The immense success of the Marvel movies have changed the blockbuster business, with everyone and their mothers now scrambling to greenlight superhero movies and connect their franchises in one big cinematic universe. The inter-linked nature of the films has helped to make the blockbuster series denser than most, and one of the things that fans respond to is the way that the studio litters their movies with so-called Easter Eggs — little in-jokes, references, or hints that show what future movies might be or include, where the macro-story is going or has been, or simply make reference to the comics.
This practice is finding increasing popularity in films away from Marvel, but they remain the kings, and with “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” hitting theaters this Friday, we thought it was time to delve into the details and pick out the 20 most enjoyable little nods, winks, or sly references in the ten Marvel movies pre-Ultron (we elected not to include anything from ‘Ultron’ before release, or the most obvious things like the post-credits teasers, for the most part). Take a look below, and let us know your favorites in the comments.
With an entire slate of movies announced through the end of the decade, fans might head into “Age Of Ultron” hoping for a glimpse of Black Panther or Captain Marvel, but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that they’ll likely be a little disappointed. That doesn’t mean that the studio hasn’t started laying the Phase Three groundwork already, though. In last year’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” when our hero, Black Widow, and the Falcon confront treacherous SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández), he confesses that HYDRA has been keeping tabs on a number of figures, from high-school valedictorians to Bruce Banner and Stephen Strange. Ordinary cinemagoers might not have thought much of it, but Marvel fans will know that he’s referring to the Sorcerer Supreme, who Benedict Cumberbatch will play in next year’s “Doctor Strange.”
The comic book industry (and the Marvel movies) are famous for killing off characters, only to resurrect them almost immediately. Only a few have ever truly stayed dead: Gwen Stacy, Uncle Ben, and, for a long time, Captain America’s pal Bucky Barnes. He was finally resurrected in the comics in 2005, initially as the villainously brainwashed Soviet agent Winter Soldier, before being won over to the side of good, and eventually taking on his outfit and shield after Cap is assassinated in the “Civil War” comic storyline. Will the movies go the same way? Well, we’ve certainly had some hints as to that direction (not just from Chris Evans palpably anticipating the end of his contract in interviews) — both of the “Captain America” movies see Sebastian Stan’s Bucky grabbing and holding the stars-and-stripes shield. Don’t be surprised if, by the time Phase Four rolls around, we have a different guy in the suit.
There’s not all that much nice you can say about Louis Letterier’s “The Incredible Hulk,” the attic-dwelling, fish-head-eating forgotten spawn of the Marvel franchise, but the film did at least pay respectful tribute to actors who’d played previous incarnations of the character. Paul Soles, the first person to ever play the character, in a 1966 animated series, has a cameo as a pizza store employee, while Bill Bixby, who played Dr. David Banner in the CBS live-action show of the same name, appears on screen despite having passed away in 1993, with a glimpse of his TV show “The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father.” More notably, Bixby’s on-screen alter-ego, Lou Ferrigno, the CBS Hulk, plays a security guard in Letterier’s picture, AND actually voices the CGI version of Edward Norton’s Hulk. He’s also lent his voice to the big green guy in both “Avengers” movies since.
Aside from the use of Eiffel 65’s “Blue” and Guy Pearce’s straggly-hair look, the opening sequence of “Iron Man 3” has one other surprise in store, with a brief appearance from a familiar looking face. One of the two scientists that Tony Stark meets briefly at a New Year’s Eve party in Bern, Switzerland is Dr. Yinsen, played by Shaun Toub. If he’s familiar to fans, that’s because he’s the same guy that Stark met in a cave in Afghanistan in the first movie, and he helped Stark build the arc reactor and initial incarnation of the Iron Man suit before perishing. More cannt even than that, the first film saw Yinsen tell Stark that they’d met before, at a conference in Bern. Well played, Shane Black and Drew Pearce. Well played.
