They are some of the highest grossing movies of all time. They are loved and adored by millions of passionate and loyal fans. They are a huge part of today’s cinematic experience, they have action figures, they have sequels, and they have millions upon millions of money tied up into their productions. And, they are only getting bigger and better with every passing summer. They are the movies of the Marvel Universe.
This Marvel movie universe now consists of hundreds of characters and a ton of great actors who play those characters. In many cases, it’s hard to picture anyone else in the roles these stars have made so famous. But, before some of Hollywood’s biggest names made these Marvel characters even more iconic, they started in a variety of other places.
From television to mini-series movies and supporting roles in productions and films that might be seen as the farthest thing from superhero flicks, you may be surprised to see where some of your favorite Marvel Superheroes were many moons ago. Could you have pictured these stars playing such heroes and villains if you knew where they came from?
As Disney and Marvel continue to churn out big-budget movies and blockbuster hits for the Marvel Universe, this list of actors will continue to grow. Who are the latest celebs and stars to come from the unlikeliest of places? We’ve put together a list of 15 of our favorites. Keep reading and you’ll see the stories behind 15 Crazy “Then And Now” Moments Of Marvel Superheroes.
30. Paul Rudd Then
Paul Rudd‘s first big role was alongside Alicia Silverstone in the cult favorite Clueless. He played the adorable older step-brother of Alicia’s character, Cher. By the end of the movie, the two had become love interests and all ended happily ever after. Despite how weird and creepy that sounds, his character was super nice and everyone sort of cheered for the couple by the end of the film.
Following Clueless, this charming face found different types of roles in movies like Anchorman, 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and I Love You, Man. He also had a recurring role on Friends playing the eventual husband of Phoebe Buffay. It wasn’t until after he was 40 that he joined the Marvel Universe. All in all, he carved out a great career for himself and truly became that actor everybody loves but nobody really considered a huge movie star.
29. Paul Rudd Now
Paul Rudd was never a bad-looking guy, but like a fine wine, he’s only gotten better with age. He’s also gotten way more successful and is now considered a leading man and very marketable actor. At 47 years old, he’s more bankable than ever and he’s found himself as a central part of the Marvel universe as Ant-Man. He brings a combination of dry humor and charm to the often confused character. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing that role.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s cozied up and become extremely close friends with actors like Seth Rogen and Will Ferrell. Whenever they do a collaborative project, he seems to be involved somehow. His next big roles have him set to be part of the next Marvel blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War and the Ant-Man sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp.
28. Ryan Reynolds (Then)
As you can see, Ryan Reynolds started his career as a television actor when he was quite young, starring in the series Fifteen and then The Odyssey from 1993-1994. He went on to find more success on shows like The Outer Limits and Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. His breakout movie role was a character named Van Wilder who was a college party liaison who didn’t realize that he was ruining his life by refusing to grow up. From there, he acted in his first comic book film, Blade: Trinity, where he was pretty much the only standout in the film. From there, he got a number of movie roles and his career ballooned until he had a minor potential setback starring in the Green Lantern which was a total box office flop.
27. Ryan Reynolds (Now)
Reynolds wasn’t completely new to the Marvel Universe when he took on the role of Deadpool. He’d earlier played the role of Wade Wilson in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The movie and the role didn’t do terribly well, but there was something about the character of Deadpool that Reynolds loved. He convinced the studio to let him make Deadpool his way and they experimented with it as one of the first R-rated superhero movies from the Marvel Universe. The low-budget film was a huge success and no one could have played the part other than Reynolds himself. He’s now set to release the sequel, Deadpool 2, in 2018. Reynolds seems to hit on movies about as often as he misses, but it doesn’t matter. He’s a true star and one of the funniest celebrities on social media.
