With each new entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, fans are tempted to look back at the movies that came before—the good, the bad, and the ugly. When it comes to Phase One of the MCU, a lot of it was ugly, because even Tony Stark—billionaire, playboy, philanthropist—couldn't pull a look together to save his life. We suspect this was because Marvel started out focusing on male audiences, and so all attention to spectacle went into super suits and climactic battles. But thank the gods of Asgard and beyond, there came a moment when the MCU makers stepped up their style game and gave us super looks in and outside of battle mode.
Below, we track the fashion evolutions of Marvel's Avengers.
Tony Stark / Iron Man
The MCU's pillar has always looked rad in red and gold, but it's easy to forget Tony's woefully basic looks in the first Iron Man. It was mostly saggy jeans, henleys and tank tops—with an occasional suit. And, yes, Robert Downey Jr. fills all of the above like a champ, but it all looked off the rack. Does Tony Stark strike you as the kind of guy who buys off the rack? His fashion felt like an afterthought. It wasn't just underwhelming; it was wasted opportunity and an injustice to the MCU's most charismatic (and at the time only) star.
Somehow, Iron Man 2 got worse. Tony folded bland polo shirts into his wardrobe, along with a Guy Fieri haircut and inside sunglasses. (We will circle back to Natasha's cheetah-print dress.) And look at that last panel. Tony showed up to apologize to Pepper Potts dressed like a down-and-out professor who got dressed in the dark. The fit on those pants paired with that dust-bunny gray blazer is insult meets injury, salt meets wound, "Oh God" meets "why?!!?!?!" He looks like Ted Mosby. Tony Stark should never look like Ted Mosby.
Though he popped up in the post-credit sequence of The Incredible Hulk, it wasn't until the final film in Phase One where Tony's look fell into place. The Avengers' costume designer Alexandra Byrne kept the blend of casual wear and suits that Tony prefers. But she made sure henley tops had details that drew attention to Downey's shoulders. She fitted those blazers so his build would not be swallowed by them. And she made Tony's love of rock music something he wore on his sleeve—err, chest. She made Tony Stark look as cool as RDJ had long been playing him. And props to Jennifer Bell, whose hair department final found a happy medium between the first film's sloppy locks and Iron Man 2's overgrown boy band 'do.
In Iron Man, Pepper was Tony's assistant, and she dressed the part with prim blazers and pencil skirts. To her credit, she did have a pop of color and favored a flattering fit, then paired her luscious red locks with a back-dropped—and jaw-dropping—gown. But in Iron Man 2, Pepper's style took a step back. Sure, she tried out a chic ponytail (last panel above) and dropped the blazers for a more elevated professional look—but she mostly picked a barrage of snug-fitting yet forgettable dresses, and at one major event had an embarrassing "Who Wore It Best" moment opposite her hot, young assistant.
Thankfully in The Avengers, we got a softer yet still sexy side of Pepper's style. Chilling in Stark Tower, she's changed out of office mode and kicked off her high heels. Gone are the pencil skirts and stuffy dresses. In their place: sassy jean shorts, paired with a simple yet stylish white blouse.
This outfit isn't just cute — it tells a story about her and Tony. Pepper's casual chic game was so strong that her BF felt compelled to up his.
Nastaha Romanoff / Black Widow
It feels unfair to judge Natasha too harshly for her outfits in Iron Man 2, considering mostly she's undercover for S.H.I.E.L.D. as "Natalie," the sex kitten assistant meant to infiltrate Stark Industries. Her outfits aim at looking professional-ish, while also inciting the Male Gaze. And by Male, I mean Tony. So whether it's a little black dress that's blah below the neckline, or that cringe-worthy cheetah print number with cross-stitched cups and beyond garish cheetah-print ruffles, it seems we have to excuse these bad fashion cues, because they arguably could be part of the storytelling.
Nonetheless, Nat got a major upgrade in The Avengers with a look that seemed more functional and fashionable—and we got a better sense of who Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow really is. When work called on her to play the sexy damsel in distress, she rocked a little black dress with a low-cut, beautifully draped neckline. She ditched the confining pencil-skirt that would keep her from round-housing kicking a dude in the face. In casual wear, Natasha rocked dark denim, a sleek leather jacket, and a playful red ringer-tee (a nod to her Black Widow insignia). Long gone was that cheetah dress that seemed like it was found in a long-forgotten corner of Forever 21. Lastly, her catsuit stayed snug but looked less like a Lycra gymnast outfit and more tactical thanks to a thicker material. Its message was less "come hither" and more "come at me."
