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Actors who were almost Avengers

It has been more than a decade since the Marvel Cinematic Universe burst onto the scene and changed the pop culture landscape forever. We still get goosebumps recalling the shock and joy we felt after the end credits of Iron Man when Samuel L. Jackson, sporting his Nick Fury eyepatch, told Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark about the "Avengers Initiative." One movie with all of those characters? Could they actually pull it off? It seemed impossible. Oh, how naive we were.

22 movies and 11 years later, what seemed novel then is commonplace now. It's easy to forget that the MCU is still the most audacious and ambitious experiment in blockbuster franchise filmmaking, and was in no way a sure thing. A big reason why the MCU succeeded — perhaps the main reason — was the cast assembled to don the costumes. It's hard to imagine anybody else playing Earth's Mightiest Heroes, yet it was almost so. Now, as we're about to embark on what may be the final adventure of the original Avengers, it's a fun thought experiment to look back and wonder what might have been. Face forward, true believers — here are the actors who were almost Avengers!

Snagging Cruise for Stark was a mission impossible

The MCU has been built on Robert Downey Jr.'s machine-gun mounted shoulders. After his history of drug and alcohol abuse landed him in prison, studios considered him to be "box office poison" and a risky investment. You know who isn't risky business? Tom Cruise. 

Mr. Mission: Impossible has been one of the most bankable stars for decades. While Cruise claims he was "not close" to playing Iron Man, Marvel Chief Kevin Feige said in 2004 the studio had talked to Cruise since the late '90s, but no deal was made. Observers assumed it came down to money. While the then-fledgling Marvel Studios couldn't afford Cruise, they could afford RDJ. It was a risky move at the time, but Downey's casting has worked out pretty well for both sides. The actor's rapscallion wit and heroic heart of gold have not just defined the character, but the MCU itself. At the risk of hyperbole — no RDJ, no MCU. Tom Cruise concurs, commenting, "I can't imagine anyone else in that role, and I think it's perfect for him." Couldn't agree more, Tom.

Does Sam wear the armor (Rock)well?

Tom Cruise may have been the most bankable movie star to circle the role of Tony Stark, but he was not the only one. While we're glad RDJ got it, for instance, Nic Cage in full gonzo mode playing a drunken billionaire in a robot suit is kinda incredible. However, one actor who came especially close to donning the red and gold was Sam Rockwell. Wait... Sam Rockwell

Yeah, it's true. Director Jon Favreau asked Rockwell to audition for the role. While it sounds strange now, is it any crazier to think that Rockwell would play the part, given where RDJ was back in 2007? RDJ has managed to shake his label as "box office poison," thanks largely to Tony Stark. Could Rockwell have done the same? 

Alas, it was not to be, though we doubt Rockwell is crying himself to sleep at night next to his Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Besides, he got his chance to play in the MCU sandbox, dancing into the role of Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2. These days, he'd make a mean Lex Luthor.

Wesley wished he could go to Wakanda

Before Chadwick Boseman donned the black mask, Wesley Snipes set his sights on playing Wakanda's warrior king. In the mid-1990s, Snipes had box office clout after a string of hits, and wanted to bring Black Panther to the big screen, believing it would be a blockbuster and cultural milestone. "Black Panther is an iconic character who much of the world was unfamiliar with and the communities that I grew up in would love," said Snipes. 

Snipes was right — he was just a quarter century too early. In the mid-1990s, Batman was the only superhero making movies. CGI wasn't ready to realize Wakanda. Marvel even declared bankruptcy in 1996. Besides, when studios heard "Black Panther," they thought of 1960s social revolutionaries, not superheroes. 

Snipes used the experience to launch the influential Blade franchise, while Black Panther became the highest-grossing domestic superhero release nearly three decades later. Snipes couldn't be happier. "Even though I am not a part of this particular project, I support it 1,000 percent, and I am absolutely convinced that it will be a catalyst for change and open other doors and other opportunities."

The Hulk is Out There... just not for David Duchovny

The role of the not-so-jolly green giant has seemed like a game of musical chairs. After Eric Bana, but before Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, the front runner to don the torn purple pants was Fox Mulder himself, David Duchovny. Bana, who starred in Ang Lee's Hulk in 2003, dropped out when he discovered the sequel was set to be straight-to-DVD. You might say it made him angry... very angry. 

Duchovny's frontrunner status was revealed by Marvel's then-vice chairman Peter Cueno back in 2006. However close Duchovny came to getting the part is unclear. All we know is that he obviously did not get the role, and the straight-to-DVD sequel to Lee's film was scrapped altogether. Instead, Edward Norton got the part in The Incredible Hulk, which basically rebooted the franchise into the new continuity of the MCU when the movie debuted just after Iron Man in the summer of 2008. Norton famously got fired and replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who has played the part of Bruce Banner in all six of his subsequent MCU appearances.

