An Alternate History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
The 15 biggest casting what-ifs and rumors in the MCU.
We’ve been living inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the past 15 years, bearing witness to one of the biggest sea changes in the entertainment industry since Georges Méliès landed a spaceship on the moon. Superhero movies and fandom culture have completely changed the way we consume content, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine a world where Robert Downey Jr. didn’t play a guy in a red metal suit for 10 years. But because these movies go through so many iterations before the final product we see on the silver screen, that world is closer than we might think. There are many paths the MCU could have taken, each one weirder than the last. (For example: Did you know Nicolas Cage was almost Iron Man?)
To celebrate 15 years of Iron Man and the MCU, we’ve compiled a list of the 15 biggest and strangest what-ifs of Marvel movie history. Join us as we enter the multiverse, imagining a cinematic universe very different from the one we know and love.
15. Robert Downey Jr. almost didn’t play Iron Man
For a decade, the character of genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (aka the founding Avenger known as Iron Man) has been inseparable from the man who played him onscreen, Robert Downey Jr. From the charming and fabulously wealthy public persona down to the propensity to wear tinted sunglasses indoors, the two men were so eerily similar it became impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. But multiple actors expressed interest in playing Iron Man before Downey fired up the arc reactor.
Plans to bring Marvel’s superheroes to the big screen were in play for decades before the MCU came to fruition. The film rights bounced from Universal Pictures to 20th Century Fox to New Line Cinema, while both Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage lobbied Fox for the chance to suit up as Iron Man.
The rights eventually reverted back to Marvel Studios, and in a bid to start the project from scratch, the nascent movie studio hired Jon Favreau to write and direct. No one knew Iron Man would change pop culture forever, and Favreau wanted to cast a relative unknown for the part of Tony Stark, explaining that in a superhero movie, it hardly matters who plays the character as long as audiences get to see their favorite comic books come to life. Favreau considered Sam Rockwell (who ended up playing tech-bro villain Justin Hammer in the sequel) before he saw Downey’s screen test. The rest is MCU history.
“The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye,” Favreau told USA Today at the time. “He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark.”
14. Thor was almost a TV show starring Tyler Mane
Because the MCU started off with a relatively grounded roster — Iron Man doesn’t technically have any superpowers, and the Incredible Hulk is just a human scientist on his better days — Marvel quailed at introducing a cosmic godlike being who lives in outer space into the mix so soon.
Thor went through a number of different iterations before Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 film. Sam Raimi met with Stan Lee in the 1990s after he directed his superhero-horror movie Darkman, but 20th Century Fox, which owned the rights at the time, didn’t get his vision. When Marvel Studios was planning the film, Guillermo del Toro nearly signed on to direct but had to drop out because he wanted to do The Hobbit (which, sadly, didn’t end up happening either). Meanwhile, Fox moved to capitalize on the success of X-Men by greenlighting a bunch of superhero projects, including a Thor TV show, which would have been broadcast on UPN and would have starred professional wrestler Tyler Mane (who had just played Sabretooth in X-Men). That obviously never happened, but it didn’t stop fans from theorizing that Marvel would bring Mane in for the 2011 film.
13. Tom Hiddleston originally auditioned for Thor
Speaking of the God of Thunder, Thor went through more casting options at Marvel Studios, including Daniel Craig (who had to bow out due to James Bond commitments, how sad for him), Liam Hemsworth (lol), and Grey’s Anatomy ginger trauma surgeon Kevin McKidd. Tom Hiddleston, who was eventually cast as Thor’s half-brother, Loki, originally auditioned for the lead role, explaining during an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon that the audition process lasted for three months: “The agreement was if you’re over 6 foot and you’ve got blond hair, you can come and have a pop at it.” That segment also includes Hiddleston’s test footage, in which he, golden locks flowing, wields a Mjolnir-esque hammer and what appears to be an American accent.
12. Ryan Phillippe almost played Captain America
After the success of Iron Man and the post-credits tease of a shared universe, the late 2000s and early 2010s were abuzz with casting rumors for every new superhero movie. After Thor, the studio and the press turned their attention to Steve Rogers, the superhuman hero known as Captain America, and it seemed every mid-20s American actor wanted a slice of the pie. It’s particularly funny now to read this piece from the Independent listing all the actors vying for the role, including Channing Tatum, Chace Crawford, and one ’90s teen thriller star Ryan Phillippe, who was heavily rumored for the role before Chris Evans was officially confirmed.
Phillippe later confirmed, while promoting Saturday Night Live action-comedy spinoff MacGruber in the summer of 2010, that he was out, saying “I met with them and stuff, I was way into it — especially since I have a 6-year-old son — I just thought it would’ve been awesome thing to do... but no it didn’t happen.” He also mentioned that he’d been doing martial arts since he was 8 years old and that “I want to find something where I can use some of that stuff.” Hey, Ryan, I hear John Wick Chapter 5 is on the table.
