In April 1990, development began on an Iron Man movie when Universal Studios bought the rights to the Marvel character. Now, 29 years and 22 movies after the fact, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a film franchise juggernaut that changed Hollywood. Eight MCU movies have grossed more than $1 billion within the first week of their releases. The MCU revived the careers of those cast aside by the industry, such as Robert Downey Jr., while also affording gargantuan opportunities to up-and-coming talent like Joe and Anthony Russo. The movies inspired a new generation of comic book fandom and reminded moviegoers why it’s worth spending $10 per ticket to see blockbusters in theaters.
Of course, the magic of these movies happen on-set, a part of the process few get to see. Fortunately, social media and the internet have made it much easier to glimpse the behind-the-scenes action and understand how much work goes into each MCU film. On-set photos reveal a lot of the mystery behind what happens during and between shots. These insights into the production process reveal so much about how these movies are made and the extraordinary effort dedicated to creating amazing entertainment.
So set aside your preconceived notions about shooting a big budget Hollywood flick and check out what’s really happening on-set with MCU movies.
They Use A LOT of Green Screen
The Marvel Cinematic Universe covers a lot of territory. From real locations on Earth such as San Francisco to fictional ones like Wakanda, not to mention all of the intergalactic destinations that the characters visit, the MCU is vast. Realistically, it would be impossible to shoot on-location due to the cost or the fact that many of the places don’t actually exist (as far we know). That means Marvel Studios relies heavily on the use of green screen.
In May, Robert Downey Jr., better known in the MCU as Tony Stark/Iron Man, shared three photos on Instagram of the entire cast and crew assembled in front of the green screen used for the final battle in Avengers: Endgame. Swiping through the pictures, it’s really impressive just how massive the green screen is but then again, where else could they have filmed such an epic clash? Only a green screen would work in this instance. In this Instagram post from Tom Holland, known as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the MCU, the British actor reveals the magic behind the camera. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the teenaged crusader looks as though he scales the 90-degree slope of the Washington Monument in Washington DC. Obviously, the actor did not climb the side of the national landmark. For a movie on the scale Homecoming, which had a budget of $175 million, a green screen made it far more financially viable to achieve gravity-defying stunts and effects.
Most Weapons Don’t Exist
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a violent one, mostly because over the last 11 years, the galaxy has been at war to protect, control, or collect one or all of the Infinity Stones. With all that war taking place, weapons are going to play a major part in these movies. Sure, you have run-of-the-mill firearms, like the ones Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) wields in the first Avengers movie.
However, most of the films’ feature weaponry is simply beyond the (current) technological abilities of humankind. While you’d think Robert Downey Jr. would actually get to wear the Infinity Gauntlet after all his hard work in the MCU, the reality is that all the power in the galaxy is created digitally. Such a bummer.
Yes, it would seem as though Disney has the money to bankroll an entire line of tangible weapons for their Marvel stars to physically wield in the movies. Unfortunately, physics and technology have not caught up with the MCU, which is probably for the best.
And Others Are Real
Unfortunately, iconic weapons such as Captain America’s physics-defying shield and Thor’s legendary hammer are not real, in the sense that vibranium does not exist and no known tool has ever been crafted in the heart of a dying star. But film prop masters actually had the opportunity create some of Marvel’s most awesome weapons. That means some of the actors actually had the chance to brandish their signature weapons. Directors of Avengers: Endgame, the Russo Brothers, show how Chris Hemsworth, who has played Thor since 2011, actually got to work hands-on with Stormbreaker, the ax molded for him by Eitri (Peter Dinklage), a weapon-smith and the last living member of the Dwarven population of Nidavellir. Of course, the Stormbreaker that Hemsworth actually worked with while filming Infinity War and Endgame wasn’t forged in outer space, but it’s still really cool to see the Australian actor get his hands on the mighty ax.
Quite a Bit of Effort Goes into Creating the Characters
Zoe Saldana has played Gamora in four Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. While some actors in the MCU jump through minimal hoops to get into character, that is not the case for others like Saldana, who required hours in the makeup chair to transform. Here’s Saldana during her transformation into Gamora, the green-skinned warrior alien. In 2017, the actor tweeted a 38-second video of the three-hour long process.
Gamora wasn’t the only guardian of the galaxy that had to sit in the makeup chair for hours on end to get into character. Five makeup artists needed five hours each day to apply the 18 prosthetics required to transform wrestler Dave Bautista into Drax the Destroyer, according to an interview with special makeup-effects designer David White.
In total, Guardians of the Galaxy required a team of 50 makeup artists. White said applying the prosthetic makeup to Karen Gillan to create Nebula’s robotic blue facsimile was the “most complex and interesting.” Requiring over four hours of time to apply, White explains, “The five-piece prosthetic was a puzzle of butt joins and blend offs all on the same pieces and the density of the prosthetic changes to accommodate the need to control the amount of prosthetic movement from one piece to another.”
