It’s hard to believe now, but before the first Avengers movie hit screens in 2012, it was a risky proposition.
The movie was a huge hit, stealing the thunder from the final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, crowding theaters, filling Disney’s coffers, and leaving every other studio scrambling to make their own cinematic universe that could culminate in a crossover movie event.
Focusing on financial returns ignores a crucial element of the MCU’s success: every bit of talent is carefully vetted, wooed, and assembled.
It’s not just about getting the best writers or directors or stars, it’s also about getting ones that can, for better or worse, pull off Marvel’s mission.
It goes without saying that the actors who lead their own franchises — Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chadwick Boseman — have made the Avengers movies what they are.
However, not every casting choice works out as well. The MCU has made some of the best cinematic casting decisions of this century, but even they make mistakes.
This list looks at the casting decisions that hurt the Avengers movies in that they disappointed, didn’t totally work, or distracted from the film. It also spotlights the Avengers performances that helped the films.
Here then are the 11 Casting Decisions That Hurt The Avengers Movies (and 12 That Saved Them).
23 23. Hurt: Paul Bettany
People tend to forget that Paul Bettany is, in some ways, the second Avenger to be introduced.
He was the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. in the very first Iron Man before transitioning to full blown superhero Vision in Age of Ultron.
Despite having less than ten minutes in its first cinematic outing, Bettany’s Vision has been active in the MCU.
It destroyed Ultron, started a relationship with Scarlet Witch, and was a key part of Infinity War’s plot.
However, Bettany plays Vision less like an emotionless robot and more like a stereotypical British butler.
Introduced in contrast to the infinitely more charismatic Ultron, Vision suffers as a character. Despite being one of the most powerful entities in the MCU, Vision is the franchise’s least interesting android.
22 22. Saved: Mark Ruffalo
The Hulk is a famously difficult role. No actor aside from Lou Ferrigno had success with it, and both Eric Bana and Edward Norton suffered career lows for attempting it.
The addition of Mark Ruffalo to the Avengers roster was met with cautious interpretation.
Turns out, he was the perfect choice. Not only does Ruffalo vaguely resemble the Hulk, he channeled years of playing nuanced, complicated characters into a Bruce Banner that is pragmatic but tortured.
Most actors play the Hulk as a ticking time bomb. Ruffalo figured out that the key to the character was playing Banner as an exhausted man.
This is even more impressive considering that Ruffalo didn’t have a standalone film to develop his interpretation of the character.
21 21. Hurt: Gwyneth Paltrow
Pepper Potts was never going to be the MCU’s favorite character, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s presence in the Avengers films doesn’t help much. Not all of the blame for this rests with Paltrow.
Even in the Iron Man movies, Pepper is saddled with conventional love interest duties.
It’s a reflection on the MCU’s early days, and perhaps superhero movies in general, that a lot of the female characters’ arcs relied on conveniently-placed obstacles and moments of peril rather than actual character development.
While her role in Avengers is significantly lower stakes, her appearance doesn’t add much.
Pepper is not a particularly interesting character, and Paltrow herself often seems bored in the role, which might explain her absence in the most recent films.
20 20. Saved: Tom Holland
Like Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is proof that great superheroes don’t always need origin stories.
Fans of Tobey Maguire (and to a lesser extent Andrew Garfield) may disagree, but Holland’s Spider-Man is the most faithful iteration of the character.
This is because Holland manages to nail the optimism and teeming energy of the role, letting brooding and angst seep out without consuming the character. It’s a tightrope walk, and Holland has done it the best.
Which makes his turn in Infinity War devastating. Lots of characters disintegrate, but Holland’s desperate pleas and cries for life as he disintegrates in Stark’s arms really bring the tragedy home.
The next Avengers movie might undo some of the damage, but Holland’s performance will likely remain one of the franchise’s most haunting moments.
19 19. Hurt: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Of all the characters to inhabit the Avengers films, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver might be the most disposable.
Appearing in Age of Ultron, his arc consisted of him going from unlikable to redeemed and then to sacrificed.
Writer/director Joss Whedon wrote him to be cocky and annoying, and Taylor-Johnson can hardly be criticized for leaning into it, but the performance never bridges the gap between the character’s actions in the first half and what his fate in the second half is supposed to mean.
Taylor-Johnson has delivered memorable work in other movies, even other superhero ones, earning rave reviews as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy and winning awards for Nocturnal Animals.
