When it comes to character development, Marvel Studios actually made a pretty great start. The first film in the franchise, Iron Man (2008), portrayed Tony Stark as a power-hungry weapons manufacturer, who lived a carefree, Casanova lifestyle, showing little-to-no concern for the ones around him. However, Robert Downey Jr.'s character subtly develops his conscience and gains control over the mental trauma that he faced during his captivity. He makes a rigorous decision to shut down his primary business venture and devotes himself to developing Iron Man.
The film's end, where Tony acknowledges himself as Iron Man, marked a perfect transition of the character from a businessman to a superhero. In later films, what we see is the progression of this new character which has almost the same attributes. A similar development of character arc was depicted in The Incredible Hulk, where Edward Norton perfectly captured Bruce Banner's struggle with his "disease" which he eventually embraces in the final fight against Abomination. Hulk's character development, however, has since further fallen prey to copyright issues with Universal Pictures.
However, since Phase Two, Marvel Studios has mostly focused on characters' transitions into their superhero aliases and has kept their emotional and psychological edges at a distance from on-screen representations. Yes, everyone's motivation to embrace their new selves as these super-powered beings eventually connects to their personal lives and struggles, but it was hardly presented on-screen. It was probably because the audience at the time was new to such a concept of an integrated cinematic universe, and the only way to grab their attention was to stage an epic collision of superheroes and supervillains. If you closely understand the first two phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the films relied heavily upon the charismatic portrayal of lead characters while bringing in surrealist elements to support the films' outer world settings through some flawless CGI and Motion Capture techniques.
And then, the story progressed and the franchise grew bigger with new characters in Phase Two. After Captain America: Civil War, the franchise shifted to films with deeper integration and inter-connectedness, eventually leading up to Infinity War and Endgame, culminating the saga with a long-teased altercation between the Avengers and Thanos. Though several new characters were introduced in the franchise throughout these years, including Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, the franchise had to focus on setting up the big game. Moreover, as Marvel pushed limits to release three films a year from thereon and set up Spider-Man in between releases during Phase Three, the development arc of characters was adjusted accordingly.
It's not like Marvel Studios' approach was a failure or that the studio didn't care about the characters and their introduction in the franchise. After all, Marvel Cinematic Universe still remains outmatched and the legacy of the franchise and its unique take on setting up this vast on-screen world of its own is stupendous. Plus, the films have remarkably managed to tell beautiful stories and convert the investments into profitable returns. And now with Phase 4, which has allowed MCU to expand into television originals, the studio has started focusing on deeper character development, giving their emotions and state of mind more focus.
Starting with WandaVision, Marvel Studios took Wanda and Vision, two relatively unexplored characters, and gave them a perfect development arc (especially to Wanda). The show delved into Wanda's past as a kid and her struggles with constant grief that has overshadowed her. The show exposed her new identity and powers by going through the roots of her mental state and her loss. This made her development throughout the miniseries more attached to her human side. No wonder why Elizabeth Olsen is currently a fan-favorite choice for the Emmys. Meanwhile, Vision, as a creation of Wanda's memories, led to further exploration of himself. As this "conditional Vision" tries to find out his purpose and his lost memories, we saw how Vision's intelligence was outmatched as he subdues his opponent (the reanimated White Vision) with a debate and how, even in death, he was more concerned of everyone else's safety. These sequences validated Vision's superior approach towards situations, thus, helping the audience to understand him better.
Moving forward with The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios, for the first time, diving into the core concerns associated with world politics. The show impeccably argued over racial issues, political turmoil, and the subsequent rise of extremism caused by these issues. The show drew parallels from earlier portrayals of Captain America and the characters' ideologies and connected Steve Rogers' idea of a better world to the 2023 post-Blip America and the rest of the world. On the other hand, Bucky got a whole new arc in the series as it took the audience into his struggles to overcome his Winter Soldier persona. The sequence where he cries during Ayo's treatment of him in Wakanda gives a subtle but impactful hint of his pain caused by the experimentations done on him over the years. It felt great when Bucky was finally able to leave his wars behind and progress towards a new life.
And now, we are experiencing a similar vibe with Loki. Loki has had his character development throughout the franchise. But, this show features 2012 Loki, who has never been through events of Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok. The show has yet to explore Loki's lore in the coming episode, but it did give a glimpse of his personality in the first two. When Loki watches his file, which depicts his mother's demise, Odin embracing him as a son, and his ultimate demise, he is seen shedding tears. Now, even without going through the events personally, this Loki seems to have a different self. He even explains to Mobius how his fearful actions are to just subdue his own weakness. This emotional and caring self of Loki is further noticed in a glimpse when he learns of Asgard's annihilation and demise of half his civilization.
These are just three of the many MCU entries to air on Disney+ as television originals that have shown a similar approach to developing character arcs from hereon in the MCU. A lot of the credit shall go to Disney+ in that matter which has allowed Marvel Studios to give these characters more screen time to grow. The episodic format gives way more than two-hour runtime as in cinematic entries of the franchise, eventually paving a way for writers to give these characters a more thorough background.
And Marvel Studios is probably heading forward with a similar approach in the future series. Of course, the character arcs will not always be emotional and would be portrayed to best fit their individual attributes, but, it would be a good chance to understand them better, eventually giving them a wider space in Marvel's world. Armor Wars will factor in Tony Stark's death, whereas Hawkeye may give some hints to Clint Barton's time as Ronin during the five-year gap after the events of Infinity War. All these sidetracks that Marvel Studios is taking to expand its boundaries indicate that the creators' decision-makers of the franchise have gained a new sense of approach towards dealing with the MCU characters.
Marvel has perfected storytelling long back. It then perfected the integrated franchise approach towards setting up the largest cinematic universe with its events taking place in a shared continuity. And it has now perfected character arcs. The franchise never disappoints and shall carry on to entertain audiences with many more entries. Marvel Studios currently have an established slate of several films and television series to be released up until 2023, with other entries such as Blade under early stages of development to be released in later phases.