From Iron Man to Black Panther: Marvel Studios' True Superhero, Casting

It's easy to look at the collection of Marvel Studios releases now and appreciate some examples of the true unsung hero of the film franchise giant: the casting department. Yeah, yeah, we know, not everyone is happy with all the hero and villain casting, but you have to admit, Marvel has had some pretty great pairings of character and actor.


If we go all the way back to a time BEFORE Marvel Studios was a thing — I'm talking all the way back to Blade — you can start to see how the groundwork was being laid. Wesley Snipes in the half-vampire warrior flicks was perfect casting for the time. That's not to say it was all a cakewalk; Snipes had gone to court vs writer/director David S. Goyer over Blade: Trinity. He's even said he'd be down for playing the character again, or at the very least wants to see Blade the character join the current MCU officially.

It's also important to point out the main casting force behind every single MCU film other than Incredible Hulk has been the same casting director, Sarah Halley Finn. (the crowd goes wild)

Let's dive right in with perhaps the most controversial (at the time) choice, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.

I want you to go back in time. Imagine the world's shock and awe when it was announced that freaking Robert Downey Jr. would be portraying Tony Stark in an Iron Man film. It's a move that director Jon Favreau had to fight for, by the way, because no one wanted RDJ. And Tony Stark was almost played by Tom Cruise; never forget that. "There were people in our company who directly said, 'No. You can't [cast Downey]. Next," Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige said.

But Favreau wouldn't take no for an answer, and eventually the powers that be were at least convinced to get Downey Jr. screen test for the part.

While this is labeled as an audition tape, it's obviously not, but thanks to the internet we get a glimpse of the beginning of the magic:

Stan Lee has gone on record several times now saying how impressed he is with the casting, "That man was born to be Iron Man, you know? He'd be on the top of the list. But, I have to say: whoever does the casting for Marvel is a genius. For instance, I can't picture anyone being better than Thor. Captain America? You couldn't beat him." (Admittedly, Stan has spent more time with Evans than anyone else, since the two got to know each other during the Fantastic Four days.)

Chris Hemsworth as Thor. It turns out that Chris wasn't even on the short list for the role, but his brother Liam was. When Thor director Kenneth Branagh was auditioning possible Asgardians, he'd narrowed his list to four possible choices (one being Daniel Craig) none of which included Chris.  Ultimately, those actors didn't work out, and Kenneth had to go back to his pool of talent. There were at least two or three interview sessions with Chris before screen testing him. "We pretty much knew as we were shooting the test that he was the guy. It seemed, across these meetings, he had grown into it. He understood it better. And crucially, he was at ease," Branagh said.

Chris Evans as Captain America. Evans had already been inducted into the Marvel film verse with his role as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four films, but he was no one's first (or even 5th) choice to play Captain Steve Rogers. Turns out, John Krasinski went so far in the process as it have a costumed screen test along with Hemsworth, and that's when it hit him that he wasn't the right guy for the part, and "took himself out" of the running.

Captain America director Joe Johnson has admitted that Evans never did a screen test for the part, saying in an interview back in 2010:

"Chris didn't audition at all. I was already familiar with everything he'd done and was championing his cause, not that I had a fight from the Marvel team. They were fans of his as well. He came in to the art department to say hi, saw all the jaw-dropping art and designs on the wall and reacted the way I'd hoped he would. It was really his wonderful enthusiasm for everything he saw that cinched the deal."

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. There's been a lot written about this subject, from the shady money deal when Scarlett signed on to officially replace Emily Blunt to the real reasons Blunt backed out of the deal (we may never know). With a list of five other ladies who almost got the part, it still seems strange that Johansson is who netted the gig. Not to say she isn't good in the part (which she LOVES playing), but, we all know that Nat has been poorly utilized as her own character minus the fabulous chair scene in Avengers. Yes, I'm lookin' at YOU, Joss.

Will we EVER get the solo Black Widow movie?  Maybe the ship has sailed on this front, unless maybe you have Nat come in as some kind of reverse Nick Fury for a women of Marvel film with the power players right now; Wasp, Shuri, Valkyrie, the rest of the Black Panther badass ladies.

Speaking of Fury — Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury. This was one of those surprise castings that didn't really shock anyone who was familiar with the evolution of the character in comics. Considering for at least 10 years before the announcement, Fury had been drawn and presented in the funny papers as a black man, it made pretty damn good sense to bring in Mace Windu. Jackson himself is a big fan of comics (and anime, actually), and was familiar with Mark Millar's work on the book, which had reimagined the SHIELD boss in Jackson's likeness back in 2002.

"Yeah. The first time I saw Nick Fury was in the comic books, at Golden Apple [Comics]. Mark Millar. Mark Millar, genius. Yeah. [Millar re-imagined Nick Fury in Jackson's likeness in 2002 for The Ultimates, predating Jackson's casting in the MCU. —Ed.]," Jackson said in this interview with The AV Club.

Chris Pratt as Star-Lord. We all kind of know this story, right? Chubby comedic actor Chris Pratt posts a photo of himself on Instagram after shedding several pounds and putting on muscle definition, and the next thing we know he's captaining the Milano in James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy. Once again thanks to the power of the internet, we get to see a screen test, this time with Pratt and Dave Bautista playing off each other:

Gunn has said they screen tested a ton of dudes for the role:

"We screen tested probably 30 actors, as we were trying to find Peter Quill, and I didn't even want to see Chris at first. I thought he was overweight at the time, and he seemed like a comedy guy, and he didn't think he was the right person for the role. But he came in, and he was doing his audition, and 20 seconds into his audition I'm like, 'That's the guy.'"

And the real reason I started writing this piece: Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, the Black Panther.  Seems like everyone has almost forgotten that back in the early '90s, before Blade, Wesley Snipes was trying to get his version of the Wakandan king off the page and into cinemas. While yes, that could have been pretty awesome, Black Panther needed to be made RIGHT NOW with Boseman.

In a recent interview with Variety, Feige actually went so far as to say that there was no other actor for the role BUT Chadwick. During the planning phases for Captain America: Civil War, it was decided there needed to be an additional character, and a producer (unnamed in this interview, but I'd love to know whom) suggested T'Challa.

"We were working on the story and we needed another character. Our executive producer suggested T'Challa. The minute we started talking about Black Panther, we brought up Chadwick. He really was the only actor we discussed. I think it was 24 hours between saying his name in a creative story meeting and talking to his agent and getting on a phone with him and offering him the role of Black Panther, which he accepted."

24 hours from mention to deal making, kind of awesomely perfect.

After writing this all out, which admittedly I wasn't planning on doing so much on, maybe I'll turn this into an installment thing, and break everything down by phase or film, because there's so much here to digest.

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About Mary Anne Butler

Bleeding Cool News Editor Mary Anne Butler (Mab, for short) has been part of the fast-paced world of journalism since she was 15, getting her start in album reviews and live concert coverage for a nationally published (print) music magazine. She eventually transitioned to online media, writing for such sites as UGO/IGN, ComicsOnline, Geek Magazine, Ace of Geeks, Aggressive Comix (where she is still Editor-in-Chief), and most recently Bleeding Cool. 

Over the past 10 years, she’s built a presence at conventions across the globe as a cosplayer (occasionally), photographer (constantly), panelist and moderator (mostly), and reporter (always). 

 Interviews, reviews, observations, breaking news, and objective reporting are the name of the game for the founder of Harkonnen Knife Fight, a Dune-themed band with an international presence. 

 Though she be but little, she is fierce. #MabTheProfessional
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