This article contains major MCU spoilers
The Marvel Cinematic Universe loves its surprises. Highly anticipated post-credits scenes tease future appearances and adventures, while twists and reveals in the movies themselves either work as standard, or inform how you approach upcoming projects in the ever-expanding franchise. As characters evolve and motivations take shape, these tactics also combine to give past MCU films a new spin. And because Marvel now has so many blockbusters under its belt, its reveals often operate in a unique, interconnected way that don’t always comply with “the rules.” Just like the comics!
We’re looking back at some of the best and worst twists and turns the MCU has offered fans to date, and digging a little deeper into what did (or didn’t) make them work, from 2008’s Iron Man to 2022’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
28. Skull Candy
Whatever happened to Hugo Weaving’s First Avenger villain, Red Skull? Avengers: Infinity War had the answer: he was teleported to Vormir and trapped there as the Soul Stone keeper. A fine reveal on the surface, but ultimately it was a rather empty easter egg – uninteresting to the characters who encountered him on the barren planet, so primarily there just for the audience to kind of just go “oh”. It also came complete with a fast recast after original Red Skull actor Hugo Weaving had a hard time bargaining with Marvel for his return to the role.
27. Which Was the Styles at the Time
Phase 4 was filled with new MCU characters being revealed in post-credits scenes. Some of them were pretty good (Brett Goldstein as Hercules was some inspired casting) and some of them were a bit underwhelming (Charlize Theron’s Clea arriving in a costume that looked like it had been picked up in a Spirit Halloween sale) but Harry Styles as Eros in one of the Eternals’ post-credits scenes was truly a mixed bag.
The pop star joining the MCU had already been spoiled by journalists who attended the Eternals premiere and had immediately rushed to post online about the surprising MCU addition. But when fans actually got to see him as the character, he was accompanied by a CG Pip the Troll in a wobbly dual entrance. Mainly, audiences were baffled, but Styles stans were surely overjoyed nonetheless. We haven’t seen Eros again since he popped up in Eternals, but we have seen Styles act in other things, so perhaps we can accept that’s for the best.
26. Forget Me Not
A central theme of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man trilogy was set in motion when Adrian Toomes discovered Peter Parker’s real identity during Homecoming, and it accelerated in Far From Home when the villainous Mysterio announced it to the world. But in 2021’s No Way Home, the final piece of the arc was revealed: everyone had to forget who Peter was. As he grieved the loss of his last remining family member, his closest friends gave him blank looks, and he moved on to a new phase of his life alone.
Although it was a solemn but fitting end for the trilogy, the new forgetting spell reveal didn’t quite cut the mustard for some fans. What about all the news footage of Spider-Man’s identity that had been broadcast across the world? Had that simply been erased? If it erased his high school record, it likely also erased his birth certificate and passport. How was he managing to rent an apartment? If everyone forgot Peter even if they were from another part of the multiverse, surely that doomed the other Peters Parker to be forgotten in their universes? If you were the pernickety type (and some are) a lot of it just didn’t really add up in a satisfying way.
25. Back from the Dead
Steve Rogers’ best friend Bucky Barnes was one of the fallen during the WWII exploits of the first Captain America movie, but in The Winter Soldier, Barnes was back from the dead as a formidable new antagonist with a killer left hook. For anyone who was unfamiliar with the character’s Marvel Comics history, it was a true eyebrow-raiser, but for those who were familiar with it, this was really just another beat in a larger story they already knew when they first heard the title of the dang movie.
24. Sacrifice Play
There was ultimately only one way to win against Thanos in the final battle of the Infinity Saga, and that was for Tony Stark to sacrifice himself to save everyone, as revealed by Doctor Strange in the midst of a make-or-break moment. “I am Iron Man,” he simply said, echoing the words that closed his MCU-kickstarting movie. He then snapped his fingers, and made the Mad Titan and his hoards vanish from the battlefield and existence itself. “You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on the wire and let the other guy crawl over you,” Steve Rogers had snarled at him in 2012’s The Avengers, but in the endgame, he was that guy. It was a sad old time, but hardly anyone expected Tony Stark to live past Endgame!
23. Robot Apocalypse
Eternals is an odd Marvel movie that honestly deserves a second look, because its major twist changes a lot of what you’ve previously seen leading up to its reveal. During the first half of the Phase 4 Chloé Zhao project, we see the immortal beings arrive on Earth and deal with the customs and interactions of humans, often adopting them into their own lives as the Deviant force they’re fighting peters out. We see two of the main Eternals, Sersi and Ikaris, having very unsexy sex, and the group’s differing physical and psychological responses to the passage of time.
