The Avengers, then and now: See the Marvel stars' first roles
Part of the journey is the beginning
Before they belonged to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the stars of the Avengers movies all had to start somewhere. After all, every superhero has an origin story. With Avengers: Endgame promising to conclude the 22-film arc that brought Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, and more to the big screen, let’s take a look back at where the cast members got their first breaks.
Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man)
The man behind Tony Stark has been acting since he was a kid, playing minor roles in his father’s experimental films. However, he didn’t truly break out until 1985, when he was hired as part of an experiment to try a new, younger cast on Saturday Night Live. After only a year, he and the majority of the new cast were dropped from the show, but in the meantime he played a bully in John Hughes’ Weird Science and James Spader’s sidekick in Tuff Turf. Downey has had many ups and downs in his career, but it was Stark who gave him a second chance at movie stardom, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, which came on the heels of several smaller successes.
Brie Larson (Captain Marvel)
Though it took a run at Oscar gold with 2015’s Room to make her a major star, Larson has been acting for years, and even took a stab at a teenage pop music career. Her very first professional gig came when she was still a small child: She appeared in a commercial parody for Barbie, titled “Malibu Mudslide Barbie,” in a 1998 episode of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. From there, she steadily started booking guest-starring gigs on television and minor roles in feature films. But the role of Captain Marvel is taking her higher, further, faster than ever before.
Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow)
Johansson was already a bona fide star by the time she signed on to portray Black Widow in 2010’s Iron Man 2. She began her career at quite a young age, making her feature film debut at 9 in 1994’s North. In the film, about a child prodigy (played by Elijah Wood) who goes on a hunt to find new parents, Johansson portrayed the daughter of a normal nuclear American family. Her first leading role, in 1996’s Manny & Lo, earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination, and in 2003 she officially transitioned to adult roles with Lost in Translation, which won her the BAFTA Award for Best Actress. She’s since become equally at home in Natasha Romanoff’s catsuit as she is in indie films and comedies — though we’re still waiting for that Black Widow standalone film.
Paul Rudd (Ant-Man)
We know Rudd seems ageless, but everyone starts somewhere. The smallest Avenger made his acting debut on the NBC drama Sisters in 1992, where he played the husband of Ashley Judd’s Reed, the daughter of one of the titular sisters. He got his shot at anchoring his own show on the short-lived Fox sitcom Wild Oats in 1994 (pictured here), which ran for only six episodes. He played a social worker in a group of Chicago-based friends. In 1995, Rudd made the jump to film as hunky stepbrother Josh in Clueless. He also had a notable arc on Friends as Mike Hannigan, the man who romances and ultimately marries Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow). As a member of Judd Apatow’s ensemble, Rudd elevated to full leading-man status in the 2000s before becoming Ant-Man/Scott Lang in the MCU.
Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie)
Though she wasn’t introduced until Thor: Ragnarok, kick-ass Valkyrie quickly became a fan favorite. Thompson’s career has been steadily building since her television debut guest-starring on Cold Case in 2005. But it was the 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls that marked her feature film debut (pictured here). She portrayed the terrorized heroine’s best friend, Scarlett. Thompson had a breakout role on Veronica Mars and continued to labor in supporting turns on both film and television before landing a major role in Creed, which helped propel her to new heights.
Chris Evans (Captain America)
Evans officially became one of the “Hollywood Chrises” after exploding to new levels of fan adoration with his take on Captain America. But before people were debating his merits opposite other actors named Chris, he got his start on the 2000 Fox teen drama Opposite Sex. He played Cary Baston opposite series lead Milo Ventimiglia. The show followed Jed, a teenage boy who finds himself enrolled at a newly coed school that only has two other male students, Evans’ Cary included. Before that, Evans immortalized himself to teen girls as the model for one of the boys in Hasbro board game Mystery Date. He’s since become a thirst trap for women of all ages, first as the Human Torch in the 2005 adaptation of the Fantastic Four and then as all-around good guy Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor)
Hemsworth and the Norse god Thor are essentially synonymous at this point, and audiences love him as the hammer-wielding hero. Hemsworth got his start where nearly every Australian actor does: on the long-running soap Neighbours. But he really made his mark on another soap opera, Home and Away, where he played hunky high school dropout Kim Hyde (pictured here). The actor made his first big impression with American audiences as father to another Hollywood Chris (Pine), when he played George Kirk in the opening scenes of J.J. Abrams’ big-screen Star Trek reboot. But it’s Thor that made him a god among Hollywood men.
Chris Pratt (Star-Lord)
Before he was lovable smartass Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord) in Guardians of the Galaxy and lovable doofus Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, Pratt endeared himself to audiences as lovable bad boy Bright Abbott on the WB teen drama Everwood, which ran from 2002 to 2006. Pratt also briefly joined the cast of The O.C. before breaking out in a bigger way on Parks and Rec. He earned a reputation playing immature, youthful characters, but 2014’s Guardians and 2015’s Jurassic World solidified his position as one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men.
Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther)
T’Challa is one of the most beloved figures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but just as it took many years for a superhero film to garner critical acclaim on the scale of Black Panther, it also took Boseman a long time to secure a breakout role. He began his acting career in 2003 in a string of guest-starring roles – most notably, he landed a recurring role on the ABC Family drama Lincoln Heights. Boseman played Nate Taylor (pictured here), the son of main character Eddie and an Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD. His true break came as Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42, and his star has been on the rise ever since. He was first seen as Black Panther in 2016’s star-studded threequel Captain America: Civil War.
Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier)
Whether you prefer him as the steely Winter Soldier or the steadfast Bucky Barnes, Stan is a soulful addition to the MCU. He grew up with an interest in theater and had his first meaningful professional role in a 2003 episode of Law and Order. Stan played Justin Lafferty Capshaw, a young man kidnapped at the age of 5 who eventually went on a killing spree at the prompting of his captor. Stan went on to many minor and supporting film roles, but rose to prominence on television with parts on Gossip Girl, Kings, and Once Upon a Time. He debuted as Bucky opposite Chris Evans’ patriotic hero in Captain America, returned as the tortured villain Winter Soldier in the sequel, sought redemption in Civil War, and will continue to portray Bucky on a new Disney+ series.
Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye)
As Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Renner is the MCU’s family man — but he started his career playing more lackadaisical types. He made his film debut as underachieving student Mark “Dags” D’Agastino in 1995’s National Lampoon’s Senior Trip (pictured here) and continued to work steadily in guest roles on television, as well as the leads in independent films and supporting roles in more major features like S.W.A.T. Renner first broke out in a major way as a bomb-disposal expert in the Oscar-winning movie The Hurt Locker. That propelled him to more buzzy parts, including an Oscar-nominated turn in Ben Affleck’s The Town and his place in the MCU, which began with an uncredited appearance in 2011’s Thor.
Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury)
Much like Nick Fury in the Avengers mythos, Jackson seems like a permanent fixture in Hollywood — but his career took more than a decade to really take off. After early days as a civil-rights activist, Jackson studied drama at Morehouse College. He secured numerous minor roles in films and spent much of his first decade as an actor appearing in stage plays. One of his notable early roles came in 1988’s School Daze, which launched a career-long relationship between Jackson and director Spike Lee. Jackson played Leeds, a local unimpressed with college students’ anti-apartheid efforts. The actor made a name for himself playing no-nonsense tough guys in films like Pulp Fiction, Snakes on a Plane, and the Star Wars prequels. He first appeared as Nick Fury in a post-credits scene in Iron Man, and now we can’t imagine the MCU without him.
Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch)
Despite being the younger sister of vastly famous child stars Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Elizabeth Olsen waited until adulthood to launch her acting career in earnest. She broke out in two 2011 films, the horror remake Silent House (pictured here) and cult drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. Olsen portrayed a troubled young woman in both films: In Silent House, she was terrorized at her family vacation home, while the critically acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene found her portraying a young woman grappling with returning to life with her family after escaping from an abusive sect. She made her debut as Scarlet Witch in a post-credits scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but her first feature-length appearance came in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Scarlet Witch is poised to have a bigger spotlight in a new Disney+ series called WandaVision.
Tom Holland (Spider-Man)
Playing web-slinging teen Peter Parker, Tom Holland, 22, is the baby of the MCU — but he’s been acting since he was a kid. His career began on the stage, where he played the title role in the musical Billy Elliot from 2008 to 2010. Holland made his feature film debut in The Impossible, portraying the eldest of three sons in a British family caught up in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor portrayed his parents, and he earned Oscar buzz for the role. He worked steadily after that and was cast as Spidey in 2015, slingshotting him to new levels of fame.
Mark Ruffalo (The Hulk)
You might not like him when he’s angry, but Ruffalo has made a career of playing decent men. His early success came courtesy of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, who cast him in the original production of This Is Our Youth, which also led to Ruffalo’s breakout role in the 2000 film You Can Count on Me. But even before that, he was laboring in minor roles in a string of films. He made his feature film debut in the direct-to-video horror sequel Mirror, Mirror 2: Raven Dance (pictured here), about a haunted looking glass. In the early 2000s, he graduated to romantic leads in films like 13 Going on 30 and Just Like Heaven. He’s one of the original Avengers, first coming on board as the Hulk/Bruce Banner in 2012’s The Avengers, replacing Edward Norton as the big green guy.
Danai Gurira (Okoye)
One of the newer faces in the MCU, Gurira began her career on the stage, as both an actress and a playwright. Most recently, her play Eclipsed went to Broadway with fellow Black Panther actress Lupita Nyong’o in the leading role. Gurira made her feature film debut in 2007’s The Visitor, in which she portrayed a young Senegalese jewelry designer living in a widower’s apartment as an undocumented immigrant. Gurira is perhaps best-known to audiences for her portrayal of the katana-wielding badass Michonne on The Walking Dead, but now she gets to play action star on a new level as Okoye, leader of the Dora Milaje.
