Warning! This article contains spoilers for MCU Phases 4 & 5 movies and shows
The MCU has pushed its own boundaries so often that it’s easy to forget the large number of shocking events and introductions throughout the years, including Spider-Man and Daredevil’s MCU debut, Hulk’s Sakaarian gladiator twist, and Thor and Rocket’s
- Genre-defining moments like Doctor Strange’s battle against Thanos, the Avengers’ final team-up, the three Spider-Men’s battle against their multiversal villains, Scarlet Witch’s Illuminati massacre, and Loki’s ultimate sacrifice have marked landmark points in the MCU’s history.
The MCU has also advanced in terms of tonal variety, format, and representation, with examples such as
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
She-Hulk: Attorney At Law
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown so much that it’s easy to forget how unlikely many MCU scenes would have seemed back in Phase 1. Every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded the franchise, whether through the introduction of new characters or through a bold addition to the MCU’s ambitious stories. As the MCU continues to grow, concepts that used to seem impossible to adapt become more likely to be incorporated, and outlandish characters become more likely to appear somewhere in the franchise.
As upcoming MCU movies in the near future get ready to raise the bar, a look back at the MCU’s early days shows how far the franchise has come so far. By Phase 5, it’s easy to take certain elements for granted given how long they have stayed since their integration. Yet, they represented massive breakthroughs for the franchise when they were introduced. The MCU’s evolution throughout the years isn’t always parallel with the MCU’s chronological timeline, but it does represent the growth of the cinematic universe inside and outside the screen.
15 Spider-Man Helps Iron Man Defeat Giant-Man Amidst A Superhero Civil War
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The MCU had already proved its potential by 2016 with ambitious movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the Russo Bros’ Captain America: Civil War broke new ground with a conflict between two teams of Avengers. Not only did the MCU’s Civil War manage to adapt a crowded and narratively complex comic book storyline, but it also delivered a shocking surprise with the addition of Spider-Man, whose MCU introduction still seemed impossible right before the movie’s first trailer revealed his participation. Seeing Spider-Man topple a giant Ant-Man as Iron Man and War Machine deliver the final blow epitomized a fan dream come true.
14 Thor Fights Gladiator Hulk on Sakaar
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Just like an MCU adaptation of Marvel’s Civil War seemed almost impossible back in Phase 1, an MCU Planet Hulk movie seemed like it was completely off the table given Marvel’s limited use of Hulk’s movie rights. However, Marvel Studios found the perfect way to make that unlikely possibility true without giving Hulk a solo sequel. Just one year after Captain America: Civil War, 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok delivered another shocking surprise in its trailer with the addition of a champion gladiator Hulk, who battled Thor at Sakaar as the Grandmaster’s favorite fighter while Loki watched — all before they allied with Valkyrie to fight Hela and try to stop Ragnarok.
13 Doctor Strange Fights Thanos On Titan
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Almost everything about Avengers: Infinity War would have seemed like exaggerated fan fiction back in the MCU’s Phase 1. The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy’s battle against Thanos on Titan, specifically, has many elements that would have been impossible to imagine in Phase 1: Spider-Man wearing the Iron Spider armor, Iron Man wearing a nanotech suit, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doctor Strange himself. The clash between Thanos’ Infinity Stones and Doctor Strange’s reality-bending magic still stands as one of the most creative and visually stunning MCU fights to this day, and not a single second of it seemed possible just a few years before.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
On a more lighthearted note, the MCU’s jokes and gags also became bolder as each installment grew more confident in the franchise’s comedy. Whereas Phase 1 movies like Iron Man, Thor, and The Avengers relished in the heroes’ charismatic speech and the banter between eccentric characters, Phase 3 entries like Ant-Man and Avengers: Endgame included all kind of purely comedic lines and gags such as a giant drum-playing ant in Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain America complimenting his own buttocks in Avengers: Endgame. Considering how uptight Steve Rogers was at the beginning of the MCU, such a comment would have seemed out of character a couple of appearances prior.
11 Rocket Raccoon and Thor Travel Back In Time
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The most outlandish part of the MCU in Phase 1 used to be its cosmic side, with Thor’s Asgardian lore introducing aliens and gods back when only geniuses, monsters, and super soldiers were known. But even then, the possibility of a beer-chugging, heavily unkempt Thor traveling back in time alongside Rocket Raccoon to remove a liquid Infinity Stone from an off-screen Jane Foster would have been laughable. However, Thor and Rocket Raccoon’s Avengers: Endgame mission wasn’t only credible with context, but it was also one of the most emotional moments in Thor’s long MCU journey thanks to his reunion with his mother Frigga, who understood her son’s pain.
10 The Avengers Assemble To Fight Thanos
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
The MCU’s first “Avengers Assemble” scene in Phase 1’s The Avengers was the culmination of five movies’ worth of set-up and Kevin Feige’s decade-long efforts to create a shared universe. What wasn’t yet clear in 2012, however, was that the Avengers’ first team-up would lead to a massive crossover that involved dozens of Marvel characters in Avengers: Endgame, where the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, the Wakandans, the Ravagers, the sorcerers, and even Howard the Duck joined forces to defeat Thanos and his army. On top of that, Avengers: Endgame shocked audiences with Captain America’s mastery over Thor’s Mjolnir and Iron Man’s ultimate sacrifice using all Infinity Stones.