A lot of this seems quite mechanical and dull, but it’s only when the Celestial Arishem reveals that they are actually synthetic beings (essentially robots) that their weird actions and choices really make sense, and it rather separates their motivations from any other random “alien race” that might land on Earth. Unfortunately, many fans were so disappointed with Eternals that they chose not to revisit the movie a second time and view it from this angle, which is a real shame.
22. Trevor Slattery the ACK-TOR
The OG Iron Man might’ve put the wheels in motion for the Ten Rings, and although the Mandarin technically appeared in Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, his reveal goes down as one of the most polarizing in superhero history. When you cast someone with the gravitas of Sir Ben Kingsley, you know it will be big. However, Kingsley’s role as the Mandarin was just a front for Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian.
Our Mandarin was a struggling actor called Trevor Slattery, and the comedic reveal didn’t land for many, but the MCU doubled down on it when the All Hail the King One-Shot visited Slattery in prison. Here, he was being watched by the real Mandarin. Unlike Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer being left to rot in there, Trevor’s story was just starting.
This paid off in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and although many of us had forgotten about Trev, his return as a prisoner of Tony Leung’s Wenwu, aka the Mandarin, added some welcome comedy. Not only is Wenwu held as one of the franchise’s best villains, but Destin Daniel Cretton turned an arguably terrible twist into something great. Talk about playing the long game.
21. Loki Cheats the Universe
If there’s one character that you want to come up with your escape plan, it’s the God of Mischief himself, Loki. Tom Hiddleston’s silver-tongued trickster is known for getting out of a jam, which was no different in Avengers: Endgame.
The twisty Time Heist took Team Tony back to the events of 2012’s The Avengers in a quest for the Space Stone. As well as giving us the “America’s Ass” scene, we also got yet another reprieve for Loki after he was killed at the start of Avengers: Infinity War.
Even if this Loki isn’t the one who had his redemptive arc in Thor: Ragnarok, from what we’ve seen of him in Loki, he’s on the same path. Importantly, having Loki grab the Space Stone and dash off into the Multiverse allowed Hiddleston to stick around in the MCU for a little longer, helped introduce the TVA, and ultimately queued up Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).
20. Mysterio the Douchebag
Those up on their comics know that Mysterio is a major Spider-Man foe and Sinister Six staple, so were we really surprised when he did the dirty on Tom Holland’s wall-crawling hero in Spider-Man: Far From Home?
Putting a realistic spin on the Master of Illusion could’ve been a struggle, but with drone tech and AI, it oddly works to modernize Mysterio. The big reveal comes during the pulse-pounding pub scene, where we realise Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) is after Peter Parker’s E.D.I.T.H. glasses.
It might be a bit of a convoluted story that includes some science guy no one remembers from Iron Man, but things rocket toward a climax that reveals Spidey’s identity to the world and helps set up Spider-Man: No Way Home. Gyllenhaal was so loved in the role, there are plenty of fan theories on how he could return as Quentin Beck.
19. Taskmaster Disaster
Is there anyone in Marvel who Taskmaster hasn’t fought? This masked menace has crossed paths with almost everyone, but with the Widows being a long-time foe, Taskmaster’s inclusion in Black Widow makes perfect sense. Despite everyone poring over every tiny detail of the trailers to try and figure out who was behind the mask, theories that it would be Rachel Weisz’s Melina were way off.
In the end, it all tied together with the infamous Budapest incident that put some serious blood on Nat’s hands. Here, the reveal that Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko is a gender-flipped Taskmaster and the scarred daughter of Dreykov (Ray Winstone) stuck a middle finger to the haters of a female MCU. Sadly, we only got to see Taskmaster as a mindless puppet of her father.
No matter what some might think, the Taskmaster reveal is a clever revamp of the character. With Black Widow 2 looking unlikely, the MCU can go full Trevor Slattery and prove critics of this twist wrong when Kurylenko reprises her role as Taskmaster for Jake Schreier’s Thunderbolts.
18. Scarlet Witch Goblin Mode
As soon as Elizabeth Olsen was announced for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, fans guessed we’d get to see her break bad to embrace the “House of M” and “Avengers Disassembled” arcs of the comics. There was a gut-punch moment when Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) visited Wanda at her orchard – realizing the power of the Darkhold had already got hold of her. Critiques aside, at least Multiverse of Madness wasted no time in establishing Wanda as the big bad.
