It seems impossible to think of a time when Marvel wasn’t the biggest franchise property in the world, and when every actor it touched wasn’t catapulted into mega stardom. While some actors might have gotten their big break with Marvel, and others might have gotten a second chance, every one of them can now take their place alongside the Hollywood A-list. With their stars constantly showing up on the Highest Paid Actors lists (looking at you RDJ) it’s hard to remember they were all once struggling actors just trying to get their foot in the door.
Long before the costumes and the caps and the butt-kicking, these gods and superheroes were but mere-mortals. Sometimes mortals make some questionable decisions– like bad ’80s hair and D-grade movie roles. Let’s take a look back at the origin stories of the world’s greatest superhero team, or at least the actors who play them anyway. From the newest Avenger Tom Holland to the OG himself Robert Downey Jr, and everyone in between, here are What 15 Avengers Actors Looked Like Before They Were Famous.
15. Chris Evans
While playing Steve Rogers isn’t the first Marvel related role that Chris Evans has had, having played Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, it is certainly the one that he’ll be remembered for. After starring in three standalone movies, two Avengers movies and more to come, it’s become harder and harder to tell where Cap ends and Evans begins. Before he was taking long ice naps and starting superhero civil wars, Evans had been on the scene for a while, starting all the way back in 2000 in the movie The Newcomers alongside Kate Bosworth and Paul Dano.
After that he went on to star in Not Another Teen Movie, Cellular, Sunshine Push, The Losers, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, as well as The Perfect Score and The Nanny Diaries with Marvel co-star Scarlett Johansson. But of course it wasn’t until he was cast as first Avenger Captain America in 2011 that his career truly took off. Since then he’s continued acting outside of the MCU, while also trying his hand at directing.
Hilariously, before acting, Chris did a small stint as a model– even posing as “Tyler the surfer” on the cards for the board game “Mystery Date” when he was 18. Which has been immortalized on the Internet for all time.
14. Tom Holland
While the newest addition to the Marvel line-up is only 20 years old, he has been acting for almost a decade. When he was just 12 years old, Tom scored the role playing Billy Elliot’s best friend Michael in the West End production of Billy Elliot the Musical, and then in the same year upgraded to playing the lead role. Holland continued in the role for the next 2 years and even got to meet the British Prime Minister because of it.
2012 was a big year for the then-16 year old, when he got a part doing voice work for the english dub of Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty. He then went on to his breakout role as Lucas Bennett in the critically acclaimed The Impossible with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. After that he played a supporting role in How I Live Now with Saoirse Ronan, and In the Heart of the Sea, with future Marvel co-star Chris Hemsworth.
Eight years after first appearing on that West End stage, the youngster scored his biggest role to date when he co-starred as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War. All grown up now, he’ll be headlining his own Spider-Man movie later this year.
13. Chris Hemsworth
Well before Chris Hemsworth broke out on the US scene as Thor in his eponymous solo movie in 2011, he was already fairly well known in his home country of Australia. Before he had the flowing golden locks of the God of Thunder, he was instead sporting a questionable 2000s style shag (it got so much worse than the picture above if you can believe it), on the long-running soap opera Home and Away. He played the character Kim Hyde for 185 episodes between 2004 – 2007.
Of course, that wasn’t the only Australian production he was involved in before he became a superhero. Hemsworth also appeared on Neighbours and an episode of The Saddle Club. The first thing he ever starred in was a children’s TV show called Guinevere Jones, about a girl who is the modern day reincarnation of Guinevere from Camelot, and Chris played King Arthur in 2 episodes when he was just 19 years old.
The Aussie heartthrob moved on to greener pastures after that, landing his first ever movie role playing Captain Kirk’s father in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. He was only on screen for the first few minutes, but thankfully he managed to make a impression on the execs over at Marvel, who cast him in Thor not long after that. We’ll get to see more of him this year once the highly anticipated Thor: Ragnarok hits theatres.
12. Jeremy Renner
The very first movie Jeremy Renner appeared in was the National Lampoon’s movie Senior Trip in 1995, where he sported the questionable hoop earring seen above. The movie was unfortunately a huge flop and currently sits at a dismal 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Thankfully though, the failed teen comedy didn’t tank Renner’s career and he has since gone on to receive two Oscar nominations for his work.