However, as Quicksilver, he didn’t sell the character development or match Evan Peters’ performance as the same character in X-Men: Days of Future Past a year earlier.
18 18. Saved: Elizabeth Olsen
Sure, the accent’s spotty, but Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff is the emotional heart of the Avengers.
She also can’t catch a break. By the end of Age of Ultron, she is mourning her brother. In Infinity War, she has to destroy Vision and then watch Thanos do it again before she can even disintegrate.
In a genre light on heartbreak or lasting consequences, she gets the lion’s share.
Olsen makes these moments effective. As an initial antagonist in Age of Ultron, she lets the pain behind her motivations shine through.
In Infinity War, her anxiety and grief become palpable as the stakes rise.
Olsen is a reminder that the MCU’s willingness to lure serious actors away from the indie film circuit is as vital to their success as any CGI effect.
17 17. Hurt: Julie Delpy
Another in a long-line of glorified cameos over-hyped in press releases, Julie Delpy appears briefly as Madame B. in Age of Ultron.
In Natasha Romanoff’s hallucination, she is the spymaster who turned Romanoff into an assassin.
Delpy is one of the best actors of her generation, a renowned writer/director in her own right, yet it’s doubtful that her screen time in Age of Ultron was more than a minute or two.
Sometimes employing top-tier talent is a nice flourish, but other times it’s enough to make you wish you were watching a different movie instead.
Considering that this installment was already a bit overstuffed, Delpy’s cameo was enough to make us wish that we could get a Black Widow standalone movie already or just get on with Ultron’s plan.
16 16. Saved: Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson is periodically the whipping girl of the media, but her work in the Avengers has been a great boon to the franchise.
As Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow, Johansson has had a crucial role in cobbling together the Avengers team and making sure that they stick on screen.
Despite never being the lead hero or villain of any standalone movie, her character has grown and developed over multiple films and franchises.
Much of this is due to Johansson’s ability to play both vulnerable and resilient. After playing the role so many times, some actors might be tempted to phone it in and collect a paycheck.
Johansson keeps adding layers with each performance, imbuing even small amounts of screen time with emotional heft.
15 15. Hurt: Don Cheadle
Don Cheadle is one of the greatest actors working today, but as Colonel James Rhodes/War Machine his presence in the MCU is surprisingly bland.
More than hurting the Avengers movies, Cheadle’s performance just doesn’t resonate particularly well.
He took over a role originated by another actor, is usually firmly placed in the sidekick zone, and the most dramatic thing to happen to him occurred in a Captain America movie.
Rhodey is a minor character who’s just kind of there and happens to be played by a great American actor who looks like he doesn’t have a whole lot to do.
Considering how much is going on in these movies, it’s not hard to imagine that he’s as bored with the character as the audience is.
14 Saved: James Spader
James Spader had a storied career in Hollywood before being cast as Ultron in the second Avengers film. In Spader’s hands, Ultron became sardonic, menacing, and oddly charming.
It’s a testament to Spader’s performance that in a movie packed with characters and jammed with plot beats, Ultron holds the screen whenever its on it.
Every exasperated sigh and monologue is a wickedly humorous moment.
Many MCU movies have been criticized for having one-note, uninteresting villains, but the Avengers series has largely avoided this with sharp writing and good casting.
While the MCU routinely casts its villains with the world’s finest character actors—Mads Mikkelsen, Christopher Eccleston, Jeff Bridges—the results aren’t usually this memorable.
To Spader’s credit, few actors have this much fun attempting to destroy the world while also acting like they’re doing us a favor.
13 13. Hurt: Linda Cardellini
Linda Cardellini’s role in Age of Ultron was divisive. Joss Whedon described her as the film’s secret weapon, but many fans disagreed.
This is a touchy area. The MCU’s love interests are often called out as the weakest elements of the movies, and toxic fandom disproportionately shovels abuse on actresses who are called on to be the wet blanket to the exciting, charming male protagonist.
However, in Age of Ultron, Cardellini’s role is generic, which is surprising given Whedon’s track record for writing strong female characters.
Cardellini has shown that she can infuse even a small role with heart and smarts, so its equally surprising that her performance is all melodrama and schmaltz.
As a wife, Mrs. Barton is a rock, but as a character and a performance, she might as well be a paper cut out.
