Before 2008, you’d be hard-pressed to find a superhero movie that wasn’t part of a tried and true formula that, let’s be honest, started to bore audiences. Household names like Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman and Batman had almost full control of superhero cinema for decades until Marvel took its shot at spearheaded its own series of films. The concept was insane: bringing together a handful of solo live-action superhero films using the framework of a cinematic universe, and eventually interconnecting its entire world of films. Most critics thought it couldn’t be done coherently, but it worked. And at the time, Marvel didn’t have the rights to Spider-Man, the X-Men, and definitely not DC Comics’ heroes, so they needed to experiment with some of their lesser known characters.
Sure, characters like Captain America and Hulk were no-brainers. These were heroes that easily permeated the mainstream, appearing in cartoons and the like over the years, but the rest of its crew were a hard sell. Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ant-Man — these were just a handful of the heroes Marvel used to build the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And when the first batch succeeded, they tried again with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, The Wasp, Doctor Strange and more. And guess what? It worked again. Marvel Studios successfully turned a pantheon of C-list Marvel Comics heroes and elevated them to superstar status, so much that a Captain America film outgrossed a Batman/Superman film in 2016. Here are 20 heroes Marvel turned from C-listers into pop culture phenomenons.
As the leader of the ragtag Guardians of the Galaxy, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord had a lot to prove when it came to showing that he could be a Hollywood leading man in a sprawling space epic. Thankfully, Pratt’s charm and comedic chops helped to elevate a film packed with charisma (by way of the rest of its leading cast), and this C-list space team was catapulted into cinematic super stardom.
Now, Guardians of the Galaxy is everywhere, with Groot mugs and Rocket Raccoon Halloween costumes showing up left and right. But it’s hard to imagine that things would have gone so well if Star-Lord wasn’t convincing as the keystone to this budding franchise.
19. BLACK PANTHER
Wakanda Forever! Black Panther took no time in early 2018 becoming not only a cultural phenomenon, but one of the most successful films ever made. An absolute celebration of the character and the fictional country of Wakanda, Black Panther played out like a fantasy epic that needed to be made. And Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa helped take the film to new heights, and was easily convincing as the royal leader of his country.
Like many others on this list, T’Challa was always a major player in the comics, but this one Marvel Cinematic Universe film not only justified his place in the MCU, but made it a world worth exploring for the next 20 years — and more.
Ant-Man, well, the original Ant-Man, was a founding member of the very first Avengers team, but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark and co. built the team from the ground up. In fact, a number of Hank Pym’s accomplishments in the comics were given to Tony Stark in the movies, like the creation of the murderous Ultron.
And hey, it all worked out, and Ant-Man finally made his way into the MCU. With Paul Rudd taking on the role of the second Ant-Man, Scott Lang, this third-rate Marvel hero (in the eyes of the public) was catapulted into comedy stardom, partly on Rudd, and partly because of the amazing creative teams that worked on the character.
Thor is no stranger to showing up in live-action television series or parody cartoons, but his name relation to an actual Norse God meant that it was hard to differentiate the two. But when Thor made his live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe debut, things became a little more clear. But even with his first few films, there was a struggle to put him on the same footing as Captain America or Iron Man.
Enter Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War where we see the son of Odin finally unleash all of his true power to become one of, if not the strongest single hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s always been big in the comics, but these moments have made him a pop culture icon.
16. KORG & MIEK
Korg and Miek may have stolen the show in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, but before their live-action debut, they were mostly side characters in an integral, though locked to comics event called “Planet Hulk”. In the books, neither really had a touch of comedy to them, functioning as soldiers, and in Miek’s case, a double agent, in the fight the Sakaaran refugees take to its overzealous masters.
The change to their backstories was welcomed, and the two are now among some of the most hilarious and memorable in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though, we would have liked to have seen Miek do just a little bit more in Ragnarok before, well, we don’t want to spoil it.