Bruce Banner / The Hulk
In The Incredible Hulk Bruce Banner was on the run, which meant he didn't have a lot of time to think about his look—and that showed. We can't fault him for the woefully oversized pants, since he has Hulk thighs to contend with. But even at his best, Banner had no panache, and his clothes gave us no sense to who he is as a character. It was just standard average-joe action-hero attire; muted color henley plus muted color pants with a shrugging fit. From us, this look only gets an incredible sulk.
Once again you got to hand it to Avengers' costume designer Alexandra Byrne. When the role was passed from Edward Norton to Mark Ruffalo, she had a huge responsibility in launching the MCU's soft-reboot of Hulk. In Ruffalo's take on the character Banner was way less suave, something Byrne supported with a wardrobe that's stylish yet conservative and thoughtfully rumpled. Banner favors dress slacks, a button-down shirt, and a blazer, but it always looks like he's slept in them. While she kept the slacks oversized she managed a cut that gave Banner a certain old-school charm, and brought in some color with a purple dress shirt: a wink to the vibrant trousers from Hulk comics. Bless her for unbuttoning it to give audiences a peak of that magnificent chest hair. He's always angry, and we're always here for it.
By the time we'd reached Thor, Marvel had definitely figured out that men weren't the only ones watching these movies—so we got a lusty shot of our hero shirtless, cementing a steamy MCU tradition. The fashion was stepped up to match Asgard's level of drama, welcoming statement pieces like capes, Odin's gold eye-patches, and Loki's big bold horns. Thor's Asgard gear was stellar too, though a bit bulky-looking. But when he fell to Earth, he dressed like a Land's End ad. It's not bad, but far from super. It's flatout unworthy of him. And this was a time before the Thoreal meme, back when a thirsty wig and harshly bleached facial hair robbed Chris Hemsworth of his full glory.
By Avengers, a few minor tweaks made a godly difference. Longer, more tousled hair like that of a saltwater-splashed surfer replaced that mangey '90s grunge mop. His facial hair was darker, looking more natural, and giving Hemsworth's face some more dimension. Thor's suit was redesigned to look sleeker. And Byrne let the guns out, stripping away those clunky metal sleeves, so casual Thor could flex as he mocked us "petty" mortals. Call me "petty and tiny" all you want, God of Thunder. Just call me.
Steve Rogers / Captain America
Next came Captain America: The First Avenger, when us FANGRRLS were given the gift of thirst with a strapping Cap who was so hot that we question the physics of his being frozen solid for 70 years. But more important to the subject at hand, costume designer Anna B. Sheppard brought some serious style to this war movie. The post-serum Steve was All-American in a devastatingly tight white tee and khaki pants cut close enough to show what that muscle-building mix brought to Chris Evans's thighs. For Cap's time as a USO performer, Sheppard gave us something colorful and playful. Then, for his big hero look, she muted the colors and added functionality, but never lost the fantasy and fun. She even added dimension with quilted stitches and subtle stripes on the pants.
Captain America's first movie was definitely where MCU's fashion spun from disaster to dreamy. Then in Avengers, Byrne elevated looks across the board—but Steve needed the least work. Even in his civvies, he's sophisticated enough to beautifully blend plaids and stripes. The big showstopper outfit, however, is Cap's red-white-and-blue suit, a little bit of old fashion when people need it most. Because he's not trooping through a battlefield, it's a cleaner look. Because he's a symbol of hope, it's more vibrant. Because Byrne is a genius, every stitch is brilliant, telling the story of a man out of time but fully in the moment.
Agent Peggy Carter
No post on early-MCU fashion would be complete without Peggy Carter. Not only did she brandish some of the best fashion in Captain America: The First Avenger, but also this battling bombshell hit the MCU like—well—a bomb! Sheppard mixed menswear materials with cuts that carefully framed Hayley Atwell's hourglass figure, so every Peggy look was a visual representation of a vivacious woman fighting in a man's world. But things got next-level when Peggy went to television.
I know. Agent Carter is not Phase One. But it's my list. And it would not be complete without Peggy, and Peggy's portion wouldn't be complete without her signature look. Atwell wore scads of sensational outfits on her spinoff series, many of them in the same bold red as Peggy's signature lipstick. But in a seeming nod to her lost love, it's the blue trenchcoat, white pop collar, and brazen red hat that beautifully shows how MCU fashion went from mundane to marvelous.