Kevin Feige, the revered head of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, recently announced Phase Six of the franchise with the culmination of “The Saga of the Multiverse.” With dozens of superheroes lining up to join the Avengers cast and the cosmic threat of Kang the Conqueror on the horizon, Phase One feels like a distant memory. Before the multiverse introduced variants and incursions, Phase One brought together six of Earth’s mightiest heroes to fight an alien army in New York.
Phase One established the MCU trend that each entry in the franchise has a character that stands out from the rest – and it’s not always the character whose name is in the title. Each Phase One film has a prominent character, from Black Widow to Iron man 2 for mustache Loki in The Avengers.
6 Iron Man – Tony Stark
Tony Stark isn’t just the standout character of his big screen debut; he is without a doubt the standout character of the entire MCU. From the moment he was featured 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 have rooted for. Robert Downey Jr. achieved the mother of all career comebacks with the original Iron Man movie, the movie that kicked off the entire MCU.
Many lovable characters complete the supporting cast of Iron Man, from Rhodey to Agent Coulson, but Downey carries the film on his shoulders. Downey’s semi-improvised dialogue brings a refreshingly loose and realistic feel to a well-constructed archetypal narrative. Tony is presented as a flawed character and over the course of the film he gradually learns to be a better person.
5 The Incredible Hulk – Bruce Banner
The second entry into the MCU, The incredible Hulk, is another case of the title character successfully uploading his own movie. Edward Norton only played the Hulk in this movie – he was promptly replaced by Mark Ruffalo for the rest of the MCU movies – but he made a great Bruce Banner while it lasted. The incredible Hulk is generally considered one of the weakest installments in the MCU, but Norton brought a lot of pathos to the titular role.
Ruffalo’s Banner has been used extensively for comic relief in the years since The incredible Hulk made it to theaters, but Norton’s Banner was genuinely at odds with his volatile temper and the monster inside him. He’s not just a goof; he is a nuanced three-dimensional figure.
4 Iron Man 2 – Natasha Romanoff
Black Widow wouldn’t have her own MCU solo movie for over a decade (for some reason), but she stole the show in her debut. After Nick Fury’s taunt in the first Iron Man movie credits, Iron man 2 began to complete the list of Avengers he was putting together.
Scarlett Johansson proved to be a great scene partner for Downey, combining her comedic timing with her short lines. Nat was overly sexualized in his first appearance in the MCU – a problem that subsequent films have gone to great lengths to fix – but his early fight scenes still established the character as a badass not to be messed with.
3 Thor – Darcy Lewis
Thor is now one of the most beloved superheroes in the blockbuster scene. Over the course of his decade-long character arc, he’s gone through the wringer of sadness and depression and come out the other side as a loving father who has achieved inner peace. But it took a while to arrive. At first, he received a monotonous characterization as a self-centered, pseudo-Shakespearian idiot.
The original by Kenneth Branagh Thor The film is a fish-out-of-water story about a Norse god being stripped of his powers and banished to Earth. As Jane Foster’s crazy 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.
two Captain America: The First Avenger – Howard Stark
Tony’s father, Howard Stark, was introduced from beyond the grave in Iron Man films. In a video he shot before his death, he inspired Tony to create an entirely new chemical element in one of the MCU’s first preposterous 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 WWII origin movie.
Inside the first avenger, Steve Rogers made his debut as a standard benefactor. He wasn’t particularly attractive until the Russo brothers ramped up their stunts. In full Howard Hughes mode, eccentric and charismatic young Howard Stark steals the show in the first avenger. Dominic Cooper’s take on Howard is as charming and blatantly arrogant as his son.
1 The Avengers – Loki
It’s rare for a villain to outshine 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 an infantryman for Thanos, bringing his army to New York to launch a full-scale invasion of Earth (unsuccessfully).
The Avengers didn’t hold back with the character’s darker tendencies – he’s cruelly petty and kills without remorse – but Tom Hiddleston is still irresistibly charming. “If it’s all the same to you, I’m going to have that drink now.”