The value of good casting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe should not be underestimated. Just like dozens of different writers and artists have interpreted superheroes and supervillains in a wide range of ways over the years, the list of ways those characters can be depicted on the big screen is endless.
So, to suit the light tone of their movies, it’s very important that Marvel Studios cast the right people in each role. These actors have to be able to carry their own movies, fit into an ensemble cast in larger team-up pieces, and leave an impression in small cameo appearances in the credits of other people’s movies. They have to be able to handle both humor for the funnier dialogue scenes and gravitas for the more serious dramatic moments.
Dozens of actors are considered for each of these roles. Sometimes a deal will be in place for a certain actor, only to fall through at the last second. Sometimes the perfect actor will have scheduling conflicts and be replaced by someone who isn’t as well-suited for the part. It can be interesting to think about alternate versions of these movies where other actors from the shortlist got the part. Suffice to say, with different actors, these movies would be completely different – for better or for worse.
So, here are 20 Last-Minute Casting Decisions That Completely Changed The MCU.
20 Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Tom Hiddleston was originally up for the role of Thor, but ended up playing his cunning brother Loki instead. With his sly charm and deceitful charisma, Hiddleston is far better suited to the role of Loki than Thor. He’s played the role so well that Marvel execs keep bringing him back – and he landed the main villain role in The Avengers due to his popularity among fans.
Kenneth Branagh had worked with Hiddleston before, and if it weren’t for their previous collaborations, he might not have had the foresight to see where Hiddleston’s talents would work best. Hiddleston ended up falling in love with his new trickster character, saying, “Loki’s like a comic book version of Edmund in King Lear, but nastier.”
19 Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter
Emily Blunt was the first choice to play Peggy Carter, the female lead in Captain America: The First Avenger, but she turned it down. Hayley Atwell replaced her and did a great job with the role. She also starred in her own TV series, which Blunt’s hectic movie star schedule might not have allowed for.
As terrific as Blunt probably would’ve been in the role, it would’ve been a great shame to miss out on Agent Carter, one of the MCU’s strongest efforts on the small screen. Plus, Blunt’s career wasn’t hurt by the decision – she just played Mary Poppins in a hit Disney musical and starred in the acclaimed horror movie A Quiet Place.
18 Zoe Saldana as Gamora
Some actors just seem typecast as mostly CGI roles. Zoe Saldana was cast as Gamora after playing the ten-feet-tall blue-skinned alien warrior Neytiri in Avatar, and before she came on board, Olivia Wilde – hot off playing Quorra’s head on a greenscreen body in Tron: Legacy – was considered for the part.
Wilde has never explained why she turned down the part, but she may have just had blockbuster fatigue after making Tron: Legacy and Cowboys & Aliens. Wilde would’ve played Gamora’s feistiness and comedic moments perfectly, but could she handle the more emotional scenes like the Soul Stone sacrifice in Infinity War with the same amount of gusto as Saldana?
17 Anthony Hopkins as Odin
Mel Gibson was initially in the running to play Thor’s father. His wackiness might’ve fit the Thor franchise by the third movie when it had gone completely bonkers, but he wouldn’t have worked within the Shakespearean-style family saga that Kenneth Branagh was directing with the first movie.
Sir Anthony Hopkins is far better suited to that kind of story – and even held his own comedically with the radical changes the character underwent between The Dark World and Ragnarok. Robert Downey, Jr. has campaigned for Gibson – and Jodie Foster – to be given roles in the MCU, but as of yet, no dice. They’re both too busy directing their own smaller movies.
16 Don Cheadle as War Machine
After Robert Downey, Jr. made the mother of all comebacks with Iron Man, Marvel decided to boost his pay for the sequel. But according to Terence Howard, that meant taking a chunk of the money that was promised to him and giving it to Downey instead. So, Howard walked and he was replaced by Don Cheadle.
Although Howard and Downey are the ones with the real-life friendship – a friendship that Howard insists was not affected by the drama with Marvel Studios – it is Cheadle’s Rhodes who has a more believable friendship with Tony Stark. Whether this is a result of Cheadle having a much more natural rapport with Downey or simply being a better actor, his version of Rhodes is definitely an improvement.
15 Chris Evans as Captain America
Before the controversial decision to cast Chris Evans in his second Marvel role, Marvel Studios considered John Krasinski for the role of Steve Rogers. While we now know from movies like A Quiet Place and 13 Hours, as well as Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, Krasinski can handle roles that are serious and dramatic, as well as physically demanding, this was back when The Office was still on the air.
