THEN AND NOW: The 'Avengers' stars before they were famous

Marvel/DisneyChris Evans and his Marvel costars in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’
  • “Avengers: Endgame,” which was released in theatres in 2019 and hit $US1 billion at the box office, was the culmination of 11 years of Marvel movies.
  • The actors in the MCU might be A-listers now, but it wasn’t always that way.
  • Some stars booked their earliest roles in the ’80s, while others began in the ’90s and 2000s.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The popularity of 2019’s billion-dollar movie “Avengers: Endgame” is the result of fans’ dedication to characters they have followed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the past 11 years.

Though the actors in the “Avengers” films are now huge names in Hollywood, it wasn’t always that way. They started out in small films and TV series before earning a spot in the franchise.

Here are the earliest roles of the “Avengers” stars before they were famous.

Long before playing Tony Stark/Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. landed his first role in the movie “Pound.”

Floyd L. Peterson ProductionsFive-year-old Robert Downey Jr. probably had no idea that he would later play a superhero.

The movie was written and directed by his father. Downey was five years old when the movie was released, and played a puppy.

Downey went on to star in movies like “Hail Cesar,” “Home for the Holidays,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and “Gothika.”

These days, he is known for his Marvel role as a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist (Tony’s words, not ours).

Marvel StudiosRobert Downey Jr. in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

He made his first appearance as “Iron Man” in 2008, and his character has had three total standalone films. With the introduction of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Tony also took on the role of a mentor to the teen web-slinger.

Before Mark Ruffalo became known for his reputation as one of the worst secret-keepers in the “Avengers” cast, he starred in a variety of films, from comedies to horrors.

Paramount ClassicsOne of Ruffalo’s breakout roles was in the 2000 film ‘You Can Count on Me.’

When he was younger, Ruffalo was a bartender, navigated Los Angeles with a motorcycle, and participated in theatre productions.

He also starred in movies like “13 Going on 30” and “Collateral.”

After the five-year time jump in “Endgame,” Bruce successfully merged Hulk and his human form, creating Professor Hulk.

MarvelMark Ruffalo in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

In recent years, Ruffalo has been nominated for Golden Globes and Oscars. He has also won two SAG awards.

One of Scarlett Johansson’s first roles was in “Home Alone 3.”

Twentieth Century FoxJohansson played Molly Pruitt in the 1998 film.

She also starred in the 2003 movie “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and the 2004 movie “The Perfect Score” (alongside future “Avengers” costar Chris Evans).

Acting aside, she also released albums back in the day.

Scarlett Johansson has become an A-list celebrity and is most recognised for her role as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow.

Disney/MarvelScarlett Johansson in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

Johansson also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012, just one mark of her successful career. She’ll star in a standalone Marvel film called “Black Widow,” which hits theatres in May 2020.

Aside from one role in 1999, Chris Evans’ acting career really kicked off in the early 2000s.

Columbia PicturesEvans as Jake Wyler in the 2002 film ‘Not Another Teen Movie.’

He starred in comedies like “Not Another Teen Movie” and “The Perfect Score,” but also starred in the 2004 thriller “Cellular” alongside Jason Statham.

And let’s not forget that he played another superhero before starring as Steve Rogers/Captain America – Johnny Storm/Human Torch in the original “Fantastic Four” movies.

Chris Evans’ Captain America showed off a beard in “Infinity War,” but he was back to his clean shaved appearance in “Endgame.”

Marvel/DisneyChris Evans in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

Evans’ role as Cap has earned him several award nominations, especially at the Teen Choice Awards, Kids Choice Awards, and People’s Choice Awards.

In 2018, Evans sported a moustache for his role as a police officer in the Broadway show “Lobby Hero” (which received a Tony Award nomination for best revival of a play).

He also starred in the 2019 Oscar-nominated film “Knives Out.”

Jeremy Renner’s first-ever role was a slacker in the 1995 movie “Senior Trip.”

New Line CinemaJeremy Renner in ‘Senior Trip.’

He went on to land roles on shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Angel.” Renner also portrayed real-life serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the 2002 movie “Dahmer.”

It was his role as Staff Sergeant William James in 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” that really put Renner on the radar of fans. Renner earned an Oscar nomination and a SAG Award nomination for the part. His role in Ben Affleck’s “The Town” (2010) further added to his growing popularity, as he again landed Academy Award and SAG nominations, in addition to a Golden Globe nod.

