One of the most iconic chapters in the history of blockbuster cinema is coming to a close in 2019. With Avengers 4, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it will end. The studio has promised that things will look dramatically different after that, and a number of heroes will either die or retire.
With the end being so near, let’s take a look back at the 19 movies that have led up to this point, picking out the top 12 moments that helped define this game-changing franchise and that still stick out as the series’ most memorable. We’ll be including Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, so expect spoilers for both movies ahead.
12. Vision lifts Thor’s hammer (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
The best way to do setups and payoffs in movies is to disguise the fact that you’re setting anything up to be paid off at all. Joss Whedon demonstrates this with Avengers: Age of Ultron.
There’s a hilarious scene early on in which the Avengers all try to lift Thor’s hammer. Nobody but Thor can, as one must be truly worthy to do so. This is a refreshing example of an action blockbuster slowing down and spending some time with the characters. But the scene seemingly holds no real significance and is just an amusing diversion.
Secretly, though, Whedon is using this to set up the movie’s most effective surprise. Later in the film, Vision comes to life, and no one — including the audience — is sure whether to trust him. After the Avengers debate whether they should do so, Vision remarks, “There may be no way to make you trust me.”
Suddenly, very casually, Vision lifts Thor’s hammer, doing the very thing that had earlier been established as impossible for anyone who is unworthy. The audio completely drops out, and Whedon leaves space for the audience to gasp. Instantly, with no words being necessary, the viewer fully comprehends this new character’s place. It’s both a genius way to introduce a hero into the broader universe and a memorable and unexpected moment in its own right.
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11. Tony Stark reveals he is Iron Man (Iron Man)
When Iron Man came out, pretty much every major superhero film involved a protagonist who had to hide their identity. That was also the case with Iron Man, who the world does not know is actually billionaire Tony Stark.
At the end of the first film, after the climactic battle, Tony delivers a press conference. Reading from his prepared notes, he denies that he is Iron Man. The reporters don’t seem to be fully buying it, but Tony may be able to sell this lie, it seems. However, suddenly, we see in Tony’s eyes that he has just made a decision.
“The truth is…” Tony says before taking a long pause. “I am Iron Man,” he finishes. Pandemonium breaks out, Tony smiles, and the movie smash cuts to credits as Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” kicks in.
Having Tony unmask himself at the end of the first movie opened up so many possibilities, defied superhero cliches, and set the stage for the rest of the MCU.
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10. Doctor Strange has come to bargain (Doctor Strange)
After eight years of the MCU, audiences were growing tired of the movies always ending with a generic villain unleashing destruction until the hero swoops in to defeat him. So it was a pleasant surprise when Doctor Strange‘s final battle was not really a battle at all; it was more of a conversation.
At the end, Strange must face Dormammu, the most powerful being that we have encountered in the MCU. Strange confronts Dormammu directly in the Dark Dimension, and Dormammu immediately kills him. But it’s revealed that Strange has created a time loop, meaning he will continue to die and then confront Dormammu over and over and over again. The idea is that now, Strange has Dormammu trapped, and Dormammu can either remain in this endless loop forever or bargain with Strange for his freedom.
Not only is this an innovative way to end an action blockbuster, but it’s one of the most heroic acts we’ve seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Strange is willing to subject himself to horrifying pain and suffering over and over for literally millions of years if it means saving everyone on Earth. He doesn’t end up needing to die too many times, though, as Dormammu finally gives up and is willing to bargain.
When crafting a final battle in a superhero movie, this is the kind of inventive ending that more writers should look to as an example of how it’s done.
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9. The Guardians kill Ronan (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Just about everything we love about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is exemplified in this one scene from Guardians of the Galaxy. At the end of the movie, Ronan is about to unleash destruction when Peter Quill starts rocking out to “O-O-H Child.” “Dance off, bro!” Quill tells Ronan. “You and me!” We laugh, but this is not just there for comedic relief; Peter is merely distracting Ronan so that Rocket and Drax can shoot his hammer and get his Infinity Stone.
Peter grabs the stone, knowing full well that this will likely kill him. As he makes contact, he screams out in pain. But for the first time since he was a kid, he doesn’t have to be alone. Gamora outstretches her hand, absorbing some of the stone’s energy and easing the burden for Peter.
Since he was a child and did not hold his mother’s hand as she died, Peter has kept those around him at arm’s length. But now, he joins hands with his new friend. Drax grabs Gamora’s hand, and Rocket grabs Drax’s hand. One person couldn’t endure the suffering alone, but together, the Guardians are strong.
Tyler Bates breaks out the wonderful Guardians theme as the four stand triumphant and Peter declares, “You said it yourself, b****. We’re the guardians of the galaxy.” If you’re a Marvel fan, it’s virtually impossible to watch this scene without the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. It’s got humor, heart, and heroism; it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its finest.
