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Before they were Avengers, they were news anchors, douches, and aging hipsters.
Marvel Studios is known for its ability to meticulously plan far in advance (there are rumors that at least the next 10 years are already nailed down, and we know the next five for sure) and to pair the right actors and directors with the right projects.
Most of the credit for the studio’s strength can be attributed to the person who is essentially its brain: Studio President Kevin Feige. Feige has put together one of the best bullpens in studio history (and easily the best bullpen among the current state of studios), so let’s take a look at where he found his players and coaches—and at their work before they hopped aboard the Marvel train and (if they were directors) quickly hopped off of it. Please note that, in the case of actors, we’re only looking at the central heroes; we’re saving the supporting cast for when we release this article on paperback.
Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr., Natural Born Killers (1994)
Before becoming a household name as Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. was a household name for talent squandered by drug use. A couple years after his amazing role in Natural Born Killers, the odds of him staying clean and headlining the biggest franchise in the world were on par with those of Lindsay Lohan being cast as the lead of The Force Awakens. His role as a crooked, Nightcrawler-esque news anchor in Natural Born Killers was in the middle of his “will drugs destroy him?” stage, when everybody knew he could win Oscars, yes, but could also very easily drop off the Earth and/or never be insured by a studio to work on a set again.
Afterward, he had a few small but excellent roles in movies like Bowfinger and Wonder Boys before being let go from Ally McBeal due to a drug-related arrest. After he got clean, he picked up roles in small films like A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (all of which he nailed), but all were playing substance-abuse succumbers, and none were meant to be franchises. It wasn’t really until Jon Favreau convinced Kevin Feige to risk putting a franchise on his shoulders, and Iron Man killed at the box office, that America forgot about the RDJ with a heroin habit and started seeing him as a superhero.
Jon Favreau, Swingers (1996)
When he wrote Swingers, Favreau initially planned on directing the film as well, but producer Doug Liman suggested that he concentrate on acting in the film and give him the director’s chair. At the time, Favreau had always wanted to be behind the camera rather than in front of it, but it’s Hollywood; sometimes you just say yes to get your movie made.
Swingers is a snapshot film, with a relatively aimless plot anchored around Favreau’s Mike getting over his ex-girlfriend. The film was a breakout for him, and it allowed him to slide over to the director’s chair in the spiritual followup to Swingers, Made, and then go on to direct the wildly successful Elf and a movie called Zathura: A Space Adventure (yes, really).
Fiege was so happy with Favreau’s work that he made him the unofficial godfather of the MCU, but the director was so annoyed with Marvel’s mandates on Iron Man 2 that he severed ties with the studio and made Chef (which you can also currently stream, and which features a small role from RDJ) as an allegory to the whole situation.
Chris Hemsworth, Red Dawn (2012)
If you’re wondering how Red Dawn made it on this list when it was released after Thor, it’s because it was shot and finished two years prior, with an original release date of November 2010, but it was shelved due to financial instability at MGM. At least, that’s the official story. They said the same thing about Cabin in the Woods, but the truth with Red Dawn is probably that it sucked and they didn’t know what to do with it. (As it would turn out, Thor and Chris Hemsworth’s success is what finally got MGM to get both films from the shelves to the theaters). MGM also realized, after shooting the whole film, that making China the enemy was a bad idea in light of that country being a massive film market, so it needed some time to digitally change everything related to China to reflect North Korea (very much not a strong film market for America) as the invading force instead.
The truth is, Red Dawn is pretty fun. It’s not like it was a remake of a masterpiece, and there’s more subversive stuff about the Iraq invasion in there than most critics were willing to admit at the time. Plot-wise, it isn’t really tight or sensical. It’s basicallly: Let’s regroup, montage of guerrilla attacks, wash, rinse, repeat. But if you’re looking for a B action flick that’s directed by an expert stunt coordinator who knows how to blow stuff up real good, you can’t go wrong with Red Dawn (unless you’re one of those people that’s just completely allergic to Josh Peck’s face).