The age old question of Bruce Banner’s gamma powers is how come we don’t see giant Hulk wang every time he rages out? The character’s traditional outfit has been bare-chested with a ragged pair of purple pants covering up his little Hawkeye, but the movies haven’t yet chosen to give a definitive scientific answer for why we haven’t seen any of what Ruffalo has to offer. The first “Incredible Hulk” did, however, include a sly nod to the question, as Liv Tyler’s Betty offers Edward Norton’s Banner a pair of oversized purple stretchy pants. As yet, he hasn’t chosen to wear them: Ruffalo Hulk’s favored a more muted shade of trouser and its understood that Tony Stark designed him something scientifically stretchy moving forward.
Oh, What Could Have Been
What’s better than foreshadowing? Foreshadowing that didn’t come to pass, causing ironic after-the-fact LOLs. At one point in the original “Iron Man,” Terrence Howard’s Rhodey, in this movie mostly just a sidekick/confidante to Tony, glimpses a silver prototype suit and excitedly says, “Next time, baby!” Unfortunately for Howard, he never got to put the outfit on and become War Machine. Not because of the many, many allegations of domestic violence the actor’s faced over the years, but because of a salary dispute, with Don Cheadle stepping into the role instead. For similarly thwarted foreshadowing, see also Tim Blake Nelson in “The Incredible Hulk” — the character actor played Samuel Sterns, who becomes the classic Hulk villain The Leader, and the movie sees him end up with the character’s trademark swollen forehead after some gamma poisoning. The film’s underwhelming box office meant that, so far, this hint hasn’t paid off.
The Marvel movies have been (over) full of MacGuffins, but it turns out that the most important of them has been hidden in plain sight all along. When we see a glimpse of Asgard’s trophy room in the first “Thor” movie, we see that it carries a number of important artifacts that comic fans might recognize, including the Table of Life and Time and the Eternal Flame (plus The Warlock’s Eye and The Orb Of Agamotto, which are both important “Doctor Strange” items, and may yet crop up in that movie). The most crucial of all is The Infinity Gauntlet, a metal glove that, with six Infinity Stones (as seen in “Guardians Of The Galaxy”), can control reality itself. The gauntlet is sought by Thanos, and will likely be the focus of the Phase Three movies, particularly “Avengers: Infinity War.” A glimpse in ‘Age Of Ultron‘ suggests that Asgard’s notoriously porous security system has faltered again…
Journey Into Mystery
The Marvel heroes, for the most part, didn’t actually debut in comics bearing their own name. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revived the company (then called Atlas) in the 1960s, the characters were introduced in pre-existing anthology comics like “Strange Tales” and “Tales To Astonish.” Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” movie paid homage to the birthplace of its Viking hero. The character made his first appearance in the 83rd issue of horror/sci-fi anthology “Journey Into Mystery,” and Branagh and his team snuck the title into the film, on a tourist billboard. Sequel “Thor: The Dark World” also included a poster saying “Live The Journey, Explore The Mystery,” though that’s a little bit less neat.
Though every character’s origin has been tweaked a little from their classic comic book stories, Thor’s is the most radically different. On the page, he was cast down on Earth in the guise of young, disabled surgeon Donald Blake, giving him the dual identity so popular among superheroes. The films did away with all of that, sensibly, but still paid tribute to this beginning. Natalie Portman’s Jane mentions him as an ex-boyfriend of hers, and later on, they mock up an ID with Thor’s face on it. So far, they haven’t taken the opportunity for him to appear in the guise of Liam Hemsworth — you can have that one for free, Feige.
Existing mostly outside the events building towards the ‘Avengers‘ movies, bar the rather shoehorned-in appearance of Thanos and his search for the Infinity Stone, “Guardians Of The Galaxy” was rather lacking in Easter Eggs, but did feature one sequence positively stuffed with them. Our antiheroes turn up to try and offload their Infinity Stone to Benicio Del Toro’s intergalactic middleman, The Collector, whose collection includes some interesting artifacts. Howard The Duck was the center of the post-credits sequence, and many will have spotted Avengers foes the Chitauri, and a Dark Elf from “Thor 2.” But we also get a look at spacesuit-wearing hound Cosmo, and a mysterious item that serves as the cocoon for one of Marvel’s earliest space-faring characters, Adam Warlock (who’s been rumored to crop up in a future “Guardians Of The Galaxy” movie).