We couldn’t see Krasinski as anyone but Jim Halpert – especially in 2011, with Michael Scott out and more focus on the supporting cast. It just wouldn’t have worked as well. The world wasn’t ready to take John Krasinski seriously in a role that didn’t require sarcastic looks to the camera.
14 Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer
Before Dave Bautista was cast as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel tried to interest Jason Momoa in the role. However, since he’d just spent four years playing a similar character on Stargate: Atlantis, he turned it down so he could focus on broadening his horizons instead of playing it safe.
A lot of the DCEU’s success now rests of Momoa’s Aquaman. Without Momoa, the DCEU would be far worse off. So, if Momoa had taken the role of Drax, the MCU would’ve gotten an early jab at their closest competitors. Even with Momoa, though, the DCEU is far from beating the MCU, and Bautista’s deadpan delivery style is exactly what Drax needed.
13 Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch
While Elizabeth Olsen has given fantastic performances in smaller movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene, her turn as Scarlet Witch in the MCU has been somewhat disappointing. She doesn’t make the character stand out in any way – she’s not likable, she’s not funny, and she doesn’t even have very interesting powers.
But if Marvel had cast Saoirse Ronan in the role like Joss Whedon originally wanted, it might have been a different story. The three-time Oscar nominee who played Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson might have brought some nuance and gravitas to the part. Plus, she’s just more watchable than Olsen, who basically became famous because her older sisters were the biggest child stars of the ‘90s.
12 Paul Rudd as Ant-Man
The casting shortlist for the role of Scott Lang in 2015’s Ant-Man apparently came down to two names: Paul Rudd and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. While Rudd has played the comedic moments brilliantly with the perfect timing, perhaps Gordon-Levitt would’ve done a better job of some of the more dramatic scenes that Rudd stumbles in.
The Ant-Man movies are among the silliest in the MCU, and as a skilled comic actor, Rudd is almost perfect. But while he is undoubtedly a great comic actor, he is not a truly great actor. Whenever Michael Douglas has a dramatic monologue, Rudd ruins it with a well-timed joke, whereas Gordon-Levitt might’ve added to the gravity of those scenes.
11 Tom Holland as Spider-Man
As soon as Marvel Studios secured the rights from Sony to use Spider-Man in one of their movies, they couldn’t wait to cast the third actor in a decade to play Peter Parker on the big screen. Tom Holland beat out the likes of Asa Butterfield, Charlie Plummer, and Judah Lewis in his screen test with Robert Downey, Jr.
While Holland doesn’t outwardly look like a nerd, but rather a cool, suave, handsome young man, he does play Peter’s nervousness and hectic double life perfectly. Actors like Asa Butterfield would probably nail Peter’s neuroses, but his charm would be missing. Holland finds the best of both worlds balance that makes Spider-Man one of the greatest ever comic book characters.
10 Chris Hemsworth as Thor
The Hemsworths are so handsome and talented that their only competition is each other. As it turns out, Chris Hemsworth’s closest competition on Kenneth Branagh’s shortlist for the role of Thor was actually his own brother, Liam Hemsworth. With his larger stature, wider frame, and older age, Chris just seems more like a god than Liam.
Although they’re both adults now and only have a couple of years between them, Chris will always look like the older, more mature one, while Liam will look like the kid brother. If Liam played Thor, he would’ve been a completely different character. In the end, Liam took a role that was better suited to him in The Hunger Games.
9 Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk
Edward Norton had ticked off Marvel with his excessive creative input during the production of The Incredible Hulk, so they decided he was out and someone else would play Bruce Banner in The Avengers and beyond. While Norton had played Banner as an intense dude proficient in various fighting styles, Mark Ruffalo has played him more faithfully to the comics – as a dweeby, neurotic, mild-mannered scientist – and it’s been much more successful.
Of course, the bitter irony is that there was no problem getting a Hulk solo movie made when Norton was in the role, while a Ruffalo solo movie – one that fans of the character actually want – may never happen, thanks to issues with the rights.
8 Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill
The role of straight-laced SHIELD agent and confidante of Nick Fury, Maria Hill, reportedly almost went to Lindsay Lohan. While Lohan refused to name the role she was up for in 2012’s The Avengers, Time magazine deduced that it must have been Hill. Hill ended up being played by How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders, who used the role to smooth over the transition from sitcom star to movie star.
She has since shed the trappings of Robin Scherbatsky and played action-oriented roles in movies like Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. If Lohan could play the role as straight as Smulders does, it could’ve been an awesome comeback for her, but it’s doubtful that she could’ve played Hill as capably as Smulders when it comes to hand-to-hand combat.