Kenneth Branagh, Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)
Kenneth Branagh was obviously chosen for Thor because of his expert handling of Shakespeare’s works, because Asgard is Shakespearean as shit. He’s directed most of the finest Bard film adaptations of our time, including Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and As You Like It. Unfortunately, none of those are currently streaming, so we’re stuck with Love’s Labour’s Lost for our list, an adaptation of a play that Ebert called “probably the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays.” It was a critical and box office disaster, and it killed what was suppose to be a three-picture Shakespeare deal between Branagh and Miramax.
I’m sure there’s an audience out there for an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s weakest that’s set in 1939 and is interspersed with 1930s Broadway numbers (the message board on IMDb is filled with huge fans of the film, at least), but I quickly discovered that I was not a part of it. I tried so hard to keep up with the plot—constantly winding the streaming bar back—that I probably watched 600 minutes of this film, and I still had to visit its Wikipedia page at around the 60-minute mark to figure out what the hell was happening (at which point I actually enjoyed it quite a bit more). That said: Even without understanding the plot, Labour’s Lost is still full enough of the Bard’s clever quips to at last keep you smiling.
Note: Don’t make the same mistake that I made and spend half the film distracted by trying to answer “is that Matthew Lillard?” in your head. Yes, it’s him; they just somehow figured out a way to de-age him by 15 years.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Chris Evans, Fierce People (2005)
People were a bit skeptical about the casting of Chris Evans as the Cap, and with good reason: The majority of his prior roles were, quite frankly, very douchey: Scott Pilgrim, Fantastic Four, Not Another Teen Movie… Luckily, someone at Marvel decided that audiences could overcome this predisposition for douchiness and see Evans as stoic and honorable to a fault. And, indeed, he wore the part so well that watching his work prior to Captain America is downright jarring, much like binge-watching Parks and Recreation and then seeing Adam Scott in Step Brothers.
Of all his earlier work, his role as Bryce in Fierce People is certainly the most jarring when juxtaposed with his role as Captain America. Bryce is basically the worst person ever, going from douchey to kind of likeable to (without getting too spoilery) downright despicable. I want to spoil the film so badly to get into just how terrible Bryce is, but I won’t, because I highly recommend watching Fierce People; it’s a really great little indie film.
Joe Johnston, The Rocketeer (1991)
The Rocketeer was a commercial bomb with mixed critical reviews, which is a shame for Joe Johnston, because it’s really pretty awesome. The story of its uphill battle to get into production is well worth reading on its Wikipedia page, but the bottom line is this: When you combine 1930s art deco designs, steampunk technology, and Nazis, and then add Alan Arkin and Timothy Dalton into the mix for good measure, you’re going to have a movie worth watching even it’s terrible… and The Rocketeer isn’t even terrible at all, so you should watch it.
Interestingly enough, one of the hurdles in getting The Rocketeer made was its setting in the late 1930s. Disney didn’t want to scare audiences away with a period piece, but Johnston was able to point out that Indiana Jones (for which he directed the visual effects) did quite well despite being set in the same period, and the suits liked this argument and gave it the go-ahead. In pre-production, Kevin Feige took a liking to Johnston not only for his work with on the Star Wars films, including his art direction of Return of the Jedi, but also because Feige was afraid that Captain America would scare audiences away by being a period piece, and he knew Johnston had successfully navigated those waters with The Rocketeer. (It may have not been received well, but Feige’s no dummy; he knows a good film when he sees one).
The Avengers (2012)
Scarlett Johansson, Scoop (2006)
Like Evans, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the ass-kicking Natasha Romanoff was a bit surprising. Johansson was, at the time Iron Man 2 came out in 2010, a bit of an indie film darling. Her first break came Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World in 2001, and her major break came with Lost in Translation in 2003. She stayed in small films after Translation, hooking up with Woody Allen for the one-two punch of Match Point and Scoop. Match Point is a fantastic movie—at its release, it was inarguably Woody Allen’s best film in a least a decade— but unfortunately, that’s not the one streaming right now.
