The MCU is made up of a massive amount of pop culture references, lots of cameos, and countless nods to both past and future MCU movies. Here is our (ongoing) list of the best easter eggs, references, and cameos throughout the MCU.
Captain America’s Shield
One of Iron Man 2’s most memorable moments sees Tony Stark in the middle of creating his makeshift particle accelerator and using a half-constructed Captain America’s Shield to prop up a certain part. The shield serves as a very fun easter egg (and a good joke with Coulson which also foreshadows his Captain America fanboy-ness), but what makes it even cooler is that the appearance of the shield is due to a joke in the first Iron Man movie.
Director Jon Favreau described the easter egg as being introduced “in one shot in the last film, an [Industrial Light and Magic] artist put it in there as a joke to us for our cineSync sessions when we’re approving visual effects. They got a laugh out of it, and I was like, ‘Leave it in, that’s pretty cool let’s see if anybody sees it’”.
“a pioneer in gamma radiation”
During the early days of the MCU references to characters from other movies or ones we hadn’t even seen yet were a rarity (whereas as now the movies are almost all interconnected in one way or another), and so subtle mentions here and there were a huge part of building out the universe early on.
During the first Thor movie, whilst Dr Erik Selvig is trying to discourage Jane Foster from trying to confront S.H.I.E.L.D for taking her research, he mentions that he once knew someone who had dealings with S.H.I.E.L.D, ‘a pioneer in gamma radiation’ who went missing after crossing paths with them. The reference, although subtle, was, of course, an early mention at other characters knowing Bruce Banner.
Journey into Mystery
A New Mexico ‘Land of Enchantment’ poster can be seen in Thor, which has a second subtitle ‘Journey into Mystery’. Journey into Mystery is a famous Marvel comic, with the August 1962issue being Thor’s debut. Journey into Mystery also gets a mention in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Pilot, where Simmons asks Ward if he is excited to go on their “journey into mystery?”.
Odin’s Trophy Room
Odin’s Trophy room was really the first of it’s kind in the MCU, showing off some early hints at a number of very important objects. In the first Thor movie, we see that the Frost Giant’s most powerful weapon, the Casket of Ancient Winters is stored there, along with the Eternal Flame of Asgard, the Warlock’s Eye, the Tablet of Life and time, and a (fake) Infinity Gauntlet.
Over the course of the MCU, a number of objects are added to the vault, including the Tesseract(following the events of The Avengers), although Red Skull does explain that it ‘was the jewel of Odin’s treasure room’ – so it had presumably been stored there once before. The Crown of Surtur is added during Thor: Ragnarok and the vault very nearly adds it’s second infinity stone in Thor: The Dark World, but instead, the Asgardians send to Aether/Reality Stone to the Collector instead.
The Original Human Torch
Captain America: The First Avenger not only served as the MCU’s introduction to a number of heroes that would remain prominent figures in the MCU like Steve Rogers, Peggy Carter, Bucky Barnes, and Howard Stark, but it took the opportunity to showcase a wholly new time period for the MCU. At the World’s Fair, before the days of a dedicated Stark Expo, Howard Stark presents his prototype flying car, but before Howard’s car, there is a brief glimpse of the original Human Torch. The original iteration of the character, who was later updated and turned into a wholly new version for the Fantastic Four, was a prominent hero in the early days of Marvel, being one of Marvel’s main three heroes; The Human Torch, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.
The suit also doubles as a smart reference to Chris Evans’ previous roles as the Jonny Storm version of the Human Torch in the 2005 Fantastic Four movie, as well as it’s 2007 sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
Cap’s Original Comic Book Costume
Although Captain America: The First Avenger gave us a pretty accurate version of Cap’s original comic book costume (even if it was only used as an outfit for Steve Roger’s stage performances). One thing it was clearly missing, however, is the classic ‘scales’ that the comic book Cap has always sported.
With Steve Rogers on the run in Avengers: Infinity War, and presumably without the infinite amount of resources, tech, ammo, and armour he’s used to, it’s clear his battle gear had seen better days. In the tears and rips in his ‘secret avengers’ uniform (which he’s had time to re-colour, but not repair) we can see a hint of the classic scales look underneath the surface of his armour.
