The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is known for its rabid fanbase, and part of what keeps these hardcore devotees onside is just how well Marvel Studios manages to work fan service moments into its films.
Traditionally, the term “fan service” – which refers to creators including moments designed specifically to please fans – is often used in a derogatory sense by pop culture aficionados, and not without cause.
When done poorly, these attempts to give fans exactly what they want can come across as forced and actually harm the narrative flow of a story. However, when done right, instances of fan service can actually enhance proceedings, creating memorable scenes that work in service to the wider plot and appeal to veteran fans and newbies alike.
Granted, the MCU hasn’t always gotten it right when it comes to fan service (for instance, the inclusion of Captain America’s shield in Iron Man 2 is glaring example of the studio trying too hard). But generally speaking, the films have a strong track record of working in shout-outs to the source material that add to (rather than detract from) the audience’s viewing pleasure.
With this in mind, we’ve assembled this rundown of the 15 Best Moments Of Fan Service In The MCU.
15 Hulkbuster Iron Man Versus The Hulk
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, a Scarlet bewitched Hulk goes on a rampage and needs to be subdued. Enter: Iron Man, who takes on the unenviable task of stopping the Green Goliath in his tracks, using some hardware familiar to long-time comics readers – the Hulkbuster armor!
Codenamed “Veronica” in the film – a reference to Hulk alter-ego Bruce Banner’s erstwhile girlfriend Betty (as in Archie’s Betty and Veronica) – Shellhead’s souped-up kit allows him to even the odds. In fact, the Hulkbuster gear at times turns the battle entirely in Iron Man’s favor, most notably when he deploys his Rockem Sockem Robots-style gauntlet!
Now, the filmmakers could just as easily have had Tony Stark face off against the Hulk in his standard suit (although for that to work, this slugfest would’ve become a game of cat and mouse).
Fortunately, however, they decided to add some icing on top of an amazing action set piece cake by throwing the Hulkbuster armor into the mix!
14 Hawkeye Fires An “Ant-Man Arrow”
An argument could be made that all of the airport battle sequence in Captain America: Civil War counts as fan service – virtually every frame of this hero versus hero showdown is a fan’s dream come true.
That said, one moment that stood out from all the rest for seasoned Marvel Comics readers occurred when Hawkeye fired an arrow ridden by Ant-Man into the air. Not only was this a fun gag – played to perfection by stars Jeremy Renner and Paul Rudd – it's also an homage to an iconic image from a 1982 Avengers funnybook.
It speaks to the popularity of this unlikely team-up that, outside of Spider-Man making his MCU debut during the superpowered scuffle (more on that later), all some fans wanted to talk about post-Civil War was the inclusion of Hawkeye’s craziest ever trick arrow!
13 Rhodes Considers Donning The Mark II Armor
During the finale of Iron Man, Tony Stark’s BFF Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes sizes up the vacant Mark II Iron Man armor, before declaring, “Next time, baby!”
This wasn’t just a nice wink at Rhodey’s War Machine persona in the comics – it was also a promise to fans of the character that Rhodes’ would have armored adventures of his own in forthcoming sequels.
It was a promise that would be delivered on rather promptly in Iron Man 2 – with the Mark II armor again having an important part to play! When Rhodey confiscates the silver suit from Stark after the billionaire playboy has a drunken meltdown, it’s retrofitted into the familiar War Machine get-up.
Fans disappointed by War Machine’s absence from the first film were overjoyed, and the character would go on to become a major supporting player in the wider MCU.
12 Thor's Don Blake "Disguise"
Casual MCU fans – particularly the non-comics readers – might not be aware that when he first debuted on the page, Thor had a conventional superhero secret identity. The God of Thunder actually shared his body with Doctor Donald Blake, a mildly disabled figure in the grand tradition of “frail Marvel alter-egos”.
When 2011’s Thor rolled around, the filmmakers decided to jettison the Don Blake aspect of the mythos in favor of a more streamlined origin story. Instead of a demi-god tethered to a mortal soul, Thor was just… Thor.
Even so, whilst the MCU has excised the Don Blake from Thor’s life, his debut outing pays lip service to the good doctor, as Blake’s name is used as a false identity by the Odinson after he’s apprehended by SHIELD.
It’s a great example of Marvel Studios working in a subtle reference to the source material in order to address a plot point, without proving jarring to the average cinema-goer.