The Bad Guys Aren’t as Evil as You Think
In the pre-MCU world, all too often superhero movies failed to demonstrate the complexities of the characters. Bad was bad and that was it. Thankfully, the Marvel Cinematic Universe invested in high-quality screenwriters who dedicated their scripts to developing complete characters.
The MCU is all about tackling the question of what is good and/or evil. “Good” and “bad” are not black and white terms in the MCU. There are many shades of gray with these characters. Even though Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) battle each other twice in the final Avengers movies, these two legendary actors still find moments on set to goof around.
The love between good and bad doesn’t end there. Foes like Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) were able to bury the hatchet to get the job done and snap a cute selfie on-set. There’s also intercosmic hard-ass Yondu (Michael Rooker), who starts out as a kidnapper in the first Guardians of the Galaxy but saves the whole gang in the second movie. Yondu proves he still has a sense of humor and the ability to geek out when working beside an Oscar-winning star.
So even though Thanos tried to erase trillions of life while Nebula did his bidding and Yondu was snatching up babies from their homes, off-camera antics show us that there’s good in everybody despite the characters they portray.
There’s Downtime Between Shots
Big budget superhero movies are all too often viewed as inartistic and simple. That’s just not the case in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Kevin Feige has invested billions into hiring skilled directors, writers, actors, and crew members to make each shot stunning and meaningful. It takes months to film MCU movies, such as Avengers: Endgame, which started filming in August 2017 and completed in January 2018.
While actors are required to be on set, there are large portions of time where they are waiting for shots to get set up, makeup to get done, and many other tasks that don’t require their specific talents. When the actors are free to take a short break, they find all kinds of amusing ways to unwind. In this Instagram post from Mark Ruffalo, we see Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evan engrossed in some old school fun with original Game Boys.
The actors also savor moments when they can occupy their time with other gaming options. Don Cheadle told The Hollywood Reporter that he, Evans, Ruffalo, Paul Rudd, and Chris Hemsworth played Boggle while filming Avengers: Infinity War. Another way to make the most of downtime between shots is capturing those precious moments of friends just hanging out and enjoying the chance to work together. Chris Evans recently tweeted video of the cast goofing around while filming Iron Man’s farewell for Endgame. Seriously, if you were chillin’ with the Avengers, wouldn’t you snap a pic or two?
But Filming These Movies is Still Extremely Hard Work
As much as the actors enjoy themselves on set, these movies are physically-grueling. Each movie takes months to film, not to mention all of the pre- and post-production time clocked. Even though stunt doubles are used for many portions of the Marvel movies, a lot of the actors still roll up their sleeves and do the dirty work themselves.
For instance, when Chris Evans was filming Captain American: Civil War, the actor insisted on shooting the infamous helicopter scene himself. In an interview with People magazine, Evans discussed how he “messed up” his arm. Luckily, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) was there to help.
Additionally, Jeremy Renner hurt himself on the set of Avengers: Infinity War, though the injury was sustained during a game of tag between shots.
Also, Captain Marvel’s four-legged companion Goose actually caused severe allergic reactions in actor Brie Larson. “It was like the joke on set because I could do really crazy things stunt-wise,” Larson told USA Today. “But the cat was a big obstacle for me. It’s weird how you can train and get your body to do insane things but allergies are kind of a hard stop. That’s where your body’s like, ‘That’s it.'”
Ultimately, this demonstrates the dedication of the cast and crew to create the best experience for fans. They put their physical wellbeing on the line to make magnificent movies.
The Message Is Deeper Than you Think
Yes, MCU movies are fun and thrilling epics that take viewers everywhere from New York City to the decapitated, decomposing head of a giant (aka Knowhere). Many only see these movies as light-hearted blockbuster fluff meant to make millions. However, each movie is rich with themes and messages.
As you can see in this Captain Marvel set photo, the director wanted to reinforce the importance of voting. That’s not the only political topic the filmmaker tackled in the first female-led Marvel movie though.
The topic of black representation in big-budget movies was a huge talking point for months surrounding the release of Black Panther. The sheer fact that the world was finally getting a black superhero sent out shockwaves while stars bought out cinemas across the United States so underrepresented children could finally see a hero that looked like them.
Don’t let the big budgets, sparkly effects, and huge stars of the MCU fool you. These movies have depth and really make you think.
Some Characters are More Fictional Than you Realize
As previously mentioned, it takes a lot of time and effort to transform actors into their Marvel characters. These metamorphoses make it possible for mere Earthlings to become aliens from unknown planets and superhuman beings.