Captain America Punches Hitler
The iconic cover to the first ever issue of Captain America sees Steve Rogers punching Hitler in the face, something he’s gone on to do a number of times since. And although Captain America: The First Avengers couldn’t fit Steve punching the actual Hitler into its plot, the story still managed to weave the iconic scene into the movie. Whilst Captain America is on his fundraising tour of America, part of his stage show is to punch Hitler in the face.
In Age of Ultron, after Tony and Bruce create Vision using Tony’s J.A.R.V.I.S AI, Tony realises that he needs a new A.I to run his suits, tech, house, and just about everything else in his life that Pepper doesn’t take care of. When looking through some possible options for a new A.I one name is ‘Jocasta’, who in the comics is an Ultron like being that Ultron creates to be his bride.
Yensin in 1999
The first Iron Man movie not only kick-started the entire MCU, but introduced a number of great characters that unfortunately weren’t seen again, namely Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane and another seemingly one movie character in Shaun Toub’s Yensin, who not only performed the emergency surgery that stopped the shrapnel from going into Tony Stark’s heart, but also helped him build the MK 1 suit and escape.
Adding to how good of a character Yensin is (especially considering how little time he actually features), is the revelation that Yenisn never intended to escape, and that he was helping Tony, before his own death, where he would finally be reunited with his family. One of the other emotional notes Yensin shares with Tony is the explanation that they have actually met before, briefly at a conference, where Tony was drunk, and wouldn’t remember Yensin.
In Iron Man 3, we see a flashback to New Year 1999, and the conference that Yensin and Tony meet. The scene is perfectly underplayed and Tony, of course, pays no attention to Yensin, but it’s one of the best examples of a small scene that doesn’t necessarily add all that much to its own movie but builds out the wider MCU brilliantly.
The Real Mandarin
One of the biggest upsets of Iron Man 3 was that the infamous Iron Man villain from the comics, the Mandarin, was proven to be a charade, and Ben Kingsley’s adaptation was actually an actor called ‘Trevor Slattery’, who had been hired by Aldrich Killian, the true villain behind the Mandarin persona.
In the ‘All Hail the King’ short, which sees Slattery in prison, and the return of Iron Man 2 villain Justin Hammer, there is the hint at a real Mandarin, who given his connection to the Ten Rings organisation (which were the group who kidnapped Tony Stark in the first movie) seems to be much closer to the Mandarin from the comics.
The Collector’s Collection
The Collector’s pursuit of the Infinity Stones plays a large part in the main plot of the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, is hinted at in Thor: The Dark World’s post-credits scene, and of course leads to his doom, in Avengers: Infinity War, at the hands of Thanos. Given his name however the Infinity Stones are hardly the only thing he is interested in collecting, and his collection puts even Odin’s to shame.
The Collector’s years worth of scheming, stealing and bargaining have left him with a massive amount of objects from all over the MCU, and when the Guardians first meet him a number of easter eggs can be seen in the background. Caged inside some of the Collector’s many glass cabinets is a Chitauri from Thanos’ army, a Dark Elf from Thor: The Dark World, Adam Warlock’s Cocoon (which was seemingly retconned later, as we see him created at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). Some of the more obvious hints are Cosmo the Space Dog, and Howard the Duck, who both appear in the post-credits sequence. In a more meta easter egg the Creature from Slither, Guardians director James Gunn’s directorial debut, is also visible in one of the cases.
Fury’s Grave Stone
After Nick Fury’s fake death in Captain America: The Winter Soldier we get a brief shot of his gravestone, which reads “The path of the righteous man: Ezekiel 25: 17” – this doubles as a reference to one of Samuel L. Jackson’s most iconic scenes in Pulp Fiction’ where Jackson’s character, Jules Winnfield, recites the full passage from Ezekiel 25: 17.
Tales to Astonish
During one of Darren Cross’ villainous monologues in the first Ant-Man movie, Cross reveals that he is near to perfecting his version of miniaturising living beings. During his speech, he details stories of Hank Pym’s original Ant-Man adventures, which Hank appears to of hidden ever since. Cross describes them as ‘Tales to Astonish’, which was actually the comic book that Ant-Man and Hank Pym debuted in ‘The Man and the Ant Hill’, back in 1962.
