Warning: The below contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
It’s hard to imagine anyone besides Robert Downey Jr. playing our beloved Iron Man — the wise-cracks, the cockiness, the chemistry with Pepper, and that ability to break us in half with grief in the end. In truth, however, the most pitch-perfect casting in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe almost did not come to be. RDJ, as his Avengers castmates call him, was not Marvel’s first choice to play the billionaire/genius/playboy/philanthropist/superhero.
The Oscar-nominated star was always known to be talented, but he wasn’t a mega-star. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige once told Rotten Tomatoes that back then, the actor “was one of the best actors on the planet — [not] necessarily one of the biggest marquee stars on the planet.” And at the time of his casting — think back to the mid-2000s — quite a few other A-listers were hoping to don the iconic red and gold suit. An impassioned plea from director Jon Favreau and casting director Sarah Halley Finn to the studio brass was what finally persuaded them to move forward with Downey Jr. In a different world, without that push, Iron Man might have been played by Tom Cruise, who was associated with the project for years.
That’s right: Tony Stark was nearly played by the Top Gun star!
We may like to think the actors who play ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ are irreplaceable, but many of their now-synonymous roles nearly went to other actors. Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, and Chris Pratt were all accomplished actors before their MCU debuts, but none had the worldwide recognition they have now, following 22 films and $20 billion at the global box office. Their casting was a risk in many ways – but one that paid off. If not for talented casting agents, circumstance, and a little luck, the final battle in Avengers: Endgame might have looked very different indeed.
As Endgame continues its global box office domination, on track to be the highest-grossing film ever, let’s take a look back at what might have been. Here are 10 Avengers castings that could have totally changed the MCU — and perhaps some other franchises.
This is about as near an actual casting as you can get. It’s not hard to picture the Edge of Tomorrow star decked out in Natasha’s black spandex and sporting her red locks, but contractual obligations and, oddly enough, Meryl Streep thwarted the plan to cast Emily Blunt. When she signed onto The Devil Wears Prada, Blunt had to agree to a two-picture deal. Fox invoked the clause for Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the English actress was forced to turn down the role of the Russian spy who joined the MCU in Iron Man 2. Scarlett Johansson is Black Widow, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, but given how fantastic Blunt was as Rita Vrataski it does make us pause to ponder what if…
If nearly having Mary Poppins in black spandex was a jaw-dropper, imagine having Jim Halpert from The Office sporting the star and shield. Since the NBC comedy went off the air in 2013, John Krasinski has done quite a bit of action work. He may be Jack Ryan now in Amazon’s series of the same name, but the idea of him playing Captain America in 2011 was harder to picture. Evans was always Marvel’s top choice, but he famously turned down the role — twice. While Evans was waffling on the part, the studio proceeded with Kransinski until he and Chris Hemsworth’s abs (according to the video above) decided that it was not gonna happen.
Joaquin Phoenix‘s first foray into comic-book movies, Todd Phillips’ Joker, has fans almost hyperventilating — but in a different universe, he might have already had some experience in the genre. Back in 2014, it was reported that Phoenix was in final talks to play the sorcerer supreme. Many supposed at the time that the indie favorite turned down the role of Stephen Strange, which eventually went to Benedict Cumberbatch, because he was not interested in big-budget action flicks. (Guessing they must not have seen Gladiator.) In truth, the Walk the Line actor recently admitted that he enjoys some of the MCU films and he isn’t a cinephile or snob; in reference to his brush with Doctor Strange, he said, “I think everybody was really happy with how things turned out.”
When Iron Man was in early development in the 1990s, many at Marvel wanted Tom Cruise to play the role, and it was not the most out-of-left-field casting idea for the character who would become the heart of the Avengers. But believe it or not, Nicolas Cage was also once part of the Tony Stark conversation. A name that invariably pops up with just about every superhero film adaptation — or did at the time — Cage was approached to play everything from the Scarecrow to Superman, and even the Green Goblin. The unabashed comic book obsessive did get to play a superhero in Ghost Rider. While it would be a fun novelty to picture him with the glowing core heart and hear him spouting Tony’s clever quips, we feel the the leather-clad flaming-skull bounty hunter for the damned was an infinitely better fit for Cage’s over-the-top antics.
Can you have a reverse near-casting? Edward Norton played the Green Rage Monster and the mild-mannered scientist in the standalone Incredible Hulk film, but was replaced by Mark Ruffalo in the first Avengers team-up. Rumors abounded, of course, with some speculating there was a rift between the American History X actor and Marvel. Marvel Studios co-president Feige released a statement before The Avengers cast was announced at Comic-Con in 2011 that put any speculation to bed: “Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble.” So Norton was out and Ruffalo in. According to Ruffalo’s retelling, he didn’t find out until moments before the convention. Had things gone another way, and Norton stayed on as Banner, perhaps fewer people would be confused as to why The Incredible Hulk is officially part of the MCU.
No one seemed happier that Jason Momoa was playing Aquaman than Jason Momoa, but he nearly took on an MCU role before picking up the trident. The role of the ultra-literal Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy catapulted Dave Bautista from WWE star to movie megastar, and, according to the former wrestler, he had to fight for it —and was terrified of auditioning. Momoa, who had just wrapped playing the hulking Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones when the movie was being cast, said he was tired of playing “brutes” and looking out for different roles. After auditioning, our future Aquaman therefore passed on Drax, opening the door for Bautista. Momoa has since said the role of of Drax the Destroyer was “perfectly cast.”
The Thor casting process was a real family affair. Before he played Gale in The Hunger Games, Liam Hemsworth was on the shortlist to portray the Asgardian God of Thunder. He got to the final four, and Liam joked in a late-night interview that he bombed the last audition. His failure did, however, help his brother snag the part. After Liam’s failed test, the two exchanged notes on what they were looking for in the part. Sir Kenneth Branagh was impressed with the older brother’s audition, and the relatively unknown Aussie actor was deemed the only one worthy to wield Mjolnir – for a time.
According to Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet, every up-and-coming young male actor auditioned for the role of Spider-Man. Lucas Hedges, Ansel Elgort, and Nat Wolff all read for the part, but the New York-born Chalamet, who loved the character growing up, was for a time fixated on becoming the iconic web-slinger. While promoting Call Me By Your Name, he recounted his final audition for Spider-Man: Homecoming. “I read twice, and I left sweating in a total panic,” Chalamet said. “I called my agent and I said, ‘I thought about this a lot, and I have to go back and knock on that door and read again,’ and he told me the story of Sean Young and how in an attempt to become Catwoman [she] had scared everyone away when she showed up at the studio gates in costume.” Persuaded not to let his fandom overtake his better judgment, Chalamet left, and Holland was cast instead.
Avengers: Endgame (with actual cast) is in theaters everywhere