After ditching the iffy jewellery choices, he went on to star in a diverse range of movies including critically acclaimed dramas like North Country, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Town, and of course, The Hurt Locker (the latter two garnered him those nominations). He’s also starred in a number of actions films like S.W.A.T, The Bourne Legacy, 28 Weeks Later, and the Mission Impossible franchise.
In 2011, Renner had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Thor as a S.H.I.E.L.D agent sporting a bow and arrow– something that keen fans picked up on straight away. And sure enough Clint Barton, AKA Hawkeye, showed up in The Avengers movie the very next year.
11. Elizabeth Olsen
A few years ago the leading names of the Olsen family were identical twins and prodigy entrepreneurs, Mary-Kate and Ashley. Today, however, they’ve been overshadowed by their once-forgotten little sister Elizabeth, who has taken Hollywood by storm in recent years.
Olsen first appeared in a few of her big sister’s projects, including appearing as herself in The Adventures of Mary-Kate and Ashley (above), and having a cameo as “Girl in Car” in How the West Was Fun TV movie. She took an extended break from acting after that, and didn’t appear in another project until 2011 when she got the lead role in Martha Marcy May Marlene, for which she was praised by critics. Since then she has starred in Silent House, Liberal Arts, Kill Your Darlings, Godzilla and the American remake of Oldboy.
She and her Godzilla co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson then scored the roles of a lifetime, playing the “miracle” (not that other M word) twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, in the 2015 Avengers sequel. She went on to appear in Captain America: Civil War, but unfortunately he did not.
10. Mark Ruffalo
Despite Marvel’s stellar record with all other properties, Bruce Banner and his alter ego have been a bit harder for them to get right. After two standalone movies starring two different actors (Eric Banner and Edward Norton), Mark Ruffalo stepped up to the plate for the first Avengers movie. And finally, finally they had that elusive missing ingredient. Ruffalo was perfect for the role and, along with Joss Whedon’s wonderfully witty dialogue, absolutely nailed the role. No more Hulk curse; this Bruce Banner is here to stay.
But Ruffalo didn’t always get it right, and like most newbie actors, took his fair share of bad movie roles in his youth. The above photo is taken from one of his first movie roles, in the sequels to 1990 horror movie Mirror Mirror. Both sequels are so D-grade they don’t even have their own Wikipedia page. He went on to star in a number of D-movies after that, before he broke into the mainstream with View From the Top, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 13 Going on 30, Just Like Heaven, Zodiac (with Marvel co-star RDJ), and Shutter Island.
Ruffalo will be reprising his role as Bruce Banner in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok alongside the Asgardian hero.
9. Tom Hiddleston
This British heartthrob broke onto the scene in 2011, playing Thor’s devious brother Loki, who set about stealing the throne– and fan’s hearts. Since then he has become somewhat of a fan sensation, gaining a legion of female followers. But before that he was a relatively unknown actor, known mostly for miniseries and TV film work.
He starred in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The Gathering Storm, Wallander, Miss Austen Regrets, as well as appearing as a main character in satirical black comedy Suburban Shootout, where he sported his natural blond curly hair.
He broke out into the mainstream in 2011 after playing Loki in the Thor movies, and starring in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris and Academy Award nominee, War Horse. Since then he’s appeared in Crimson Peak, High-Rise, I Saw the Light, The Night Manager (which he won a Golden Globe for), and the upcoming Kong: Skull Island with Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson.
8. Chadwick Boseman
Another new addition to the Marvel cast, Chadwick Boseman joined Captain America: Civil War as T’Challa the Wakandan hero also known as Black Panther. He quickly became a fan favourite, stealing the show along with other newcomer Spider-Man (and that’s no easy feat against the charm of powerhouse Robert Downey Jr.).