12 12. Saved: Jeremy Renner
Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has been the source of much derision. He fights alien invaders and dangerous robot armies with a bow and arrow while his teammates use advanced technology and the forces of the universe.
Despite this, Renner’s performance in the Avengers movies sells the spirit of the films. Consider this line from Age of Ultron: “The city is flying and we’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. Nothing makes sense.”
He then follows it with a rousing speech inducting Scarlet Witch into the Avengers.
In another actor’s hands, these lines could be laughable, but Renner channels the right amount of cynicism and earnestness to simultaneously shut down fan criticisms, recognize the ridiculousness of the premise, and somehow make it relatable.
Laura Barton is right: the Avengers do need him to keep them grounded.
11 11. Saved: Powers Boothe
Hollywood tentpoles aren’t usually saved by character actors in small roles that only feature their voice, but such was the brilliance of the late Powers Boothe.
Boothe appears late in the first Avengers as part of the World Security Council that authorizes the nuking of New York City.
The MCU’s TV projects would reveal this character to be Gideon Malick, but it’s Boothe’s ability to turn a throwaway role into serious menace in the original Avengers film that earns him a spot on this list.
Boothe was a prolific actor known for his gravelly voice, so casting him was a no-brainer, but in a limited amount of time Boothe effectively became the film’s secondary villain and upped the stakes with a mere growl. Some MCU cameos distract.
This one resulted in a TV arc and lasting implications for the MCU.
10 10. Hurt: Peter Dinklage
The MCU has a long history of enlisting top talent in cameos, and while this usually pays off, some are more distracting than rewarding.
Take Peter Dinklage in Infinity War. Dinklage plays Eitri, one of the dwarves of Nidavellir, who is actually huge in the movie.
Though Dinklage’s casting had been announced well in advance of Infinity War’s premier, his exact role was a secret until Thor and co. go to forge a new weapon.
While many assumed he’d be playing a different character, the performance was bizarre. Everything from the character’s design to the accent was distracting.
As one of the most popular actors on TV, it’s weird to see Dinklage in a role that obscures his natural charisma behind visual gimmicks and weird accents.
It’s a strangely off-putting performance from an actor who’s almost always interesting.
9 9. Saved: Samuel L. Jackson
Nick Fury was created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, during an era of incredible creativity for Marvel.
When writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch rebooted the character for Marvel’s “The Ultimates” series, they modelled Fury on Samuel L. Jackson.
“The Ultimates” would influence the MCU in different ways, but one of the most obvious is the casting of Jackson as Fury.
No character is more instrumental in building the Avengers franchise than Fury, and Jackson nails the part that was literally written for him.
The decision to cast Fury showed that Marvel was serious about the movies, but it also brought one of today’s most prolific and commanding actors into the fold.
Jackson brings the necessary urgency and authority to make the Avengers believable, and he provided a through-line that resonates across multiple films.
8 8. Hurt: Clark Gregg
With the first Avengers now years old, it might be time for a reevaluation of Agent Coulson’s place in the MCU.
Coulson, or rather his fate at the hands of Loki, drove the plot of the very first movie, and it was roundly seen as an emotional moment in that film.
Looking back, Coulson’s presence as an uber-eager superfan whose untimely demise is opportunistically used by Nick Fury to rally the Avengers seems one-note and, frankly, cheesy.
Gregg’s performance is corny and manipulative by design, but considering that his big moment was also negated by him leading a TV show, the corniness and manipulation seems less charming and more of a cash-in.
Most of the entries on this list hurt movies on the first watch, but this is the rare performance that becomes more annoying on repeat viewings.
7 7. Saved: Tom Hiddleston
Tom Hiddleston was the secret weapon of the MCU’s Phase One. Loki was the rare villain to antagonize two separate films and overcome the MCU’s villain problem.
His character’s redemptive arc across several movies culminating in Infinity War is arguably the MCU’s most rewarding bit of character development.
This is a triumph of casting. Thor was a tough property that Marvel cracked by hiring a charismatic lead and a director whose milieu was Shakespearean theater.
Hiddleston’s addition brought the right balance of mischief, menace, and genuine tragedy to the MCU.
Despite only appearing briefly at the beginning of in Infinity War, his dialogue and actions harken back to his first Avengers appearance and leave an indelible impression on the rest of the movie.
Superhero films aren’t known for providing closure or finality, but Hiddleston manages to deliver both.