Olsen pulls off some great duality as “evil” Wanda and her Earth-838 counterpart – showing how tragedy has sent our Maximoff down the path to darkness. It might’ve been a bit confusing for those who skipped out on WandaVision and questioned how the former Avengers goes full Maleficent, but for the rest of us, she made for a tragic villain.
17. Future Cap
Captain America: The First Avenger did a good job of detailing Steve Rogers’ WWII backstory, but it was unclear how the MCU planned to bring Cap into the future after those events. Having seen that his shield had been uncovered in the Arctic in the movie’s opening moments, we had to wait until the end until we could find out what happened to the man himself.
We join Steve in experiencing the big reveal as he wakes up in strange circumstances. SHIELD has defrosted him somehow and set up his room to seem like a blast from the past so as not to unnerve him, but he soon realizes it’s all a sham, and fights his way out to Times Square, where he is bombarded by scenes of modern society in present day New York. It feels like a big moment, and tinged with sadness as Steve realizes he has left everything he knows behind forever. Or has he?
16. Peters Parker
The arrival of Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, reprising their roles as past Spider-Men in No Way Home, was truly delightful. Not only was it great to see Maguire back in action on screen after he’d drifted away from the acting world somewhat, but there was some wonderful closure for Garfield and his version of Peter Parker sewn into the plot of the ensemble threequel.
As brilliant as the moment is when the two Spider-Men arrive on the scene to help save the day when Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is feeling broken and helpless during the back half of the movie, it had been spoiled relentlessly online before it happened. Some fans watched the movie knowing their appearances were inevitable, and it’s hard not to imagine how next-level terrific it all would have been were we in the dark. However, it remains a great MCU (and Sony) reveal.
15. Doctor Strange Undoes Himself
Doctor Strange has often been criticized for having similar beats to 2008’s Iron Man, with Stephen Strange introduced as a rich, cocky son of a gun who only establishes true greatness and understanding after hitting rock bottom, but the movie’s climax told a different story. As the Earth began to crumble and the Dark Dimension encroached, Strange suddenly entered that dangerous place with an unknown plan, prompting us to wonder what the hell he could do against such enormous power.
We were expecting a typically bombastic Marvel ending, but when Strange created an endless time loop around himself and the inter-dimensional entity Dormammu, it took us somewhere surprisingly low-key, and the movie remains one of the bare few in the franchise to opt for that kind of vibe. We watched Strange die over and over again in the loop until Dormammu finally accepted his bargain. We don’t know how long he existed there, but when he left he had become the kind of person who could not only accept death, but accept great losses in the face of it.
Later, in Avengers: Infinity War, Strange again calculated how to “win” even if it meant he and many others lost years to the sands of time, and this original, understated turn was key to his character arc.
14. Fury’s Pager
After the devastating events of Avengers: Infinity War, most Marvel fans sat in the dark through the end of the credits to see if there was any hope on the horizon. Enter Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who finds himself living through The Snap in traffic, only to be one of those unfortunate people turned to dust. But in typical Fury quick thinking, he grabs a mysterious pager from his bag and hits send. As his dust hits the wind, the pager falls to the ground to reveal the Captain Marvel insignia. Where is Captain Marvel? Why has no one mentioned her before? When did Nick Fury meet her? How will she help save the day? We had to wait what seemed like a painfully long time to find out.
13. I Am Iron Man
Going back to where it all began, the MCU’s first outing is a little rough around the edges when compared to what we have today. Still, there’s no escaping the importance of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. There were twists galore here, and alongside the reveal that Jeff Bridges Obadiah Stane was in cahoots with the Ten Rings, we ended with another jaw-dropper.
Iron Man wasted no time setting up the franchise’s future when Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark told the world he’s Iron Man. In the comics, we’re used to supes keeping themselves a secret, and as Spider-Man: No Way Home showed us, it’s not always great when villains know your civilian identity.
The next two Iron Man movies dealt with this, and alongside Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) crashing Tony’s Iron Man 2 race in Monaco, we had the bombastic destruction of his Malibu mansion in Iron Man 3. Without Stark’s blabbermouth, we wouldn’t have the post-credits stinger of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), meaning there would’ve been a very different Avengers. Four little words kicked off the world’s highest-grossing franchise…and we haven’t looked back since.
12. Illuminati Party
There have been some great MCU mysteries over the years, but the Illuminati lineup of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will go down in history. Theories tipped everyone from Tenoch Huerta’s Namor to Wesley Snipes’ Blade for the shadowy cabal, and while most were miles off, we were on the money with a few.
