The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been such a success for a Realm-ful of reasons, but the biggest has to be its interconnected continuity. Taking cues from the comics, everything is linked, leading to a constant stream of references back to previous films and seeding of the future that make the series a bi-annual (soon to be tri-) dose of fan nirvana. No wonder other studios are scrambling to create their own shared universe based on whatever IP they own the rights to.
But while everyone likes to focus on the events and plot elements that cross over between films, that's not the only place that Marvel applies some overarching thought. This is a series widely known for its humorous approach to the material, after all, and now made up of fourteen movies, countless TV shows and even tie-in comics you can bet there's a fair few running gags through them all. Ranging from the most well-known creator cameos to sneaky nods you may have missed, here's 15 Great Running Gags In The Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Because not every gag can appear in every movie (and humour is subjective), we're classing a running joke as a recurring element that appears in at least two films and has some semi-humorous or otherwise intriguing purpose (so the merchandising choice to change up Iron Man’s armour with every appearance doesn’t quite count).
15 The Empire Strikes Back Arm Loss Homage
Throughout the MCU's phase two, something strange happened with disturbing frequency: in every movie, a character lost their arm. In Iron Man 3, Killian’s is lopped off by Iron Man (before growing back per Extremis), in Thor: The Dark World the God of Thunder fakes it in a scheme with Loki and later Malekith’s is sliced by a portal for real, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier it’s revealed Bucky lost his arm in the fall from the first movie, in Guardians, Groot gets both hacked off when trying to capture Star-Lord, in Avengers: Age of Ultron the sub-titular robot casually slices Klaue’s off, and in Ant-Man, Yellowjacket loses his before shrinking into nothingness.
This isn’t just part of the patented Marvel formula, however, but an intentional homage to Luke losing his hand to Vader in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Kevin Feige is a massive fan Star Wars fan (and it definitely nothing to do with Disney getting the rights to the space franchise six months before Iron Man 3).
This was at first assumed to be just for Phase 2 (as Empire is the second Star Wars movie), but has appeared in Phase 3 movies also: Bucky lost his (metal) arm in Civil War and Doctor Strange dealt with Stephen’s metacarpal injuries.
14 Captain America’s S.H.I.E.L.D. in Iron Man’s Workshop
Fourteen movies in with an incredibly intricate web of continuity, it’s easy to forget that when it started the MCU's overarching story wasn’t completely laid out. This can be best seen in some of the early recurring in-jokes to characters yet to be introduced that are incredibly contradictory.
In Iron Man, a muddled version of Captain America’s shield can be seen behind Tony as he suits down, and in the sequel a similar prop - this time from Howard Stark's possessions and thus potentially more authentic - has attention drawn to it by Coulson.
At the time, with Steve Rogers still a year away from his big screen bow, this was just a harmless reference to an iconic character reminding fans he was coming, but since then it's become a little confusing; it’s not the real shield (that's with Cap, frozen in the ice) and it's not like Stark would be remaking it, which makes it a rather strange nod during rewatch.
13 Tony Stark Really Doesn't Like Being Handed Things
A lot of fundamental elements of Tony Stark’s character was changed in the MCU from his comic personality, mostly due to the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. – he was never as quippy pre-2008 – but one of the stranger, more subtle ones is how he hates being handled things. It first became a thing in Iron Man 2, with Happy Hogan having to explain it when Stark’s called to the Senate, and has remained a core trait ever since, getting name-checked in The Avengers and having moments of quick focus in later films.
What’s so remarkable is that, those handful of references aside, it’s been a rather subtle tic, making understanding why the actor or writers went with it a mystery. A bevvy of explanations have been mooted by fans, from it being a physical embodiment of his ideology change in the original Iron Man to a nod to real-world billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, and while there’s no real explanation, a mixture of those two is the most likely solution.
It was further explored in Agent Carter, where Howard Stark displays similar OCD traits, making it appear to be - to some degree - hereditary.
Over the past few years, the number 52 has become a big number for DC. It started as the title of a weekly year-long comic follow-on to Infinite Crisis, then became the name of the brand-wide reboot in 2011, New 52, getting referenced all over the place. Marvel doesn’t have any direct parallel number, although for a time it looked like it could be 12.
In The Avengers, when talking about the setup of Stark Tower, Tony Stark says he’ll give Pepper Potts “12 percent of the credit”. Then, in Guardians that same percentage is used by Rocket as his certainty about the gang’s plan. To cap it off, in Age of Ultron, Quicksilver bites back at Scarlet Witch saying “I’m 12 minutes older than you”.
OK, so this could easily be done at random, with twelve being a “big-small” number (James Gunn even stated it’s a standard writing go-to as the largest monosyllabic number), but there’s enough of a presence in films from two of the most fan-aware directors to suggest it’s a very subtle gag. The proof will be in whether Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses it.
11 The Super-Name Flub
Stripped of context, many of Marvel’s most iconic heroes can sound a little silly: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Captain America all sound odd when you step away from them (that last one is flat-out bonkers). That's fine enough in print, but can jar with the semi-realistic tone of a summer blockbuster.