15. WAR MACHINE
James “Rhodey” Rhodes is one of the most important character’s to the Iron Man comics, but before his first live-action appearance in 2008’s Iron Man, he wasn’t exactly a huge player when it came to mainstream name recognition. No, in a world of Spider-Mans and X-Men, it’d be years before War Machine got his time to shine in the sun. And being a peripheral character to an already C-lister like Iron Man probably didn’t help either.
Thankfully, Don Cheadle’s stellar portrayal of Rhodes and some great action set pieces have put this military man on top. And despite your thoughts on the Iron Patriot armor, he totally worked it in Iron Man 3.
Sam Wilson has always partnered with Captain America in Marvel Comics, but even with Steve Rogers’ name sometimes permeating the mainstream (mostly just the name Captain America), Sam Wilson and Cap’s other side characters didn’t really get their time to shine.
But a stellar first outing in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and appearances in subsequent Marvel team-ups (including a scene in Ant-Man) have plenty of moviegoers thinking about how far Falcon can fly. And hey, he even became the comics book Captain America in the years following his live-action debut and made for one of the most inventive Captain America runs in a handful of years.
13. WINTER SOLDIER
Speaking of Captain America side characters, Bucky Barnes also got his real big break when he made his live-action debut in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Sure, he’d been running with Captain America as his own boy wonder since the very early days of Marvel Comics, but that didn’t mean much when it came to mindshare outside of the comic book realm.
With Sebastian Stan’s portrayal of the villain-turned-hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the character is now a fan-favorite and often-debated member of a number of fan fiction stories and “ships.” With a new and suped up arm now added to Bucky’s arsenal, we hope his future is big and bright in the MCU.
Was Thor: Ragnarok just packed to the brim with wonderful, scene-stealing characters? Well, yeah. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie was a unique and wonderful take on the fairly obscure Marvel Comics character, one plenty of Marvel Cinematic Universe fans probably hadn’t heard of before the marketing rollout for the third Thor flick.
But this smooth-talking, incredibly powerful Asgardian controlled the screen during integral moments of Thor: Ragnarok and is now a fan-favorite in the MCU community, with fans even clamoring for the character to take part in a female-led Avengers film or an all-out solo movie. Either way, we’re here for it.
11. THE WASP
In the comics, The Wasp was a founding member of The Avengers. But as Marvel’s live-action exploits kicked up, The Wasp was nowhere to be seen as The Avengers formed and a slew of Marvel heroes saw their live-action debuts.
So when it was teased that Evangeline Lilly would become The Wasp in 2015’s Ant-Man, fans were sold, and the promise was made good in 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, which had Hope Van Dyne take center-stage in a quest to save her mother from the Quantum Realm. We don’t know about you guys, but a third Ant-Man film that focuses even more on Lilly’s The Wasp makes plenty of sense in our book.
10. DRAX THE DESTROYER
Drax has always been a part of the high-concept Marvel Comics cosmic universe stories. But to the average fan of pop culture, the name “Drax the Destroyer” didn’t mean much, and maybe sounded like a professional wrestler name instead. But with an unrivaled performance from Dave Bautista (wrestler connection!) and writing from James Gunn, Drax went from unknown space destroyer to first-rate Guardian of the Galaxy (also a team of C-listers).
If there’s one movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that took basically its entire lead cast and sent them to super stardom, it’d be Black Panther. Not only is it one of the highest-grossing films of all time, but it’s a bonafide cultural phenomenon and Danai Gurira’s Okoye is absolutely part of that.
A peripheral character, though one extremely important to the Black Panther mythos, Okoye easily rose to top hero status with her actions in Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. But this is just the beginning, as we’ll surely be seeing plenty of Okoye and the Dora Milaje as the MCU trucks forward (not to mention in the comics).
Hawkeye was little more than a glorified cameo in the first Thor movie, but with a big name like Jeremy Renner taking the role and proving to be a standout in 2012’s The Avengers, it was clear that this guy could do a lot more than shoot a bow and arrow.