9 Daredevil Helps Spider-Man Clear His Name After Mysterio’s Death
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
Spider-Man’s MCU introduction opened the door for more collaboration between Marvel Studios and other companies. After Marvel’s decision to focus on its own TV division and the subsequent cancelation of all Netflix Marvel shows, the disappointment felt over the end of Netflix’s Defenders shows was alleviated with the incorporation of their characters into the MCU. Just five years after Spider-Man’s unlikely MCU debut shocked fans, Tom Holland’s Peter Parker was already interacting with Charlie Cox’s Daredevil at the end of his trilogy — two characters who couldn’t even be mentioned in Phase 1 sharing the screen together in an MCU movie.
8 All 3 Live-Action Spider-Men Unite In An MCU Movie
Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
If Spider-Man’s MCU introduction seemed impossible back in Phase 1, then an entire MCU Spider-Man trilogy seemed like a pipe dream, and a movie starring all three live-action Spider-Man would have seemed like a cruel joke. Against all odds, Marvel and Sony worked together to make one of the most unlikely films in superhero movie history. Despite the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, actors’ schedules, delays, changes in the MCU’s plans, and production leaks, Spider-Man: No Way Home managed to surprise audiences with a heartfelt movie that included Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, Benedict Cumberbatch, Willem Dafoe, Aldred Molina, Jamie Foxx, Thomas Haden Church, and Rhys Ifans.
7 Scarlet Witch Kills The Multiversal Illuminati
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness goes a step further and not only introduces unlikely characters but also kills them in gruesome ways that couldn’t have been possible back in Phase 1. Earth-838’s short-lived multiversal Illuminati included John Krasinski’s Reed Richards, who couldn’t have been added to the MCU back when Fox owned the Fantastic Four; Patrick Stewart’s Professor X, who used to be a major character in Fox’s X-Men franchise, and Anson Mount’s Black Bolt, who seemed unlikely to return after ABC’s unpopular Inhumans show. Scarlet Witch, an already difficult character to explain back in Phase 1, pushed the MCU’s violence to the limit by massacring them effortlessly.
6 She-Hulk Climbs Out Of The Screen And Enters Marvel Studios
She-Hulk: Attorney At Law (2022)
Deadpool made a breakthrough in 2016 with its R-rated violence and fourth-wall-breaking humor. In 2022, She-Hulk replicated Deadpool’s magic in her own show, She-Hulk: Attorney At Law, where she repeatedly broke the fourth wall. But She-Hulk also went one step further and manipulated the events of her own series, escaped the show through the Disney+ menu, and entered Marvel Studios in search of her show’s writers. Breaking every boundary between fiction and real life in classic She-Hulk fashion, Jennifer Walters spoke with Kevin Feige’s robot alter ego about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and achieved what could be the most unexpected feat in the entire MCU.
5 Drax And Mantis Chase Down Kevin Bacon
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022)
Another merging point between fiction and real life took place in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, where Drax and Mantis visited Earth with the sole mission of kidnapping Kevin Bacon in order to force him to cheer up Star-Lord. Considering how Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers were huge risks for Marvel and the superhero genre at the time of their release, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special‘s absurd plot would have seemed like an April’s Fools movie pitch around 2010. But by 2022, it can even go unnoticed give how much the genre has grown since the Avengers first assembled.
4 Falsworth Tortures A Skrull Rebel
Secret Invasion (2023)
Movies like Deadpool and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, as well as shows like The Punisher, have continously upped the ante when it comes to violence in the superhero genre. Yet, the MCU pushed the boundaries a little further with Secret Invasion‘s gruesome torture scene, in which Sonya Falsworth nonchalantly cuts a Skrull rebel’s finger off. While the MCU had already suggested a variety of dark implications in previous movies and shows, Secret Invasion‘s close-up of the Skrull’s finger getting sliced clean off his hand was a first in the MCU’s history.
3 Loki Saves All Timelines In The Marvel Multiverse
Loki Season 2 (2023)
Loki’s introduction in 2011’s Thor set up his villain role in The Avengers, but not even Tom Hiddleston expected him to become such an important character in the MCU a decade later. Thanks to time travel and the multiverse, Loki ended up becoming a full-fledged hero after his own death, and his redemption eventually led to him saving the Marvel multiverse. Outside of time and space, Loki finished redeeming himself in the Loki season 2 finale, giving order to all the existing timelines so their inhabitants could have free will in the past, present, and future — a goal completely opposed to his desire for power back in Phase 1.
2 Valkyrie & Captain Marvel’s Hinted Romance
The Marvels (2023)
The MCU has made advances in representation at a snail’s pace, but certain moments could have only happened in later Phases. Phastos’ marriage in Eternals, Loki’s subtle nod to his bisexuality in Loki season 1, and America Chavez’s flashback to her two mothers in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness are some instances of brief LGBTQ+ representation in the MCU. But the closest Marvel has come to showing two major LGBTQ+ heroes in a relationship is in The Marvels, where an off-screen fling between Carol Danvers and Valkyrie was suggested in a fleeting but still significant moment.
1 Nick Fury Bonds With The Flerken Kittens
Captain Marvel (2019) and The Marvels (2023)
Back when Nick Fury appeared in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers, one of the MCU’s many mysteries was the SHIELD director’s past. How he amassed so much power and influence, where he was trained, and how he lost his eye were part of Nick Fury’s allure as a regular human character who pulled the strings behind the Avengers. More than a decade later, Nick Fury is running around surrounded by ultra-powerful, monstrous Flerken kittens aboard a space station, and it’s now common MCU knowledge that Nick Fury lost his eye to a Flerken, Goose, when he was a naive and rather inexperienced SHIELD agent.