Summary

  • Taking risks has been key to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success, with some decisions paying off and others not.
  • Replacing James “Rhodey” Rhodes in Iron Man 2 was a risk that worked out well, as Don Cheadle became one of the franchise’s best heroes.
  • Killing off Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame was a risky move that could have caused major issues, but it made for a wonderful end to his character arc.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has built its continued success on a number of groundbreaking cinematic innovations, taking a number of risks in the process. Since its inception in 2008, the MCU has established itself as the most successful movie franchise of all time. This success is the result of significant innovation, with the franchise offering interesting and insightful adaptations of the characters and stories of Marvel Comics. The movies of the MCU have proven hugely popular, with a good deal of its success coming as a result of the franchise’s willingness to take major risks either on-screen or behind the scenes.

Many potentially risky decisions have actually paid off incredibly well for the franchise, but certainly not all of them. Throughout the ever-growing movie timeline of the MCU, Marvel Studios has made a number of gambles on new or unexpected ideas that may not have worked as expected, as well as some that appeared to work out far better than the studio could have ever hoped. Such risks have largely contributed to the franchise’s landmark success, but they could just as easily have proved its undoing.

Related: 10 Risky MCU Casting Decisions That Completely Paid Off

10 Replacing Rhodey

Iron Man 2 Swapped Out A Key MCU Hero

The first movie in the MCU, 2008’s Iron Man, introduced a number of long-lasting characters to the franchise. One of them was James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Tony Stark’s friend who was destined to become his fellow Avenger War Machine. Terrence Howard played Rhodey in the character’s first outing, but Marvel was forced to take a risk in replacing him for the sequel due to contract issues. Though replacing an important Marvel hero after just one appearance could have been disastrous, Don Cheadle was able to make the role his own and became one of the franchise’s best heroes, having since appeared in multiple MCU TV shows and movies.

9 A Huge Ensemble Cast

Eternals’ Massive Cast Introduced Too Many Characters

The Eternals stand in a line on a beach in their MCU Phase 4 movie

Phase 4’s Eternals demonstrated that even in the post-Endgame MCU, the franchise was still willing to take risks. One such risk involved the nature of Eternals’ cast of characters, which comprised a team of 10 central heroes and several other important heroes and villains introduced. Bringing so many potentially important characters into the franchise all at once came with the potential to move the MCU’s wider story forward, but the risk backfired: Eternals’ huge ensemble cast proved a little too big, and the film was criticized as overstuffed and lacking a compelling villain.

8 Bringing Back Non-MCU Characters

Linking Continuity To Other Marvel Movies Could Have Been Messy

With the introduction of the MCU’s Multiverse Saga came an entirely new sort of narrative risk. As the MCU began exploring the Multiverse, it started to bring in characters from previous Marvel movies and TV shows, identifying them as variants from other universes. The risk in doing so is subtle but undeniable, as it creates unavoidable comparisons between unrelated stories and potentially undermines the MCU’s own characters and stories. Thankfully, these crossovers and cameos have largely been well-received and don’t seem to have hurt the Multiverse Saga whatsoever.

7 Introducing Legacy Heroes

Replacing Original Avengers Is Always A Gamble

As the MCU’s story has progressed, its characters have undergone their own narrative arcs. This means that many of the franchise’s original heroes are now aging, and the MCU has begun to introduce replacement heroes. The likes of Sam Wilson, Kate Bishop, and Yelena Belova being written in to take the mantles of the original Avengers is a risk, as it comes with unavoidable comparisons that may not always prove favorable to the newer characters. Though it’s an important part of the MCU’s progression, it’s still something of a risk that may yet backfire. It’s still too early to say if the move will pay off.

6 Killing Off Half The Avengers

Infinity War Risked Breaking The MCU

Spider-Man Infinity War Death Iron Man

As the beginning to the conclusion of the MCU’s Infinity Saga arc, Avengers: Infinity War was an important narrative moment in the franchise. The film’s shocking end saw half of the franchise’s heroes killed in the blink of an eye by Thanos’ snap, and it was actually a huge potential risk. Having half of the Avengers killed leading into the biggest MCU movie to date ruled out multiple important characters for the Infinity Saga’s finale, and the intention to bring them back wasn’t entirely clear from the outset. Killing so many beloved characters at once could have sparked huge backlash, but thankfully, it worked perfectly to set up Avengers: Endgame.

5 Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Genre Shift

Guardians of the Galaxy’s Sci-Fi Was A Huge First

Guardians of the Galaxy - Prison escape

Back in the MCU’s Phase 2, the franchise took a huge risk going in an entirely new direction with Guardians of the Galaxy. The film centered on a team of lesser-known characters and took its action as far from Earth as possible. Thoroughly embracing the outlandish nature of the sci-fi genre and moving away from the slightly more grounded stories of Phase 1, Guardians of the Galaxy could have been a huge tonal disconnect from the wider MCU. As it happened, James Gunn’s movie proved one of the MCU’s best, introducing an entirely new dimension to the fabric of the franchise.

4 Recasting Hulk

Replacing Norton With Ruffalo Could Have Backfired

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner in The Avengers (2012)

The MCU’s second movie, The Incredible Hulk, may still be one of the franchise’s more divisive films, but it introduced one of the brand’s most important heroes. As one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, Edward Norton seemed an excellent choice for the role of Bruce Banner, but the news that he was being replaced for The Avengers seemed unwise. The then-relatively unknown Mark Ruffalo seemed a risky choice to replace Norton, but the risk paid off: Ruffalo’s dual role of Hulk/Banner has made him one of the franchise’s most beloved heroes.

3 Killing Iron Man

The Death Of The MCU’s Biggest Hero Could Have Caused Major Issues

Tony Stark/Iron Man snaps his fingers in Avengers Endgame.

Arguably the biggest and most significant moment in the MCU to date came at the end of Avengers: Endgame, when Iron Man sacrifices himself in order to stop Thanos. Killing off such a pivotal and well-loved character was a risk, as his role in the franchise was central to many stories, and even though it proved a fitting end to his narrative arc, whether it worked remains to be seen. Upcoming Marvel movies will further establish the MCU post-Endgame, but the absence of Iron Man is still being keenly felt years after his death.

2 Early Shared Universe Teases

The MCU Banked On An Uncertain Future

Samuel L Jackson appearing at the end of Iron Man as Nick Fury

The very first film in the MCU ended with a risky choice: a post-credits scene teasing the presence of other heroes in a wider shared universe. At the time, Marvel couldn’t know how successful the film would be, and so teasing a future that may have never come to pass came with an inherent risk. Luckily, Iron Man was hugely successful, and later movies established these teased heroes in the MCU, meaning that the risk paid off in the most substantial way possible.

1 Casting Robert Downey Jr

Downey Jr’s Career Made Him The MCU’s Biggest – And Best – Risk

Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark sits on the ground at a press conference at the end of Iron Man.

Though it seems unthinkable by today’s standards, casting Robert Downey Jr. as the lead in a superhero movie was considered a huge risk in 2008. The actor had experienced significant personal troubles and a marked career decline, so casting him as Tony Stark could have been disastrous. As it turned out, Downey Jr. was actually born to play the role, with the MCU proving the jumping-off point for a massive career resurgence. Downey Jr.’s role in the franchise helped make it the unprecedented success that it is today, meaning that he was the biggest and best risk ever taken by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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