Renner’s MCU character, Hawkeye/Clint Barton, reunited with the Avengers for their big mission in “Endgame.”

Disney/MarvelJeremy Renner as Ronin in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

His standout (and most heartbreaking) “Endgame” scenes took place in Vormir, when he and Black Widow argued over who should be sacrificed in order to retrieve the soul stone.

Next, Renner will star on his own show headed to Disney Plus, titled “Hawkeye.”

Back in the day, Don Cheadle appeared on an episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

NBCHe played Ice Tray on the first season.

He also had roles on shows like “The Golden Palace,” “Picket Fences,” and “ER.” You might also remember Cheadle for his role as Basher Tarr in the “Ocean’s” movies.

Don Cheadle played James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine in “Endgame.”

Disney/MarvelRhodey was first introduced in ‘Iron Man 2.’

Based on an interview that has resurfaced, he’s not a fan of costars who accidentally blurt out spoilers (like Ruffalo).

Anthony Mackie landed his first movie role in “8 Mile.”

Universal PicturesMackie played Papa Doc.

He also starred in “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Hurt Locker” (with Jeremy Renner), and played Tupac Shakur in “Notorious.”

Additionally, he’s done various theatre productions and was an understudy for “Avengers” costar Cheadle and “Westworld” star Jeffrey Wright.

Anthony Mackie stared as Sam Wilson/Falcon in “Endgame.”

Disney/MarvelHe was first introduced in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier.’

Mackie starred in the movie “Detroit” and in “The Hate You Give” alongside “Riverdale’s” KJ Apa, Regina Hall, and Common.

Before Chris Hemsworth played the God of Thunder, he was on several Australian shows.

Crawfords AustraliaHemsworth on ‘The Saddle Club’ in 2003.

His first role ever was on the Australian soap opera “Neighbours.” He was also on the Australian version of “Dancing With the Stars” in 2006. Watch him samba here.

“Endgame” showed Hemsworth’s Thor struggling to deal with the aftermath of Thanos’ snap.

Disney/MarvelChris Hemsworth in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

Hemsworth was also in the 2018 drama “12 Strong.” More recently, he starred in “Men in Black: International.”

He’ll reprise his role as the Marvel superhero in “Thor: Love and Thunder,” scheduled for release on November 5, 2021.

Before playing mischievous Loki, Tom Hiddleston played a lord in a British TV movie that was based on a Charles Dickens book.

Company TelevisionHiddleston in ‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’ in 2001.

“The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” starred Anne Hathaway and Charlie Hunnam.

Hiddleston appeared in various UK TV series before making it big.

Even though Loki can’t be trusted, fans love seeing Hiddleston’s portrayal of the character.

Disney/MarvelTom Hiddleston is now a Golden Globe winner.

Hiddleston made his debut as Loki in 2011’s “Thor.” He also appeared in 2019’s “Endgame” and is going to have his own series, which will be available on Disney’s streaming service (Disney Plus). You can watch a teaser for the show here.

Before playing an Asgardian in the MCU, one of Idris Elba’s first roles was on the TV show “Space Precinct.”

Grove Television EnterprisesHe played a pizza delivery man.

He went on to land roles on shows like “The Wire” and “The Office.”

Idris Elba’s most recent appearance as Heimdall was in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

Disney/MarvelIdris Elba in ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’

In 2012, Elba won a Golden Globe for his role in “Luther.” He was also named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2018 and starred in the 2019 film adaptation of “Cats.”

“Gossip Girl” fans recognise Sebastian Stan for his role as Carter Baizen. But before that, one of his first roles was on “Law & Order.”

NBCHe played a teenage sniper with a complicated history.

He was also in “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “Black Swan.”

Stan returned as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier to fight alongside Cap and the Avengers.

Disney/MarvelPrior to ‘Infinity War,’ Bucky was seen in Wakanda recovering from his injuries.

He also starred in the award-winning movie “I, Tonya” with Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. Stan and Mackie have their own show that will hit Disney Plus in 2020, titled “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

Before playing Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen landed her first role in a 1994 TV movie that starred her twin sisters.

Dualstar ProductionsElizabeth Olsen in ‘How the West Was Fun.’