But before he was kicking everyones asses at Marvel, actor Chadwick Boseman got his start like so many others– guest starring in an assortment of stock standard procedurals like CSI: NY, Law and Order, Third Watch, Cold Case, and Castle. He also guest starred in ER and All My Children, and found recurring roles in Lincoln Heights and Persons Unknown. Aside from his TV roles, Boseman has also starred alongside Kevin Costner in Draft Day, played baseball legend Jackie Robinson in the biopic 42, and appeared in the much-derided Gods of Egypt.
Up next for Boseman will be the much-anticipated stand-alone Black Panther movie, slated to premiere in 2018.
7. Paul Rudd
There’s a persistent internet rumour that Paul Rudd is not human, but actually an ageless immortal, and when you look at these two pictures side by side its not hard to see why. One is of a young Rudd from Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers from 1995 and the other is from Ant-Man, almost exactly 20 years later. His Marvel co-star Tom Holland wasn’t even born when the first photo was taken, yet somehow (aside from a few forehead creases) Paul Rudd looks like he hasn’t aged a day.
Agelessness aside, it actually has been 20 years between those two photos and what a busy 20 years it’s been. The same year he was in Halloween, a young Rudd also appeared in his breakout role as Josh in Clueless, and had a minor role in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet the next year. Since then he’s been in Wet Hot American Summer, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models, and Perks of Being a Wallflower. He’s even had success on the small screen, joining the cast of Friends, Reno 911!, Parks and Recreation, and Louie.
6. Anthony Mackie
Getting the role of the Falcon must have felt like coming full circle for Anthony Mackie, since he first got his start in acting as an understudy for fellow Avengers sidekick Rhodey, AKA Don Cheadle himself. Mackie was his understudy in the 2002 play Topdog/Underdog. After that, he went on to star in the Eminem movie 8 Mile as his first movie role, playing the rapper’s arch rival Papa Doc.
Don Cheadle wasn’t his only connection to the MCU in his early years, he also starred alongside Jeremy Renner, in the critically acclaimed war movie The Hurt Locker, and appeared alongside: Dominic Cooper (young Howard Stark) in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) in The Fifth Estate, Josh Brolin (Thanos) in Gangster Squad, Evangeline Lilly (Hope Van Dyne) in Real Steel, and current superhero BFF Chris Evans in What’s Your Number (which also starred Star Lord’s wife). Phew! Marvel really is everywhere.
You might also recognize him from any number of other movies he’s done over the years, including: Million Dollar Baby, Half Nelson, We are Marshall, Eagle Eye, and The Adjustment Bureau. He’ll probably be in the next Avengers film too, since everyone else seems to be.
5. Paul Bettany
Paul Bettany had already been in four Marvel movies before ever appearing on screen– he voiced the long suffering J.A.R.V.I.S in Iron Man, its sequels and The Avengers before finally showing up in flesh and blood (metal and circuitry?) as Vision. We hardly need to see Paul in person to recognize that voice– he has been around for quite a while.
His first movie role was in the 1997 movie Bent with Clive Owen, Ian McKellen and Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Since then he’s gone on to star in Gangster No.1, A Knights Tale, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander, Wimbledon, and The Da Vinci Code. He’s also married to another Marvel star; he married Jennifer Connelly (who played Bruce Banner’s love interest Betty Ross in the non-MCU Hulk film) in 2003 and the couple have three children.
We’ll presumably see him again in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, considering Vision has one of those coveted little stones sitting smack-dab in the middle of his forehead. We just hope Thanos doesn’t decide to rip it out when he arrives on the scene.
4. Don Cheadle
Despite the great Terrance Howard originating the role of long-suffering best friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes, it was the second actor, Don Cheadle, who has really embodied the hero to his full extent. We’re really glad Cheadle decided to stick around for more than one movie. He and Robert Downey Jr. have a real chemistry that wasn’t quite there with Howard — plus nobody has comic timing quite like Don Cheadle.
But before donning a superhero suit of his own, Don Cheadle had to work his way up to it like everyone else, taking numerous thankless jobs in his early career. In fact, in his second movie ever, he had such a small role he didn’t even have a name and is just credited as “Juicy Burger Worker” (Moving Violations). After that, Cheadle appeared in two episodes of the TV series Fame, based on the ’80s movie of the same name, and also appeared in Hamburger Hill and Colors in the years immediately following. He has also appeared in Boogie Nights, Swordfish, Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen), Crash, and Hotel Rwanda (for which he was nominated for an Oscar).
