Widow, for example, isn’t enhanced by super soldier serum in the movies. Falcon can’t telepathically communicate with birds. Major strength adjustments might stand out (Steve Rogers being able to grapple with Thanos himself?), but powers that have been entirely removed tend to throw comic fans for a loop.

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The MCU has to make decisions when it comes to what powers characters need. In a serious, gritty universe, Sam Wilson can’t exactly run around talking to pigeons. No matter how much some of us may want that. In a universe with only two teams of heroes (three if you’re pushing it), is it worth it to have a villain strong enough to wipe out a good 80% of those heroes? What works, and what doesn’t? Why can small things make a difference but large changes work perfectly fine? It’s an interesting look into the fundamental worldbuilding of the MCU.

Black Widow

Natasha Romanoff is obviously one of the first characters to note when it comes to adjusting power levels.  Natasha also stands out because the MCU introduced her relatively early on. The first time we see Black Widow is in IRON MAN 2. At that point, there weren’t many characters for people to compare Natasha’s power levels towards. On top of that, Natasha’s importance to the story is more about her status as a spy and SHIELD agent than it is about her powers.

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Appearance-wise, Natasha isn’t all that different between the comics and the MCU — which isn’t true for some characters. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

However, as the MCU released more films heavily featuring Natasha, it became clear she doesn’t really stack up against her comic book counterpart. Natasha is, of course, still a total badass in the MCU. She’s amazing at her job, she’s intelligent, and she’s still a skilled martial artist. MCU Natasha could probably figure out how to kill a man with anything on hand. We also know, by AGE OF ULTRON, that the Red Room exists (or existed) in the MCU, and that Natasha was experimented on.

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Some things line up… but some pretty big things are missing, as well. For example, Natasha Romanoff is a super soldier in the comics. Natasha also experiences slowed aging. In the comics, Natasha has been alive since at least the 1920s. This comes into play in interesting ways through her relationships with other characters from the past, such as Wolverine, Captain America, and especially the Winter Soldier.

Does It Work?

While it’s a bit disappointing, in my opinion, that we don’t have any proof of Natasha having the enhanced strength or speed of a super soldier, I think the MCU made the right choice in leaving the serum out of the equation. The way that the MCU sets up the stories of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes makes it one that relies on a sense of separation and loss of the past. Adding in more and more characters that are from the same time period would reduce the emotional value of the set-up.

It would be cool to have Natasha be as strong as she is in the comics, sure. However, there’s the question of whether the movies really need her to have those powers. The MCU keeps the integrity of Natasha’s story and character, even without the super soldier serum. Natasha still has her experiences in the Red Room in the MCU, something vital to her role as Black Widow. We don’t know the results of the experiments she underwent, we know she was subjected to them.

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She’s still really good at breaking necks and looking good doing it.

There’s also the fact that Natasha fulfills her purpose without needing super strength in the movies. While the movies could likely do more to show her skills, she still comes across as a competent, powerful character. It’d certainly be nice, though, to see her use her weapons more often.

The main cause of this change, writing-wise, seems to be to instead redirect focus to Natasha’s learned skills. I think that’s a good reason to make such a change — but Marvel does have to ensure they carry that through and thoroughly portray Natasha’s skills as a martial artist, a spy, a strategist, and a weapon’s expert.

Loki

Whether the MCU has de-powered Loki or simply hasn’t had the chance to show off his full power is debatable. Loki in the movies typically relies on illusions and manipulation. This is a fantastic idea for a villain and is definitely one of Loki’s strong suits. However, it seems to have blurred the lines on the other uses of his magic. Loki’s shapeshifting abilities aren’t very clear in the movies, nor do we see him utilize them regularly.

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Loki’s strength, healing, and typical godly traits also seem to be a sticking point. This is mainly because, compared to Thor, Loki is indeed weaker. Loki is also the villain who avoids combat. Loki is a schemer, a sneak, and certainly not one to stand to get punched, even if he could take it. It makes it a bit hard to gauge how Loki’s strength stacks up against a “normal” human. In the comics, Loki has what certainly qualifies as superhuman strength.

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We do get a story about Loki shapeshifting in this bit in THOR: RAGNAROK…but we never really get to see him do that sort of thing in the movies.

Another issue is that Loki that, in the movies, he seems very reliant on objects and weapons. While it’s understandable to show the power of the Tesseract by having Loki utilize it as much as possible, it undersells Loki’s own magic. In the comics, Loki is always using his magic, in many ways. While it’s most common to see his shapeshifting and illusion skills, we also see Loki flexing some telekinetics, mind-reading, and some spells that border on outright reality-warping.

Does It Work?

People have started to note, after THOR: RAGNAROK, that we’re not seeing Loki at his full potential when it comes to his magic. It feels like we’ve seen one trick so often that it feels like Loki’s only trick. Loki’s use of illusion, usually to make people see him when he’s not there, is becoming overused. It doesn’t help that the comics tend to get really wild with Loki’s shape-shifting. Loki in the comics shapeshifts into animals, changes his face or other body parts arbitrarily, and so on…while in the movies, we don’t really get the feeling that he can let loose with his sorcery like that.

