In the world of Hollywood moviemaking, a cameo appearance is a small role by a notable performer; a treat for the audience, and a nod from the filmmakers. Even before Marvel Studios started producing its own films, comic book legend Stan Lee could be counted upon to pop up in nearly every film based on a Marvel property. After all, these movies wouldn’t exist without Stan the Man… Or is it Manly Stanley?
These days, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a shared space, meaning lead actors from one entry can pop up in a different film, but playing the same character, making for small, but significant, roles. Considering the source material of the MCU, several comic book writers have popped up in movies based on stories they wrote. In addition to these Marvel-centric cameos, there are also more traditional examples in these films, like real-life figures appearing as themselves, or reputable actors popping up as a favor to (or from) the director. Here are The 15 Best Cameos In The Marvel Cinematic Universe.
15. Mark Ruffalo in Iron Man 3
After the grandiose all-star team up that was The Avengers, the next film in the MCU had to bring things back to basics. Enter Iron Man 3, Shane Black’s intimate crowd-pleaser, a back-to-basics sequel which featured Tony Stark fighting his broken Iron Man suit as often as he had to fight the bad guys. It contains no appearances from any of Earth’s other Mightiest Heroes… Until the very end.
The film contains an opening and closing narration, as though Tony Stark is telling his story to the audience. As the credits near their end, the narration suddenly returns, and it is revealed that Stark has been relaying his whole adventure, of The Mandarin and AIM’s Extremis soldiers, to a bored Bruce Banner, who was asleep nearly the entire time. Of course, Tony Stark was so in love with the sound of his own voice that he happily continued spinning his yarn anyway.
14. Jim Rash in Captain America: Civil War
Today, Joe and Anthony Russo are the most celebrated directing team this side of Joel and Ethan Coen. They are currently hard at work helming Avengers: Infinity War and its as-of-yet-untitled sequel, duties they earned through their critically-acclaimed turns on the previous two Captain America movies, The Winter Soldier and Civil War. Before that, however, they were comedy directors, having directed films like Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me, and Dupree. Most notably, they directed episodes of three legendary cult sitcoms: Arrested Development, Happy Endings, and Community.
One of Community‘s stars, actor and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Jim Rash, makes a brief appearance in Civil War. Similar to his role in Community, he plays the opportunistic dean of a school: in the television show, he’s in charge of the low-rent Greendale Community College, but Civil War sees him as the dean of the prestigious M.I.T. He’s still a total tool, though.
Fun Fact: There’s also an Arrested Development cameo in Civil War, though it’s not of the human variety; the infamous stair car makes a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance during the climactic airport battle.
13. Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby in The Incredible Hulk
Lou Ferrigno was the first actor to portray Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant in live-action in the acclaimed CBS series, The Incredible Hulk. The show was so iconic that it served as part of the inspiration behind the second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2008’s film of the same name. In the movie (as well as The Avengers and Age of Ultron), Ferrigno recorded voice work for the character, but he also made a flesh-and-blood appearance, as a security guard who Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner bribes with some pizza.
The other star of the 1970s Hulk series was Bill Bixby, whose influence is immediately evident in Edward Norton’s take on the troubled scientist. While Bixby sadly died of prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 59, Marvel did manage to give him a clever posthumous cameo.
In the film, while Bruce Banner is flipping through channels on his television, he briefly stops on an episode of the classic sitcom, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, starring Bill Bixby, a heartwarming nod towards the actor who helped to make Hulk a household name.
12. Jeremy Renner in Thor
If The Avengers have a plucky mascot, it’s Hawkeye. With the exception of his tremendous talents with a bow and arrow, Clint Barton is pretty much just a normal guy. He can’t fly, he doesn’t have super strength, and he doesn’t shoot laser beams out of his eyes, hands, or from anywhere else on his body. He’s married, has kids, and being an Avenger pays the bills. He’s a team player and a good man.
While Hawkeye first played an important role in 2012’s The Avengers, Jeremy Renner’s iconic archer actually made his MCU debut a year earlier, in Thor. In the Kenneth Branagh-helmed film, the titular fallen God breaks into a makeshift S.H.I.E.L.D. facility in New Mexico where his hammer, Mjolnir, is being kept under observation. A certain agent is ordered to take up a sniping position in case the intruder needs to be put down. Before his face is revealed, Hawkeye reaches for a sniper rifle, then changes his mind and opts instead for a compound bow. Hawkeye doesn’t fire a single arrow in his brief appearance in his 2011 introduction, but he does throw in a few quips and leaves the audience wanting more.
11. DJ AM in Iron Man 2
Adam Goldstein was better known in the music scene as DJ AM, one of the most successful solo DJ acts of the early 2000s. He was also one half of TRV$DJAM, along with Travis Barker of the pop punk band Blink-182. AM had already experienced multiple brushes with death, including a lifelong battle with drug addiction and his miraculous survival of a 2008 plane crash, which killed six of the eight people on the plane (Barker was the only other survivor).