For instance, Hawkeye seems like a pretty uncomplicated character that wouldn’t require a ton of computer-generated imagery. However, this Instagram post from Jeremy Renner shows us that there’s quite a bit of motion capture work done to turn the actor into the best sharpshooter in the universe.
Renner isn’t the only one to undergo the motion capture process. Josh Brolin’s Instagram post reveals how much work went into creating the mad titan Thanos. “I think a big part of it is capturing the detailed aspects of Brolin’s performance because we’re all so used to seeing human faces … so there’s a lot of critical analysis that happens in our brains at the subconscious level,” digital effects supervisor Kelly Port shared. “When you capture that performance very tightly and accurately, that’s a big part of (making the character realistic).”
Even with all of the phenomenal talents of makeup-effects artists, there are some characters that are simply too hard to create using people, such as the adorably foul-mouthed furball Rocket. While the voice of Rocket is done by megastar Bradley Cooper, the visual appearance is created with another actor a wearing motion capture suit.
It’s an Ongoing Creative Process
To create this multi-faceted universe, creative input is taken from multiple sources. Obviously, the original comic books inspire the direction of the MCU movies. But even the actors, like Chadwick Boseman, weigh in on the final product. The actors work tirelessly to embody the Marvel characters and their understandings of the roles influence what audiences see in theaters.
This ongoing creative process has involved a number of talented individuals both in front of and behind the camera. Jon Favreau directed the first and second Iron Man movies while also playing the role of Tony Stark’s security guard and then head of security at Stark Industries.
The creative direction for the Avengers movies is greatly attributed to Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the first two superhero supergroup movies for the MCU. When he left to tackle other projects, the Russo Brothers stepped in Whedon’s role though they had been in charge of the Captain America franchise beginning with Winter Soldier in 2014.
It takes a lot of talent and collaboration to create a movie franchise as massive as the MCU. Luckily, Marvel Studios invested in extraordinary talent that could work well together. The box office numbers prove that was an excellent investment.
The Onscreen Bonds Are Real
As we’ve seen throughout the 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the superheroes don’t always agree with one another. Captain America and Iron Man squared off in Captain America: Civil War. The Hulk and Thor fought one another for the amusement of others in Thor: Ragnarok. But when push comes to shove, these actors are all friends that have enjoyed making each one of these movies. Five of the six original Avengers (Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, and Scarlett Johansson) even got matching tattoos to commemorate their work together and lifetime besties status. (Apparently, Mark Ruffalo wasn’t tough enough to go under the needle.)
Additionally, these actors have worked together for a long time. The first Iron Man movie began filming in March 2007. That means Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow have 12 years of work history together. Not to mention that Samuel L. Jackson makes an uncredited appearance in that same movie, meaning he’s been building relationships with MCU actors for over a decade.
It takes teamwork to become the universe’s mightiest heroes. The stars behind the superheroes didn’t fake their way into friendship though. These celebrities really seemed to have a good time hanging out with one another, on and off screen. It is these bonds that make it so easy for viewers to connect with the Marvel characters.
You’ll Laugh. You’ll Cry. You’ll Stay for the Post-credit Scenes.
The magic of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how emotionally invested its audiences become in each and every character. Sure, there’s plenty of hilarious moments. Or scenes that have you on the edge of your seat. And times when you’re totally fixated on the incredible action sequences. But MCU movies pack an emotional wallop, not just for fans, but for cast and crew members, too.
Much of the MCU’s success has hinged upon the emotional connection the movies could make with the fans. Sure, some of the movies have not packed quite the emotional punch to the gut as others (I’m looking at you Thor: The Dark World). Others have caused audiences to blubber in theaters from start to finish (yeah, that was Endgame for this writer). While others might not have inspired sad tears, there were certainly the ones that had us crying from laughing so hard (nice work, Thor: Ragnarok).
MCU movies are an emotional rollercoaster. From the anticipation leading up to the premiere of a new movie to the laughter, sadness, anger, and sometimes even frustration experienced following the first viewing, you never know what to expect from a Marvel movie.
We Have Stan Lee to Thank for the MCU
No, Stan Lee did not single-handedly create Marvel Comics or any of the characters we adore. However, Lee carried a torch for Marvel and went on to appear in all 22 of the existing MCU movies. Lee is the heart of the MCU. He even made appearances in the Marvel TV shows. (Now that’s commitment.)
If Avengers: Endgame taught us anything, it’s that we never really lose anyone. While you might not be able to resurrect the dead with a snap of the fingers, we can still remember the people who meant the universe to us. Lee’s zany and charming personality left an impression on everyone he met. His work revolutionized the comic books industry which lead to the largest and most successful film franchise in history.
Six weeks before his 96th birthday and just a few months before Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame premiered, Stan Lee passed away. While Lee might not be able to appear on set for his hilarious cameos in future projects, his spirit will live on in every Marvel movie to come.