Arguably the most famous comic cover of all time is that of the first issue of “Captain America,” published in March 1941, which saw the title character face-punching none other than Adolf Hitler, a bold move, given that America wasn’t yet at war with Germany. It’s been replicated and referenced ever since (most notably in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay”), but on the screen, Marvel resisted the temptation to bring “Downfall” star Bruno Ganz into the Marvel universe and replicate it directly. That said, the image does appear. In “Captain America: The First Avenger“‘s charming USO sequence, Cap’s stage show sees him punch out an actor dressed as the Fuhrer every night. The image can also be glimpsed in original comics form as one of the trading cards belonging to the fallen Agent Coulson in “The Avengers.”
He’s On Fire
For various reasons, some of the earliest Marvel characters have yet to appear in these movies. Fish-person Namor, The Sub-Mariner, for instance, pre-dates “Captain America,” hitting stores in 1939, but his movie rights have been more complicated to sort out, after Universal developed the project for a decade. Then there’s The Human Torch — not the “Fantastic Four” member, but a humanoid android who can burst into flames. He’s been mostly unimportant in the modern-day comics, but did get a shout-out in the movies. In “Captain America: The First Avenger.” a display of his costume can be seen at the Expo sequence, though it doesn’t seem to be self-aware, or on fire.
The Real Shawarma Place
Marvel pulled off quite a coup with the very end of “The Avengers.” International audiences had already seen the mid-credits Easter Egg with the introduction of Thanos, but for the home crowd, the studio packed in a little extra surprise, with a hilariously dry long take of the exhausted heroes eating shawarma together, as suggested by Tony Stark shortly after he returns to life (complete with Chris Evans hiding his by-then-bearded face with his hands). But what you might not have realized is where Stark got the idea from. Earlier in the movie, mid-battle, Iron Man passes a restaurant called ‘Shawarma Place.’ That’s pretty detailed work.
The Dude Abides
Everyone loves the Coen Brothers’ classic stoner/bowling noir “The Big Lebowski,” and Marvel is clearly no exception. In the original “Iron Man,” presumably as a tribute to original Dude, Jeff Bridges, who played the film’s villain, there’s a deep, deep buried reference to the 1998 cult classic. As Pepper examines documents on a computer, we see one document in particular that reveals the name of a ship transporting arms — the MSC Lebowski — and small print that suggests that “in accordance with league bylaws, the game will be forfeit,” and there’s even a link to a marmot. The props department were clearly having fun on this day.
You Will Know My Name Is The Lord
Lebowski isn’t the only 90s crime classic to have homage paid to in a Marvel movie through a link with one of their shared stars. Though Nick Fury’s death in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” turns out to have been a fake-out (because Marvel characters don’t stay dead), the end of the movie sees Cap & co visiting Fury at his gravestone, which bears the epitaph “The path of the righteous man: Ezekiel 25:17.” Of course, this isn’t just a bible quote (in fact, it’s not really a bible quote at all), it’s a reference to Fury actor Samuel L Jackson’s trademark speech in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” Let’s get a reference to the AK-47 speech from “Jackie Brown” into ‘Civil War,’ shall we?
Slept On Tony With Dirt
Pre-2008, Iron Man was probably better known amongst the general public not as a superhero, but as an alias of Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killah, who released the 1996 record Ironman, and used that and Tony Stark, or Starks, as an alias. Jon Favreau knew his stuff and offered Ghostface a cameo in the movie, in a horribly awkward pool party scene that was rightly cut from the movie. To make up for it, Favreau used the song “Slept On Tony With Dirt” in the movie instead.
