Summary

  • Iron Man 3 drew inspiration from Apocalypse Now, with the depiction of the Mandarin modeled after Colonel Kurtz. Both movies explore PTSD and the effects of shocking violence.
  • Doctor Strange’s visuals were inspired by Disney’s Fantasia, using kaleidoscopic visuals and occult elements to create a psychedelic exploration of the superhero genre.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy referenced The Right Stuff to capture a retro-futuristic tone, showcasing classic spaceship designs and grounding the cosmic setting in a familiar context.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has developed into a diverse range of cinematic styles, and as such, has amassed some very surprising sources of inspiration. Numerous classic movies have influenced the entire MCU timeline, drawing from various genres in adapting the beloved Marvel Comics. While there have been some very obvious movies the MCU has drawn from, there are also some very surprising ones.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proffered science fiction narratives, horror stories, and romping action-adventure plots. With some more exciting developments expected in the MCU’s future, it should be no surprise that a range of beloved movies were considered while making Marvel movies. Even the best movies in the MCU were inspired by some surprising movies.

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10 Apocalypse Now Influenced Iron Man 3

The Mandarin Was Based On Colonel Kurtz

Ben Kingsley as the fake Mandarin in Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3

Release Date
May 3, 2013

Director
Shane Black

Runtime
130 Mins

Iron Man 3 took direct inspiration from the classic war movie Apocalypse Now. The prime example is the depiction of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin, which was modeled after Colonel Kurtz (via Y! Entertainment). The high-contrast lighting and shadowed depiction of the Mandarin were directly inspired by the way Marlon Brando’s Kurtz was lit during his infamous Apocalypse Now scene. Additionally, both movies explore themes of post-traumatic stress disorder, presented with a startling and gritty realism. The emotional and physical journey Tony Stark endures is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, presenting the narrative as a war movie.

9 Disney’s Fantasia Inspired Doctor Strange’s Visuals

The Psychedelic Visuals Set Doctor Strange Apart In The MCU

Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

Release Date
November 4, 2016

Director
Scott Derrickson

Runtime
126 minutes

Doctor Strange was very obviously influenced by the trippy visuals from the movie Inception, but another surprising influence was Disney’s Fantasia. Doctor Strange‘s cinematographer Ben Davis made the comparison, suggesting the movie was unlike anything Marvel had done before, exploring very different and diverse artistic directions. Fantasia animated incredibly imaginative visuals to accompany various pieces of classical music, some of which are noted for their psychedelic sequences. The main comparison comes through the movie’s Mirror Dimension, which blends kaleidoscopic visuals with the occult and the supernatural. Consequently, Doctor Strange stands out from other Marvel movies as a psychedelic exploration of animated potential.

8 The Right Stuff Guided Guardians Of The Galaxy

James Gunn Wanted To Recall Classic Space Movies And Their US Origins

Guardians of the Galaxy Star-Lord wearing his Helmet and zipping up jacket

Guardians of the Galaxy

Release Date
August 1, 2014

Cast
Zoe Saldana , Karen Gillan , Vin Diesel , Michael Rooker , Djimon Hounsou , Lee Pace , Benicio Del Toro , Glenn Close , Dave Bautista , ​Chris Pratt2 , Bradley Cooper , John C. Reilly

Runtime
122 Mins

While making Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn noted that the movie that they referenced the most while filming was Phillip Kaufman’s 1983 historical drama The Right Stuff (via Gizmodo). The Right Stuff adapted the true story of Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight by the United States. The Right Stuff was used to recall the classic spaceship designs and, in turn, make the movie feel more real and grounded. This undoubtedly contributed to the retro-futuristic tone deployed in Guardians of the Galaxy, helping to bestow the movie with a unique tone that seemed oddly familiar despite its cosmic setting.

7 Raiders Of The Lost Ark Directly Inspired Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America’s Actions Were Modeled After Indiana Jones

Captain America: The First Avenger was directly shaped by the classic Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Director Joe Johnson called the classic Spielberg movie a “template” while developing Captain America, noting that they often based the hero’s actions around what they thought Indiana Jones would do (via FirstShowing). This arguably helped craft Steve Rogers into the quintessential hero, recalling the most famous adventurer in cinematic history. The influence can also be seen in the depiction of Red Skull and the Nazis, who, throughout Captain America: The First Avenger, are portrayed as stalwart movie villains, mirroring the famed antagonists from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

6 The Breakfast Club Shaped Spider-Man: Homecoming

Jon Watts Wanted To Emulate 1980s Teen Dramas

Ned, MJ and Peter leaning against the lockers in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Release Date
July 7, 2017

Director
Jon Watts

Cast
Michael Keaton , Martin Starr , Angourie Rice , Robert Downey Jr. , Marisa Tomei , Bokeem Woodbine , Logan Marshall-Green , Garcelle Beauvais , Michael Mando , Zendaya , Tom Holland , Jon Favreau , Donald Glover , Hannibal Buress

Runtime
133 Minutes

As the MCU reframed their Spider-Man movies around a teenage rendition of the character, director Jon Watts decided to take inspiration from classic teen movies from the 1980s. These included Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and most notably, The Breakfast Club (via IndieWire). The depiction of Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s teenage main characters mirrors the representation found in the classic movie, with distinctive personality types and dynamics established between the high school students. Watts used the teenage angst narratives to reflect Peter Parker’s adolescent identity issues, expanding the typical teenage story to include superhero issues.