26. Michael Rooker (Then)
Michael Rooker always had that look in him that he might snap at a moment’s notice. He got his start in the 1980’s on a television series called Crime Story and he went on to have minor parts in a number of other movies. However, it was not until he starred in Days of Thunder, alongside Tom Cruise, that he got noticed. Often the bad guy, Rooker settled in as a villain in a number of his roles and made a ton of appearances. He was a very busy actor with a ton of small roles that never really gave him the credit he deserved. It wasn’t until a cult zombie show called The Walking Dead did Rooker start to really become a megastar. Once he joined the world of Marvel movies, he was finally in the big time. No one can say Rooker didn’t pay his dues. He certainly took the long road to get to this point.
25. Michael Rooker (Now)
Today, Michael Rooker is one of the best parts of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies in the Marvel Universe. In Guardians of the Galaxy 2, he steals the show. As Yondu, Rooker was a minor supporting character in the first movie and didn’t quite make a huge impact. In the second film, he’s a huge part of the story. For those that haven’t seen the movie, I won’t reveal the spoilers, but let’s just say, Yondu (and Rooker who plays him) is funny, dramatic, and heroic.
At age 62, Rooker is doing some of his best work. He’s reinvented his career as both Daryl’s brother, Merle, in the first few seasons of The Walking Dead and now with these Marvel movies, where he’s become a new fan favorite.
24. Benedict Cumberbatch (Then)
No, Benedict Cumberbatch did not get his start as a music protege. He looks like he could have been a pretty good musician, but many of us are grateful that he took up acting instead.
Cumberbatch actually got his start in the theater before moving on to a variety television roles, most of which were based out of London, England. It wasn’t until he landed the role of Sherlock Holmes in 2010 that he achieved international recognition. He then went on to star as the nemesis in Star Trek Into Darkness as a young Khan. He then starred in the historical drama, The Imitation Game, as British cryptographer Alan Turing. That role earned him nominations for the Golden Globe and Academy Awards in 2014 for Best Actor.
23. Benedict Cumberbatch (Now)
As Doctor Strange, Cumberbatch plays one of the most confusing and interesting characters in the Marvel Universe. Billed as a “master of black magic,” Doctor Strange was created in 1963 by Steve Ditko. The origins of the character begin when Stephen Strange, a selfish young neuroscientist whose life was shattered when he suffered a car accident and lost the use of his hands, searched for meaning in his life. What he found was the world of sorcery instead.
Cumberbatch didn’t know much about the character of Doctor Strange before taking on the role. He wasn’t a big fan of comic books either. He does, however, believe in some of the science that goes on in the film and that there is definitely something else beyond our scope of human existence.
22. Bradley Cooper (Then)
Bradley Cooper first appeared on the scene in Sex and the City as Jake, in 1999. He went on to do a few more television appearances and small movie roles up until about 2005 when he got his first break in Wedding Crashers as Sack Lodge. He’s been steadily rising up to greater heights since that point and starred in movies like The Hangover, The A-Team, Limitless, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. He didn’t get his first crack at becoming part of the Marvel Universe until 2014, when he signed on to play the voice of the character, Rocket.
It’s kind of fun to look back at a time when Cooper tried to perfect his craft and getting acting tips as part of the audience on Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.
21. Bradley Cooper (Now)
Now, Cooper is the voice of Rocket the Raccoon and the smashing success of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is solidifying him as a megastar. He doesn’t even show up on camera in this film but his voice makes a tremendous impact, bringing life to the character. He’ll also be set to shoot scenes for The Avengers: Infinity War.
What’s interesting to note is that Cooper does not play Rocket on set. That job goes to the director’s brother, Sean Gunn, who is a motion reference actor and is responsible for all the movements and mannerisms fans see in the movie. The director, James Gunn, views Sean as so much more pivotal a part of the character and Gunn and Cooper work this character as a duo.
20. Chris Hemsworth (Then)
Before donning the tights as Thor, Chris Hemsworth made appearances as a TV regular on shows like Guinevere Jones, Neighbours, Marshall Law, The Saddle Club, and Home and Away. He had a small part in the Star Trek movie as George Kirk, but nothing of real significance until he was asked to join the Marvel Universe.