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8. Yondu’s funeral (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
Before 2017, few main characters in the MCU had been killed off. So it came as a surprise when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gave us the first death of a major hero who has appeared in multiple movies: Yondu. (Before him, there was Coulson, but he was not really as significant a character.)
Peter Quill had been wondering about his real father for decades, and he finally finds him in this sequel. But it turns out, his father is a terrible person who wants to take over the universe. Peter soon realizes that he had a dad all along in Yondu, a man who took him in as a child and protected him from Ego. Having been treated as a villainous character for the whole first movie, Yondu finally gets his redemption as he saves Peter and sacrifices himself.
At Yondu’s funeral, Peter eulogizes the man who he realized too late was such an important influence on his life. As Yondu’s body is cremated and his ashes are scattered into space, the most appropriate possible song plays on Peter’s Zune: Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son.” Within these few minutes, every single storyline in the film is satisfyingly wrapped up.
Yondu’s friends, having gotten word of his sacrifice, return to honor him. Rocket, who was afraid of how much of himself he saw in Yondu, cries as he realizes that his friends will still be there for him in spite of his faults. Groot embraces Drax after spending much of the movie at odds with him. Drax recognizes Mantis’ beauty. And Gamora acknowledges her “unspoken thing” with Peter, as the group stands together and observes the splendor of the stars.
The preceding movie had some faults, including an overreliance on humor that doesn’t always work. But it was all worth it to get to this sequence, one of the most beautiful in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far.
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7. Steve refuses to fight Bucky (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
The Marvel movies are sometimes accused of being inconsequential and being packed with lame jokes, with nothing ever being taken seriously enough. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In addition to that gorgeous scene from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, there’s also the gut punch that is the ending of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In this sequel, Steve’s friend Bucky, who he thought was dead, is revealed to be the Winter Soldier. That realization is the movie’s “I Am Your Father” moment, both in how surprising it is and in how much it complicates things for Steve. Steve does not want to fight Bucky, holding out hope that the man he loves like a brother is in there somewhere.
At the end of the film, we reach the climax of a conspiracy plotline that involves Hydra plotting to murder millions of people. There’s plenty of spectacle as a Helicarrier explodes over the city. Yet the real climax is the confrontation between Steve and Bucky. Steve refuses to fight him, throwing his shield out of the ship and accepting punch after punch.
Finally, Steve echoes something Bucky said to him decades earlier: “I’m with you ’till the end of the line.” With that, Bucky’s face shows a mix of anger, horror, and confusion as a part of him recognizes those words.
In this magnificent scene, Sebastian Stan delivers one of the most stunning wordless performances in the series. It’s the go-to example to show anyone trying to make the argument that the MCU does not boast some of the best acting of any blockbuster franchise.
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6. The death of Erik Killmonger (Black Panther)
In 2018, Black Panther came along to completely change the game. Here was a standalone entry into the series with something interesting and politically relevant to say, and it became an absolute box office monster.
One of the best things about the movie was the villain, Erik Killmonger, who director Ryan Coogler portrays as a fairly tragic character with believable motivations. The greatest Killmonger scene — and the greatest scene in the movie in general — is his last one, a rare case in a superhero film where the villain’s death might actually make you cry.
After Killmonger tells T’Challa that his father always promised to show him the sunrise in Wakanda, T’Challa brings him atop a cliff to do so. The two soak in the beauty together, but Killmonger embraces his demise and refuses to be healed. “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships because they knew death was better than bondage,” he says.
After years of complaints about generic villains, Marvel knocked it out of the park with Killmonger, and this great scene demonstrates why.
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5. Peter finds out about Liz’s father (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
Who would have guessed that Spider-Man: Homecoming would deliver Marvel’s greatest twist? The film’s strongest scene comes as Peter arrives at Liz’s house in order to take her to the homecoming dance. The door swings open, and on the other end is Adrian Toomes, the main villain. The blood drains from Peter’s face and the music suddenly cuts as the audience gasps and lets out uncomfortable, shocked laughter.
It’s especially effective because this comes at a point where the movie has really slowed down. Peter has stopped being Spider-Man and has settled back into high school life. As we watch him gearing up for homecoming, we figure that something significant will happen at the dance but that there won’t be any major Earth-shattering events until then. We’re lulled into a false sense of security with a fairly normal scene of a boy picking up his date, only to be hit with the most unexpected reveal possible. Even comic book fans were shocked since the character of Liz was created for the movie.
The reveal itself is the key moment, although the ensuing car ride is a master class in suspense. The Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3 is a close second, but this twist about Vulture’s identity is easily the most shocking in the entire MCU.