Scoop is still pretty damn good, despite being unnecessarily goofy by including Ian McShane as a dead reporter that appears to Johansson and Allen as a ghost for no real reason but to set up a couple of funny gags. When you include a ghost in your movie and can think of a way to do it without the ghost in under five minutes, it means that including the ghost was a goofy decision. Still, Allen and Johansson’s chemistry as an amature sleuth duo works wonderfully, and Allen has enough adorable lines to make you forget all about the creepy allegations against him in the past.
Anyway, now we have Black Widow in multiple films and Luc Besson’s Lucy, and it’s hard to remember a time before Johansson’s characters could kill somebody using only her legs (or mind, in Lucy’s case).
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Before he was the Hulk, Ruffalo was the Cool Guy, and his role as Paul in The Kids Are All Right is no different. He’s more Tony Stark than Bruce Banner (except we may have caught a small glimpse of Paul in that Avengers stinger, when Banner and Stark drive away together). Far from a scientist who’s ever-paranoid about suddenly transitioning into a raging green giant, Paul is an aging hipster that decides to connect with the 18-year-old kid he helped create, via sperm donation, when the kid reaches out to him. The kid’s parents are a married lesbian couple played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. Like Tony Stark would do, he somehow ends up sleeping with Julianne Moore’s Jules. In another film, this would ruin the family. In the end, we’re not sure if it will or not, but this isn’t a standard film about cheating and hatred and general emotional destruction; it’s so loaded to the brim with heart and honest humanity that you can believe Jules and her wife will make it through this thing after all (with fuckup Paul out of the picture, anyway).
Jeremy Renner, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
This could be a tad of a stretch, but, like Red Dawn, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was a film that went into production in 2011 and was slated for release on March 12, 2012, but was pushed back to 2013 to let The Avengers, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and The Bourne Legacy be released first. And so: This still technically counts as Before They Were Marvel (unless you count Hawkeye’s appearance in Thor, which I’m not, because it was dumb and extraneous and it deserves to be forgotten).
Hansel and Gretel comes from Tommy Wirkola, of Dead Snow 1 & 2 fame, which I didn’t know going into the film, and made complete sense when I learned it afterward. Like the Dead Snow films, Hansel and Gretel has a plot that basically doesn’t matter. There’s no pacing; there are no acts; it’s just a stream of stuff that keeps happening, and when you get up to grab a couple sticks of string cheese from the refrigerator and return with no clue as to what’s going on anymore, you don’t really care. These movies aren’t about plot; they’re about gore that happens with satisfying regularity. It certainly takes after the Evil Dead and Army of Darkness Sam Raimi films, but those films had a way of keeping you engaged—i.e., narrative engines—that Wirkola’s films lack.
That said: Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead, his latest film, is by far his best one. The absurdity is really embraced there, and he finally captures that “so crazy you can’t look away” tone, so I hope he actually gets to make the sequel to Hansel and Gretel that he’s been wanting to do. I have a feeling his output from here on out is going to be stellar.
Joss Whedon, Buffy (1997-2003), Firefly (2002-2003)
When Joss Whedon was announced as the director of The Avengers, the Internet was, very likely, the happiest it has ever been. When Jon Favreau stepped down his Godfather of the MCU position, and Whedon stepped into it, the Internet immediately broke this record by becoming even happier. Not only was Whedon going to be directing the biggest film in the MCU’s lineup, but he’d be personally overseeing the scripts of the films leading up to it and rewriting the parts that sucked.
He started his work as the Godfather when he punched up the script for Captain America: The First Avenger, and nobody who originally penned the script seemed to mind, because he added tiny character moments and bits of dialogue while still keeping the original script entirely true to itself.
I could write about Buffy and Firefly, and why Whedon’s work on those shows, with their flawless ensemble casts, made him such a good fit for The Avengers, but it really just boils down to this: If you haven’t seen them, watch them. I don’t even need to go into it. Just trust me, and the millions of people that adore them, and get on it already.
Screengrab via hollywoodstreams/YouTube
Joey Keeton is an entertainment writer who reviewed streaming movies, comedies, and TV series for the Daily Dot. He's also written about podcasts, bizarre web culture, and politics.