Eventually, his drug addiction would catch up with him, and Goldstein would be found dead of an overdose in his apartment in August 2009, two months after he acted in Iron Man 2. In the Jon Favreau-directed sequel, DJ AM appeared as himself, performing at Tony Stark’s birthday party, and even providing the soundtrack for the Iron-on-Iron battle between Stark and Rhodes. The completed film is dedicated to Goldstein’s memory.
10. Danny Pudi in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Like Jim Rash in Civil War, the Russo Brothers’ previous MCU entry also contained a Community cameo. For their freshman Marvel effort, the brothers enlisted Danny Pudi, who played Abed on the show, a meta, media-obsessed nerd who may or may not have been aware of his existence in a television series… Or at least chose to view his life that way.
Pudi’s role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is brief. The erstwhile Abed barely has any dialogue, and he does nothing of any significance, but his very presence still managed to elicit thunderous applause in theaters that contained enough Community fans. The Russos know how to include a cameo which will please a specific audience without alienating casual fans who don’t know or care about the NBC sitcom.
The question now becomes, who from Community will the Russos get to cameo in Infinity War and Avengers 4? Will Joel McHale pop in like he did in Spider-Man 2 all those years ago? Maybe Yvette Nicole Brown will show up? How about Alison Brie as Squirrel Girl? The possibilities are endless.
9. Anthony Mackie in Ant-Man
Ant-Man is the story of a cat burglar named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who comes across a mysterious suit which can shrink him to the size of an insect. On his first mission from the original owner of the suit, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Lang is sent to retrieve a vital piece of equipment from a facility… Which turns out to be the new headquarters for The Avengers.
Lang’s delusions of stealth are ruined when he comes face to face with The Falcon, one of Captain America’s most trusted allies. Of course, Anthony Mackie plays the character, reprising his role from The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron. After failing in combat against Ant-Man (upon whom he bestows the nickname Tic Tac), Falcon remarks over his radio, “It’s really important to me that Cap never finds out about this.”
Fun Fact: Garret Morris makes a one-second cameo in the film while Lang is first experimenting with his super-suit. While his appearance may come as something of a non-sequitur to some, fans of the golden age of Saturday Night Live know exactly why he’s there. In a now-legendary 1979 sketch involving a bunch of superheroes at a party, the Not Ready For Primetime Player played Ant-Man… And is met with dismissive ribbing from more A-list heroes like The Flash and Hulk.
8. Adam Pally in Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 doesn’t so much break the rules as it scoffs at the very idea of ever being beholden to any kind of rulebook. The film delivers personal character beats and wacky comedic tangents in equal measure, juxtaposing the genuine menace of the Extremis-powered supersoldiers with Shane Black’s signature style of fast and hilarious dialogue to create an MCU entry like no other. Some fans are still upset at some of the creative liberties taken with certain characters, but Iron Man 3 is an enduring testament to the creative genius of Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr.
Speaking of “wacky tangents,” one of the best in the film comes in the form of Gary the cameraman, played by Adam Pally. Tony Stark sneaks into a news van, only to find Gary, who is shocked to come face-to-face with his hero, Iron Man. He has a Tony Stark haircut, as well as a tattoo of the man himself on his arm. The scene is hilarious, with Pally and Downey playing off each other very well, and the outtakes are equally adorable. Coincidentally, Pally starred on Happy Endings, one of several sitcoms which counted the Russo Brothers as members of their creative team. #EverythingIsConnected, indeed!
7. Nathan Fillion in Guardians of the Galaxy
Without a doubt, the weirdest film in the MCU canon to date is Guardians of the Galaxy. Starring Chris Pratt in the role which made him a household name (and one of Hollywood’s hottest hunks!), the ensemble adventure follows an unlikely team of misfit heroes who rally together to save the day, not because they are a finely-tuned machine, but because they’re the only ones around to get the job done.
Along the way, as is the case with so many misfits, the would-be Guardians find themselves thrown in space jail. Pratt’s character, Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord, is immediately singled out by a muscle-bound alien inmate with a distinctly familiar voice. Yes, that’s Nathan Fillion lending his voice talents to the nameless blue outlaw. Fillion made his voice cameo as a favor to James Gunn, who had directed him in the cult horror comedy, Slither. Fortunately for Quill, Groot intervenes and incapacitates the troublemaker with but a single flip of his tree-wrist, leaving the once-intimidating inmate crying in a helpless heap on the floor.
6. Chris Evans in Thor: The Dark World
2013’s Thor: The Dark World is nobody’s favorite MCU film, but it’s still a rollicking adventure full of excitement and broad comedy. Perhaps it was too light-hearted for some viewers, but there are certainly far worse ways to throw away a couple of hours. Plus, it’s got lots of Loki, Marvel’s greatest villain, who tap-dances his way through the film with humor, emotional depth, and even brief moments of menace.
At one point, he uses his shape-shifting ability to taunt and annoy his brother, first disguising himself as a guard, and then making Thor look like Lady Sif. Finally, he assumes the form of Captain America, right down to being played by Chris Evans, donning the suit he wore in 2012’s The Avengers. Evans is clearly enjoying his role here, where he plays Loki doing a hammy impersonation of Captain America. He waxes faux-poetic about Cap’s perceived posturing, remarking that he “can feel the righteousness surging,” and inviting Thor to a “rousing discussion about truth, honor, and patriotism.” He even begins to bombastically exclaim, “God bless America!” before being cut off by the peeved God of Thunder. It only lasts for about fifteen seconds, but Chris Evans’s Captain America cameo is easily one of the most memorable moments in Thor’s second solo adventure.