As a result, it’s become almost a right of passage for heroes names to be introduced in a humorous manner: Tony Stark pointing out the inaccuracy of the “Iron” part of his name, Captain America starting life as literal propaganda, Ant-Man admitting the alias wasn’t his idea and Spider-Man mumbling his self-proclaimed title when Stark misquotes it. This is also true for several villains, who in true superhero movie fashion are given their sometimes kitschy pseudonyms as almost a joke.
The joke was even flipped for Thor. In the comics the God of Thunder is the alter ego of Donald Blake, so in his first solo film that’s what he uses as a fake name when trying to break into the S.H.I.E.L.D. cordon around his hammer.
10 Comic Book Title References
It’s not just character names that Marvel films can be humorously sheepish about. Fitting of the time, most of the company’s iconic characters first appeared originally in anthology comics containing several stories linked only through vague genre under pulpy, hyperbolic titles. Most of these were dropped when certain characters outgrew the original publication - Amazing Fantasy debuted Spider-Man, Strange Tales Doctor Strange - but some still got various subtle references across the MCU.
In Thor, a billboard in Puente Antiguo (Spanish for Old Bridge, a nod to its Asgard connection) proclaimed Journey into Mystery, referencing the comic in which he first appeared. Then in Ant-Man, when talking about Hank Pym’s military antics, Darren Cross proclaims “tales to astonish”, a reference to, well, you get it. Based on these two examples, don’t be surprised if Peter’s amazed by some fantasy in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
9 Black Sabbath
One of the most persistent criticisms of the MCU is its lack of memorable music, with each film boasting bland scores based on temp music. And while that may be true of the original songs (although the core themes for The Avengers and Captain America are pretty great), the curated soundtracks using pre-existing music are dependably awesome. Obviously there’s Guardians of the Galaxy’s Awesome Mix, but it really goes all the way back to the first film.
Iron Man's de facto theme was Black Sabbath’s song of the same name, which proved so powerful it was reused in the sequel (and thus was notable for its absence in Iron Man 3). Of course, this was more of a cheeky appropriation than anything else - shockingly, Ozzy Osborne and co. didn’t write it inspired by a then-minor comic book hero (it was the seventies, after all) – but that didn't stop Joss Whedon giving it a further shout-out in The Avengers.
During the film's second act, Tony wears a Black Sabbath T-shirt celebrating their '78 tour (which is apparently made of such a thick material the arc reactor doesn’t shine through), providing a nice hat-tip and some neat reasoning for the song's inclusion - Stark's evidently a fan.
8 Stan Lee
Like post-credits scenes, Stan Lee cameos weren’t started by the MCU, but they’ve definitely become synonymous with it. Lee was already a comic book superstar in the sixties, creating most of Marvel's icon heroes, and by the eighties started popping up in various adaptations of said characters (see: The Trial Of The Incredible Hulk). When superheroes exploded in the early naughties, so too did his cameos, with increasingly involved appearances in Spider-Man, X-Men and more, but that’s nothing compared to fourteen turns in the same series; he's provided some comic relief in every MCU movie so far (and has already filmed his next set of three).
Although originally done as a nod to his position as creator, Lee’s since appeared in movies for characters he had no real hand in developing, turning into more of a general good luck charm. He's so prevalent that he's even got his own fan theory, with some suggesting that Lee is actually playing The Watcher, an ancient being who keeps tabs on Earth (which is sadly impossible as Fox has the rights to that character).
As for the best one, well, that’s probably the audio gag in The Amazing Spider-Man (don’t tell Kevin Feige).
7 Other Creator Cameos
Although Stan Lee is the one everyone gets excited about pointing out, he’s not the only comic creator to get a cameo in movies they had a direct influence in.
Thor featured appearances from J. Michael Straczynski (a long-standing Marvel writer who worked on the story for the film) and Walt Simonson (the creator of Beta Ray Bill) as the New Mexican who first tries to lift Thor's hammer and an Asgardian partygoer respectively. Then, in The Winter Soldier, Ed Brubacker, the lauded comic genius who brought Bucky back in the first place, got a semi-meta appearance as one of the HYDRA scientists working on the soldier. And, while he didn't appear in the flesh, Warren Ellis (who wrote the original Extremis arc) lent his name to the MCU's president for Iron Man 3 and beyond.
These are incredibly hard to spot for those not familiar with the comics and their creators, but give another layer of cameo fun for those who know Marvel beyond Stan Lee.
6 Community Cameos
Like several Marvel directors (Joss Whedon, Alan Taylor), the Russo brothers entered the MCU on the back of major success in television. And although they’re often linked to Arrested Development, their biggest success was with Community; in addition to directing several key episodes they served as Executive Producers for the first four seasons.
As a reference to this, they’ve put a cameo from one of the show’s stars in both their Captain America movies; in The Winter Soldier Danny Pudi plays a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and in Civil War Jim Rash plays another Dean desperate to grow his school (although this time that school isn't a community college trying to be taken seriously). It's humorously affectionate, and made all all the funnier by Community's finale having a direct dig at "boring-ass Marvel movies".
