1. Sam Rockwell (as Justin Hammer)

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Iron Man 2 gets a bad wrap, often characterized as the worst (or at least, most disappointing) film in the MCU. A lot of it is justified - the obvious, distracting setting up SHIELD and Avengers that distracts from the movie's actual plot, the whole bit with Tony needing to turn his circle-chest-light into a triangle to stop his blood from being poisoned, and the real rotten subplot of Pepper deciding to not take over Stark Industries because business is hard for her. But there's still a lot to love in the film - Don Cheadle ably taking over Rhodey, the pretty badass Black Widow hallway fight, the continued born-for-this-role of Robert Downey Jr., and - most importantly - Sam Rockwell's turn as Justin Hammer.

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Iron Man doesn't exactly have the most memorable rogues' gallery, which has always left the solo Iron Man films facing an uphill battle (and while subverting the Mandarin expectations was a fun twist in 3, the actual villain being a jacked guy who could breathe fire was underwhelming). But Sam Rockwell is just so good as Justin Hammer - a Tony Stark wannabe, who has lots of money and influence, but knows he's not as cool, collected, and brilliant as Stark. He's dripping with smarm, seething through his inferiority complex, and serves as a perfect mirror-version to what Tony Stark would have become had he just been a little bit worse in every area of his personality.

Not gonna say Iron Man 2 is great or anything, but it's worth revisiting for Justin Hammer alone.



2. Edward Norton (as Bruce Banner)

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Edward Norton had a lot of work to do with 2008's The Incredible Hulk - it was effectively rebooting the character for the wider audience after the disappointing Ang Lee entry starring Eric Bana years earlier, serving as the follow-up to the MCU's debut film Iron Man, and had the hardest job of all: try to make an entertaining solo Hulk film. As Joss Whedon said years ago:

Hulk is a tricky son of a bitch. He's the Claudio of superheroes. Because the problem is it's a very popular character, but it's not a superhero. Half of it's a superhero, half of it's a werewolf. And you can't structure it like a superhero movie, you can't light it like a superhero movie. How do you develop that? It would be extremely difficult.

The big challenge with a solo Hulk movie is that Bruce Banner is kind of a miserable guy to follow as the protagonist - and his desires are completely at odds with the audience's. The audience desperately wants to see him turn into the Hulk and start smashing, but that's Bruce's greatest fear. So he winds up coming across as mopey and frustrating when he's front and center - and somehow Edward Norton managed to convey that sadness within Bruce while still giving us a pretty damn good movie.

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Granted, there were lots of messy behind-the-scenes shenanigans, including locking Norton out of the editing process - and the relationship between Norton and Marvel got so messy that they actually straight-up replaced him. Sure, that happened with Terrence Howard/Rhodey as well, but he was a supporting character - Bruce Banner was the lead of a film, and a core member of The Avengers.

Regardless, The Incredible Hulk made the impossible possible, and largely thanks to Norton. Although Liv Tyler as a surprisingly compelling Betty Ross, Tim Roth's great turn as the Abomination, and the genuinely awesome final battle in Harlem all helped a lot too.

 

3. Sean Gunn (as Kraglin...and Rocket Raccoon)

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James Gunn gets a lot of (deserved) credit for bringing Guardians of the Galaxy to life and turning it from a previously D-tier franchise into one of the gems of the MCU by infusing it with humor, music, and tons of weirdness. But he had a few partners in this, namely his brother Sean. In the films, you know him as Kraglin, one of Yondu's semi-loyal Ravagers who was the last one of the crew standing at the end of Vol. 2, but he actually played an even more important role in both films: Rocket Raccoon.

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While Bradley Cooper voices Rocket Raccoon, he's not going full Andy Serkis here - he comes in late in the process, after filming is complete, to record his lines. But meanwhile, someone IS on set doing the performance capture and reference work - and that's Sean Gunn. Here's how James Gunn describes it:

Sean Gunn is not a stand-in. He is a motion reference actor. That means we film everything Sean does on set as Rocket. We film it. I don't stop doing takes of him until we get the performance right and then we use that performance as a basis for much of Rocket's acting. And he does a fantastic job in that role. He knows it. He understands it. And also very important, Sean is able to physically do something most actors aren't able to do, which is waddle around on all fours. He's always been an incredibly limber guy that can to do a lot of strange physical things. And the fact that he's able to waddle around on his legs all day long at the exact height of Rocket is quite a feat and quite quite difficult.