5. Robert Downey Jr. in The Incredible Hulk
These days, The Incredible Hulk is regarded as the black sheep on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It released in the shadow of the massively popular Iron Man, and it failed to blow up the box office the way Jon Favreau’s film did. Eventually, this 2008 film fell into relative obscurity; Edward Norton would be replaced by Mark Ruffalo, and no actor from this film would return to the MCU until William Hurt’s “Thunderbolt” Ross showed up as a supporting character in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
However, there are winks and nods to the greater MCU here and there, from the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo popping up a couple of times, to the use of a Super Soldier Serum on Tim Roth’s character. This, along with the Easter Egg appearance of a certain red, white, and blue shield in Iron Man, hinted at the eventual appearance of Captain America in Marvel’s budding cinematic universe.
The biggest continuity hook in The Incredible Hulk is the surprise appearance of Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr., in the film’s last scene. Unlike in most MCU films, however, he doesn’t appear as a post-credits stinger, but simply in the final scene before said credits. A defeated General Ross is getting hammered at a bar when he is approached by Tony Stark, who informs him that a team is being assembled. The Marvel One-Shot, The Consultant, would follow-up on this scene and help set the stage for the impending team-up. The MCU was still in its formative stages in 2008, but this scene went a long way towards showing that Marvel Studios was serious about building towards The Avengers.
4. Lloyd Kaufman in Guardians of the Galaxy
Before he was one of the most prized directors in Hollywood, Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn wrote Tromeo and Juliet, a twisted tribute to the timeless Shakespeare play. Gunn is a student of Lloyd Kaufman, the iconic writer/director/producer behind Troma, the legendary indie production studio responsible for such schlocky-but-earnest films as The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘Em High, and Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.
In tribute to the man who raised him in the film industry (Gunn even co-wrote Kaufman’s 1998 pseudo-autobiography, All I Need to Know about Filmmaking I Learned from The Toxic Avenger), Gunn made sure to include a cameo for Kaufman in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it role, but the Troma-riffic mastermind appears as one of the prisoners heckling the “new meat,” Peter Quill (he’s on the left in the photo above). Hopefully, Kaufman’s cameo in a big-budget summer blockbuster will lead more viewers to seek out the delectably detestable films of Troma, the most righteously independent film studio still around.
3. Samuel L. Jackson in Iron Man
Iron Man is a self-contained superhero film, with only the tiniest hints of a greater universe, such as the brief appearance of Captain America’s shield in its own subtle cameo. However, the whole universe is blown wide open in the post-credits stinger, when Nick Fury shows up, played by Samuel L. Jackson.
His whole scene lasts for only thirty seconds, but it sets up the entire endgame of the MCU’s Phase 1 — the eventual assembling of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, The Avengers. He remarks to Tony Stark, “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?… You’ve become part of a bigger universe.” Little did audiences know at the time just how big the universe would become. The fourteen films in the MCU have grossed an unprecedented ten billion dollars at the worldwide box office, and it’s expanded to include multiple television series across networks as varied as ABC, Netflix, and, with the upcoming Cloak & Dagger, the Freeform channel. A bigger universe? That’s an understatement.
2. J. Michael Straczynski, Walt Simonson, and Ed Brubaker
Every film in the MCU can trace its roots to the pen and paper of the comic book writers and artists who create the stories which serve as the basis for these movies. In recognition of their roots, Marvel Studios occasionally invites some of these auteurs to be featured in brief cameos.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of the Hydra scientists overseeing the maintenance of the titular assassin is played by none other than Ed Brubaker, the comic book writer who resurrected Bucky Barnes and created the Winter Soldier comic storyline.
2011’s Thor features cameos from two writers who left indelible marks on Thor through their comic books, Walt Simonson and J. Michael Straczynski. Walt Simonson makes a brief appearance during revels on Asgard, and Stracynski (who has a Story credit in the finished film) appears as the first local guy who tries to pull the hammer, Mjolnir, out of the ground.
1. Stan Lee
As if anyone else could possibly have the top spot on any list of cameos? Stan Lee is the most prolific comic book writer of all time, and he either created or co-created nearly all of Marvel’s most famous characters, from Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four to Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Stan was making cameos in Marvel movies since before the MCU was a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, and even before the House of Ideas’ movies were being delivered on the big screen; Lee’s first live-action cameo was as part of the jury in the 1989 made-for-television feature, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby.
Stan makes a cameo in nearly every film based on a Marvel Comics character, and has appeared in all 14 MCU films to date. He also stopped by in a first-season episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as early episode of Agent Carter. While he has yet to make a direct flesh-and-blood appearance in any of the Netflix shows, his photograph has shown up in each of them. Apparently, he moonlights as a New York City police officer.
What do you think? What are your favorite MCU cameos? Sound off in the comments!
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