She is the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

Olsen’s character is one of the strongest superheros in the MCU.

MarvelShe met the Avengers in ‘Age of Ultron.’

She also starred in “Ingrid Goes West” with Aubrey Plaza and “Wind River” with Jeremy Renner. Most recently, she appeared on “Sorry for Your Loss.”

Paul Bettany’s earliest roles were in TV movies, TV shows, and miniseries.

Carlton TelevisionBettany starred alongside Sean Bean in ‘Sharpe’s Waterloo’ in 1997.

Before becoming Vision, Bettany started as Tony’s A.I. system, Jarvis.

Paul Bettany’s character, Vision, was one of Thanos’ targets in “Infinity War.”

Disney/Marvel StudiosVision was stressed.

Bettany starred in the 2018 movie “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”

Before playing a master of the mystical arts, Benedict Cumberbatch appeared on several British TV series.

Yorkshire TelevisionBenedict Cumberbatch in ‘Heartbeat’ in 2000.

He also played Stephen Hawking in a 2004 TV movie. Later, he became known for his role as Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock.”

Cumberbatch returned as Doctor Strange in “Endgame,” after being dusted in “Infinity War.”

Disney/MarvelHe knew that there was only one outcome in which the Avengers would be victorious.

He had the green stone, which allowed him to manipulate time and space.

Tom Holland was a theatre kid before starring in movies, and his feature film debut was in “The Impossible.”

Summit EntertainmentThe movie was released shortly after the first ‘Avengers’ film came out.

In the UK, Holland played the titular character in the theatre production of “Billy Elliot the Musical.” Watch young Holland talk about the show without giving away too many spoilers here.

Holland returned as Peter Parker/Spider-Man to deliver more great one-liners in “Endgame.”

Marvel StudiosTom Holland in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

He made his debut as Peter Parker in “Captain America: Civil War.”

Before becoming a major movie star, Chris Pratt starred on the cult TV show “Everwood.”

Warner Bros. TelevisionHe played Bright Abbott.

He went on to land roles in popular shows like “The O.C.” and “Parks and Recreation.”

In “Endgame,” Peter Quill/Star-Lord encountered 2014 Gamora.

Disney/MavelChris Pratt in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

The first “Guardians of the Galaxy” was released in 2014. Pratt also starred in the “Jurassic World” movies.

Zoe Saldana’s career took off in the early 2000s.

MiramaxSaldana in the 2001 movie ‘Get Over It.’

She also had roles in “Crossroads,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” and “Avatar.”

As one of Thanos’ adopted children, Saldana’s character played an important part in the Marvel movies.

Disney/MarvelZoe Saldana in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

Saldana appeared in Drake’s star-studded music video for “Nice for What.”

Before being a Guardian, Pom Klementieff starred in several French films.

Media in SyncShe starred in the 2015 movie ‘Hacker’s Game.’

One of her breakout roles was in the movie “Old Boy,” which starred future “Avengers: Infinity War” cast members Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, and Samuel L. Jackson.

In “Endgame,” Klementieff returned as Mantis.

Disney/Marvel StudiosShe’s a valuable member of the team.

Like costar Elizabeth Olsen, Klementieff was also in the 2017 movie “Ingrid Goes West.”

Before joining the MCU, Dave Bautista was a WWE champion.

Jason Kempin/Getty ImagesHis stage name was ‘Batista.’

Bautista and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson competed against each other when they were wrestlers.

Bautista reprised his role in “Endgame.”

Disney/Marvel StudiosHe was first introduced in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’

Bautista also starred in “Blade Runner 2049.”

One of Vin Diesel’s first roles was in the Oscar-winning 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

DreamWorksDiesel played Private Caparzo.

He’s known for his roles in the “Fast and Furious” franchise, “xXx,” and “The Chronicles of Riddick.”

Diesel voices Groot.

Walt Disney/Marvel StudiosHe was sassy in ‘Infinity War’ and didn’t want to listen to the adults.

In “Infinity War,” Groot preferred playing video games than helping with a mission.

Bradley Cooper’s first role ever was on the show “Sex and the City.”

HBOWho could have predicted that he would become an Oscar nominee?

Cooper went on to star in other TV shows, including “Alias” and “Kitchen Confidential.”

Cooper’s character, Rocket, had to give Thor a pep talk in “Endgame.”