In this photo, Hemsworth plays a remarkably young veterinarian in The Saddle Club. The show was an adaptation of a series of best-selling books about a group of girls who loved riding horseback and had all sorts of whacky adventures. It was a more sensitive side of Hemsworth the world got to see and one that I’m sure had all the girls blushing and falling in love with veterinarians all around the globe.
19. Chris Hemsworth (Now)
Since entering as Thor, Hemsworth has been in a laundry list of huge hits. Thor literally opened the door to a ton of movie roles including parts in Rush, The Huntsman, Red Dawn, Black Hat and In the Heart of the Sea. He’s done a few bombs too, including the latest release of Ghostbusters.
Hemsworth has made millions of dollars between the films he’s been a part of for Marvel. It’s tough to envision anyone else playing that role, although there was a time that professional WWE wrestler Triple H was under serious consideration for the part. I’m sure fans everywhere are thanking Marvel for making the right call on that decision. In his latest film Thor: Ragnarok, Hemsworth has cut off the long golden locks that became a staple of the Thor character.
18. Scarlett Johansson (Then)
She was a child star whose roots go all the way back to 1994 as the character, Laura Nelson, in North. She was only 10 years old when she landed that part. She made countless other appearances in TV and movies and got attention for her acting in The Horse Whisperer and for her assets in movies like The Perfect Score, In Good Company, and He’s Just Not That Into You. Ironically, she worked with Chris Evans (Captain America) in The Perfect Score before either were ever considered to join the Marvel Universe or before Marvel movies were a big deal. It wasn’t until her small role in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers that she became a full-time part of the Marvel franchise.
17. Scarlett Johansson (Now)
Now, Johansson is the sexy but dangerous Natasha Romanoff in almost every Marvel movie that gets released and has anything to do with any of the Avengers characters. She’s filming multiple movies per year and is considered one of the leading female actresses in the business. Whether it’s action movies with complicated stunts or dramatic lower budget films that are well-received by critics, Johansson seems to be able to do it all. She’s currently filming for Avengers: Infinity Wars and it looks like there are going to be no signs of her slowing down anytime soon. She truly is one of the hottest leading ladies in movies and as the character of Natasha Romanoff, it’s hard to picture anyone else doing justice to the role.
16. Chris Evans (Then)
Chris Evans was far from a newcomer by the time he picked up the shield and played the iconic Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger. In fact, it wasn’t even his first kick at the can as an actor in a Marvel movie. He’d earlier played the role of Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four which was met with only a mild level of success.
Evans began his career in community theater and you can see here that he landed a modeling gig in 1999 for the board game Mystery Date. He made his big screen debut in The Newcomers alongside Kate Bosworth in 2000, and then became somewhat of a teen celeb in movies like Not Another Teen Movie and The Perfect Score. He landed a few other movies with mild success, but once he became Captain America, it seemed like the sky is the limit for Evans.
15. Chris Evans (Now)
Evans now is a jacked-up, physical presence as Captain America and he’s starred in at least 10 Marvel Universe films as the character, breaking records and making millions along the way. Of note, Evans reaches the end of his contract after he completes Avengers: Infinity War (in theaters May 4, 2018) and Avengers 4 (May 3, 2019). There are all sorts of rumors that his character will see its demise in one of these films. If he doesn’t die, Evans has already thought about how it will feel to see another actor play the part knowing he would have an extremely tough time with it. One thing Evans says he won’t miss are the intense workouts. It takes a lot of work to look like a superhero who barely ages and is always in top-notch condition.
14. Samuel L. Jackson (Then)
Samuel L. Jackson actually got started in his acting career quite late. He waited until after college, spending most of his early years as a community activist working to further the civil rights movement. He had some small success on television shows like Spenser: For Hire. It was his breakout role in Coming to America that really had people looking. By that time, Jackson was already 40 years old. He did a few more less recognizable parts. But when he was cast by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, his career was never the same again. He went on to do parts in Jurassic Park, the Star Wars prequels, and The Incredibles. When he finally took to the screen as Nick Fury, it was hard to picture anyone else in that part.
