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Every film from Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a standout character, from Black Widow in Iron Man 2 to Loki in The Avengers.

Kevin Feige, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s revered honcho, recently announced the sixth phase of the franchise, culminating in The Multiverse Saga. With dozens of superheroes lining up to join the Avengers roster and the cosmic menace of Kang the Conqueror on the horizon, Phase One feels like a distant memory. Before the multiverse introduced variants and incursions, Phase One assembled six of Earth’s mightiest heroes to battle an alien army in New York.

Phase One established the MCU trend that every entry in the franchise has a character that stands out from the rest – and it’s not always the character whose name is in the title. Every Phase One film has a standout character, starting with Black Widow iron man 2 in to the mustache-twirling Loki The Avengers.

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6 Iron Man—Tony Stark


Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man 2008

Tony Stark isn’t just the standout character of his own big screen debut; He’s arguably the standout character of the entire MCU. From the moment he was introduced to the media with a military convoy in Afghanistan to the moment he gave his life to save the universe with the Infinity Stones, Tony was a truly captivating character that drew audiences in supported around the world. Robert Downey, Jr. made the mother of all career comebacks with the original iron man Movie, the movie that launched the whole MCU.

Plenty of lovable characters round out the supporting cast iron man, from Rhodey to Agent Coulson, but Downey carries the film on his shoulders. Downey’s semi-impromptu dialogue brings a refreshingly easy, lifelike feel to a tightly constructed, archetypal narrative. Introduced as a flawed character, Tony gradually learns to be a better person as the film progresses.


5 The Incredible Hulk – Bruce Banner


Edward Norton as Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk.

The second entry in the MCU, The incredible Hulk, is another instance of the title character successfully wearing her own film. Edward Norton only played the Hulk in that one film—he was promptly replaced by Mark Ruffalo for the rest of the MCU films—but he made a great Bruce Banner while he lasted. The incredible Hulk is widely considered one of the weakest parts of the MCU, but Norton brought plenty of pathos to the title role.

Ruffalo’s Banner has been used primarily for comic relief in the years since The incredible Hulk was released, but Norton’s Banner was really at odds with his volatile temper and the monster inside him. He’s not just a jerk; he is a nuanced, three-dimensional figure.


4 Iron Man 2 – Natasha Romanoff


Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2

Black Widow wouldn’t get her own MCU solo film for over a decade (for some reason), but she stole the show in her debut. After Nick Fury’s tease in the first iron man movie credits, iron man 2 began rounding out the Avengers roster he was putting together.

Scarlett Johansson proved a great scene partner for Downey, balancing his comic timing with the hilarious one-liners. Nat was overly sexualized in her first MCU appearance – a problem that subsequent films tried to fix – but her early fight scenes still made the character a badass character not to be messed with.


3 Thor-Darcy Lewis


Thor is one of the most revered superheroes in the blockbuster landscape today. Throughout his decade-long character arc, he’s gone through grief and depression, emerging on the other side as a loving father who has found inner peace. But it took us a while to get there. At first he was given a boring characterization as a self-centered, pseudo-Shakespearean idiot.

Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor The film is a fish-on-water tale about a Norse god who is stripped of his powers and banished to earth. Kat Dennings made sure of that in the role of Jane Foster’s wacky best friend Darcy Lewis Thor Comic relief movies before Taika Waititi showed up and turned the franchise into a long exercise in comic relief.


2 Captain America: The First Avenger – Howard Stark


Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark in Captain America First Avenger

Tony’s father, Howard Stark, was introduced to the world from beyond the grave iron man movies. In a video he made before his death, he inspired Tony to create a whole new chemical element in one of the MCU’s earliest absurd leaps in scientific logic. Howard appeared as a younger man as the inventor of Captain America’s shield (and a bunch of other cool weapons and gadgets) in Cap’s WWII origin film.

in the The First Avenger, Steve Rogers made his debut as a normal do-gooder. He wasn’t particularly convincing until the Russo brothers stepped up his action scenes. In Howard Hughes mode, the eccentric and charismatic young Howard Stark steals the show The First Avenger. Dominic Cooper’s interpretation of Howard is every bit as effortlessly charming and unashamedly arrogant as his son.


1 The Avengers – Loki


Cage Loki Avengers 2012

It’s rare for a villain to overshadow heroes — especially in the MCU, a franchise often accused of having a “villain problem” — but Loki managed to steal the spotlight from six of Earth’s mightiest heroes in the first avenger Movie. Acting as a foot soldier for Thanos, he takes his army to New York to launch an all-out invasion of Earth (to no avail).

The Avengers Doesn’t hold back on the character’s darker tendencies – he’s viciously mean and kills without remorse – but Tom Hiddleston is still irresistibly charming. “If you don’t mind, I’ll drink now.”

NEXT: Each MCU Phase One film ranked by replayability

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