6 6. Hurt: Ross Marquand
Red Skull’s appearance in Infinity War was a surprise, but it was more surprising that he wasn’t played by Hugo Weaving who originated the role in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Instead, he was played by Ross Marquand, who is famous for playing Aaron on The Walking Dead.
Marquand actually rose to fame doing impressions, so when Weaving expressed dissatisfaction about working in the MCU, it seemed easier to simply cast another actor for a very limited role.
There is nothing wrong with Marquand’s performance. In fact, he made it so producers could bring back a fan favorite and deliver some much needed exposition in an interesting way.
It’s just that Marquand’s performance is an impression, and only that.
He doesn’t add much to the role and is a reminder of some rare bad press for the MCU.
5 4. Saved: Robert Downey Jr.
Captain America may be the first Avenger, but really it was Robert Downey Jr. who laid the groundwork for the Avengers franchise.
It might seem ridiculous now, but Downey Jr. was not a safe choice at the time to launch a franchise.
Only years before, he had numerous substance abuse issues and had spent time in jail. Today, it’s hard to overstate how crucial the actor is to the MCU.
Aside from making Iron Man a success, Downey Jr. parlayed the enthusiasm for the character into goodwill for the Avengers.
He made the thornier parts of Tony Stark’s personality (the arrogance, the selfishness, the acerbic wit) into something charming that could counter Chris Evans’ overly earnest Captain America.
In doing so, he helped sell audiences on the Avengers.
4 5. Hurt: Chris Pratt
Okay, Chris Pratt is a star with a vibrant social media presence and a lovable public persona. As Star Lord/Peter Quill, he pulled a Robert Downey Jr. turning what could’ve been box office kryptonite into gold.
However, in his first foray as an Avenger, he and Quill don’t exactly deliver. While Quill’s actions in the film have echoed all around the web, Pratt too bears some blame.
While Pratt usually excels in these movies, his turn in Infinity War is a bit too irreverent. He sells Quill’s impetuousness but forgets to make it relatable.
Even he described his role as a glorified cameo, and while he hits the usual beats (goofy lines, scattered ‘80s references, masked vulnerability), it feels more like a greatest hits collection than a mix-tape made with love and care.
3 3. Saved: Zoe Saldana
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Zoe Saldana isn’t a bigger star. She’s the female lead in three big franchises (Avatar, Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy), and in Infinity War she provides the plot’s emotional core and does a lot of its heavy lifting.
Saldana is often cast as the responsible, serious female figure, and it pays off in Infinity War.
While most of the male characters are bickering, she’s genuinely worried about her role in the destruction of half the galaxy and just trying to make anybody else understand what needs to be done.
Gamora’s final moment with Thanos is something uncommon in big summer movies: a rare moment of pathos that isn’t cloying or manipulative.
It’s a moment Saldana has been building to since her first appearance as Gamora.
2 2. Hurt: Stan Lee
This might be sacrilege, but some Stan Lee cameos hurt more than help. Lee isn’t an actor, but he is a showman who has a ball hamming up every line he gets.
While his cameos in the first and third Avengers movies play on his importance to the superhero genre, his big moment in the Age of Ultron is as a World War 2 vet overwhelmed by Asgardian booze.
It’s fun cameo that is also distracting. The best Lee cameos are either subtle or strange. This one is just loud.
It’s a little grating for another reason. Lee did serve in the army during World War 2, primarily writing and designing slogans and posters.
For some, it’s disconcerting to see Lee pretending to be a D-Day veteran in light of some of his career controversies.
1 1. Saved: Josh Brolin
In the summer of 2018 Josh Brolin had a monumental task of antagonizing 2 franchises (Deadpool 2 and Infinity War) and still being sympathetic.
Given Infinity War’s box office and reviews, to say he nailed is an understatement.
Brolin managed to make Thanos intimidating and intriguing at the same time.
His cause is megalomaniacal, but his scenes with Gamora show genuine empathy, and he makes what could’ve been a ridiculous premise somehow relevant.
Brolin has gradually become one of his generation’s most reliable actors. His performance excels because he brings proper conviction to the role.
Other actors might’ve been tempted to play Thanos as an over-the-top warlord, but Brolin understands that the worst villains are those who see themselves as heroes.
The result is the ultimate MCU villain.
Can you think of any other casting decisions that hurt or saved the Avengers movies? Sound off in the comments!