Lashana Lynch playing an alternate Captain Marvel and Hayley Atwell finally getting to play Captain Carter in real life are all well and good, but that’s nothing compared to John Krasinski’s Mister Fantastic or the long-awaited return of Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier.
Krasinki’s cameo proves that fan castings really do get listened to, while Stewart’s return has opened the doors to hope that anyone and everyone from Fox’s X-Men movies could pop up in the MCU. Nothing quite compares to the moment we hear Stewart’s dulcet tones as he wheels into view in a wheelchair inspired by X-Men: The Animated Series.
11. Killmonger Returns
Many had pegged Michael B. Jordan for a return in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and while this wasn’t through some magical resurrection via the Heart-Shaped Herb, we were glad to see more from the complex “villain” of the first movie.
When Shuri journeyed to the Ancestral Plain, it would’ve been all too easy to have her visit Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett). Thankfully, Ryan Coogler didn’t go down the CGI route to bring back Chadwick Boseman, leaving Erik Killmonger to offer some sage advice to his cousin. Better yet, it was a cameo that Coogler somehow managed to keep a lid on.
Killmonger’s return is important because it puts Shuri in a conundrum of whether she should embrace the rage that got him killed or take the route of her brother and be seen as “weak.” We’re not sure whether Jordan will be back for more, but with the door to the Multiverse wide open, we’re holding out hope for Secret Wars.
10. Ego’s Legacy
Adapting an out-there villain like Ego the Living Planet was never going to be easy for the MCU, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did it with gusto when it turned a gaseous ball of evil into Peter Quill’s father.
We never saw Star-Lord’s daddy dearest swooping in to save the day, but it was when the Guardians settled down on his plane (being an extension of him), things turned into a real horror show. It turned out Ego had been touring the galaxy and knocking women up in the hope of terraforming in his own image.
As Gamora (Zoë Saldaña) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) duked out their differences, they fell into a bone-filled cave. These were the bodies of Ego’s children who hadn’t inherited his Celestial genes and had been murdered as a disappointment. Not just giving us the horrors of a mass grave, the Vol. 2 twist is crucial because it sets up Star-Lord as a Celestial. And let’s not forget Ego’s final reveal here: putting the tumor in Peter’s mother. Awful scenes.
9. Ant Fam Disband
Ant-Man and the Wasp had the rather unfortunate challenge of following up Avengers: Infinity War on the big screen during a summer where Marvel fans were chomping at the bit for any plot details that might give them a clue what would happen in the concluding chapter of the Infinity Saga the following year. This film is a fun caper for the Ant Fam, but is Snap-free until its mid-credits scene, when the Fam gather to send Scott Lang into the Quantum Realm to gather some energy, only to reveal that Lang is stranded there when they all turn to dust.
It worked as both a shocking turn of events for Hope, Janet, and Hank, but also solved the mystery of where the hell Lang was during Infinity War, even as we were left wondering “how is he gonna get out of this one?”
8. Flerken Around
The mystery of Nick Fury’s eye is one that baffled MCU fans since Jackson popped up in the Iron Man post-credits scene. These days, the Star Wars actor has become so synonymous with the role, Marvel Comics has rewritten the character in his likeness.
Some had written off Captain Marvel as a generic prequel movie, but tying into the larger MCU, we found out Goose the cat clawed out Fury’s eye. In reality, Carol Danvers’ (Brie Larson) cat is a squid-like alien called a Flerken. As for why Fury has kept the incident a secret, we imagine he wanted the reason to be some heroic war story instead of the act of a furious feline. Having Fury lose his eye to a Nazi grenade in the comics would’ve been fairly easy to pull off, but in typical MCU style, the writers wanted to try something different. After waiting 11 years until we found out what happened to Fury’s eye, did anyone really have their money on a cat scratch?
7. Vormir Widow
Kevin Feige promised there would be some big deaths in Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame, and while Loki’s was largely rewritten through the Multiverse, the demise of OG avengers Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Tony Stark have stuck. Tony’s death in the final battle against Thanos might’ve pulled the heartstrings, but Nat’s sacrifice was arguably more poignant.
Romanoff has always been a cold and collected addition to the Avengers, and having clearly done some dark things in the past (we’re looking at you Budapest), her death on Vormir helped remove some red from her ledger. Ultimately, Nat concluded that Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) had a family to live for, while her lonely existence made her the logical sacrifice for the Soul Stone.
Even though it’s touch and go whether Nat or Clint takes a tumble, there’s that immortal shot of Black Widow’s lifeless corpse lying at the bottom of the cliffs. Then an even deeper tragedy emerges in Loki when you realise the TVA has a ton of Soul Stones just knocking around in a drawer.
