Phase One established the MCU trend that every entry in the franchise has a character who stands out from the rest – and it’s not always the character whose name is in the title. Every Phase One movie has a standout character, from Black Widow in Iron Man 2 to mustache-twirling Loki in The Avengers.
Tony Stark isn’t just the standout character of his own big-screen debut; he’s arguably the standout character of the entire MCU. From the moment he was introduced in media res with a military convoy in Afghanistan to the moment he gave his life to save the universe with the Infinity Stones, Tony was a truly engaging character that audiences around the world rooted for. Robert Downey, Jr. achieved the mother of all career comebacks with the original Iron Man movie, the film that kickstarted the whole MCU.
Plenty of lovable characters round out the supporting cast of Iron Man, from Rhodey to Agent Coulson, but Downey carries the movie on his shoulders. Downey’s semi-improvised dialogue brings a refreshingly loose, lifelike feel to a tightly constructed, archetypal narrative. Tony is introduced as a flawed character, and throughout the movie, he gradually learns to be a better person.
The second entry in the MCU, The Incredible Hulk, is another case of the title character successfully carrying their own movie. Edward Norton only played the Hulk in this one movie – he was promptly replaced by Mark Ruffalo for the rest of the MCU’s movies – but he made for a great Bruce Banner while he lasted. The Incredible Hulk is generally considered to be one of the weakest installments in the MCU, but Norton brought plenty of pathos to the titular role.
Ruffalo’s Banner has been largely used for comic relief in the years since The Incredible Hulk hit theaters, but Norton’s Banner was genuinely conflicted about his volatile temper and the monster within him. He’s not just a goofball; he’s a nuanced, three-dimensional figure.
Black Widow wouldn’t get her own MCU solo movie for over a decade (for some reason), but she stole the show in her debut. After Nick Fury’s tease in the first Iron Man movie’s credits, Iron Man 2 started to round out the Avengers roster he was putting together.
Scarlett Johansson proved to be a great scene partner for Downey, matching his comic timing with the quippy one-liners. Nat was overly sexualized in her first MCU appearance – an issue that the subsequent films made efforts to fix – but her early fight scenes still established the character as a badass not to be messed with.
Thor is now one of the most widely adored superheroes in the blockbuster landscape. Throughout his decade-long character arc, he’s gone through the wringer of grief and depression and come out the other side as a loving father who has achieved inner peace. But it took a while to get there. At first, he was given a dull characterization as a self-absorbed, pseudo-Shakespearean jerk.
Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor movie is a fish-out-of-water story about a Norse god being stripped of his powers and banished to Earth. In the role of Jane Foster’s wacky best friend Darcy Lewis, Kat Dennings provided the Thor movies with comic relief before Taika Waititi came along and turned the franchise into one long exercise in comic relief.
Tony’s father, Howard Stark, was introduced from beyond the grave in the Iron Man movies. In a video he shot before his death, he inspired Tony to create a whole new chemical element in one of the MCU’s earliest absurd leaps in scientific logic. Howard appeared as a younger man as the inventor of Captain America’s shield (and a bunch of other cool weapons and gadgets) in Cap’s World War II-set origin movie.
In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers made his debut as a standard do-gooder. He wasn’t particularly compelling until the Russo brothers amped up his action scenes. In full Howard Hughes mode, the eccentric and charismatic young Howard Stark steals the show in The First Avenger. Dominic Cooper’s take on Howard is just as effortlessly charming and shamelessly arrogant as his son.
It’s rare that a villain overshadows the heroes – especially in the MCU, a franchise often accused of having a “villain problem” – but Loki managed to steal the spotlight from six of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in the first Avengers movie. He acts as a foot-soldier for Thanos, bringing his army to New York to launch a full-scale invasion of Earth (to no avail).
The Avengers doesn’t hold back with the character’s darker tendencies – he’s viciously mean-spirited and kills without remorse – but Tom Hiddleston is still irresistibly charming. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll have that drink now.”