When the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off with “Iron Man” in 2008, few would have predicted that two decades later it would still be going strong. With dozens of movies, plus an ever-expanding roster of TV shows taking us even deeper into the lives of the franchise’s various characters, the MCU has reached the point where it has arguably eclipsed any other franchise in terms of size, scope, and fanbase.
Yet, somehow the Universe keeps expanding with new characters, new story elements, and new ideas. So, even as fans have become intimately familiar with so many residents of the MCU, its latest movies and TV shows still manage to keep them guessing, whether they’re building on revered comic-book storylines, baking in perfectly considered moments of fan service, or finding ways to make viewers fall in love with favorite superheroes all over again.
From “Iron Man” through “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and beyond, filmmakers continue to keep viewers off-guard; it is an undeniable ingredient in the thrill of being an MCU fan. With that in mind, here are the most unexpected things to happen in the MCU thus far.
The Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3
The big reveal of “Iron Man 3” that the Mandarin’s true identity was not who it appeared to become a polarizing moment in MCU history. Love it or hate it, the Shane Black-engineered moment was one most viewers did not see coming – and nearly a decade later, would become a major plot point in a different MCU film.
When trailers were initially released for the third film in the “Iron Man” series, fans learned the Mandarin would be joining the franchise; a longtime comic book adversary for Iron Man, his appearance felt as inevitable as it was straightforward. Yet, Mandarin had a slippery history when it came to his racial origins in old comic books, and the casting of Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley seemed to indicate (for some) a possible whitewashing of the character that might just make matters worse.
Ultimately, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark discovered the supposed leader of the Ten Rings was an actor named Trevor Slattery, hired to terrorize Stark in the guise of the Mandarin. A self-centered coward who saw the Mandarin as “just a role,” he was a smokescreen for Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the ultimate mastermind behind this particular Mandarin terrorist threat.
While fans were torn about this re-imagining of Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, many enjoyed Slattery’s antics, and a Marvel One-Shot short depicting his life in prison (and subsequent abduction by the “real” Mandarin) was well-received. Consequently, Marvel surprised fans once again a decade later — by making Kingsley’s Slattery a significant supporting character in 2021’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” continuing his storyline as a prisoner of the title character’s father, the real Mandarin.
Kingpin’s return in Hawkeye
As the MCU came to dominate the box office throughout the 2010s, Marvel also made inroads via a separate but parallel world of TV, releasing series like “Agents of SHIELD” on broadcast networks and streaming platforms. While “SHIELD” sometimes reacted to events in Marvel movies (or featured cameos by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury), a headlines-making partnership with Netflix yielded 6 interrelated “Defenders”-orbiting series that had even less to do with the MCU, occasional references to the Battle of New York notwithstanding.
Nevertheless, “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” and “The Punisher” were largely well-received during their 2015 – 2018 production window, even if “Iron Fist” and “The Defenders” were largely viewed as disappointments. In late 2018/early 2019, the Netflix production partnership was dissolved and the series’ axed, seemingly ending such castings as Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock, Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle, Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones, Mike Colter’s Luke Cage and Vincent D’Onofrio’s terrifying, nuanced take on Wilson Fisk.
After nearly three years of radio silence on the denizens of Hell’s Kitchen, Marvel served up a massive slice of fan service in December of 2021. In a matter of days, Charlie Cox made a cameo as Murdoch in “No Way Home,” D’Onofrio appeared on the Disney+ series Hawkeye as Kingpin, and suddenly the MCU seemed open to accepting the discarded Netflix heroes as canon.
While whispered rumors had swirled before the reveal, it was a delightful surprise to see the characters join the MCU — now, fans have their fingers crossed that these reveals could not only lead to more Cox Daredevil and D’Onofrio Kingpin but also a return of Ritter, Colter, Bernthal and/or other Netflix takes on the beloved characters.
Quicksilver’s sacrifice in Age of Ultron
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” may not be the most warmly-regarded MCU outing, but it did offer some unexpected plot points that would shape the MCU.
Chief among them was the death of Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), brother of Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) — aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, even if they technically weren’t called that — who spent most of the movie battling against the Avengers, but ultimately became sympathetic characters. Much like the Mandarin meshugas, this plotline would be revisited nearly a decade later, much to the delight and surprise of MCU fans.
When Pietro died with the line: “You didn’t see that coming,” it was generally assumed that Quicksilver had taken his final fleet-footed step in the MCU. This might have been for the best, as Evan Peters’ take on the same character in the “X-Men” films had been not only more successful and prolific but also perhaps better received. So, the aftermath of Taylor-Johnson’s denouement became not only a formative trauma in the life of Wanda Maximoff — but by the time 2021’s “WandaVision” came to fruition, a plotline whose character duality could be manipulated for story potential, as well as MCU viewers’ delight.
Quill’s dance battle
By now, we all know that since Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was kidnapped by Ravagers and whisked away to outer space as a child, he’s essentially an overgrown adolescent frozen in the intergalactic fantasies of an ’80s kid who watched too many movies, breezing from planet to planet, stealing artifacts and hearts as he goes. His obsession with Earth pop culture — fueled largely by the mixtapes his mother left him before her death — has him dancing his way through heists and other Star-Lord adventures of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and wider MCU films.
