Whether you think it’s the worst thing to happen to cinema or the only thing keeping it alive, there’s no denying the MCU changed Hollywood forever. Kevin Feige and his producing partners at the time should never stop getting praise for creating the franchise mold everyone borrows from now and for finally delivering the connected superhero universe every comic book fan dreamt about for ages. They weren’t the first to produce quality superhero movies but they were the first to make each film an event by making you see how each one was going to connect to the next and what it was all leading to. It was a ballsy move that ended up being the most successful gamble in Hollywood history. It has spawned over 30 movies and almost half as many TV shows. Not all of them have been great but almost all of them have produced great characters. Characters that turn no-name actors into instant movie stars and make B-tier comic creations into instant fan favorites. This franchise will continue to thrive for years to come because the actors they cast are always on point (well, most of the time) and the writing keeps them feeling distinct and instantly memorable. No other franchise has produced this many unforgettable characters and I predict, no other franchise ever will.
These are the 100 Greatest Marvel Cinematic Universe Characters of All Time.
10. Natalia “Natasha” Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)
This may sound hard to believe but Black Widow wasn’t one of my favorite characters right out of the gate. My first exposure to the character was in the first Avengers movie and she just didn’t do that much for me. I mean, compared to heroes like Thor or Iron Man, Black Widow just didn’t seem to be on the same level. The best I could say about her was that she had a cool scene with Loki. That all changed when I delved into Black Widow in the comics a few years later.
Once you’re fully aware of Black Widow’s backstory, the brutal training she endured, you never really look at the character the same way again. Natasha has been through a lot, by anyone’s standards, and having her backstory fleshed out in the comics like this made her way more interesting to watch in the subsequent MCU movies. In fact, by the time her self-titled movie finally came out a few years ago, Black Widow had gone from being one of my least favorite MCU characters to one of my most favorite.
9. Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth)
I’ll be the first one to say that I love “serious” Thor and am not a big fan of “big, dopey” Thor. His overall character arc has been disappointing for me. Through his solo films and parts of the Avengers films, we’ve seen Thor go through so much heartbreak and it’s somehow only made him goofier. He’s lost Loki (so many times I’ve lost count). His parents Odin and Frigga and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster have died. His most important weapon, Mjolnir, was destroyed by his sister, Hela. I could go on for hours about his movies and the really weird sub-plots that this character has to deal with. Oh, there was also “Lebowski Thor,” a funny sub-plot in Endgame that seemed to play out quickly.
Are you picking up what I’m laying down? Now, Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal of Thor has been outstanding and thankfully he’s willing to do more with the character. I think the greatest Thor film and the most classic portrayal of the character was in Thor: The Dark World (don’t start throwing rotten vegetables at me). Marvel, please give me one more movie with butt-kicking “serious” Thor AND Mjolnir!!!
8. Wilson Fisk / Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio)
It’s important that Kingpin be physically intimidating and violent, and you see flashes of that in Vincent Donofrio’s portrayal of the classic character. But even more important, the intimidation should come from just how much Hell’s Kitchen is in his grasp, and this iteration of the character, specifically in the Netflix series, really hammers that home. In a neighborhood full of crime lords, none measures up to Kingpin, and he has his tentacles in every part of the city, including the police force. Matt needs to struggle physically against Wilson Fisk, but even more so he needs to grapple with how to even reach him. That’s true power.
7. Steven “Steve” Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans)
The first Avenger! A character like Steve Rogers, a strong character with a strong moral compass, could very easily come across as boring and uninspired. But thankfully the MCU does a marvelous job of developing Steve’s character, giving him depth, flaws, and purpose. His choices, for better or worse, shaped the MCU while testing the morality of his fellow superheroes. Ultimately, Steve always went with his gut, even if it meant having to stand up against the people he cared about or risking his own life to help others. He deserved and earned his happy ending. Captain America is by far one of the most beloved characters to come out of the MCU and there’s never going to be another like him.
6. King T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)
Little can be said about Chadwick Boseman that hasn’t been already — he embodied one of the most iconic characters in the MCU and was taken from us far too soon. The introduction of the Black Panther character in Civil War was a highlight of a film that not only entered a conflict between Iron Man and Captain America but brought Spider-Man into the universe for the first time. No mean feat! Then the solo movie introduced the world of Wakanda, and Black Panther is a fundamental part of why that corner of the universe is so beloved. The legacy lives on.