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Loki spending a fair amount of time as Cat Thor (thanks to Nancy Whitehead’s fanfiction) in the comics is, by far, the best example of Loki’s ridiculous shapeshifting. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

People may have let it slide in the first few movies Loki was in. After all, adjusting power levels after the character’s initial appearance is expected, even in comics. In AVENGERS, Loki not being self-reliant when it came to power was plot-important. However, now that we’ve had Loki as an established character for multiple films, it feels odd that we haven’t expanded on what powers of his we see on-screen.

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Weak villains can be fun, but Loki isn’t meant to be a weak villain. Even when he’s not truly the villain, in both the films and the comics, he’s supposed to be noticeably powerful. Loki doesn’t seem weak in the MCU because other characters are stronger than him — there are ways to portray strength in a character that isn’t the strongest. Instead, Loki has started to feel weak because the MCU hasn’t given us a feel for the scope of his powers or how they work.

Honorable Mentions

If I broke down all the power changes in the MCU, it’d take forever. These are a few other instances where changes stand out:

There are Quicksilver and the fact that he was killed by bullets, which he should be able to outrun. The odd thing about Quicksilver being portrayed as slower than he is in the comics is that, at the beginning of AGE OF ULTRON, he seems to have the same power level. It’s odd to have someone with super-speed end up full of bullet holes. This feels less like an issue with the movie adjusting his powers in comparison to the comics and more like a discrepancy in the movie itself.

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MCU Falcon is missing his ability to telepathically communicate with birds. I understand why it wasn’t included — it’s a bit too goofy for the tone of the MCU, and hard to it in. Still, I’m of the opinion that being able to talk to birds is really cool…and it led to the best sidekick ever. While I get why they got rid of it, I’ll always be a bit sad about it The MCU does technically have a “cool,” high-tech Redwing — the bird-like drone that Falcon uses in Civil War — but it’s just not the same.

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A hawk is the coolest sidekick ever. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

There’s also the matter of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Gamora is even stronger in the comics, although it doesn’t necessarily matter seeing as she’s definitely still ridiculously strong in the MCU. Mantis still has her powers as an empath, but the MCU majorly downgraded her abilities related to telekinesis and manipulating emotions. Groot’s still functionally immortal, but no longer retains his memories if he “dies.”

INFINITY WAR

INFINITY WAR hasn’t dropped yet, but the constant adjustment of power levels is already integral to it. Firstly, there’s the fact that our current superhero lineup wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell against even comics Proxima Midnight. That’s considering she’s one of the people who works for Thanos… no touching on the fact that comics Thanos himself would squash them like bugs. In fact, even in the comics, where everyone is OP, fighting Thanos usually results in a lot of death.

An easy way to know that the power levels of these enemies have been adjusted is that Captain America catches Proxima Midnight’s spear. While Cap has superhuman strength in the MCU, Proxima Midnight’s spear is the very definition of an over-powered weapon. This weapon is simultaneously a star, a black hole, and a supernova thanks to a distortion of space-time. When Proxima Midnight throws it, it has the mass of a sun. Not to mention it’s imbued with a toxin that can kill anything.

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Essentially, Proxima Midnight can super duper kill basically anything. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Suffice to say, for Cap to catch that spear and not immediately keel over, something’s up. Some people have theorized that it isn’t actually her signature spear that she’s throwing. Even in that case, though, Proxima Midnight at full comic book power would be throwing any projectile with a strength and speed that a human — even an enhanced human, like Cap — couldn’t possibly catch.

Power Levels and Adaptations

I don’t think that nerfing characters — especially villains — is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes characters simply don’t need the same amount of powers they have in comics. Sometimes the plot wouldn’t work if the MCU gave characters their full power. And sometimes, the powers are just too whimsical or “silly” to fit into a world like the MCU.

It only makes sense to adjust Thanos and his allies to be weaker than their comic book counterparts. The MCU isn’t equipped to lose more than half the Avengers to one villain. Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter that the characters aren’t as strong as they are in the comics. All that matters is that Thanos is still strong enough to be a potentially world-ending threat. Even comics tweak their power levels on a whim if the narrative needs it. Wolverine’s healing factor is constantly fluctuating with how efficient it is, for example.

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Power changes may seem weird, but that doesn’t make them wrong. Still, there are a few places where the MCU should be careful. For instance, a lot of characters that have powers taken away or drastically reduced are women. Black Widow, Mantis, and Proxima Midnight are a few examples. It’s a little bit suspicious. The MCU doesn’t actually have many superheroines as of right now (which is its own problem), so it’s difficult to say if it’s a pattern just yet.

There’s also the fact that the power adjustments can begin to cause inconsistencies as the MCU moves forward. It can also come off as lazy or poorly planned writing. So far, however, the MCU seems to be running as it should. The MCU is an adaption, and it’s doing what it should be doing: adapting characters and their powers to fit the universe.

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