Marvel Studios original plan for its shared universe culminated with a very different version of The Avengers. Now Avengers: Endgame brings the storylines of those original heroes to fitting conclusions, it's easy to view the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe as a masterclass in planning. What it actually is, though, is testament to how often the best stories come from freewheeling.
Indeed, while it may now feel like the MCU was always on a road that ended in Thanos, it really wasn't always the plan. The Avengers' mid-credits tease of the Mad Titan was a last minute decision by Joss Whedon, who had no idea where it would eventually lead, and the firmament of the story wasn't laid down until years later. Eventually, a variety of random aspects - the Tesseract being the Space Stone, Loki's scepter being the distinct Mind Stone, the Infinity Gauntlet Easter egg in Odin's vault - had to be retconned.
But to even get to that point, Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige had been through various iterations of their Avengers Initiative. Make no mistake, the endgame of the MCU's Phase 1 always was The Avengers - it was part of the original funding for Marvel Studios in 2005 and had a release date set for 2011 before being pushed back a year - but what Earth's Mightiest Heroes could have looked like was almost very different.
- This Page: Iron Man Promised A Different Avengers Movie
- Page 2: How Joss Whedon Entirely Rewrote The Original Avengers Script
- Page 3: How The Avengers Changes Shaped The Entire MCU
Iron Man & The Incredible Hulk Were Setting Up A Different Avengers
The first proper inkling of The Avengers plan in the MCU comes during the post-credits scene for Iron Man. The movie itself is deceptively standalone, with only a running gag about S.H.I.E.L.D.'s pre-acronym name (that really is more send-up rather than set-up) to hint at a wider universe. Then, tucked away at the end of the credits in a time where, X-Men: The Last Stand aside, stingers were typically gags, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury emerged from the shadows and offered Tony Stark a place in his Avengers Initiative.
The tease was just that, a tease, and like Thanos four years later a rather last-minute addition without any firm plans. But any doubt this was just a comic wink were tossed aside a couple of months later when, in The Incredible Hulk's credits tease (moved to the start, likely out of fear of it being missed) Tony Stark approached General Ross about the team he was putting together.
It's scraps, but a clear skeleton of The Avengers can be seen. Tony Stark is brought in to lead the team, possibly to track down the awol Hulk in a story akin to The Avengers #1 from 1963. In that simple story, Loki attempted to escape exile by manipulating the Hulk into accidentally destroying a bridge, but inadvertently unites Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp and the Green Goliath, who following the God of Mischief's defeat form a superteam.
Of course, what's teased in these early movies is not quite The Avengers we got; Tony would be shuffled away from the team and only brought back in at peak desperation, while the Hulk was incredibly different come 2012. What these two 2008 movies imagined doesn't match up with what was to come, serving as untarnished proof of how things changed.
The Originally Envisioned Avengers Cast Was Different Too
Not only is the early Avengers roadmap leading to a different story, it's got different people in the driving seat. This is more well-known given how recasting, even when downplayed, is hard to miss. Due to pay disputes, Terrence Howard was replaced as James Rhodes in Iron Man 2 onwards by Don Cheadle, explained away with a simple "Look, it’s me, I’m here. Deal with it. Let’s move on." Then, in The Avengers, Mark Ruffalo took on the role of Bruce Banner and Hulk following creative differences between Marvel and Edward Norton (as well as being part of a noticeable attempt to distance the MCU from The Incredible Hulk in general).
But the changes don't end there. Emily Blunt was originally set to play Black Widow - she was Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau's first choice - but had to step down when Fox exercised a contract clause from The Devil Wears Prada to have her star in Gulliver's Travels. Scarlett Johannson, who did have a screentest previously, then stepped up.
None of these situations would have had as direct an impact on the story as the writers or directors we'll see (at least not until later, when characters like Hulk and Stark were more tailored to the performance), but all these adjustments did have an impact in development and play a part in reshaping how the burgeoning MCU could have looked.
How Iron Man 2 Started A Pivot
It's at Iron Man 2 in 2010 when you can see a distinct change in the MCU Phase 1 plan. The movie's wider-universe arc changes course for Tony Stark, with Black Widow assessing his performance and deciding he was unfit as a team member. This undoes both credits scenes in the previous movies, which due to the non-linear timeline of MCU Phase 1 (Iron Man 2, Thor and The Incredible Hulk all happen around the same time, dubbed Fury's Big Week) created something of a plot hole. This was plugged by Marvel One-Shot The Consultant, which showed Stark's approach to Ross was actually a ploy by S.H.I.E.L.D. to trick the General into keeping Abomination locked up (these post-movie retcons were a thing until the early days of Phase 2).
By the time of Thor in May 2011, key aspects of The Avengers are being introduced that fit with genuine setup, although there are still several confusing aspects. That movie's post-credits scene features Selvig being approached by Nick Fury deep in Project Pegasus about working on the Tesseract (which had already been teased via drawings in Iron Man 2), only for a presumed-dead Loki to emerge in a reflection in control of the physicist. This is closer to The Avengers - Loki does mind control Selvig and the Tesseract is the core MacGuffin - but for the God to already be on Earth directly contradicts his later introduction. Whatever the confusion there, when Captain America: The First Avenger released in July 2011, everything seemed cohesive; Asgard namedrops, Stark supporting roles and Tesseract teases all slot neatly in the narrative.
The reasoning behind this rather convoluted switch-up - especially considering how Tony would be called upon again in The Avengers' first twenty minutes - is down to the bigger production picture. Zak Penn had been working on a script for The Avengers since 2006 and been adjusting the plan constantly over the next half-decade as directors enacted influence and characters began to fully form. This is where the fluctuations, especially regarding Tony Stark, appear to have come from; Penn's first draft was submitted in early 2010, a few months before Iron Man 2's release and almost four years after he stated. But things fundamentally changed shortly after once the movie found a director.
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019