Despite that shade, the running gag, which has to be one of Marvel's most explicit, is set to continue alongside the Russo’s continued growth in the MCU, with another cameo set for Avengers: Infinity War (please be Alison Brie, please be Alison Brie, please be Alison Brie).
5 Captain America: Man Out Of Time
Ever since he was brought back in the comics for Avengers #4 in 1964, being a man out of time has been Captain America's defining trait. Every other character has been updated to fit the modern day as part of Marvel’s ever-sliding timeline, but he’s always a defrosted WWII icon in a new world.
The MCU took this aspect and really ran with it, spending the whole first movie just getting to that point, and each film since has dealt with his time displacement in some humorous form – his formal interaction in The Avengers, his “catch-up” list in The Winter Soldier, his language warning in Age of Ultron and, while less humorous, it formed the backbone of Civil War.
Regrettably, some of Cap’s “Man out of Time” scenes have been cut from movies in post-production, especially in the case of The Avengers, which had a whole sequence of him struggling in New York City, but it’s still been prominent enough to become a nice little recurring character trait making the series most interesting character that little more unique.
4 Bucky And Seventies Paranoia Cinema
When it was released, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was compared heavily to the paranoia conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s - after all, the Russos had stated that was how they envisioned the film, and even directly evoked Three Days of the Condor by casting Robert Redford as the villain - and nowhere was this more prominent than with Bucky Barnes himself. Everything from how he's designed to the associated music fits the feel of that kind of movie. Unlike the other parts of the film, this was carried over into his part in Civil War; the film was, in general, more focused on the larger ideological conflict, but Bucky’s arc – on the run and pulled back into the fight by a bigger plot and forced to face his assassin past – was very much in the same vein.
In print, The Winter Soldier was created to be another side to Cap’s man out of time status, seeing his best friend turned into a weapon for a conflict he never experienced, and the films have really ramped that up; there's a stark contrast to how the two characters deal with their sci-fi situations - while Steve is focused on fitting into the present, Bucky is all about escaping his past. It's not a "ha ha" joke, but is a nice recurring element we're bound to see once more when the character returns.
3 Tony's Bickering With Dummy
Before creating his armoured flying suit, Tony Stark is already an incredibly accomplished robotic genius, evidenced not only by J.A.R.V.I.S. (which is a little less impressive in the wake of Mark Zuckerberg's version), but his physical arm helpers - Dummy and U.
A key thread running through all of the Iron Man films is Tony’s constant bickering with the former; ignoring the pointed jab of the name, across the films Dummy gets chastised for his random fire spraying during the Mark II suit testing, forced to clean up the mess after Tony creates a new element (yeah, Iron Man 2 is a bit silly) and is given a Dunce hat by the time Iron Man 3 rolls around (possibly because several dozen Iron Man suits makes him obsolete). All of that is paid off when, after Stark's Malibu pad has been destroyed by "The Mandarin", he actually recovers the robot’s body to rebuild him.
The best thing about this running gag is that the underlying affection of the whole relationship is explained in the very first minutes of the MCU; during Iron Man's first flashback we see a newspaper clipping of a young Tony posing with the arm, clearly one of his first inventions.
2 Hawkeye's Uselessness
Comic-side, Hawkeye is an interesting character, but in the MCU he’s been mostly an odd waste of space – what does a guy with a bow and arrow offer? This wasn’t helped by The Avengers having him brainwashed for most of the film, meaning we never really got to know anything about him.
By the time Age of Ultron came around (and Clint was notable for being the only Avenger to not appear in an interim movie), Joss Whedon and Marvel chose to address that; they gave him a family to care about and spent a good middle chunk of the movie at his farm. Beyond that backstory, however, they also jokily drew attention to his rather limited skill-set, having him explain the ridiculousness of the finale as a motivational speech to Scarlet Witch. This light pisstake continued in Civil War, when he introduced himself to Black Panther, only to be met with the blunt “I don’t care.”
It’s the best way to handle a character superficially less interesting than Iron Man and Cap, but has had the odd effect of making Hawkeye a stronger presence; when they stopped trying to make him a simple badass, Barton became a more relatable character who represented the Avenger ideology despite his lack of powers.
1 Bucky Repeatedly Picking Up Cap's Shield
The future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Phase 3 is rather unclear – story-wise everything’s been building up to Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet, which comes to a head in Avengers: Infinity War, while at that time the constant threat of key actors leaving will probably become a reality – although one thing that can be said with some certainty is that Bucky Barnes will, following some form of incapacitation of Steve Rogers, become Captain America.
This line of thinking comes from recent comic book events (which are known to be used as providing grounds for the movies) and Sebastian Stan having an eye-watering nine-movie contract with the studio, but has really been hammered home by a running reference in the movies themselves.
In every one of his appearances, Bucky has grabbed ahold of the shield in typically Cap fashion: he uses it before his “death” in The First Avenger, catches it while fighting Steve in The Winter Soldier and uses it in conjunction with his friend against Iron Man in Civil War. The latter film almost saw the foreshadowing become a full-on rib-tickler, with a deleted scene showing Bucky using it in the airport fight also before quipping “I need to get me one of those.” All in good time, James.