11 The Collector's Collection
Comic book movies in general – and MCU installments in particular – are (in)famous for their inclusion of “blink and you’ll miss it” Easter eggs that call back to their paper-and-ink inspiration. Whilst Easter eggs are a kind of fan service, they’re typically too small to snag a spot on this list – except in the case of the Collector’s collection!
More than just a single nod to the Marvel Universe, the Collector’s otherworldly archive – which first appeared in full in Guardians of the Galaxy – is a veritable treasure trove of characters and objects from the cosmic side of the canon.
Howard the Duck? Check. Cosmo the Space Dog? Check. Adam Warlock’s cocoon? Check (although the latter has since been retconned!). These and several other Easter eggs are scattered throughout the collection, which represents a smart way of stuffing as many geeky shout-outs into a scene as possible!
10 Sterns Uses The Mr. Blue Alias
The Incredible Hulk is often overlooked within the wider MCU franchise, and part of that relates to its relative lack of fan service moments compared to its cinematic siblings. Sure, Tony Stark appears – in what should have been a post-credits scene – to discuss the formation of the Avengers. But other than a few minor references to SHIELD, this flick mostly stands apart from both the comics and films.
Still, it does feature one especially nice nod to the comics: when Banner communicates with Doctor Samuel Sterns incognito over the internet, the latter used the alias “Mr. Blue”. Whilst this won’t mean anything to the majority of viewers, fans of the mid-2000s Hulk comics will be familiar with the pseudonym – although they probably weren’t expecting Stern to be using the handle!
In the storyline it’s taken from, the “Mr. Blue” moniker is actually used by Betty Ross, so by transferring it to Sterns – as opposed to giving him an online ID alluding to his future villainous title, “The Leader” – the filmmakers also managed to keep fans and newcomers alike guessing!
9 Luke Cage's Classic Look
Luke Cage was created at the height of the “blaxploitation” era of cinema, and his original, flamboyant threads certainly bear this out. Over the years, comic book artists have worked to tone down Cage’s outfit to make it more contemporary (not to mention less potentially offensive).
Marvel Studios took a similarly understated approach when it came time to design the big guy’s costume for the Luke Cage Netflix series, which makes sense given the grounded, street-level story being told. However, this emphasis on realism didn’t stop Marvel from sneaking in a tribute to Cage’s classic look.
After Luke escapes from prison, he swaps out his tattered prison gear for a stolen yellow shirt and jeans. Combined with the steel bracelets and damaged, tiara-like headgear he was already wearing, Cage’s cobbled together ensemble strongly resembles his vintage style.
Yes, Cage’s gear looks more than a little ridiculous in live action (something the man himself remarks upon), but the creative team deserves kudos for rationalizing such a wild costume with a credible in-world explanation.
8 Young Peter Parker Is Retconned Into Iron Man 2
Admittedly, this instance of fan service technically occurs outside of the film itself! Given Spider-Man’s established personality as a science nerd, fans began speculating online that a young child wearing an Iron Man mask at the Stark Expo in Iron Man 2 could actually be a junior Peter Parker.
While this seemed like more of a case of fans having fun with over-reaching theories, Spider-Man star Tom Holland recently confirmed that this conjecture is actually bang on the money!
Although some MCU diehards are bound to hate this theory – and in fairness, it does give the impression that this is a very small universe! – for many fans, this is a neat way for Marvel to build up Spidey’s history and presence in the MCU, outside of Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
7 The Wasp Suit Mid-Credits Tease
Much like the Rhodey/Mark II bit, the reveal of the Wasp outfit during the mid-credits scene in Ant-Man served as a pinky-swear made between Marvel Studios and viewers. This time, Marvel was assuring female fans that more heroines from their stable would be making their way to the big screen.
As in the case of War Machine, it looks like Marvel is set to deliver on this promise pretty much tout de suite – with 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp set to see a suited-up Hope van Dyne share top-billing (and superheroic duties) with her male co-star.
While Hope was likely speaking on behalf of a lot fans when – upon receiving her superhero duds – she remarked, “It’s about damn time”, an equally valid sentiment would undoubtedly be, “Better late than never.”
6 Bruce Banner's Post-Credits Appearance In Iron Man 3
Fans understandably enjoy the unlikely bromance between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner – not to mention Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo – with the polar-opposite geniuses striking up a winning chemistry.
As such, the post-credits revelation in Iron Man 3 that Stark’s narration throughout the film has actually been him relating its events to his fellow “Science Bro” was a clever way to give fans more of what they want.