6. Ally Talos
Decades of Marvel Comics had painted the Skrulls as a villainous race, so going into Captain Marvel we had assumed that Ben Mendelsohn’s Skrull leader Talos was a bad guy. For a while, there were no signs telling us any different, until an unarmed Talos casually arrived at our hero’s safe place with an explanation that the Skrulls were merely refugees, and that the Kree were actually once again the villains of the piece. The twist later gained a tantalizing extra edge when Marvel announced a Disney+ Secret Invasion series, based on a comic event where the Skrulls really were the villains.
5. Thanos Wins
If there’s one thing we thought we knew about Marvel movies, it’s that the good guys always win, but in 2018 you could have heard a pin drop in most theaters when Thanos collected all six of his precious Infinity Stones and snapped his fingers, removing half of all living creatures from existence. As Bucky Barnes, Wanda Maximoff, Black Panther, Mantis, Groot, Spider-Man, Star-Lord, and the rest of our unfortunate heroes turned to dust, Thanos popped off to his garden triumphantly, and the credits began to roll. Yes, we knew Avengers: Endgame was coming, but it was still a dark reveal, and rectifying The Snap would inevitably involve even more sacrifice. In Phase 4, much of the fallout from The Snap and The Blip was still heavily felt amongst the survivors, too.
4. Winter Starks
Tony Stark didn’t exactly have the best relationship with his father, which makes the death of Howard Stark (John Slattery) all the more tragic. Captain America: Civil War might’ve been a massive swing away from the comic book arc it was (loosely) based on, but the assassination of Howard and Maria Stark was a big win.
Away from the political ideologies of the Sokovia Accords, the final act was a much more personal revenge mission for Iron Man. He always knew his parents had been killed, but as he was shown CCTV of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) murdering Howard and Maria Stark while under the influence of HYDRA’s brainwashing, his world fell apart.
There’s another intimate twist, thanks to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) covering for his BFF: Civil War show’s the darker side of Stark, and unlike T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) sparing Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Tony would’ve killed Bucky if not for Steve being there.
3. Vulture Knows Best
It seems like Peter Parker’s life is slowly working out when he finally asks his crush Liz to the homecoming dance in his first solo MCU outing, but when he arrives at her front door on the night, who should answer but the film’s primary villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who it turns out has been Liz’s dad all along? A truly “oh shit!” moment, this one.
Toomes is a sympathetic bad guy, but we know Peter’s in serious trouble during this surprising encounter. What follows is one of the most tense car rides in modern blockbuster cinema, as Toomes slowly works out that Peter is the troublesome Spider-Man. The red streetlight highlights his face as his chat with Peter becomes more sinister, and turns to green as he flashes an insidious smile before keeping Peter in his car for a “dad talk”. It’s the first real seed of Peter’s tragic identity journey in the MCU, and it didn’t end particularly well for Toomes either: he joined the cast of Morbius.
2. Wielding Mjolnir
Forget Flash entering the Speed Force, Captain America fighting with Mjolnir was one of the greatest cheerworthy moments of our time. Steve Rogers proved once and for all that not everything special about him came out of a bottle when he was worthy enough to lift Thor’s hammer against Thanos during the climax of Avengers: Endgame.
It was a reveal years in the making, going all the way back to one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ few relaxed bonding moments in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Challenged to have a crack at picking up Mjolnir, various Avengers rose to see if they were worthy, but only Steve Rogers managed to shift the hammer even a little. Thor was unsettled at the time, but in Endgame he clearly suspected that Steve was quite capable of wielding the weapon all along, crying “I knew it!” as he witnessed Steve go toe-to-toe with Thanos. It got fans wondering whether Steve had faked his failure back in Age of Ultron, too. Now when you revisit the movie, there’s another layer of fun to the foreshadowing.
1. On Your Left
During the final act of Avengers: Endgame, we knew that the Time Heist had worked and that everyone who had been Snapped was probably back, but there was a long stretch between Clint Barton hearing his wife pick up the phone, and the Portals reveal where all the MCU heroes gathered together for the first time on screen.
A fraught battle had taken place, Cap was overwhelmed, and he was beginning to accept his fate. Strapping his broken shield to his arm, he staggered out into the battlefield once again, facing insurmountable odds. Suddenly, a familiar voice in his ear. “On your left,” he heard Sam Wilson tease. Portals opened to reveal star after star behind him, as our heroes triumphantly returned. Cinema!
If you feel like we missed one of your favorite MCU surprises, let us know in the comments!