13. Samuel L. Jackson (Now)
Samuel L. Jackson has a way of working himself into the minds of almost every casting director for a part that calls for an African-American character, especially one who’s tough and needs to have an air of legitimacy to him. As such, when people knew that Nick Fury was going to be a part of the Marvel films, was there anyone else that could have taken on that part and made it work better than Jackson has? Jackson is now the highest grossing movie actor in the world. He’s been involved in at least eight Marvel films and countless other adaptations such as video games and TV series involving the character. It’s almost as if Jackson took so long to get rolling with his acting career that he never intends to stop working.
12. Anthony Mackie (Then)
Anthony Mackie started on Broadway before he ever made the jump to the big screen. When he did, he made his debut count. He starred alongside Eminem in 8 Mile and that led to other roles in some pretty big successes. The Hurt Locker earned him some credit as an actor with major talent and from there, he went to movies like Eagle Eye, Notorious, The Adjustment Bureau, and Pain and Gain. He made his debut as Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Solider, but he wasn’t really the true Falcon character at that point. It took him a little while longer to get into full superhero mode.
11. Anthony Mackie (Now)
We all know Mackie as Falcon, but his introduction into the Marvel Universe didn’t start out that way. In fact, Mackie didn’t know how it was going to start as he was hired by Marvel. He was signed on for Captain America: The Winter Solider without ever knowing at the time what his part really was. You see, before getting hired, Mackie had auditioned and failed at earning a spot in the Iron Man franchise. He hounded the studio for the job and was basically told to not call back until they did or did not have a part for him. When they finally did, he signed on without ever knowing who or what he’d be doing. He’s now set to be a major part of the Marvel Universe moving forward and in the comics, actually, takes over for Captain America.
10. Robert Downey Jr. (Then)
Before taking on the role of a lifetime, Robert Downey Jr. was all over the map. He had a great career as a young teen heartthrob but he almost threw it all away over drugs and alcohol. He was in all kinds of legal trouble and was in and out of rehab facilities for drug use. It was a problem he’d had since as early as the age of eight, thanks to a father who’d given him things no child was ever supposed to have. He was pretty much blacklisted from ever being a major movie star again. Somehow, he managed to land a couple roles, namely one on the TV series, Ally McBeal, and that turned things around. When he was asked to play Tony Stark in Iron Man, he never looked back.
9. Robert Downey Jr. (Now)
Beginning in 2008, Downey began contributing his acting chops to the role of Marvel Comics Superhero, Iron Man. At that time, he was probably one of the most storied actors to ever take a role as a Marvel superhero. The move paid off handsomely for the studio as he had no issues staying on track and has even appeared in several films. Downey has been either the lead, part of the Avengers group, or made cameos in as many as nine Marvel movies. He seems to be loving his role in the franchise and looks to lend a hand wherever possible. He’s helped earn the studio big bucks as each of these films has grossed over $500 million at the box office worldwide. The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3, and Captain America: Civil War earned over $1 billion.
8. Chris Pratt (Then)
Chris Pratt wasn’t always the grizzled Star-Lord we’ve come to know him as from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. He actually got into acting after being homeless in Hawaii and was discovered working in a Bubba Gump Shrimp company restaurant in Maui. He turned a chance meeting into a string of TV appearances and as you can see in the photo, at one time, he was a less than the buff actor that he is now in Parks and Recreation, which brought him some pretty decent street cred as an actor.
Before Parks and Recreation, his big television break came as part of the cast of The O.C. The experiences on the two shows were more than enough to earn him some more prominent roles in films including Money Ball and Bride Wars.
7. Chris Pratt (Now)
Chris Pratt is now a huge movie star. He’s recently been seen in films like Jurassic World and Passengers, and he owes that success to the one Marvel film than no one really thought was going to be a huge success but actually was. Guardians of the Galaxy was probably the least mainstream film Marvel had ever produced up to that point. It didn’t have the big name comic book characters nor the huge star quality that drew fans to the other movies, but it didn’t matter. It was one of the best Marvel movies ever made and has a cult following that is perhaps stronger than many of its Marvel partners. Pratt wasn’t necessarily the major star of the latest film, but he’ll be a huge part of all future sequels and is slated to have a role in Avengers: Infinity War.