11. Glenn Howerton almost played Star-Lord
It’s rare when any director, especially one working with famously secretive Marvel Studios, is open about second and third choices for their cast. Casting for The Guardians of the Galaxy was far from straightforward, as Marvel had to find people to play all kinds of aliens and cyborgs, as well as a CGI raccoon and a talking tree. Director James Gunn has said in the past that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Glenn Howerton was his second choice for Star-Lord, and during an appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show, Howerton confirmed that, though he had no idea he’d come so close. “As I was walking out of the waiting room, I saw Chris Pratt,” Howerton said, “and I remember thinking, ‘He’s perfect for this.’”
10. Agent Phil Coulson was rumored to become Vision
The MCU is no stranger to the phenomenon that manifests when fan theories become rumors reported by the press, which executives and actors then have to either deny or sidestep in interviews. One of the most popular ones pre-Avengers: Age of Ultron was that S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, who was killed off in the first Avengers, would return as the Vision — or at least that actor Clark Gregg would make his way back to the franchise playing a purple android. Marvel’s execs ultimately shot down the theory, and when Age of Ultron premiered, we all learned that Vision would be played by Paul Bettany, who had been voicing Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence personal assistant program since the first Iron Man movie. Plus, Coulson ultimately popped back up on ABC’s Marvel show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though he never interacted with any Avengers again.
9. Captain Marvel almost appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron
The MCU would love for fans to believe its plans are infallible, that the breadth of the franchise is overseen by a cabal of financial and worldbuilding geniuses thinking 10 steps ahead, but most of what really happens is directors and writers trying stuff out and cutting whatever doesn’t quite fit. For years, Marvel tried to figure out how to get Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel) into the mix, and an early draft of Avengers: Age of Ultron had her cameo at the end of the movie. A deleted scene from the movie even contains a shot of a blond woman at the Avengers’ new headquarters, meant to be a stand-in for Danvers, but the shot was ultimately scrapped. Director Joss Whedon even went as far as shooting a couple of visual effects plate shots (essentially background footage for a digital character to be layered onto later), which were later used as flying shots for Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff.
8. Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man movie
For a large number of fans, the MCU’s biggest could-have-been is Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man movie. His exit from the franchise in the middle of pre-production was the most publicly messy split between the studio and its talent since the hoopla that followed Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton as the Hulk, and it was an immediate turnoff for those who were already kind of bored with the Marvel house style. Wright worked on drafts of the script for multiple years before ending his relationship with Marvel over “creative differences,” and his exit gave us one of the most oft-repeated quotes in conversations about how the studio utilizes their directors: “I wanted to make a Marvel movie, but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.”
7. Steve Rogers was rumored to die at the end of Captain America: Civil War
The MCU never sticks completely to the comics it adapts, but one rumor fans couldn’t shake until the movie’s premiere was that of Steve Rogers’ death at the end of Captain America: Civil War. The movie takes its title and much of its plot from Marvel Comics’ Civil War storyline, a semi-controversial crossover event published from 2006 to 2007 that pits Iron Man against Captain America after the government passes the Superhero Registration Act (referred to as the Sokovia Accords in the movie). In the aftermath of that arc, sorry to spoil, Steve Rogers is assassinated by Crossbones and a brainwashed Sharon Carter. Since both characters appear in the movie, fans speculated some version of these events would play out.
That meant that there was much debate about who would be the new Captain America — whether Falcon, Sharon Carter, or Bucky Barnes would pick up the shield. Ultimately, fans had to wait until The Falcon and the Winter Soldier debuted on Disney+ five years later to get an answer to that question.
6. Joaquin Phoenix almost played Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch slipped pretty seamlessly into the role of the Sorcerer Supreme, but the MCU’s first magician almost took a much different path. Fans likely still remember the whirlwind surrounding Doctor Strange’s casting, and the all-too-short period of time when Joaquin Phoenix was supposed to take on the part. He’s willing to get real weird onscreen and probably would have been great, but something broke down during contract negotiations and Phoenix exited the project. In an interview with Little White Lies, he was sanguine about the decision, explaining candidly, “I’m not a fucking, like, cinephile. I’m not a snob and I’m totally fine with… I enjoy those movies sometimes, and I think they keep the fucking industry going in some ways, so I don’t have a problem with it at all. I think that everybody was, is… I’m trying to figure out how to say this most diplomatically, OK… I think everybody was really happy with how things turned out. All parties were satisfied.”
