The MCU is often a launching pad for some of the biggest acting careers in Hollywood. Despite that, many actors got their start elsewhere in interesting roles. Before they could don their superhero personas, many of the biggest stars of the MCU paid their dues in smaller films and gained acclaim before putting on the costume.
Whether it was established stars such as Robert Downey Jr. or newcomers like Chris Hemsworth, many of the MCU staples had at least one breakout role that led them to the franchise. Sometimes, MCU stars had already acted in career-defining films before they even got to the franchise.
Anthony Mackie – 8 Mile (2002)
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Some stars had a single breakout role and then found themselves in the MCU, however, some put in years of work before they arrived. In only his second professional credit, Anthony Mackie played Papa Doc in the musical biopic 8 Mile and showed off his rapping and acting skill simultaneously.
The film was a critical and commercial success and Mackie continued to work in smaller roles for the next decade before Captain America: The Winter Soldier where he landed the role of Sam Wilson/The Falcon. Though the MCU was a boost for his career, it is clear that Mackie had what it took to be a star before Marvel came calling.
Benedict Cumberbatch – Atonement (2007)
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Benedict Cumberbatch was no stranger to most viewers when he arrived in the MCU as Doctor Strange and he had already made a name for himself in the BBC’s Sherlock series. Even before that though, Cumberbatch appeared in Atonement, the tale of a young girl who accuses her older sister’s boyfriend of a heinous crime he didn’t commit.
The role Cumberbatch was given, that of Paul Marshall, is relatively small but he was able to show flashes of the star power he would have in the coming years. The film was a huge hit and the amazing ensemble cast was a big reason that the film was such a success.
Paul Rudd – Clueless (1995)
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Though Paul Rudd made a name for himself as a comedic actor, his breakout role came as the straight man in a comedy. Clueless is a coming-of-age story of a Beverly Hills high school student who attempts to play matchmaker to get out of her scholastic problems.
Rudd plays Josh, the socially conscious ex-stepbrother of the main character who spends most of the film teasing her because of her shallowness. Even as far back as Clueless, Rudd showed off the dry sense of humor and affability that would become a trademark of his career, especially in his portrayal of Scott Lang in Ant-Man.
Samuel L. Jackson – Do The Right Thing (1989)
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Samuel L. Jackson was always at the periphery of some of the great films of his time and was an ever-present force in smaller roles. Spike Lee’s classic film Do The Right Thing tells the story of racial tension in a predominantly black New York neighborhood, centered around an Italian restaurant.
Jackson plays the DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy and he is able to shine as the fast-talking radio personality. Even before appearing as Nick Fury, Jackson was known for roles that allowed him to stretch his vocabulary and Do The Right Thing was a perfect introduction. Though it would be a long time before Jackson was a star, Lee saw a lot in the young actor and they continued to work together in the ensuing years.
Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker (2008)
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Jeremy Renner was already well into his second decade of professional acting when he landed his breakout role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning war film, The Hurt Locker. It tells the story of an explosive disposal squadron during the Iraq War and the various psychological effects the war had on them.
His portrayal of William James was many audience members’ first chance to see Renner and he excelled as the veteran Sergeant. Renner brought life to the character and was able to be both emotionally vulnerable, and stentorian whenever the story demanded. Similar to his portrayal of Hawkeye, Renner breathed life into the character and gave it emotional depth.
Robert Downey Jr. – Weird Science (1985)
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Of all the actors to make it to the MCU, Robert Downey Jr. certainly had one of the strangest journeys. Downey’s career had several peaks and valleys and before he was Iron Man, he starred in some of the funniest comedies of the 1980s. Weird Science tells the story of two computer nerds who use a program to conjure up a beautiful woman who manipulates their lives in strange ways.
Downey appeared in a small role as a bully named Ian who is first seen dumping drinks on the main characters at the mall. Throughout his career, Downey would have a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy that would both haunt him and serve him also. As Tony Stark, he was able to channel much of the same energy as his character in Weird Science by accentuating the sarcastic side of his personality.
Mark Ruffalo – Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2003)
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Nearly a decade before he appeared as Bruce Banner in The Avengers, viewers could see flashes of what made Mark Ruffalo perfect for the role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The film tells the story of a relationship that is wiped away by a technology that allows people to erase all memory of someone from their brains.
Ruffalo plays a hapless technician for the memory-erasing company who is helplessly in love with a co-worker. Ruffalo shines as the nerdy and fumbling character, and even then it was clear that he could excel as a helpless scientist with a dark side.
Chris Hemsworth – Star Trek (2009)
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While most of the MCU’s biggest stars had a long and complicated path to the franchise, some actors had a much shorter journey to the top. Chris Hemsworth appeared in J.J Abrams’s hard reboot of the Star Trek franchise in a small, but pivotal role.
Playing James Kirk’s father, George, Hemsworth had little screen-time to work with but he made an impression. Only a few short years later, Hemsworth would appear in the MCU as the titular character in Thor and he has made a career out of the role.
Scarlett Johansson – Ghost World (2001)
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Scarlett Johansson had a leg up on many of her MCU counterparts because she had been acting since she was a small child. Though she performed in smaller roles throughout the ’90s, it was Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World that allowed her to shine. The film tells the story of two aimless high school students who face their impending futures with no plans after they graduate.
Ghost World was Johansson’s first chance to show growth as an actor and her portrayal of Rebecca gave the character growth and maturity as the film progressed. Much like Rebecca in Ghost World, her tenure as Black Widow has matured and grown in a way that reflects her real life.
Chris Evans – Not Another Teen Movie (2001)
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Even in his feature film debut, it was clear to see that Chris Evans was destined to play Captain America. Not Another Teen Movie is an absurdist comedy that parodies all of the teen movie clichés of the ’80s and ’90s.
Evans appears as a clueless jock who is too wrapped up in his own life to notice the romantic advances of a girl who has a crush on him. Despite being his debut, Evans excels in the role and is able to play the part with the appropriate amount of tongue-in-cheek. Years later as Captain America, Evans would channel the same naive energy to hilarious results while delivering some of the Cap’s funniest lines.
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