5 The Holy Mountain Influenced Thor Ragnarok

Taika Waititi’s Impressive Visuals Were Inspired By The Surrealist Cult Classic

Taika Waititi infused a startling new tone into the MCU’s Thor movies, including humor, bright colors, and some psychedelic visuals. The changes were noticeable immediately and continued through to Thor: Love and Thunder. In looking for inspiration, Waititi explored Alejandro Jodorowsky’s classic surrealist movie The Holy Mountain (via The Independent). Waititi stated that The Holy Mountain was referenced throughout Ragnarok‘s pre-production, directly influencing the movie’s design and color palette. The Holy Mountain clearly influenced Ragnarok‘s use of symmetry and the expressionistic set designs, which created an alien world unlike others depicted in the MCU.

4 Flash Gordon Shaped Avengers: Endgame

Joe Russon Wanted To Emulate Flash Gordon’s Visual Style

Avengers and their allies enter the final battle with Thanos in Avenger: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

Release Date
April 26, 2019

Cast
Chris Hemsworth , Anthony Mackie , Paul Rudd , Robert Downey Jr. , Scarlett Johansson , Mark Ruffalo , Evangeline Lilly , Sebastian Stan , Josh Brolin , Elizabeth Olsen , Tom Holland , Don Cheadle , Samuel L. Jackson , Bradley Cooper , Karen Gillan , Brie Larson , Paul Bettany , Chris Evans , Jeremy Renner , Chadwick Boseman

Runtime
3 hours, 2 minutes

One of the most surprising influences on the MCU’s epic Avengers: Endgame was the classic science fiction movie Flash Gordon. Director Joe Russo has stated that he wanted to recreate Flash Gordon‘s over-the-top visual style and nonstop action (via Comicbook.com). Flash Gordon is known for its relentless action sequences, which perfectly blend into each other. This can be seen very evidently in Avengers: Endgame, which is streamlined and packed with action to a comparable degree. The final battle with Thanos is certainly reminiscent of the final battle in Flash Gordon, in which the sky was filled with flying antagonists, set against a science fiction backdrop with fantasy elements.

3 The Dirty Dozen Inspired The Avengers

Joss Whedon Structured The Avengers Like The Dirty Dozen

The Avengers

Release Date
May 4, 2012

Cast
Chris Hemsworth , Mark Ruffalo , Robert Downey Jr. , Scarlett Johansson , Samuel L. Jackson , Stellan Skarsgård , Clark Gregg , Paul Bettany , Cobie Smulders , Tom Hiddleston , Jeremy Renner , gwyneth paltrow , Chris Evans

Runtime
2h 23m

Assembling Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was never going to be an easy feat, so director Joss Wheadon took inspiration from one of the greatest war movies of all time, The Dirty Dozen (via PopMatters). The Dirty Dozen depicted a group of ragtag soldiers training to infiltrate Germany before D-Day. The team-up narrative inspired Whedon’s structure for The Avengers, as a group of heroes from disparate backgrounds learned how to work as part of a team to battle a great evil. The theme of teamwork and the formation of an unconventional alliance aligns the two movies, showcasing The Dirty Dozen‘s influence on the creation of the superhero ensemble dynamic.

2 How To Train Your Dragon Influenced Black Widow

The Tone And Color Palette For Black Widow Was Inspired By How To Train Your Dragon

Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova in the wreckage of the Red Room in Black Widow

Black Widow

Release Date
July 9, 2021

Director
Cate Shortland

Runtime
134 minutes

In a 2020 interview with Empire Magazine, Black Widow director Cate Shortland explained that she was inspired in part by the movie How to Train Your Dragon. The muted color palette is very similar, offering a more grounded appearance in both movies despite their fantastical narratives. The familial themes are very obvious, exploring notions of unlikely family members reuniting. While certainly a surprising choice of inspiration, the parallels in aesthetics and design are clear, indicating the cross-genre influences that shaped Black Widow. How to Train Your Dragon wasn’t the only surprising inspiration for Black Widow though.

1 Thelma & Louise Inspired Black Widow

Black Widow Recreated The Feminist Road Movie

Natasha and Yelena in a car in Black Widow

Black Widow‘s exploration of female empowerment and unconventional partnerships was directly inspired by the classic feminist movie Thelma & Louise. Shortland drew on the iconic road trip movie’s themes of resilience and camaraderie, influencing the dynamic between Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova. The spirit of independence and the complexities of female relationships evident in Thelma & Louise contributed to the nuanced portrayal of sisterhood in Black Widow, showcasing the lasting impact of the film on female-led narratives. This is particularly observable during the driving sequences, which center on Natasha and Yelena’s relationship. With the MCU‘s varied sources of inspiration, Thelma & Louise might be the most surprising.

Sources: Y! Entertainment, Gizmodo, FirstShowing, IndieWire, The Independent, Comicbook.com, PopMatters

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