Letitia Wright (Shuri)
Wright stoles scenes — and hearts — as the intelligent, playful princess Shuri in Black Panther, and it’s fitting that she plays a little sister in the MCU, given that she’s also one of the youngest cast members. She began her career at 18, appearing on the British television series Holby City and Top Boy, the latter of which found her playing Chantelle (pictured here), a young woman living in a Hackney housing estate (the British equivalent of government-subsidized housing). She continued to work steadily in British TV, appearing in larger roles on Doctor Who and Humans. In 2017, she earned an Emmy nomination for her work on Black Mirror. But it’s the spirited Shuri who endeared her to millions; we only hope she can recover from Thanos’ snap after learning about her character’s demise from a poster.
Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange)
The British actor donned a sentient cloak and American accent for his portrayal of neurosurgeon-turned-Sorcerer Supreme Stephen Strange. But Cumberbatch was already beloved as the star of Sherlock, and for his wide-ranging work in films, including an Oscar-nominated turn in The Imitation Game and a villainous role in Star Trek Into Darkness. Though playing the title character in Sherlock launched Cumberbatch to international fame, he’d worked in the theater and in British films and TV series for years before that. One of his earliest small-screen roles came in a 2002 adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, in which he portrayed Freddy (pictured here), an early paramour of the series’ heroine, Nan. He’s since become one of the most respected and sought-after actors of his generation.
Zoe Saldana (Gamora)
Saldana has cornered the market on geek chic, with leading roles in major franchises including the MCU, Star Trek, and Avatar. That said, she actually began her career as a ballet dancer, which fed directly into her feature film debut, 2000’s Center Stage. She played struggling and headstrong Eva Rodriguez, one of a group of young dancers enrolled at the fictitious American Ballet Company. Saldana worked steadily from that point onward, but her major breakout came in 2009, with leading roles as Uhura in Star Trek and Neytiri in Avatar. Her green-skinned warrior Gamora was sacrificed at Thanos’ hands in Avengers: Infinity War, but let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of her.
Tom Hiddleston (Loki)
Like many British actors, Hiddleston began his career on stage, but he started doing TV work while still featuring in student plays. In 2001, he had minor roles in Nicholas Nickleby and Conspiracy, but his first notable role was as Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston Churchill, in 2002’s BBC/HBO drama The Gathering Storm. He continued working steadily on the British stage and on television, largely in BBC costume dramas, until breaking out as fan-favorite villain Loki in 2011’s Thor and featuring as the primary antagonist in the first Avengers film. Hiddleston’s subsequent screen credits include the gothic chiller Crimson Peak and the espionage series The Night Manager, but Loki remains his most popular role — one he will reprise in a new series on Disney+.
Don Cheadle (War Machine)
Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard as Tony Stark’s pal James “Rhodey” Rhodes (a.k.a. War Machine) in 2010’s Iron Man 2, and he’s been a well-respected Hollywood veteran for years. He guest-starred in several television series, including the original Fame, but his first major role was as rifleman Elliott Washburn (pictured here) in 1987 Vietnam war drama Hamburger Hill. He continued to build his profile on film and television with notable roles in Devil in a Blue Dress, Ocean’s Eleven, and more. In 2005, he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work in the historical drama Hotel Rwanda. He headlined Showtime’s House of Lies from 2012 to 2016, all the while continuing to appear as his superhero alter ego in MCU films.
Paul Bettany (Vision)
The British actor began his journey in the MCU as a mere voice, that of JARVIS, Iron Man’s digital butler and assistant. Ultimately, Tony Stark uploads JARVIS into a synthetic body, which goes on to become Vision, another member of the Avengers, portrayed by Bettany in the flesh. The actor made his TV debut on the British detective drama Wycliffe in 1994 (pictured here) and first appeared on the big screen in 1997, with a small role in the Holocaust drama Bent. Bettany has appeared in a wide range of films, including major blockbusters like The Da Vinci Code, rom-coms like Wimbledon, and awards bait like A Beautiful Mind. Though he’s only been seen on screen in the MCU since 2015, he’s one of the longest-tenured members of the mega-franchise thanks to his vocal contributions.
Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts)
Born to actress Blythe Danner and producer Bruce Paltrow, Paltrow seemed destined for a career in Hollywood from an early age. She appeared in a few TV and film projects beginning in 1989, but her first memorable role was as the young Wendy Darling (pictured here) in Hook, Steven Spielberg’s 1991 Peter Pan retelling. Soon, turns in films like Seven and Emma brought her major acclaim, and in 1999, she won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as stage-obsessed Viola in Shakespeare in Love. Alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Paul Bettany, Paltrow was one of the earliest members of the MCU, appearing in 2008’s Iron Man. As Pepper Potts, she’s gone from Tony Stark’s personal assistant to the love of his life. Iron Man marked a career resurgence for Paltrow, which she has continued to develop alongside her career as a businesswoman running the lifestyle brand Goop.