Not so much Easter Eggs as “nifty little extras that you probably haven’t seen,” Marvel produced five Marvel One-Shot short films for the release of each of their movies on home video between “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World.” “The Consultant” saw Phil Coulson attempt to prevent Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky from joining The Avengers, as the World Security Council requested (essentially explaining the “Incredible Hulk” post-credits scene), while the Agent returned for “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer,” taking down a pair of gas station robbers. “Item 47,” one of the better ones, saw Jesse Bradford and Lizzy Caplan as a Bonnie and Clyde-style couple who use a Chitauri gun in a crime spree, while “Agent Carter” brought back Captain America’s love interest Hayley Atwell and spawned a whole TV series. Finally, “All Hail To The King,” written and directed by “Iron Man 3” screenwriter Drew Pearce, featured the return of Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery, and Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, while Scoot McNairy also appeared. The idea seems to have been discontinued for now, with the last two movies going without One-Shots on DVD.
Stately, Plump Buck Mulligan Came From The Stairhead
Less an Easter Egg and more an incredibly obscure joke, there’s a moment in “Iron Man 2” where Sam Rockwell, giving the hard sell to one of his weapons, a smart bomb so smart that “if it were any smarter, it’d write a book, a book that would make ‘Ulysses’ look like it was written in crayon.” But what Hammer doesn’t appear to have realized is that “Ulysses” mostly was written in crayon. By the time James Joyce penned the book, his eyesight was failing, and he was forced to write with a thick red crayon. Showing that Rockwell’s Hammer isn’t as smart as he thinks, it’s a brilliant piece of character writing for the twelve people that got it.
The Nine Worlds
“Thor: The Dark World” disappointed many, but the film’s definite highlight was a portal-jumping final action sequence that gave a glimpse into some of the places we might yet go to in the franchise. Thor and Malekith battle across several different worlds, including a fire planet that must be Muspelheim, the home of the fearsome Surtur, who in Marvel lore helps to bring about Ragnarok, so expect to see him in the film of the same name. The opening sequence is also presumably set on Nidavellir, where Thor battles a Kronan, the same rock beast that he faced in his very first comics appearance. For extra nerdery, Stellan Skarsgard’s blackboard in the film refers to the ‘616 Universe’ — Marvel uses Earth-616 to refer to the universe in which the main Marvel continuity takes place.
Don’t Let Yourself Be Destroyed As Obi-Wan Did
This has been reasonably well-reported recently, but it’s a big’un, so we thought it was worth including here. Marvel head Kevin Feige recently confessed in an interview with Cinema Blend that, as a big “Star Wars” fan, and seeing Phase Two as the ‘dark middle chapter,’ each of the movies includes a reference to “The Empire Strikes Back” by cutting off the hand of a character. In “Iron Man 3,” Guy Pearce loses it in the final confrontation; in “Thor 2,” it’s the title character, in a Loki-induced fake-out; in ‘Winter Soldier,’ it’s Sebastian Stan’s Bucky, and in “Guardians Of The Galaxy,”’ it’s Groot, at the hands of Gamora (they grow back). ‘Age Of Ultron’ keeps up the trend, though we won’t say how, and per Feige, we’ll be seeing it in phase-closer “Ant-Man” too.
Honorable Mentions: Of course, that’s not all. You have references to Fin Fang Foom, the Ten Rings, and the “Iron Man” cartoon theme tune in the first movie; a glimpse of a “Captain America” comic in “Iron Man 2”; a hint of Arnim Zola’s more out-there comic book appearance in “Captain America”; cameos from creators like Walt Simonson and Ed Brubaker throughout the films; Stark Tower becoming the Avengers tower, complete with blueprints, in “The Avengers”; and Black Widow wearing a Hawkeye necklace in ‘Winter Soldier.’ Still jonesing for more? Get deep into the nitty gritty in the video below that claims to cover “Every Marvel Studios Easter Egg EVER,” and if you still feel like there’s stuff you caught that everyone’s missed? Let us know in the comments.