In this week's installment, in honor of the release of Avengers: Infinity War, which brings in every Marvel superhero imaginable, we look at the forgotten heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe… the non-superheroes.
We don't mean the villains; certainly there are more than enough of them to go around. We mean the members of the Marvel world who aren't blessed with superpowers but still hold our attention on screen, the actors playing regular people. You need these humans to not just help us understand how powerful our heroes are, but also to keep them grounded.
They are the audience's entry point: They're just like us.
Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill
The How I Met Your Mother actress shows a steelier side as Maria Hill, the no-nonsense S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who spends a lot of time in the Marvel films working with the Avengers, conferring with Nick Fury and laying out important exposition so that the audience knows what's going on. Smulders has reprised her role in a few episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which allowed her to flesh out the character and be a more active ingredient in the overall plotting.
But even in a limited capacity, Smulders brings the right amount of buttoned-down authority, and she's not to be trifled with. Others in the MCU may assume she's just a pretty face, but it's Hill who Fury turns to when he needs to fake his death in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She's unflappable — exactly the person you want around when HYDRA is starting trouble.
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster
A Harvard graduate, Natalie Portman has no problem convincing as the brilliant astrophysicist Jane Foster in the original Thor. But what was more of a surprise was how winning the Oscar winner was as a comedic love interest. Her Jane isn't quite sure what to make of the muscle-bound Asgardian who crash-lands into her life, but their opposites-attract chemistry is that film's clear highlight.
Thor is a knowingly absurd fish-out-of-water action-comedy, and Portman plays it just right, treating every one of Chris Hemsworth's cheekily lunk-headed proclamations with deadpan ambivalence. She loves the guy, but she helps humanize him, too. We've always been a little sad that Jane has barely factored into the later Marvel films — she's such a warm, funny presence that she'd be a welcome addition to the Avengers' adventures.
Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson
When Joss Whedon needed his signature Character-Death-That-Brings-the-Whole-Gang-Together move in The Avengers, Gregg's Agent Coulson was the obvious choice. After all, he'd quietly owned every scene he'd been in throughout the MCU — the bureaucratic but highly competent grunt-work operative of the S.H.I.E.L.D. universe. His death, as tends to happen, didn't stop him, and now he's the lead of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show… though they haven't acknowledged him being alive in the Cinematic Universe yet. This is the guy you want in charge of your organization, keeping the trains running while Tony and the gang are handling the bigger jobs.
Letitia Wright as Princess Shuri
It's not easy to breathe life into yet another Q character, but Wright does it with such enthusiasm and charm that you end up wanting her to show up in scenes that have nothing to do with technology at all. Her Shuri is good-hearted, loyal (there's never a question of whether she'll back her brother) and smarter than everyone else in the room; eventually, she and Tony Stark are going to have a tech-off, and she's going to win. She's the secret weapon in every battle… and she'll keep you smiling the whole time.
Samuel L. Jackson as Director Nick Fury
If you were looking for the ultimate badass to assemble an elite team of superheroes, you couldn't do better than selecting Samuel L. Jackson for the job. As Nick Fury, the Oscar-nominated actor brings his effortless cool and rugged authority to the role of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s director, combining swagger and gravitas. As much as the MCU is carried by the star power of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and the rest of the gang, Jackson is really the franchise's rock: It's Fury who represents all that’s noble and righteous about the Avengers' cause, and when these superheroes fail to live up to those ideals, it's Fury whom they're letting down.
Lots of actors could make an eye patch and a leather jacket seem rad — Jackson rocks them like it's no big deal. It was a testament to how much we love the character that it broke our hearts when Fury dies in The Winter Soldier — and it's one of the biggest, happiest surprises of the whole MCU when we find out he was faking.