3. Samuel L Jackson
Nowadays, Samuel L Jackson is so famous and well-known that it’s become sort of a running joke about just how many movies he’s in. It seems he shows up anywhere and everywhere in Hollywood, proving he’s more in demand now than ever. And why wouldn’t you cast him in your film? He’s Samuel L freakin’ Jackson. But believe it or not, even this Hollywood heavyweight was once a little nobody who took whatever role was available to him.
His second role ever, in the 1981 movie Ragtime, was credited as “Gang Member No. 2”, while his role in 1988’s Coming To America (pictured above) is just referred to as “Hold-Up Man.” It wasn’t until 1991 that Hollywood stood up and took notice, when Jackson starred in his big breakout role in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. After that, there are just too many Samuel L Jackson movies to mention, but you know all the good ones– those cultural touchstones like True Romance, Jurassic Park, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Jackie Brown, Star Wars, and of course the greatest one of all time, Pulp Fiction.
2. Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson is so synonymous with her sex symbol persona, it’s easy to forget sometimes that she was also once a child star, appearing in her first movie aged just 10. Said movie was North in 1994, but after that she went on to star in quite a few movies as a young girl, including The Horse Whisperer and Home Alone 3 (pictured above).
Johansson also starred in more movies as a teenager, such as Ghost World, Girl With A Pearl Earring, and her breakout role in Lost in Translation. She was only 20 years old when she first co-starred with frequent collaborator Chris Evans in The Perfect Score— they’ve since gone on to star in four other movies together, including the Avengers movies.
It wasn’t long after her attention-grabbing performance in Lost in Translation that she started becoming a Hollywood leading lady, scoring roles in Match Point, The Island, The Prestige, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It was in 2010, 16 years after her first acting gig, that she became the first female Avenger in the line up (with more to come soon), playing the Black Widow in Iron Man 2.
Honorable Mention: Stan Lee
While not technically an actor, Stan Lee has appeared in almost every single movie in the MCU line-up– a line-up that wouldn’t exist without him. Even the most casual of Marvel fans could probably recall the iconic image of this comics giant: an old man with slicked back grey hair, a cheeky smile, and those signature tinted glasses. This is the Stan Lee that everyone knows and loves.
But of course, Stan Lee was once a young man (shocking, we know!) and even went without glasses back in the day. Before the world recognized his talents and made him a household name, Stanley Martin Lieber was once an unknown assistant working at a comic book publisher. In 1939, his thankless job was to get everyone lunch, fill up their inkwells, and do proofreading for the comic artists. He made his comic book debut in 1941, writing the text filler in a Captain America comic, and the rest, as they say, is history…
He’s been with Marvel Comics for 76 years and it’s safe to say all that hard work and dedication has certainly paid off. We had to include him in this list — he’s been in more Marvel movies than everyone else combined!
1. Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. is a unique addition to this list, since the MCU didn’t give him his big break or launch him into the mainstream– he was already plenty famous (for all the wrong reasons) before taking up the role. RDJ was a teenage star during the ’80s, and had a promising career ahead of him– until he got into trouble with drug and alcohol addiction. He didn’t fully get clean until July 2003, but after that dedicated himself to a career comeback, which came to full fruition when he was cast as Tony Stark in the 2008 Iron Man movie.
But before all that, RDJ had forged quite the career in the ’80s, appearing in movies like Weird Science, Back to School (pictured), The Pick-Up Artist, and Less Than Zero. In the ’90s there was Chances Are, Soapdish, Heart and Souls, Natural Born Killers, and Chaplin — the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination. And of course in the ’00s there were movies such as, A Scanner Darkly, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Goodnight and Good Luck, and Zodiac.
Even with all those movies under his belt, it wasn’t until scoring the role of Tony Stark in 2008 that cemented his role in the annals of Hollywood history, and he’ll be forever remembered as the billionaire, playboy philanthropist we all know and love.
Do you remember the Avengers‘ early roles? Tell us your favorites in the comments!