In the comics, Hawkeye was everything from an Avengers to a villain to a pretty terrible husband, but he never rose to A-list status the way Captain America or Hulk did, at least not in the mainstream. Will this popularity lead to a spin-off film or television series? Only time will tell, but we know this: the world need more Hawkeye.
Shuri may just be the most intelligent person in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With an intellect that puts Bruce Banner and Tony Stark to shame, this Wakandan princess is more than just royalty — she’s a tactical virtuoso.
In the comics, she has taken up the mantle of Black Panther before, but even T’Challa himself never found much mainstream popularity before his appearance in Captain America: Civil War, despite some incredible comic book runs. With Shuri now getting her own solo comic title, it all comes full circle, as Shuri is clearly a household name in the Marvel Universe, film or not.
6. ROCKET RACCOON
Seriously, a talking raccoon?! That’s what plenty of onlookers thought in the lead-up to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Truth is, Rocket has long been an important part of not only the Guardians of the Galaxy comic book history, but of Marvel’s cosmic ongoings as a whole.
And while many were right to be skeptical of how Rocket would look in live-action, James Gunn and Bradley Cooper pulled it off, believably, and now Rocket is easily one of the most marketable characters in Marvel’s library of heroes. That’s right, a talking raccoon (just don’t let him hear you say that).
Just like his buddy Rocket Raccoon, Groot could have gone totally south when it came to bringing him to live-action. In the comics, Groot is an incredible warrior and extremely fierce and sometimes violent member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, not to mention his origin as a monster from Planet X.
But Groot can also be lovable, and those aspects brought to life in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy sold fans on just how great this character can be, and you can bet that Groot is one of the aces in Marvel’s pantheon of heroes, a character that everyone loves. It helps that Baby Groot is incredibly adorable, too.
4. DOCTOR STRANGE
Doctor Strange has always had the makings of a mainstream superhero, and even had a name drop in Sam Raimi’s first live-action Spider-Man film series. But despite his importance in the comics and to the fabric of the Marvel Universe, no one really knew the name Stephen Strange until his solo appearance in 2016’s Doctor Strange.
And while the film in and of itself was a great introduction to the character, Strange didn’t exactly prove himself until 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, when he went toe-to-toe with Thanos in a battle for all of the mortal life in the galaxy. Yeah, you can bet people know now that Doctor Strange is a heavy hitter.
While she has always been important to not only Marvel’s cosmic heroes, but the Infinity Stones themselves, Gamora had a rough time permeating the mainstream to become a household name outside of Marvel Comics. While the X-Men and Spider-Man had plenty of mixed media across pop culture, the Guardians of the Galaxy were left to fend for themselves in the cosmic Marvel Universe.
But the daughter of Thanos and deadliest woman in the Marvel Universe is an A-lister now, playing integral parts in Guardians of the Galaxy, its sequel and Avengers: Infinity War. Let’s just hope she gets another chance to be one of the very best.
2. BLACK WIDOW
Black Widow has an arduous history in the comic book world, as she goes from being a brainwashed Russian specialist to a top-level Avengers. But aside from her comic book appearances as a super spy, Black Widow never made it into much else.
But as a powerful, female hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she is now a leader for not only Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but a generation of moviegoers waiting to see these strong female heroes on the big screen. With a solo film planned for release in the next few years, we don’t foresee Black Widow going anywhere just yet.
1. IRON MAN
The very first Iron Man had every chance to fail in the lead up to its release. It was a risky move on Marvel’s part, casting an actor previously blacklisted from Hollywood in an unproven superhero role that was such a far cry from the Spider-Man, X-Men and Batman films that had graced cinema in the decade prior.
But with the incredible chops of Robert Downey Jr., the stellar directing of Jon Favreau and the blueprint to build the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man went from being a Black Sabbath song to being one of, if not the most popular superhero in the world.
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