With the cinematic superhero boom of recent years, Marvel Studios have come to the forefront of the Hollywood landscape with a series of near-unstoppable hits in their sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s hard to root for such a juggernaut of a studio, but their films are often founded a unique, cheeky sense of humor and built around less-than-bankable stars cast as obscure comic book heroes.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but not long ago, it was considered quite a gamble for Marvel to cast Robert Downey, Jr. as the title character in Iron Man. Or Chris Evans as Captain America. Or Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Their eye for new (or in the case of Downey, Jr., newly sober) talent has so far served them well.
These actors’ eventual stardom makes it all the more entertaining to revisit the oddball triumphs of their early careers. Before they were heroes, they played high school heart throbs, lousy boyfriends, chainsaw fodder in horror films, and more. Here are some of the weird, awesome movies Marvel stars did before they were heroes.
1. Paul Rudd in Wet Hot American Summer
With the moderate if not overwhelming success of Ant Man, Paul Rudd joins the ranks of America’s greatest and most profitable heroes in the MCU. Back in 2001, he starred in the critical and commercial failure Wet Hot American Summer. The film has since become a cult classic, packed with comedic stars like Rudd just before their rise to fame. It’s both a summer camp movie and an absurdist parody of summer camp movies that becomes progressively more surreal the longer it goes on. Rudd plays a hilariously childish bad-boy boyfriend, in one of the best comedic performances in a film full of them.
Rudd has a long history in comedy films, co-starring Anchorman and its sequel as well as the Judd Apatow-directed Knocked Up and This Is 40.
2. Chris Evans in Not Another Teen Movie
Paul Rudd isn’t the only Marvel star, it turns out, to have dabbled in parody in the past. Chris Evans, of Captain America fame starred in this 2001 lampooning of high school film tropes. Chris Evans embodies vain self-satisfaction as a football star trying to turn a so-called nerdy girl into a prom queen. Not Another Teen Movie is often forgotten in the wave of lousy 2000s parodies, but its devoted parody of 80s and 90s teen cinema creates more than a few well-earned laughs.
Evans also flexed his comedic muscles in Edgar Wright’s video game-esque Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in 2010, wherein he played one of seven evil-exes the titular Scott Pilgrim must defeat to get with his crush Ramona Flowers. Before Captain America, he dabbled in the superhero world, though far less successfully, with a role as the Human Torch in the 2005 version of Fantastic Four.
3. Chris Hemsworth The Cabin in the Woods
And another Avenger co-starring in a parody film. The Cabin in the Woods was actually produced before Chris Hemsworth’s initial turn as Thor in Thor (2011) but released shortly afterwards. Hemsworth plays one of five dispensable teens who visit a cabin in the woods and fall victims to mysterious, murderous forces. There’s a self-aware, post-modern twist to the film, however, that turns it from a lousy horror movie into a masterful, hilarious meditation on why we love lousy horror movies so much.
Hemsworth had a short career before his Marvel casting, but he did pick up a bit part as Captain Kirk’s doomed father in the prologue to the 2009 remake of Star Trek.
4. Chris Pratt in Her
Barely before the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, wherein he starred as Peter Quill, or Star-Lord, Chris Pratt landed a supporting role in the low-key 2013 sci-fi Her, which follows Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man who falls in love with a computer voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It’s a fantastic and surprisingly down-to-earth vision of our future and our relationships.
Pratt, once nothing more than pudgy klutz Andy on NBC’s Park and Recreation, was catapulted to stardom soon the next year. Side note: the MCU is just lousy with guys named Chris, isn’t it?
5. Robert Downey, Jr. in Heart and Souls
To be fair, Robert Downey, Jr. had a long career before his first turn as Iron Man in 2008, but Heart and Souls is a mostly forgotten gem of his early 90s heyday. He stars as a child tethered to several restless souls from the 50s who rely on him to complete their unfinished business. The high-concept setup provides plenty of time to admire Downey, Jr.’s considerable comedic talents as an impressionist and enjoy the old-fashioned screwball-esque storyline as it unfolds.
Downey, Jr. suffered through legal troubles and drug addiction from 1996 from 2001 before continuing a successful career leading up to Iron Man. He starred in the cheeky neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) as a hapless Los Angeles-dweller drawn into a web of crimes.
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