The Sanctum Sanctorum
Similar to both Odin’s Trophy Room and the Collector’s collection, the Sanctum Sanctorum is filled with a number of references to both Doctor Strange’s comic book past and the wider magical world of the Marvel Universe. The most obvious of which is Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation. As well as this the Black Knight’s helmet can be seen, and in Avengers: Infinity War we see the Cauldron of the Cosmos.
The Sanctum scene in Doctor Strange also features a clever nod to Doctor Strange wielding an axe numerous times in the comics, where the cape prevents him from taking a large axe off the wall to take on Kaecilius.
Empire Strikes Back
As one of the biggest franchises ever, it’s only fitting that the MCU references another of the worlds biggest franchise (that is also now owned by Disney); Star Wars. There are plenty of references to Star Wars throughout the franchise, from Spider-Man taking down Ant-Man in Captain America: Civil War just like Luke does with the AT-AT in Empire Strikes Back, and the Lego Death Star in Spider-Homecoming, to Star Wars itself being on Steve’s catch up list in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
But the biggest reference of them all is a number of homages to one of Empire Strikes Back’s most iconic moments. The second movie of the original Star Wars trilogy famously sees Luke Skywalker lose his a decent part of his arm during his climactic showdown with Darth Vader. As an homage to this, each movie in the MCU’s Phase 2 (every movie from Iron Man 3 to Ant-Man) sees a character lose an arm.
Kenneth Choi makes his MCU debut in Captain America: The First Avenger, as Jim Morita, one of the Howling Commandos. He plays a key supporting role throughout the film and even goes on to reprise the role during a flashback to 1945 in the debut episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s second season.
So after multiple appearances, it was a little bit strange that Kenneth Choi was cast in a new role for Spider-Man: Homecoming as Peter Parker’s High School Principal. That is until you actually see the scene, which makes it clear that Principal ‘Morita’ is actually the grandson of Choi’s original character, Jim Morita. Not only does a nameplate make this clear, but a portrait of his grandfather in military uniform can be seen behind the desk in the Principal’s office. It’s a small callback, and one that most viewers may miss, but it manages to not only bring an actor back to the MCU in a different role, in a way that makes sense but also fleshes out the world that much more.
Famous Scientists of the MCU
As the sixteenth movie in the MCU Spider-Man: Homecoming is filled to the brim with references to the wider cinematic universe, as well as Spider-Man and his own world. One of the more subtle references to the past of the MCU is a number of famous faces seen around Peter Parker’s High School, Midtown School of Science and Technology.
The first notable scientist we see in the background is a mural to Howard Stark, and then Stanley Tucci’s Dr Abraham Erskine from Captain America: The First Avenger, the man who created the Super Soldier formula,. After this, we can also see a number of pictures of other famous scientists above the whiteboard in one of Peter’s classrooms, one of whom is Dr Bruce Banner, seemingly showing that most of the world doesn’t realise Banner is also the Hulk.
Donald Glover in Homecoming
Although Donald Glover’s appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming may seem like another Community reference in the MCU, his cameo actually has a much deeper meaning. Glover plays Aaron Davis, who in the Ultimate comics is the alter-ego of the thief ‘the Prowler’. Adding to the easter egg is that Aaron is the uncle of Miles Morales, an alternate Spider-Map who was partly based on Donald Glover.
The Other Champions of Sakaar
After the reveal of Hulk being the Grandmaster’s latest champion in Thor: Raganrok, and the ensuing showdown between Thor and Hulk, we get a shot of the Hulks new home, a giant tower with the faces of what appears to be a number of champions of Sakaar. The first is of course Hulk, but the other heads include some pretty famous and notable Marvel characters, primarily ones who have ties to both Thor and Hulk, such as Beta Ray Bill, Marvel’s version of the Greek God of War Ares, Bi-Beast, and Man-Thing.
Beta Ray Bill is perhaps most famous for being able to wield Thor’s Hammer Mjolnir, eventually getting his own weapon ‘Stormbreaker’, which made it’s MCU debut in Avengers: Infinity War. Ares started out as one of the primary enemies of Marvel’s version of Hercules, and Thor, eventually joining the Avengers. Bi-Beast made his debut in The Incredible Hulk #169, designed as someone powerful enough to take on Hulk. And Man-Thing was formerly a scientist known as Theodore Sallis, who became a swamp-like creature, eventually going by the name Man-Thing.