6. Nicholas Hoult (Then)
Before he was Beast, he was a kid actor out of London who started in his first film at the age of five. He recalls enjoying acting more than he thought it was something he would turn into a career. He definitely did and by the time he was 11 years old, he became part of the very well-received film, About a Boy. Hoult was praised for his performance. From there, he went on to star in the television series Skins, and his performance as Tony Stonem opened all sorts of doors for him. While he was prepping to shoot Mad Max: Fury Road, it was a rain delay that opened the door for Hoult to the Marvel Universe. Sometimes, these things just have a way of working themselves out.
5. Nicholas Hoult (Now)
Because Mad Max: Fury Road was being delayed unexpectedly, Hoult needed a job and called his agent in a panic. His agent let him know that the new X-Men production was interested in him. He auditioned and got the part of Hank McCoy/Beast in the 2011 superhero film, X-Men: First Class, a prequel to the original X-Men franchise. In 2014, he returned to his role as Beast in the film X-Men: Days Of Future Past. The movie was a huge hit and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. He came back again for X-Men Apocalypse.
Considering that Hoult wasn’t even going to be in a Marvel film, and wouldn’t have been if Mad Max had started shooting on time, he’s done pretty well in the Marvel Universe and may have more roles to play. He is not scheduled to play any role in the next Avengers film, Avengers: Infinity War, which is known to include a ton of characters from the Marvel Universe.
4. Michael Fassbender (Then)
Long before Michael Fassbender was set to become one of the most iconic villains in the Marvel Universe, he was preparing for the role by starring in movies like the war epic 300, and the mini-series, Band of Brothers. He wasn’t a stranger to working on movies that involved comic book characters either, as he played Burke in Jonah Hex. The film wasn’t met with much success and was not well-received by critics. When asked about it after the film’s original release, Fassbender stated he wasn’t sure how to respond as he hadn’t even seen it. It was a far lower bar and a completely different outcome when he wound up being cast in another comic book movie. Fassbender portrayed Magneto in the superhero blockbuster X-Men: First Class.
3. Michael Fassbender (Now)
Fassbender reprised his role as Magento in two further X-Men films. He came back in 2014 in X-Men: Days of Future Past and again in 2016, for X-Men: Apocalypse. He’s on a run in major action movies, including Assassin’s Creed and Alien: Covenant.
To say that Fassbender was the weaker of the two Magneto’s wouldn’t exactly be fair. He did a respectable job, but when you’re up against a legend like Ian McKellen (who played the older version of Magneto in the earlier films), you’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill. It’s fair to say that he wasn’t able to do so. He’s still a fine actor and his portrayal of the Marvel anti-hero has helped launched him into the conversation as one of Hollywood’s leading men.
2. Elizabeth Olsen (Then)
When you’re the younger sister of actresses and fashion moguls Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, there are only a few ways you can probably go with your career—acting, fashion, or acting. At an early age, she chose acting and jumped into some roles with her older sisters. By the age of 10, Elizabeth Olsen called herself retired because she was sick of the career and lifestyle that came with it. She was especially not fond of how her sister Mary Kate‘s eating disorder.
Fortunately for Marvel fans everywhere, she had a change of heart and got back into the industry. In 2011, for her role in the critically acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene, she was nominated for numerous awards including the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead.
1. Elizabeth Olsen (Now)
Olsen has now been a part of three Marvel Universe films. She was cast as Scarlet Witch and had a brief cameo in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Olsen later returned to a larger and much more important role as Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron and then again in Captain America: Civil War as one of the principal reasons the superheroes end up fighting among themselves. Don’t expect to see a spin-off for her character in its own film, however. Olsen understands that it’s one thing to love your character, but another to have it be necessary to make a standalone film for it. Fortunately, she will be a part of the big ensemble cast that is coming together for The Avengers: Infinity War movie.