Disney/MarvelThor and Rocket in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

Over the years, Cooper’s various acting roles have earned him award nominations – from Oscars to Golden Globes. In 2014, he won a SAG award with the cast of “American Hustle.” He also starred in and directed 2018’s “A Star Is Born.”

Before joining the MCU, Karen Gillan was on “Doctor Who.”

BBC WalesGillan played Amy Pond.

She was on the popular show for several years.

Gillan returned as Nebula.

Disney/MarvelKaren Gillan in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

Like Gamora, she was an adopted daughter of Thanos.

Before “Black Panther,” Chadwick Boseman appeared on an ABC Family (now Freeform) show called “Lincoln Heights.”

FreeformBoseman had a recurring role.

He also had roles on “Law and Order,” “ER,” and “CSI: NY.”

Boseman is now known for his role as T’Challa/Black Panther, the leader of Wakanda.

Disney/MarvelChadwick Boseman in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

Boseman hosted “Saturday Night Live” in April 2018. Following the actor’s death in August 2020, it’s unclear how the “Black Panther” sequel (set for release on May 6, 2022) will proceed.

Letitia Wright’s earliest roles were on British TV shows and movies.

ZeppotronWright in ‘Black Mirror.’

She was also on an episode of “Doctor Who.”

Letitia Wright returned as T’Challa’s younger and wiser sister, Shuri.

MarvelShe is the mind behind genius tech innovations.

We first met Shuri in “Black Panther.”

You probably recognise Danai Gurira for her role on “The Walking Dead.”

Gene Page/AMCGurira as Michonne.

She also had roles in “Restless City” and “All Eyez on Me.”

Gurira continued to prove how badass Okoye is.

Disney/Marvel StudiosShe was ready for battle.

Her first appearance in the MCU was in “Black Panther.”

Winston Duke started acting a few years ago.

Warner Bros. TelevisionDuke in ‘Person of Interest.’

Before “Black Panther,” he had roles on “Person of Interest,” “The Messengers,” and “Modern Family.”

Duke returned as M’Baku.

MarvelM’Baku in ‘Black Panther.’

He was one of the most entertaining characters in “Black Panther.”

Josh Brolin’s first role was in the hit movie “The Goonies.”

Warner Bros.The movie was released in 1985.

He went on to land roles in “No Country for Old Men,” “American Gangster,” and “Men in Black 3.”

Brolin played the villain at the centre of “Infinity War” and “Endgame,” Thanos.

Disney/MarvelJosh Brolin in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

Brolin also starred as Nathan Summers/Cable in “Deadpool 2.”

Peter Dinklage’s first credited role was in a 1995 movie, long before he became known for his role on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

Lemon Sky ProductionsDinklage in ‘Living in Oblivion.’

He also went on to land starring roles in “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” and “Ice Age: Continental Drift.”

In “Infinity War,” Dinklage’s character played an important role in helping Thor.

Disney/MarvelPeter Dinklage in ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’

Dinklage will also voice a character in the upcoming film “Angry Birds Movie 2.”

Benedict Wong had roles on several TV shows and movies before joining the MCU.

Celador FilmsWong in ‘Dirty Pretty Things.’

He was in “Prometheus” and “Kick-Arse 2.”

Wong returned in “Endgame” to help the Avengers during the movie’s big battle scene.

Disney/MarvelBenedict Won in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

We first met his character in “Doctor Strange.”

Gwyneth Paltrow started acting in the ’90s.

Universal PicturesPaltrow in the 1991 movie ‘Shout.’

She was also in “Hook,” “Sliding Doors,” and “Shakespeare in Love” (which she won an Oscar for).

Paltrow returned as Pepper Potts in “Endgame.”

Disney/MarvelGwyneth Paltrow in ‘Avengers: Endgame.’

These days, Paltrow spends much of her time on her website,Goop. She also married Brad Falchuck in September 2018 and had a star-studded ceremony in the Hamptons.

One of Benicio Del Toro’s first roles was on the show “Miami Vice.”

Universal TelevisionHe played a character named Pito.

He also starred in “Sin City” and “Traffic.”

Benicio Del Toro returned as The Collector in “Infinity War.”

MarvelHis character has shown up in two previous MCU films.

He’s an Oscar-winning actor and starred in the “Sicario” sequel.

Samuel L. Jackson has been acting since the 1970s.

