In 2008, fresh off the success of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios was ready to go ahead with their master plan: The Avengers. Lacking the film licenses to some of their own most popular characters, namely Spider-Man and the X-Men, Marvel sought to take Earth’s Mightiest Heroes into the spotlight.
With Iron Man established and Hulk as recognizable as ever, this finally seemed realistic. However, there was still one big problem; The public simply didn’t know much about The Avengers. Aside from an ill fated animated series in the ’90s, the team had only ever had success on the comic page. Regulars like Captain America and Thor had some pop culture recognition, but nothing like Batman or Spider-Man. Betting hundreds of millions of dollars on solo cinematic success for them, let alone a team-up film, was a gamble.
On October 8th, 2008, to help raise awareness for the brand, Marvel officially announced what became Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, an animated series set for release in October of 2010, a few months prior to The Avengers movie‘s projected July 2011 release. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes would enlist many of the creative forces behind the successful, but egregiously short lived Wolverine and the X-Men (with which it would share a continuity) and initially feature Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man/Giant Man, and Wasp, all of whom were integral to projects already in development at Marvel Studios. Though rather blatant with their intentions, over the next few years many changes and adjustments would give this cartoon a unique place in Marvel history.
After the project’s announcement in 2008, a lot changed at Marvel. In August of 2009, Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment for over four billion dollars. Iron Man 2 had an impressive opening in May, and Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor were both scheduled for 2011 release, with Avengers re-scheduled for the following summer. The biggest boost of all came with the news that the Avengers movie would be headed up by Joss Whedon.
There isn’t much verifiable information on what Marvel’s plans were for The Avengers and the coming “phases” of the MCU before this point. What Marvel certainly did know was which characters they had access to. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, produced in part before Zak Penn’s first draft of the Avengers movie was even completed, seems to offer a little bit of insight into Marvel’s intent.
We probably shouldn’t overestimate how much of what Marvel was planning for their upcoming movies made it into Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but the storylines may still give us insight into things to come. Many characters who would go on to (or already did) appear in MCU films are players in the world of EMH. Some of this can be attributed to Marvel simply being aware of their most compelling properties (not to mention which ones were simply available for use), but sometimes it showed a consensus on how the characters were to be portrayed in future projects.
Marvel Cinematic Universe concepts, like the connections between Hawkeye and Black Widow, appear early in the show. Surprisingly, Widow isn’t quite the central figure she is in the films. This may be connected to Marvel’s original plans for Wasp and Ant-Man. Wasp, who finally appeared in Ant-Man, was in early drafts of The Avengers, but Whedon cut the character from The Avengers movie as it already had quite a large cast. But he actually had to fight a bit to keep Black Widow off the chopping block. There was apparently a point that the studio lacked faith in the female hero’s marketability, but Whedon insisted that the helicarrier would feel like a “gay cruise” without her. This could explain both Wasp’s prominence on EMH, and Widow’s lack thereof.
You can see the series’ influence on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Two and Phase Three, as well. Vision appears near the end of the series and the show made a point to feature both the Hank Pym and Scott Lang versions of Ant-Man, something that had long been mentioned as an aspect of the film through its many years of development. Though in EMH Ultron is created by his comic book inventor Hank Pym, the big screen’s version of both androids found a father in Tony Stark, as Hank Pym didn’t finally make his way to the screen until after the second Avengers movie, after the long suffering Ant-Man movie finally saw release.
While the line-up was different (no Drax or Gamora and adding Adam Warlock and Quasar), the inclusion of the Guardians of the Galaxy served as an early sign that even early on, Marvel was playing around with properties that would eventually work well on the big screen. Guardians of the Galaxy is also one of the few Phase Two properties with a more visible timeline. Co-Writer Nicole Perlman began working on the script in 2009, during the production of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Perlman was part of the now defunct Marvel Writers Program,a group of screenwriters who were presented with numerous Marvel properties that the studio had interest in producing and were asked to choose which they thought they could develop. The Guardians, who were completely under Marvel Studios’ control, were a logical seed to plant.
In the cartoon, The Guardians are pursuing Michael Korvac and the 22 minute episode serves an abridged version of the comic book epic, The Korvac Saga, one that substitutes the Kree for the Badoon, which also helpfully connects Michael Korvac to another Marvel property, albeit one who didn’t have much luck with their small screen debut, The Inhumans. Other episodes feature Quake and Mockingbird on a team investigating Kree hiding out on Earth, which doesn’t sound all that far off Agents of SHIELD‘s dalliances with Inhumans and Kree concepts. This was long before the Kree became household names thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy and Agents of SHIELD.
In Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, both the original Captain Mar-Vell and Carol Danvers helped to stop a Kree invasion of Earth. The episodes are actually a quite concise origin story for Danvers, one with cinematic overtones. Even though Marvel Studios admitted to early plans to bring a Captain Marvel into Avengers: Age of Ultron, they decided to hold off, although Joss Whedon didn’t make the call on this one. And the inclusion of Carol Danvers’ origin story here may have been yet another signal that they had big plans for Captain Marvel.
In 2007, Marvel’s Kevin Feige confirmed the development of a Black Panther movie. It took 11 years, but the Black Panther movie not only arrived, but absolutely destroyed box office expectations and earned itself a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, the first superhero film to do so. But Earth’s Mightiest Heroes gave T’Challa his own episode, which made it clear how prominent an Avenger he was expected to be going forward. Panther’s nemesis, Klaw, would be introduced during season one. Panther brought a more global feel to the show than the first film did, and this was likely the intent of the producers. Klaw appeared briefly in Avengers: Age of Ultron (where he was played by Andy Serkis), and again in the Black Panther movie, while T’Challa himself has now appeared in three movies, including Avengers: Infinity War. And now with Avengers: Endgame, virtually every major character from Earth’s Mightiest Heroes will have made it to the big screen!
Bucky Barnes returned from the dead on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes a solid 2 years before he would show up on film. Though appearing earlier in the series, perhaps the most intriguing story in EMH was his affiliation with “Code Red”. Code Red acted as a sort of Anti-Avengers, featuring Bucky, Falcon, Red Hulk, and Doc Samson. The latter two, while never in Gamma form, did debut in The Incredible Hulk and in EMH are, to their surprise, working under the Red Skull, yet another character who was introduced and, to date, left in limbo. By coincidence or by design, Captain America: Civil War featured three of the four Code Red members.
Why does that matter? Well, here’s where we see what may be the first indications of a second generation of Marvel Cinematic Heroes. With a reported 9 film deal for Sebastian Stan, Bucky Barnes is at least part of plans to come (so that Falcon and The Winter Soldier TV series may only be the beginning). This along with the simple fact that actors are getting older and contracts are running out, we may need even more New Avengers.