However, when he became caught up in a galactic battle between Xandar’s Nova Corps and Ronan the Accuser in the original 2014 “Guardians of the Galaxy,” most fans were just getting to know the character — and likely expected a final act fueled by weapons, explosions, and superpowers … not dance.
In the film’s climactic battle, Quill’s quirky qualities serve him well. When confronted by Ronan on Xandar, instead of the explosive fight that fans — and superbeings — would typically expect, Quill instead initiated a dance battle.
Singing and shimmying in front of the warlord, Ronan became so confused that it allowed the other Guardians enough time to blast Ronan and retrieve the Power Stone. It was a memorable exclamation point on Pratt’s now-iconic character, and all these years later, the “Guardians” haven’t lost their groove.
Aunt May’s fate in Spider-Man: No Way Home
The third “Spider-Man” film in the MCU was packed with surprises, from the web-head (Tom Holland) teaming up with counterparts that came in previous Spider-series to a “Venom” series tie-in. But one of the most unexpected moments in “No Way Home” turned out to be much less about the stunt-casting and more about hard-earned audience affection for an ill-fated character.
In the “Spider-Man” series before the MCU, the death of Uncle Ben had always been a catalyst for the raison d’etre of the friendly neighborhood web-slinger. But without a Ben in his origin story, Holland’s Peter had instead been in the care of Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) — and had seemed to discover his fate without a comparable tragedy; well, until now.
When May encourages Peter to help the villains who have arrived in the MCU from alternate universes instead of sending them home to die, Peter follows her advice. But when Green Goblin takes control of Norman Osborn’s body, Aunt May pays the price. Among her final words? “With great power, there must come great responsibility.”
Tony Stark confirms he’s Iron Man
Pop culture has been telling us for more than three-quarters of a century that superheroes must keep their identities hidden — the concept even pre-dates Superman, stretching back to heroes like Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and the Scarlet Pimpernel. So, viewers took it for granted in 2008, when the original “Iron Man” film came out, that Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark would do everything in his power to keep Iron Man’s true identity on the down-low.
But the movie ended with Stark addressing the world’s media at a press conference, distancing his gaze from the index cards in his hand and announcing instead with a twinkle in his eye that “I am Iron Man.” It was not only an early signal that the MCU was willing to take big swings and diverge from the superhero playbook but also spoke volumes about the nature of this cocksure hero. Stark simply isn’t the alter-ego type, and in hindsight, his inability to stop himself from taking credit for Iron Man was perfectly in keeping with who he’d become.
Hawkeye and Black Widow fight to the death
Many fans went into “Avengers: Endgame” expecting the conclusion of the saga to be the most high-stakes MCU outing yet. Thanos (Josh Brolin) had snapped half of mankind out of existence, and rumors had been circulating for some time that it might be the last Marvel film for Downey and/or Chris Evans. Yet, the trauma and tragedy of what came next was largely unexpected — and would have repercussions that continue to echo through the MCU today.
When Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton found themselves in Vormir during the movie’s time heist, they were faced with the prospect of a love sacrifice required to retrieve the Soul Stone. The two noble heroes each had their reasons for wanting to give their lives for the cause, and the unexpectedly heartbreaking result was seeing these best friends fierce fight to the death.
While Barton does his best to sacrifice himself, Natasha is ultimately the victor, heroically accepting her demise. Even though Barton retrieves the Soul Stone, there are no winners in this battle, a point made clear again years later in the “Hawkeye” TV series.
Bucky Barnes is the Winter Soldier
One of the most harrowing moments in the MCU occurred when Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) was killed in action during World War II in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Evans and Stan had created such a believable relationship in that first Joe Johnston-helmed “Captain America” film, and it made Cap’s loss feel overwhelming.
Those who hadn’t read the comics — and those who knew the MCU didn’t always follow their lead — were afraid that audiences may have seen the last of Cap’s eager-to-please sidekick. So it turned out to be a welcomed surprise when the title villain in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was revealed as Cap’s long-lost friend.
Steve’s astonishment reflected the feelings of many viewers, especially since the movie was set decades after Steve had last seen Bucky. The revelations came fast and furious as Bucky was not only alive and looking young, but also working for HYDRA. Naturally, Steve and Bucky’s previously-established friendship helped goose the rest of the movie, making the pair’s climactic confrontation all the more poignant.
Nick Fury was a Krull in Far From Home
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) was an integral part of the plot of “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” he was the one who sought Peter Parker out while he was visiting Europe, recruiting him to team up with Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), the up and coming superhero known as Mysterio, to stop the Elementals. Following the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fury was depicted as having been driven into the shadows, but doing his best to continue to enlist superheroes to eliminate ongoing threats to the world.
So, how shocking was it to learn that Nick Fury … wasn’t Nick Fury at all?
The film’s post-credits scene brought with it the revelation that Fury may have been less invested in protecting Earth than the rest of the movie led fans to believe. It showed Fury and his loyal associate Maria Hill changing into the forms of the Krulls Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) and Soren (Sharon Blynn). Their conversation then revealed that Fury had deployed the shape-shifting aliens to do his job while he took some need R & R. Even the most die-hard government agents, it seems, need a vacation now and then.