Paramount PicturesSamuel L. Jackson in ‘Coming to America.’

One of his early roles was in “Coming to America,” in which he played a robber. He was also in “Jurassic Park,” “Hail Cesar,” “Goodfellas,” and “Pulp Fiction.”

Jackson reprised his role as Nick Fury.

Disney/Marvel StudiosHe can’t seem to keep the Avengers in line.

Jackson also appeared in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

Cobie Smulders started acting in the early 2000s and landed roles on TV shows.

FoxSmulders as Sarah Webb in ‘Tru Calling.’

Smulders is most-known for her role as Robin Scherbatsky on “How I Met Your Mother.”

Cobie Smulders returned as Maria Hill in “Endgame.”

Disney/Marvel StudiosShe made her MCU debut in ‘The Avengers.’

Aside from her MCU role, Smulders had roles in shows like “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Friends From College.” In 2017, she made her Broadway debut in the comedy “Present Laughter.” She was also in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

Before her Oscar-winning performance in 2015’s “Room,” Brie Larson played one of the Six Chicks in “13 Going 30.”

Sony PicturesBrie Larson in ’13 Going on 30.’

The role wasn’t her first in Hollywood, but it was one of her earliest. She also appeared on shows like “Hope & Faith” before starring in movies like “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “21 Jump Street,” “Don Jon,” and “Trainwreck.”

Larson made her MCU debut as Carol Danvers in 2019’s “Captain Marvel.”

MarvelBrie Larson in ‘Captain Marvel.’

Captain Marvel, who’s arguably the strongest superhero in the MCU, helped rescue Tony and Nebula from space in “Endgame.”

Evangeline Lilly had a few uncredited roles on shows like “Smallville” before her big break as Kate Austen on “Lost.”

ABCEvangeline Lilly on ‘Lost.’

She played the character until the series finale aired in May 2010. Afterward, Lilly portrayed the bow and arrow wielding Tauriel in the “Hobbit” movies.

Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne/Wasp returned in “Endgame” to fight alongside the other superheroes.

MarvelEvangeline Lilly portrays Hope van Dyne/Wasp.

She first appeared in 2015’s “Ant-Man.”

One of Tessa Thompson’s first roles was on “Veronica Mars.”

Warner Bros. TelevisionTessa Thompson on ‘Veronica Mars.’

She played Jackie Cook, the daughter of a famous baseball athlete.

Thompson is now known for her role as Valkyrie.

MarvelTessa Thompson as Valkyrie.

She appeared in “Endgame” and is set to reprise her role as the warrior in “Thor: Love and Thunder.”

Oscar-winner Natalie Portman’s first role was in the 1994 film “Léon: The Professional.”

Gaumont Buena Vista InternationalNatalie Portman in ‘Léon: The Professional.’

She played a 12-year-old girl who was taken by an assassin. Portman went on to portray Padmé in the “Star Wars” movies. The actress also starred in “V for Vendetta,” “Black Swan” (which earned her an Academy Award), and “No Strings Attached.”

Portman’s first appearance as Jane Foster in the MCU was in 2011’s “Thor.”

Disney / MarvelNatalie Portman in ‘Thor: The Dark World.’

She’ll return in the upcoming “Thor” sequel, playing a female version of the God of Thunder.

Angela Bassett appeared on “The Cosby Show” in the ’80s.

NBCAngela Bassett on ‘The Cosby Show.’

She went on to star in movies like “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Green Lantern,” and “Olympus Has Fallen.” Bassett also played Cate Banfield on “ER.”

Bassett reprised her role as Ramonda, the mother of T’Challa and Shuri, in a brief “Endgame” scene.

Disney/MarvelAngela Bassett plays Ramonda in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The character was first introduced in 2018’s “Black Panther.”

Jon Favreau played a tutor named D-Bob in the 1993 movie “Rudy.”

TriStar PicturesJon Favreau in ‘Rudy.’

“Friends” fans might also recognise Favreau for his role as billionaire Pete Becker. He also played Foggy in the 2003 “Daredevil” movie.

Favreau has portrayed Happy Hogan since the first “Iron Man” movie was released in theatres.

Sony Pictures/MarvelJon Favreau in ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home.’

He also starred in all the “Iron Man” sequels, “Endgame,” and Tom Holland’s “Spider-Man” movies.

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