So on top of playing Kraglin (and honestly, doing some truly great, emotional work in what was effectively a background character), Sean Gunn has the unglamorous job of waddling around as Rocket for nearly the entire filming process...and getting very little credit for it. Ask anyone off the street who plays Rocket Raccoon, and 99% of them will say "Bradley Cooper." But so much of what makes Rocket work as a character is the physicality of the role - and that was all provided by Sean Gunn (and an unbelievably talented team of VFX artists).

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4. Joe Johnston (director of Captain America: The First Avenger)

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I'm not sure that anyone in the Marvel world had a harder hill to climb than Joe Johnston, who directed Captain America: The First Avenger (a subtitle no one has ever actually used when referencing the movie). Because it was the last movie to come before 2012's The Avengers, there was absolutely zero wiggle room - it had to handle ALL of Captain America's story through him being awoken in the present. The result is that it isn't just an origin film - it's an origin TRILOGY, all smashed into one, 2-hour film.

See, it has to do all of the following:

  • Set up Steve Rogers as a puny loser, who has the spirit but not the body
  • Have Puny Steve prove his worth and go through the Super Soldier Serum process
  • Have Captain America lead the Howling Commandos to a series of victories, for a long enough period to cement him as a legend that will be remembered and spoken of for decades to come
  • Set up the friendship/bond with Bucky, and have Bucky be seemingly killed
  • Defeat Red Skull, get frozen, get awoken

...and all of this while balancing a very tricky tone (the whole notion of Secret Science Nazis led by a Red Skeleton-looking guy is truly really campy), figuring out some very difficult special effects that serve as the introduction of one of the biggest Marvel characters ever (bobblehead puny Chris Evans works surprisingly well, although there are a few shots where it looks particularly wonky), and selling the idea of "Captain America" (a character who is inherently old-fashioned) to modern audiences.

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The crazy thing? IT WORKS. The movie is fun, vibrant, and filled with real heart (thanks to Chris Evans, Stanley Tucci, and Hayley Atwell), even if some of the pacing and structure feels off. But when it was followed-up by The Russo Bros.' Winter Soldier (which may be the BEST MCU film to date), it's not surprising that The First Avenger was forgotten - especially because it's look and tone is SO FAR removed from Winter Soldier / Civil War, it feels like it's from a completely unrelated franchise.

But it's good. Honestly, no scene in the MCU makes my heart swell like lil Steve jumping on the dud grenade.

 

5. Sarah Halley Finn (casting director of...THE ENTIRE MCU)

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As far as the behind-the-scenes folks go, Kevin Feige tends to get ALL of the credit - and while the guy deserves all the praise he gets (what he has masterminded is honestly completely bonkers, by any standard), a key element sometimes gets overlooked: how well cast the MCU is. It's full of surprising choices, but each and every actor involved in the MCU seems like they were born to play those roles. And we have Sarah Halley Finn to thank for it.

How many people would have thought to cast Chris Evans as Captain America? He was a B-tier Hollywood action guy who had already done a few middling superhero movies - and now it's unclear if he's playing Steve Rogers or if Steve Rogers is playing Chris Evans. Chris Hemsworth was an Aussie mostly known for soap operas - but can you imagine anyone else playing the lunkheaded, charming Asgardian better? Chris Pratt was a schlubby guy best known for doofy supporting TV characters - but Sarah Halley Finn saw the potential in him to be a jacked, charismatic leading man. And before you say it was all James Gunn's vision, let's hear what James Gunn himself had to say about it:

"We had screen tests of at least 20 people, actually screen tested at least 20 people - big stars, no names - looking for the right person, because I really wanted somebody who could embody this character and take it beyond what was on the page in the same way Robert Downey Jr. did for Iron Man, essentially. And nobody blew me away. Plenty of people were really good; maybe the people were great, but nobody blew me away. Sarah Finn, our casting director really deserves the credit for Chris in a lot of ways because she kept putting his picture in front of me and saying, 'You know, what about this guy? Why don't you meet with him?' And I was like, 'The chubby guy from Parks & Rec? You're stupid!' And she kept doing it and kept doing it and finally she like really -- I don't remember ever agreeing to see Chris. I just remember her saying 'OK and after this guy, Chris Pratt's here' and I was like 'I thought I...' and I was a little mad. I was like 'I thought I didn't wanna see him.' But then Chris came in and he started to read and this is a hundred percent true that within 20 seconds I was like, 'Holy sh-t, that's the guy. That's who we've been looking for.'"

It's easy to underestimate the contributions of a casting director - you think the producers and directors do everything and make all the important choices, but the reality is that Sarah Halley Finn is someone we should all be praising too. She saw potential where no one else did - and it's thanks to her foresight that these movies have found such unprecedented success.