5. Nicholas “Nick” Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)
It’s kinda funny to me that back in the early 2000s Marvel redesigned Fury in the Ultimate comics to look like Samuel L. Jackson. And then less than a decade later he signed on to play the live action version in the newly established MCU. And boy was it brilliant. He embodies the character with such perfection and I love that he’s a constant in so many of the films and shows. I just hope that whatever happens in the future of the MCU, they do him justice.
4. N’Jadaka / Erik Stevens / Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan)
Perhaps the greatest example of Marvel movies only being a strong as their villains is right here in Killmonger. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is still one of the standout films in all of the MCU’s Canon. While so much of that obviously comes from the regal grace that Chadwick Boseman brought to the Black Panther character, a whole big chunk of it is also because of how well written and performed the Killmonger character is. As much as I’d like to say that it’s a shame that he was killed off, the fact that this character is limited to only one film makes his impact so much more profound. His motivation is fully realized, and in many ways righteous. However, his approach is vicious. He remains dangerous enough for audiences to not fully sympathize, but badass enough for everyone to at least consider rooting for him. The central thematic question of Black Panther is perfectly articulated through this character. Without him, the movie simply doesn’t work. Plus, Michael B. Jordan is pretty awesome.
3. Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston)
Loki has fascinated me ever since I first encountered the character in the first Avengers movie. From that performance alone, I could tell that Loki was a complex character, but I didn’t realize how much so until I watched the first Thor film. Loki’s story in the MCU might be one of the most heartbreaking I’ve ever seen. Imagine finding out your entire life is a lie and you’re actually from the race your adopted family hates the most. I mean, no wonder Loki went on the path he did, which has taken so many twists and turns in the MCU that I’m almost tempted to say I prefer the screen version of Loki to the comics version. However, that’s not quite a fair thing to say as I haven’t read that much involving Loki in the comics. That being said, I think it says a lot about the screen Loki that every time I do encounter Loki in the comics, I read his lines in Tom Hiddleston’s voice. I think this version of Loki will continue to dominate the comics version of the character for years to come.
2. Peter Parker / Spider-Man (Tom Holland)
People like to say that Tobey Maguire was the best Peter Parker, while Andrew Garfield was the best Spider-Man. Then Tom Holland swung onto the scene to deliver the best of both worlds. Holland is able to pull off the awkward nerdy nature of Peter Parker with the sarcasm of Spider-Man. Where Holland excels is by imbuing that quippiness with more innocence than Garfield’s iteration. As Marvel enters Phase 5 after a lackluster string of movies, Spider-Man is one of the best assets the studio has to regain momentum in the coming years.
1. Anthony “Tony” Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.)
You knew this was coming right? Without Iron Man there is no Marvel Cinematic Universe, or at least not the way we have now. Jon Favreau, Kevin Fiege, Ari Avrad and co. took a flyer on what could have easily been an expensive flop – I mean, I’m a huge Iron Man fan and I didn’t think it was going to work – and turned it into the cornerstone for one of, if not THE, most successful film franchises of all time.
I mentioned in the Hulk writeup that I had two comic subscriptions when I was a kid – this was the other one. I’ve been reading about Tony Stark and ol’ Shellhead for most of my life, it seems. Now I know that the MCU characters are NOT their comic counterparts, but those origins still inform my love and enjoyment of the screen version and I was more than happy with how things turned out with Iron Man. I’m sure there were other people in the running to play Tony Stark, but come on – nobody would have done it better. Robert Downey Jr was perfectly cast, and even when the films weren’t necessarily the best, his performance would elevate the entire production. Out of all the characters in the MCU he has the best character arc, from lightly amoral weapons dealer to founder of the Avengers to savior of the… well, everything. He’s the pivot on which the entire first three phases of the MCU turn.
All of that comes back to that first movie and that first performance. While you can quibble about how good the final third of that film is (and I have), it’s still one of the better films in the franchise and it created the best character. All with those final four words: “I am Iron Man.”
20-11 | Comic Book Castings
Who were some MCU characters that you believe should have made the list? Share them with us in the comments section below!