7 Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange
Before Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as the Sorcerer Supreme, Marvel considered a wide range of actors for the part. The shortlist reportedly included Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix, both of whom would go on to be cast as the Joker in DC movies, as well as Matthew McConaughey, Oscar Isaac, Jake Gyllenhaal, who will be playing Mysterio in next year’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Ethan Hawke.
It’s hard to imagine how those actors would’ve played the role, but one thing is for sure: they would’ve had an original take on it. Cumberbatch is certainly watchable in the role, but he plays Stephen Strange as a sort of Tony Stark Lite, or Diet Tony Stark. He hasn’t created a unique character.
6 Bradley Cooper as Rocket
Initially, the producers wanted a serious actor to play Star-Lord as the straight man to a wacky comedy actor playing Rocket. They reached out to Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey, among other comedy superstars. However, in the end, they decided to cast a comic actor, Chris Pratt, as Star-Lord, and a serious actor, Bradley Cooper, as his cynical little sidekick.
The dynamic works much better this way, as Pratt plays Star-Lord as a buffoon with an inflated ego and Cooper plays Rocket as the brash jerk who takes the air out of his tires. Cooper plays Rocket as the Joe Pesci character from Goodfellas. It’s comedy gold.
5 Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow
Emily Blunt was initially cast as Natasha Romanoff for her MCU debut in Iron Man 2, but she had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with Gulliver’s Travels. While it’s clear which role would’ve been the smarter career move for Blunt, it’s impossible to picture anyone besides Johansson in the role after nine years. She brings not only the intense physicality that the role requires, but also the grace, gravitas, and power.
Ever since Age of Ultron gave fans a glimpse at Black Widow’s backstory, they’ve been clamoring for a solo movie. A director and writer have finally been hired by Marvel Studios for a Black Widow solo movie, so it’s looking a little closer to being a reality.
4 Evangeline Lilly as the Wasp
Now that Lost star Evangeline Lilly has become iconic in the role of the Wasp in her expanded role in 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, it’s hard to believe she was not the first choice to play Hope Van Dyne. When 2015’s Ant-Man was first in development, Jessica Chastain was in the running for the role. Lilly makes a better comedic fold for Paul Rudd’s antics, but if the movie had a different tone and a more serious actor like Joseph Gordon-Levitt had been cast, Chastain would’ve been a better fit.
God knows who would’ve played the Wasp if she had been introduced in 2012’s The Avengers like Joss Whedon originally wanted. In that case, the character’s involvement didn’t get past the script stage, because producer Kevin Feige didn’t think the time was right to bring her in. As it turns out, he was right.
3 Josh Brolin as Thanos
Josh Brolin was a controversial choice for the role of Thanos, because he wasn’t considered to be bulky or ominous enough. Also, the idea that he would play two Marvel roles in one year – Thanos and Cable – seemed insane. However, he quickly turned fans around with his stellar performance in both roles.
Brolin turned Thanos from that weird-looking purple spaceman to one of the most infamous and fearsome villains in movie history with his turn as the Mad Titan in Avengers: Infinity War. Brolin took the torch from Damion Poitier, who had played a far less menacing and memorable version of Thanos in a few post-credits scenes in the years prior.
2 Chris Pratt as Star-Lord
James Gunn initially didn’t even want to meet with Chris Pratt when the casting director suggested his name. He saw Pratt as “a comedy guy” and wanted to cast someone who would play Peter Quill more seriously, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Joel Edgerton. He changed his mind instantly when he met Pratt, and suddenly the entire tone of the movie had changed.
The MCU had made us laugh before, but Guardians of the Galaxy was its first wholly comedic movie. After its incredible success, many of the MCU’s efforts have been straight-up comedies: Ant-Man, Thor: Ragnarok. It has arguably made the MCU way more fun, and it’s all thanks to the casting of Chris Pratt.
1 Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man
It is arguably Robert Downey, Jr.’s revelatory turn as Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man that the MCU owes all of its success to. That’s what got moviegoers – especially passive, uninitiated superhero fans – interested in seeing a wide, fleshed-out Marvel-verse on the big screen. However, if they had gone with the earlier and arguably safer casting choice of Tom Cruise, the MCU would’ve been completely different.
As great as Cruise is, he’s clean. He wouldn’t have given the movie the edge that Downey gave it. Marvel needed Downey as much as Downey needed Marvel after addiction had almost ended his career. Plus, Cruise had more prospects than Downey, so he might not have made the more than ten-year commitment that Downey made, which the MCU’s entire existence rests on.
What do you think about these MCU castings? Let us know in the comments!