Kenneth Branagh in Infinity War
It’s no secret that movie makers often sneak themselves and their friends into movies, and the MCU is definitely no exception. Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson started out as a cameo as he was friends with Iron Man director, Jon Favreau, Joe Russo appeared in both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame, Taika Waititi was both Korg and the motion capture for Surtur in Thor Ragnarok, and James Gunn did the dance sequence for Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.
In Infinity War however, the cameo from a past MCU director is much more subtle. The opening of the movie sees a decimated Asgardian ship, with Thanos hunting down Loki and the space stone. A communication device can be heard playing a message describing the attack, and the voice is none other than Kenneth Branagh, the director of the original Thor movie.
Taking on a mythical status, even in the MCU Nidavellir is the dying star where Thor’s hammer Mjølnir was forged, with even the likes of Rocket and the other Guardians knowing about it. Infinity War gives us our first look at Nidavellir, along with Eitri as the only surviving Dwarf on the forge, but the realm of Nidavellir had been explicitly named before Infinity War (other than Thor mentioning his hammer being forged in a dying star). During Thor: The Dark World, whilst Dr. Erik Selvig is explaining the convergence of the nine realms, on his blackboard Nidavellir can clearly be seen.
Tønsberg, Norway, is a recurring location in the MCU, first appearing in 2011’s Thor as the site of the Frost Giant attack on Earth, and subsequent battle between the Frost Giants and Asgardians, before the Asgardians pushed them back to Jotunheim. Tønsberg shows up again in Captain America: The First Avenger, as the secret location of the Tesseract, with Odin having seemingly hidden it there at some point, and more recently as the place of Odin’s death in Thor: Ragnarok. By the time of Avengers: Endgame’s 2023 it seems that what is left of the Asgardians, following the events of Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, and then the Snap, have settled in Tønsberg, which has been renamed ‘New Asgard’.
With the Anthony and Joe Russo perhaps now best known as the directors of acclaimed MCU movies Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and of course Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, not all MCU fans may realise that the brothers actually got a lot of their earlier directorial experience with a number short films, their self-financed debut feature ‘Welcome to Collinwood’, and a number of hit tv shows. One of the most prominent of which was Arrested Development, co-directing the pilot, and then individually directing a number of the show’s episodes.
The first reference to Arrested Development comes in Captain America: Civil War, during the airport fight scene, where a very familiar stair car can be seen in the background. Technically it doesn’t appear to have the actual Bluth logo on it, but other than that, the paint job and colours are exactly the same as the show.
The next Arrested Development reference comes in Avengers: Infinity War, with an actual appearance from a character; Tobias Funke. Tobias, in his blue man group makeup and cutoff denim shorts, can be seen in one of the Collector’s glass cabinets when the Guardians arrive to confront Thanos, which either means that the Collector did have a Tobias Funke lookalike before the destruction (as it, unfortunately, isn’t actually David Cross), or that Thanos is a big Arrested Development fan, and created him for the Reality Stone vision.
In a similar vein to Arrested Development, another show that the Russo’s were heavily involved with (again directing the pilot) was Community, and with that, a number of actors from the hit (and criminally underappreciated) show make an appearance in the MCU. The first is Danny Pudi, who plays Abed on Community, appearing as a S.H.I.E.L.D ‘com tech’ in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The next is Jim Rash, who played Dean Pelton on Community, playing a very similar role as a faculty member of MIT who asks Tony Stark for some funding at the beginning of Captain America: Civil War. Avengers: Endgame then sees the appearance of Ken Jeong, who played Chang in Community, and Yvette Nicole Brown who played Shirley.
The MCU has a number of recurring references and gags, but one of the more subtle is ’12%’. In the first Avengers movie we see Tony and Pepper discussing who should get 12% of the credit, and later the two talk about having 12% of a moment, in Guardians of the Galaxy Peter Quill has 12% of a plan, and in Avengers: Age of Ultron Pietro notes that he is 12 minutes older than Wanda.
Although James Gunn has gone on to deny that the 12% in Guardians was a reference and instead 12 being the highest one syllable number and so often used in writing and comedy, either way, 12% is a recurring theme throughout the MCU and a fun nod to look out for (intentional or not).
This is list is ongoing, and only a small section of thousands of great references and easter eggs, if we missed your favourite let us know in the comments below.