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4. The airport battle (Captain America: Civil War)
Early in 2016, Warner Bros. released Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which two superheroes are at odds. But the movie fundamentally does not work because there is no logical reason for Batman and Superman to be fighting. A few months later, Captain America: Civil War came out, and Marvel showed D.C. how it’s done with a movie in which we fully understand the points of view of both sides of the conflict.
As the heroes splinter, it all builds to one of the most iconic MCU scenes to date when the two sides converge at the airport. Seeing just six heroes come together and battle in The Avengers was exciting. But now, we have 12 of them, with all of these protagonists having drastically different abilities. The Russo Brothers really spent a lot of time thinking through how characters with these powers would play off one another, and the result is a sequence with so very many jaw-dropping moments and cool interactions.
Just to name a few, there’s Black Panther vs. Captain America, Ant-Man vs. Black Widow, and Spider-Man vs. the Winter Soldier and Falcon. The pacing of the whole sequence is impeccable, and we always understand where everyone is in relation to everyone else and what it is they’re trying to accomplish. If you had to pick out one moment from this sequence, it would have to be the two sides standing on opposite ends right before the battle officially starts.
But there’s much more within this airport sequence, including Spider-Man entering for the first time, Hawkeye shooting Ant-Man into the air with his arrow, and finally, Ant-Man turning into Giant Man. The whole thing is viscerally thrilling, but because the conflict has been so well fleshed out by this point, it’s much more than just mindless spectacle.
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3. Thanos wipes out half the universe (Avengers: Infinity War)
In Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel actually had the guts to end the biggest blockbuster of the summer with half of the universe — including some of the franchise’s most beloved characters — dying horrible deaths.
The film sets up the idea that if Thanos assembles all of the Infinity Stones, he can just snap his fingers and wipe out half of all life. We did know going into the movie that there would be another Avengers film next year, and so you might assume the film will end with Thanos just needing one last stone.
But no. Thanos actually succeeds, and in one of the most shocking endings in blockbuster history, he snaps his fingers and destroys half of all life on Earth. Black Panther, who just headlined the biggest movie phenomenon of the year, disappears into ash. Spider-Man collapses into Tony Stark’s arms, begging him for help and saying, “I don’t want to go.”
Sure, the shock is a bit lessened by the fact that we know that all of these characters will return. But it’s still an unbelievably audacious gut-punch of an ending, and it’s sure to go down as one of the most memorable things the MCU ever did.
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2. The Avengers assemble (The Avengers)
For a few years, the idea of all of the Marvel characters coming together in a future movie was all theoretical. A lot of people were skeptical that Marvel could even pull it off. Would there be enough time in one film to give all of the heroes enough to do? Would they all play off of one another well?
Not only did it work, but The Avengers was by far the best Marvel movie to date. Joss Whedon wisely eases the audience into things, not taking for granted that they’ll just accept why these specific people would work well together. He spends the first two acts having them fight, holding off on the Avengers assembling until act three. That long build-up creates for one of the most satisfying and epic shots in superhero movie history when, near the end of the film, the team finally comes together and the camera spins around to show all of them standing in a circle ready to fight as Alan Silvestri breaks out the main theme.
The ensuing battle is highly entertaining, especially a long, continuous shot of the group all fighting in perfect synchronicity. But in some ways, Whedon never tops the joy of this shot. And although Marvel has surpassed this movie in terms of pure spectacle many times since, because of how unlikely the success of an Avengers movie seemed back then, the satisfaction of watching it all come together in this shot may never be matched.
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1. Nick Fury recruits Iron Man (Iron Man)
All these years later, it’s still difficult to top the giddy excitement elicited by the original Marvel post-credits scene. These days, we take interconnected movie universes for granted. But put yourself back in 2008. Iron Man was just an individual movie that was being released by Paramount Pictures and that fans desperately hoped wouldn’t butcher the source material. There was not even any guarantee that there would be a second Iron Man, let alone that it might be the start of a whole Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The movie was fantastic, especially back at a time when most superhero films that weren’t Spider-Man, X-Men or Batman were fairly terrible. But it was completely standalone and didn’t really suggest that it existed in a larger world where there are other superheroes. Then, suddenly, we get to the post-credits scene.
Tony Stark arrives home to find a mysterious man waiting for him. The man asks, “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” Immediately, comic book fans are leaning forward in their seats, realizing just what is about to happen. The man steps out of the shadows to reveal himself as Nick Fury. “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers initiative,” he says.
It is not an exaggeration to say that these 30 seconds completely changed modern blockbuster cinema, kicking off a shared universe that would soon become so successful that every franchise — from The Conjuring to The LEGO Movie – followed suit. It’s a simple scene, but because it was such a surprise and something fans so badly wanted to see, it is by far the franchise’s most memorable moment ever and will likely remain that way for quite some time.
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