The following story contains spoilers for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe—now at 23 films and counting—is massive.
The MCU's connective tissue now connects to Disney+, with WandaVision and several upcoming series' promising to directly connect to those 23 movies.
We've seen many characters quite a lot. But this story is counting who we've seen the very most.
Perhaps the thing that's most exciting about the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and most rewarding for people following along extremely closely—is that it always seems like just about any character can show up at just about any moment. In a way, the universe's entries follow a TV model; audiences are dying to see who's next to be introduced, who's coming back, and what kind of cliffhanger catnip they're going to get at the end of the movie. In some ways, by shifting into actual an actual television/streaming format for WandaVision, fans get that sort of payoff and excitement (sometimes in a massive way) at the end of every episode.
Since the MCU kicked off with the original Iron Man in 2008, there have been 23 (!) movies, with plenty more on the way. And now with the aforementioned WandaVision—the first MCU series to land on Disney+ and feel like its seriously tying in with the expansive running storyline—the footprint continues to expand and push the story forward.
It's all very interesting to think about. Sometimes a character will lead their own movie; sometimes they'll show up for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo. Let's talk about our friend Chris Hemsworth as an example. Sure, he'll lead all of the Thor movies and quasi-lead the Avengers movies. But he also showed up in Doctor Strange for about thirty seconds. All counts!
So, again, there are some characters we feel like we've seen more than others. And other characters we may have seen more than we even realize at this point (you'll see what we mean in just a little bit). But by hook or by crook, Marvel does a really excellent job at intertwining the characters in it's universe to make it feel like just that—a live action, interconnected, comic book universe.
That being said, let's get this show on the road. Here are the MCU actors who've appeared in the most movies and Disney+ series so far.
19. Peter Parker/Spider-Man: 5 appearances
It may not feel this way, but audiences have already seen Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in more movies than any other Spidey before. Think about it: Tobey Maguire starred in three Spider-Man films, and Andrew Garfield had two to his name. Holland, meanwhile, has appeared in his two Spider-Man movies so far, along with Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Captain America: Civil War. He'll be moving up, too, as a third Spider-Man is on the way, hopefully for late 2021.
18. Agent Phil Coulson: 5 appearances
Played by Clark Gregg, Agent Phil Coulson was one of the very first pieces of connective tissue in the Marvel Universe, showing up in Iron Man, Thor, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers, but not showing up again on the big screen (he's the lead character in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) until Captain Marvel.
17. Heimdall: 5 appearances
You almost forget that an actor of Idris Elba's magnitude is even in the Marvel world when he's playing a character that's such a pure side player, but nonetheless he's made it worth it, showing up in all three Thor movies, along with Age of Ultron and Infinity War.
16. Agent Maria Hill 6 appearances
Audiences might still know Cobie Smulders best for her role on How I Met Your Mother, but she's appeared as non-superpowered-but-still-badass hero Maria Hill in now six MCU movies (Avengers, Age of Ultron, Infinity War, Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and it feels like she's still got plenty up her sleeve for the future.
15. Clint Barton/Hawkeye 6 appearances
One of the original six Avengers, Jeremy Renner has the interesting distinction of being introduced with a fairly small cameo in the original Thor. Since that appearance, he's shown up in all four Avengers movies, along with Captain America: Civil War. This number will go up at least one more time, as the Hawkeye series (which could be his MCU swan song) will release later in 2021.
14. Happy Hogan: 6 appearances
Happy Hogan is not a superhero. But he's a great guy. Starting as Tony Stark's security detail, Happy (played by actor/director/producer extraordinaire Jon Favreau) really grew into a great character over his various appearances within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He's shown up in all three Iron Man movies, along with Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and a brief appearance in Avengers: Infinity War.
13. Falcon: 6 appearances
Anthony Mackie's Falcon might be Captain America's true sidekick, but he's been a constant player in the MCU since his introduction in Winter Soldier. Since, he's shown up in Age of Ultron, Civil War, a quick cameo in Ant-Man, and both Infinity War and Endgame. He's also going to be leading The Falcon & Winter Soldier, out in March.
12. Loki: 6 appearances
The universe's best villain has managed to stick around through the years, becoming a sometimes-ally, and fan-favorite. Tom Hiddleston really made the role his own, and it's made it impossible for the franchise to ever really get rid of him. He's shown up as the main villain in both Thor and Avengers, while also playing a role in Thor 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War, and a psuedo-cameo in Endgame. That little Endgame role will directly set up Loki, his own Disney+ series which will drop in 2021.
11. Bruce Banner/Hulk: 6 appearances
While he hasn't had his own movie since 2008, back when he was played by Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo has appeared as a side player in four other movies in the time since then. With all three Avengers movies thus far under his belt, in addition to Thor: Ragnarok, Mark Ruffalo has been an essential cog in the Marvel machine. He plays a big role in Endgame—and in a rather unique way. With any luck, he could continue appearing for years to come. Who doesn't want more RuffaloHulk?
10. Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch: 6 Appearances
Wanda's role has been steadily increasing within the MCU ever since her first appearance in the post-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Since then, Elizabeth Olsen has played the character in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and now in Disney+'s tremendous first MCU outing, WandaVision.
We'll have to wait and see how everything plays out in WandaVision, but even after the series we know we'll be seeing more of Wanda/Scarlet Witch; she's scheduled to appear alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.
9. Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes: 7 appearances
Perhaps the most complex character in the Marvel Universe, Sebastian Stan has shown up in seven different movies as friend-turned villain-turned friend Bucky Barnes/ Winter Soldier. He played key roles in all three Captain America movies, while also popping in for both Infinity War and Endgame. He also shows up for brief cameos in both Ant-Man and Black Panther. Next, he's going to lead Falcon & Winter Soldier with Anthony Mackie.
8. Black Widow: 7 appearances
It may feel like she's been part of the gang forever, but Scarlett Johansson first entered the MCU as superspy Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow, in Iron Man 2. Since then, she's been one of the universe's most valuable chess pieces, showing up in The Avengers, Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron, Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame. Her solo movie—the aptly-titled Black Widow—was supposed to come out in 2020 but... you know. The plan for Black Widow now is to release in theaters in May 2021. But we'll see how that goes.
7. Pepper Potts: 7 appearances
As the CEO of Stark Industries and Tony Stark's romantic interest, Gwyneth Paltrow has been a part of the MCU for as long as she's been the founder of Goop (Seriously! Both started in 2008).
She's shown up in all three Iron Man movies, the original Avengers, Infinity War, Endgame,and Spider-Man: Homecoming. In 2019, Gwyneth announced her Marvel retirement, so we've seen the last of Pepper Potts.
6. J.A.R.V.I.S./Vision: 8 appearances
You've seen Paul Bettany take many forms in the MCU; for Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, The Avengers, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, he was J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark's trusty and occasionally snarky A.I. super assistant. But in Ultron J.A.R.V.I.S.' consciousness was merged with a body made of vibranium and the mind stone, becoming a new being called Vision. Vision isn't that powerful, he just can control matter and life Mjolnir. That's all, no big deal. As Vision, Bettany appeared in Ulron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and now is giving it a go in the leading role in WandaVision. Bettany is one of the best actors in the MCU, and seeing his role slowly but surely increase has been a treat.
5. James Rhodes/War Machine: 8 appearances
Remember when this guy was played by Terrance Howard? Good times. Anyway, outside of the character's first appearance in the original Iron Man, Don Cheadle has really made this character his own, infusing his dynamic charisma into the character through appearances in Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Age of Ultron, Civil War, Infinity War, Endgame, and a quick cameo at the end of Captain Marvel.
Cheadle seems to have such a blast playing Rhodey, and already has a couple upcoming MCU appearances lined up. He's going to star in Armor Wars, another Disney+ MCU series, and let a little nugget go that he's going to have a special appearance in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.
4. Thor: 8 appearances
Now we start to really get into our major, major stars. Thor is an essential piece to what makes the MCU tick, both in terms of in-universe power, and in Chris Hemsworth's utter perfection in playing him, particularly in Ragnarok, Infinity War, and, oh boy, Endgame. The humor he's brought the the role in those latter three appearances has been a huge breath of fresh air, and his character has become absolutely dynamic.
He also played key roles or led Thor, Thor 2, Avengers, Age of Ultron, and made a cameo in Doctor Strange. Up next? Just re-teaming with Ragnarok director Taika Waititi for Thor: Love and Thunder, which will see Hemsworth re-team with Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, etc.), and go up against a villain played by Christian Bale. No big deal.
3. Steve Rogers/Captain America: 9 appearances
One of the de facto leaders of the bunch, you could argue that no one's made more of an impression through the years than Chris Evans as this super-soldier who bleeds positivity. He obviously led all three Captain America movies, all four Avengers movies, and made brief cameos in both Thor 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Endgame was thought to be his MCU finale—and it's hard to ask for a better ending—but some rumors recently have suggested otherwise. We. Will. See.
2. Nick Fury: 10 appearances
Where Agent Coulson was the initial connective tissue of the MCU, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is the lasting connective tissue. He's shown up not once, not twice, but 10 times throughout the course of the 23 films, and somehow that doesn't feel like enough. Let's recap: Fury has made his way into the story in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, the first two Captain America movies, all four Avengers movies (although his Endgame appearance was literally three seconds long), Captain Marvel, and Spider-Man: Far From Home.
The great thing about that? Samuel L. Jackson has plenty more to come. He's going to star in Secret Invasion, a Disney+ series which will see him re-team with his Captain Marvel and Far From Home co-star Ben Mendelsohn (who plays Talos the Skrull). Those two have amazing chemistry, so we really cannot wait to see where that series goes.
1.Tony Stark/Iron Man: 10 appearances
Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark is the character who started it all back in 2008's Iron Man, and has been a fixture ever since. It's hard to imagine anyone bringing as much to the role as RDJ has, and he's been the perfect fit, and a human metiphor for what Marvel has designed their movies to be: fun, breezy, but never too light to not believe in some heavy action. And talk about character development! Sometimes people don't take superhero movies super seriously, but seeing the way this character grows through the movies is really impressive work by both Downey and the people writing the character as well.
*deep breath* Downey Jr has shown up as Tony Stark in all three Iron Man movies, all four Avengers movies, Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and a brief cameo in The Incredible Hulk. With Endgame, sadly, his story seemed to come to an end—but as anyone who's been along for the ride would tell you, it sure was quite the ride.
Without Iron Man there would be no MCU, and everyone who follows the series knows that—it'll be thrilling to see where the story goes with both of its leaders out of the picture.
For the time being, at least. (Because let's be real—no superhero story is ever really over over.)
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