In the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Disney-owned film and TV franchise starring the Marvel superheroes, there is one thing that ties together all those avengers and defenders together. And it has nothing to do with Thanos or those Infinity Stones. As a matter of fact, it’s food.
Eating, which has symbolically signified togetherness since the beginning of human history, is also the thread that keeps the MCU together. Eating cements the bonds between superheroes a lot more than saving the planet for the umpteenth time. It’s no wonder that some of the best, as well as the most important, scenes in all of Marvel’s productions center around a dining table.
It was in 2012’s The Avengers, just after Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) directed a nuclear missile to blow up Loki’s Chitauri army in space, when he asks his new Avengers teammates if they ever had shawarma — a Middle Eastern dish characterized by mixed meats. Downey delivers the line in the same way one asks a co-worker if they had lunch yet.
“There’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here,” he says, laying on the ground, his billion-dollar armor cuffed and burned. “I don’t know what it is but I want to try it.” In the popular after-credits scene, the Avengers are seen in said shawarma joint, looking like death and eating pita in silence.
In a February 2017 episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago said that it’s not just eating together that creates a bond, but that together everyone eats the same thing. “Food is about bringing something into the body. And to eat the same food suggests that we are both willing to bring the same thing into our bodies,” Fishbach said. “People just feel closer to people who are eating the same food as they do. And then trust, cooperation, these are just consequences of feeling close to someone.”
There are scenes of food prior to The Avengers — Iron Man’s hangover doughnuts in Iron Man 2, Thor asking for “Another!” coffee in Thor — but post-shawarma, food has meant more than an exposition dump in the screenplay. In the MCU, food is an chance for friends to become allies and allies to become friends. That’s how Sam Wilson, a non-superpowered veteran, won a spot in the Avengers: He made breakfast for a fugitive Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He later also helped take down Hydra, sure, but they wouldn’t have started the day without Sam’s OJ and toast.
If there’s distance between heroes, food becomes a bridge. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the Guardians plan their prison break during lunch in the cafeteria. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, a blissfully unaware Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) brings her nephew Peter Parker (Tom Holland) out for “larb” at the neighborhood Thai restaurant. (“How many times do I have to say ‘larb’ before you talk to me?” a trying Aunt May asks a tired Peter.)
In The Punisher, the latest Marvel show on Netflix, the murderous Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) and the renegade hacker Micro (Ebon Moss-Bacharach) let down their guards over Thanksgiving. Frank even dreams of a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner — with both his family as well as Micro’s — that slowly unravels into a nightmare. All Frank wanted was peace with good people, and this simple luxury has been denied for him.
But no characters come together as much over a meal as the ones in The Defenders, the Netflix series that unites the heroes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. In the fourth episode, set almost entirely inside a Chinese restaurant, the newly-formed foursome breathe, eat, plan, and learn about their enemies the Hand over dumplings and pork.
In a case of life imitating art, Daredevil star Charlie Cox told Inverse that shooting in the Chinese restaurant really did bring the Defenders cast together. “We were all stuck in that Chinese restaurant for a couple of weeks, and it was a lot of great banter both on screen and off-screen. The scenes are very fun to shoot,” Cox said. “That was the time where we really kind of began to bond and find what our dynamics were as a group for the first time. That was my favorite episode to shoot. Those were the best memories.”
Nothing is incorruptible, however, and that includes the purity of meal time. Food was perverted by Kilgrave (David Tennant) in the Netflix series Jessica Jones; a big part of Jessica’s confrontation of her abuse trauma involves revisiting a SoHo restaurant — where Kilgrave also abused the staff with his powers of persuasion — that Kilgrave took her during his extended period controlling Jessica. But food can also heal; towards the finale, survivors of Kilgrave meet and commiserate together in a 24 hour diner.
Still, more than anything else in the Marvel Universe, food is the great equalizer and bonding tradition for Marvel’s heroes. As Louise O. Fresco wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, “Around the table, all previous meals come together in every meal, in an endless succession of memories and associations.”
“The table is the place where the family gathers, the symbol of solidarity, or indeed the backdrop to family rows and childhood tragedies. At the table the eater is tamed.
Perhaps nothing can better illustrate what meals mean in the MCU better than the real-life impact of the Avengers’ trip to Elat Burger, a real restaurant in Los Angeles where the scene was filmed. For a brief period after the film’s release, sales of shawarma saw a significant boost as Marvel fans en masse. It seems Marvel fans became obsessed with recreating that moment, together.