No one has said one way or another, but it seems likely that, with the MCU’s penchant for extra-long multi-film contracts and a schedule that reached almost 2030, the actor wasn’t interested in playing a comic book character that could hold him down for multiple movies. So he decided to play… (*checks notes*)... the Joker instead.
5. Timothée Chalamet almost played Spider-Man
The addition of Spider-Man was a real boon to the MCU, which had been trying to finagle some sort of joint custody situation with Sony for years — despite the fact that the latter studio kept holding onto the rights by making increasingly lackluster movies every time those rights were about to run out. With Captain America: Civil War, Spidey officially joined the Avengers, and Tom Holland has been playing the sprightly high-school version of the character ever since. But Holland didn’t always have the role on lock. Timothée Chalamet once revealed that he had auditioned for the part and left the room sweating: “I called my agent, [UTA’s] Brian Swardstrom, and I said, ‘Brian, 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 had scared everyone away when she showed up at the studio gates in costume.”
For their part, Spider-Man co-stars Holland and Zendaya think Chalamet would make a great Harry Osborn, so add that one to the rumor mill.
4. The Defenders and Silver Surfer were rumored to show up in Infinity War
Avengers: Infinity War promised to be the ultimate Marvel superhero team-up movie, surpassing all other ensemble films in the franchise for one ultimate showdown of good guys versus Thanos. Because the cast was so enormous, fans speculated for years about all the characters that could show up. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely revealed in an interview that they did indeed talk about adding the Defenders — Netflix’s crew of streetwise heroes that included Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage — but agreed that it just wasn’t worth the “glorified cameo.”
Comics readers also expected the introduction (or return?) of the Silver Surfer, herald of planet-munching Galactus, a major villain not yet introduced into the film series. The character appeared once before in 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but those movies were made by Fox and aren’t part of the MCU. Actor Curt Clendenin was apparently cast as the character but did not appear in either Infinity War or Endgame, hinting in an interview that whatever footage he may or may not have shot went unused.
3. Spider-Man: No Way Home and Morbius could have introduced the Sinister Six
This one actually did end up happening, sort of. The MCU loves to drop hints and references without committing to adapting complex comic arcs 1:1, letting fans make their own assumptions about certain characters and plotlines. Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), for example, is never called “Iron Monger,” though he uses the phrase in a throwaway line in Iron Man, and everyone knows the character he plays is a direct reference to that comic villain. The robust rogues’ gallery of Spider-Man: No Way Home gathered a number of Spidey villains from across every Spider-Man movie, from Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock to Jamie Foxx’s Electro. Five major bad guys appeared in No Way Home — actually, six, if you count Tom Hardy’s mid-credits appearance as Venom — making a very unsubtle reference to the Spider-Man comics’ Sinister Six supervillain team. Ultimately, all of them were banished to their respective universes, so this is likely as close as the MCU will ever get. A hastily-added Morbius post-credits scene seems to imply that the Living Vampire and the Vulture were going to team up against Spider-Man, but given that movie’s box office performance, it’s unlikely that that will ever happen.
2. WandaVision was rumored to bring the X-Men into the MCU
As Marvel’s first Disney+ show, anticipation was high for WandaVision. Some fans even assumed the show would fundamentally change the MCU by adding the X-Men to the mix. In their defense, the theories made sense.
Wanda Maximoff is canonically related to X-Men villain Magneto, but because Fox owned the X-Men and any usage of the word “mutant” to refer to them, Marvel couldn’t use them in earlier movies. That changed after Disney acquired Fox, announcing plans to eventually bring the X-Men into the MCU. WandaVision seemed like the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Before WandaVision premiered, fans guessed it would adapt the House of M comics storyline, in which Wanda creates an alternate dark universe where Magneto rules over all mutants, before magically (and temporarily) getting rid of the X-Men completely. This would be extremely dramatic and labor-intensive to do in a streaming television show and ultimately did not turn out to be the case, but for a couple of weeks, we were all waiting with bated breath for Ian McKellen to show up wearing his cool helmet. (We got Evan Peters as Ralph Bohner instead.)
1. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness cameos
With “variants” and “multiverses” now common parlance in the MCU thanks to Ant-Man and the Loki show, we were all expecting some chaos from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Tom Cruise was rumored to appear as an Iron Man variant. Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool was said to be in the mix. A number of X-Men were rumored, including Wolverine, James McAvoy’s Professor X, and Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey from X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Daniel Craig almost played Mr. Fantastic but had to back out because of an uptick in Covid-19 cases in London. Nicolas Cage might have cameoed as Ghost Rider. Director Sam Raimi might have brought Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man back again. Ultimately, we got plenty of cameos in the final version of the film, but we’re in the multiverse now, which means anything can happen. Somewhere, on some alternate Earth, Tom Cruise has been playing Iron Man this entire time.