True, some viewers would have preferred a scene that teased the next film in the then just-launched “Phase 2” of the MCU. But just as many appreciated the meta nature of the moment (not to mention the hilarity of Banner literally being caught napping during Stark’s tale!)
5 A Human Jarvis In Agent Carter
Perhaps one of the most well-received major changes to comics lore in the MCU is the conversion of Tony Stark’s faithful butler Jarvis into acerbic AI construct JARVIS.
The main reason this revision went down so well? It makes so much sense: further separating Iron Man from fellow butler-employer Batman, and giving Tony someone to organically discuss plot exposition with on the fly.
Yet in an awesome, “have your cake and eat it too” gesture by Marvel Studios, the hugely underrated Agent Carter TV series introduced a flesh and blood Jarvis, manservant to Tony’s father Howard Stark.
The Jarvis of Agent Carter is (aside from being somewhat younger) recognizably similar to his comic book counterpart, and – in another nice touch – is established as the inspiration behind his eventual digital replacement.
4 Doctor Strange Is Name-Dropped In Winter Soldier
Wondering about that squeal you heard in the audience during Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when Hydra agent Jasper Sitwell spits out the name “Stephen Strange”? That sound was the uncontrollable joy of a fan of the Master of the Mystic Arts – and the more “astral” aspects of the Marvel Universe.
Back in 2014 when The Winter Soldier was released, the MCU’s “Phase 3” - and the Doctor Strange movie – seemed a lifetime away.
So more than being merely an Easter egg (like some of the other names Sitwell throws around) or even a “board setting” exercise, this was a reminder to fans that the Sorcerer Supreme and his world were still very much Marvel Studio’s radar and headed to theatres soon.
Indeed, Marvel was so keen to reassure fans that Doctor Strange was still on track, they didn’t even really consider the impact on continuity – although their eventual explanation for why Hydra would be a monitoring a then-powerless Strange (while weak) does work.
3 The First Iron Legion Goes To War
During Iron Man 3’s climactic battle, Stark and Rhodey find themselves in need of some additional firepower to fight Killian’s Extremis-fuelled goons.
The solution? Call in every single suit of armor Tony had in his current arsenal, effectively mobilizing a small army of specialized, AI-guided weapons platforms!
This scenario obviously offered filmmakers the chance to go nuts in the fan service department, and they didn’t disappoint, including several suits worn over the years by Iron Man in the comics.
Sure, the end result is yet another CGI-overloaded third act in a blockbuster flick, but it still works within the context of Iron Man 3’s plot. And let’s be honest: it is pretty damn cool to see all that hardware unleashed on the big screen, fan service or not.
2 Spider-Man Is Added To The MCU
The fans practically begged for it, and Marvel Studios made it happen – after years of legal issues keeping Spider-Man out of the MCU, a deal was struck with Sony and the webhead finally made his debut!
Now, it would be naive to suggest that Marvel did this solely out of the goodness of their collective heart – Spidey spins serious cash, as well as dope webs – but regardless, this is a case of everybody winning out.
And while Peter Parker does feel more than a little shoehorned into the plot of Civil War – seriously, the entire narrative detours to accommodate him – the filmmakers nail his character so well that this is incredibly easy to overlook.
He quips! He’s a geeky kid! And he kicks plenty of butt, as only a spider can! In short: he’s the big screen Spider-Man fans always wanted.
1 Stan Lee’s Cameo In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
What greater display of fan service could there be than not only acknowledging a crazy fan theory on screen, but pretty much validating it as well? That’s exactly what happened in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which used its obligatory Stan Lee cameo to strongly suggest that every one of the legendary comics scribe’s seemingly unrelated MCU appearances are linked.
For several years now, online commentators have argued that the Lee seen in the MCU is actually a Watcher – an alien being charged with monitor events within a designated area in space (in this case, Earth). While this scene doesn’t go so far as to reveal that Stan the Man is himself a Watcher – we only see him talking to the big-headed extra-terrestrials – it does make it clear that all of his cameos inexplicably feature the same guy.
Now, had this moment appeared in one of the more po-faced MCU films, it would have been beyond silly and fallen flat. But fortunately, the tongue-in-cheek tone that pervades the Guardians of the Galaxy movies means that this brief shout-out to the conspiracy nuts within the MCU fanbase sticks its landing perfectly.
What’s your favorite moment of fan service in the MCU? Let us know in the comments!