The Marvel Cinematic Universe's success owes in great part to its ability to juggle a gigantic cast of characters: twelve more-or-less Avengers (by Civil War's lineup of Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Hulk, Falcon, War Machine, Hawkeye, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Ant-Man), all of the Guardians of the Galaxy, a plethora of borderline-Avengers and bad-guys-who-are-maybe-good-guys-or-vice-versa (Nick Fury, Yondu, Odin, Winter Soldier, Quicksilver, et al.), an even greater number of heroic sidekicks (Nakia, Okoye, Agent Thirteen, Peggy Carter, etc.), regular people who get caught up in all this nonsense, and of course 18 movies' worth of villains, from Iron Man's Iron Monger to Black Panther's Killmonger (the villains in between are not all mongers).
And it's a big world they have to inhabit, too — all of Earth, fictional countries included, all of space, multiple dimensions. A world filled with characters at the fringes, whose lives are transformed or defined by the main cast of heroes, but who are not given much screen time. All of us led us to wonder: who are the MCU's most intriguing peripheral characters? The one whose impact is bigger than their screen time — or whose existences are most impacted by the Avengers' existence?
There are a lot of them. Here are twenty favorites.
20. The Collector (Benicio del Toro), Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy
Almost certainly soon-to-be un-peripheral. Friendly with Howard the Duck.
15-19. The Asgard Players (Matt Damon, Sam Neill, Luke Hemsworth, Gabby Carbon, and Charlotte Nicdao), Thor: Ragnarok
We know, from Taika Waititi's own mouth, that these are "the biggest stars of Asgardian theatre." Kevin Feige has alluded to Damon's character's future as a "hard-working actor… wandering the Universe with Asgard gone." So we know this lot are stars — the Mark Rylances and Helen Mirrens of their world. We know they are tricked, or commanded, by Loki to perform in a play written by Loki himself about Loki's own fictional exploits, a coercion-for-the-sake-of-propaganda reminiscent of Kim Jong-Il's kidnapping of filmmakers to do his bidding. And now, these celebrities of the Realm are refugees on their way to planet Earth, their homeworld Alderaan'd to oblivion. What will come of them? Can they reinvent themselves? Do they go to Hollywood? WE MUST KNOW.
14. Richard (Chris O'Dowd), Thor: The Dark World
Essentially only exists as a reminder that, even if you're nice and dress well and are paid well enough to take a girl out to a fancy restaurant, a dude has no chance if the girl also knows Thor, King of Asgard and Lord of Thunder. And fair enough, tbh.
13. President Matthew Ellis (William Sadler), Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Leads America in what is clearly a very turbulent geopolitical time, what with the superheroes and bioweapons and invaders from space and other dimensions and whatnot. Survives a kidnap and assassination attempt and somehow remains President even after the Mandarin blows up multiple landmarks on US soil and then blackmails and humiliates him on television. Has no personality whatsoever. Clearly a front-man for some very influential, very rich lobbyists, but also too boring for anyone to do anything about him: all in all, a chillingly realistic politician.
12. Gilmore Hodge (Lex Shrapnel), Captain America: The First Avenger
In a movie that celebrates the heroism of World War II Americans, and introduces us to Captain America as the paragon of everything that is good about truth, democracy, and the American Way, Gilmore Hodge gets to be the one guy, seemingly in the entire U.S. Army, who is a bullying, sexist jackass. What happened to him in childhood to be so awful? And what comes of him after the war — does he survive? Does he tell everyone he was actually one of Captain America's first buddies? Or does he drink himself to death, moaning to bored barkeeps that "it shoulda been me"?
11. Dr. Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg), Doctor Strange
Imagine being so rich that you can call Michael Stuhlbarg and offer him the tiny role of a lazy, careless doctor called Nicodemus West. That's how rich the people who make Marvel movies are. (Also, side note: Nicodemus is a guy in the Gospels who debates the concept of spiritual rebirth with Jesus. Because the only thing worse than a terrible, unrealistic character name is a terrible, unrealistic character name chosen purely to lay on a thick Bible reference. Why did Dr. West's parents choose this name? Do friends and family call him Nick, or Nico, or — insert frat boy voice here — DEE-MUS!? Also – do we think Nico, consciously or subconsciously, did both Stephen's surgery after the car accident? Because I think he totally did. Egotistical doctors are dark that way.)
10. Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), Doctor Strange
A one-two punch of a plot device, Pangborn serves both to usher Stephen Strange into superheroism (telling the doctor about Karmar-Taj) and to tip Chiwetel Ejiofor's Karl Mordo into villainy (becoming the focus of his ire as well as his first victim in the post-credit sequence of Scott Derrickson's movie). Pretty good work for two scenes of screen time.
9. Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb), Iron Man and Iron Man 2
A Vanity Fair reporter who confronts Tony Stark about Stark Industries' business practices, sleeps with him, is unceremoniously escorted out the next morning by Pepper Potts, confronts Tony again when he returns from being a hostage in Afghanistan, and then turns up in Iron Man 2 to confront him some more, this time on the arm of villain Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). The most prominent embodiment of the media in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and a less-than-flattering one.
8. Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), Iron Man Three
A ten-year-old who is somehow both like an archetypal Steven Spielberg character and an archetypal Shane Black character, Keener is Tony's dress rehearsal for his future relationship with Peter Parker: a precocious, bullied, witty kid with a missing father to whom Tony donates a treasure trove of equipment after taking him under his wing. Poor Harley just wasn't enough to have been bitten by a spider first.
7. Ian Boothby (Jonathan Howard), Thor: The Dark World
The unpaid intern of an intern, his work experience gig him sees him kiss his boss, meet Thor, and kill several dark elves. Unclear how many college credits he earns for each.
6. Madame B. (Julie Delpy), Avengers: Age of Ultron
A pitch, if you will: Julie Delpy and Charlotte Rampling star in Madame B. of the Red Room and Matron of the Red Sparrows: International Treasures Living in France Pretend to be Russians Training American Actresses Also Pretending to be Russian to be Spies by Breaking Their Wills and Inhibitions Only for their Protégées to Side with the Americans. I'm still working on the title, but just imagine Delpy and Rampling as a mother-daughter combo working for different evil branches of the Russian government, sharing a flat in Moscow, and engaging in whimsical family dramedy shenanigans when not torturing, sterilizing, or whoring out their recruits, and tell me you're not ready to buy a ticket right. now.
5. Renata (Branka Katic), Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The loyal housemaid of a very powerful man, shot and killed merely for forgetting her phone one night and seeing something she shouldn't have seen. Renata still haunts us. Did she have a family? What did Alexander Pierce do with her body? Where has she come from? What did getting to where she is cost her – and all for nothing?
4. Miriam Sharpe (Alfre Woodard), Captain America: Civil War
Loses her son in the Battle of Sokovia. Confronts Tony Stark about it. Almost single-handedly turns Tony Stark, who comes into the MCU literally refusing to register his Iron Man technology with the government, into the main cheerleader of the Sokovia Accords, which regulates superheroes. It takes her one scene. That's how good Alfre Woodard is at e-very-thing.
3. Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez), Thor, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The peripheral character who achieves the dream of all peripheral characters: to graduate, after paying two movies' worth of dues, to the role of minor villain. The collection of comic books, one-shots, and TV shows that make up the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe have shed much light on Sitwell's life (much unnecessary life, frankly — no one has watched the MCU movies and thought, "I'd really like to know more about that guy"), but within the movie universe proper, Sitwell deserves a mention for pushing his way out of the shadows, into the Hydra spotlight, and finally into the path of an oncoming truck (sorry, Jasper).
2. Aaron Davis (Donald Glover), Spider-Man: Homecoming
For starters, it's Donald Glover. And it's meta: in the Ultimate Marvel line of comics, a young African-American called Miles Morales takes the Spider-Man mantle over from Peter Parker, and the appearance of Miles Morales was modelled, partly, on Donald Glover type. Donald Glover went on to campaign to play Spider-Man in the movies (Andrew Garfield was cast instead), and then to voice Miles Morales in an animated Spider-Man series. Here, Glover plays Aaron Davis, aka the Prowler, a petty thief who is also Miles Morales's uncle — who he refers to directly ("I don't want those weapons in this neighborhood," Davis tells Spidey, "I got a nephew who lives here."). Glover only gets a few minutes' screen time in this first MCU Spidey flick, but the possible webs his appearance spins are fascinating: is Miles Morales going to feature in this Spidey universe? If so will Miles replace Peter — or play an entirely different role? Will Aaron Davis return as the Prowler, and wear a silly costume all his own? Watch this space.
1. Laura Barton (Linda Cardellini), Avengers: Age of Ultron
Arguably the most divisive aspect of Joss Whedon's Age of Ultron — and there are many divisive aspects to Joss Whedon's Age of Ultron — is the revelation that the MCU's Hawkeye has a pregnant wife and two kids who live out on a farm somewhere, conducting an entirely banal, normal life aside of Clint B's day job as a world-saving agent of SHIELD. Sure, she's one-dimensional — she might as well be credited as "Supportive Wife." And yeah, she does very little for the plot other than attempt to make Hawkeye relevant — in a 140-minute movie where Hawkeye's relevance is, erm, not that high on anyone's list of priorities. But there's so much we need to know. How did Laura and Clint meet? What was Laura's life before Clint? Does Laura have parents? Siblings? Do they know about the Avengers?