Emily is Blunt about not wanting to be Black Widow

Marvel has really, really wanted to work with Emily Blunt for some time now. The British-born thespian who most recently starred in Mary Poppins Returns has been offered (and turned down) not one, but two critical roles in the MCU — Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff in Iron Man 2 (and beyond). Of course, the former part went to Haley Atwell, while Scarlett Johanson has been a key player in the Avengers films as the leather-clad, gun-toting Russian assassin. 

There are many reasons Blunt didn't take the Widow role — she herself has said it was due to scheduling conflicts. She refuses to discuss parts she didn't accept, saying it's unfair to the actors who ended up playing them. There are plenty of female parts still to come in the MCU, so fingers crossed we'll see Blunt in some form or fashion in the not-so-distant future.

Captain Krasinski: The Unenthusiastic Avenger

Emily Blunt wasn't the only member of her household to almost be in the MCU. Her husband, John Krasinski, almost donned the red, white and blue of the star-spangled Avenger, Captain America. As his role as Jack Ryan has proven, he's more than capable of playing a patriotic super-soldier. Alas, it wasn't Marvel who pulled the plug on Krasinski playing the part, but the actor himself. 

According to Krasinski in an interview on Conan, he got as far as a costumed audition, during which he saw Chris Hemsworth walk by in full Thor regalia. In that moment, Krasinski realized what he was about to get himself into and had a change of heart. "I went, 'I'm good. This is stupid. That's okay, I'm not Captain America.'" Krasinski's decision may seem like madness to us mere mortals. But if you've ever watched a behind-the-scenes video of actors wearing $100,000 Halloween costumes and staring at ten-foot tennis balls surrounded by green screens, you can see his point. We salute Krasinski's decision, and are totally cool with how Chris Evans has carried Captain America's mighty shield.

The god of thunder leads to a sibling rivalry

Like the rest of the universe, Marvel must really have a crush on the Hemsworth siblings. Before middle brother Chris Hemsworth was cast as the god of thunder, his younger brother Liam was one of the frontrunners for the part. Early in his career, the tall and lanky Chris Hemsworth was having trouble finding parts that suited his frame, when he spotted a call sheet for Thor that required an actor of at least 6'3" and 200 lbs. Hemsworth auditioned for director Kenneth Branagh and thought he nailed it... except he didn't hear back for months. And months. 

Meanwhile, his little brother Liam, still back home in Australia, sent in a taped audition and had been called back several times. Liam was one of the final five when Chris' manager contacted Thor's casting team, reminding them Liam had an older brother. Chris got another audition and must have impressed this time, as he was cast soon after. Now, Chris gets to make millions in the MCU and Liam gets to date Miley Cyrus, so everybody is happy in the end.  

It's Always Sunny In Outer Space

As impossible as it is to imagine anybody but Chris Pratt playing Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn had a backup plan. "There was a good chance that, if I didn't cast Chris, that I would've cast Glenn Howerton in the role," Gunn said to GQ. Howerton plays the morally reprehensible Dennis on the long-running FX sitcom, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Clearly, Gunn has a thing for sarcastic TV sitcom stars. 

While Howerton would have done fine in the part, he lacks Chris Pratt's movie star gravitas that took Guardians into the box office stratosphere. Had Howerton played Star-Lord, the film likely would have been a quirky, under-the-radar space romp destined for cult classic status down the road. Instead, with Pratt in the lead role, it became a surprise smash and one of the most bankable franchises in the Marvel pantheon. Pratt deserves a lot of credit, but so do the other Guardians. Based on the other actors up for the parts, we could have had a much different film.

Before the Justice League, he was almost a Guardian

Before he was King of Atlantis, Jason Mamoa was almost Drax the Destroyer. The actor had played barbaric brutes like Conan the Barbarian and Khal Drago in Game of Thrones. He'd been a grunting, badass alien for four years on Stargate: Atlantis. In short, Drax seemed like the perfect fit for Mamoa's massive 6'4" frame. This was the main reason why he didn't take the part. He didn't want to be typecast as a brute, and especially didn't want his kids to see him miserable in his work. 

That said, Mamoa did enjoy auditioning with Chris Pratt, saying, "One of the funnest auditions I've ever done in my life was with him." Mamoa is also cool that WWE-World-Champ-turned-Hollywood-heavyweight Dave Bautista got the part. "I think it's perfectly cast," said Momoa. "Dave is perfect for that role, for Drax." Mamoa would eventually get into the superhero game himself, but outside the Marvel Universe, carrying Aquaman's trident to the tune of more than one billion worldwide, the largest gross in the DCEU.

Two famous funnymen were considered for Guardians

Two of Hollywood's biggest Hollywood comedy heavyweights were also up for membership in the Guardians of the GalaxyJim Carrey and Adam Sandler. While still early in casting for the film, Marvel was checking on the availability of each of them. It was uncertain, however, whether both actors were up for the same part, or for different roles. Understandably, there was speculation that they were up for the roles of Rocket Raccoon and/or Groot. 

As Marvel true believers know, those parts eventually went to Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel respectively, though it is fun to consider what Carrey and Sandler would have brought to the parts. Would Carrey's Rocket Raccoon have had the same mannerisms as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? Would Sandler's Groot have said "I am Groot" in a voice similar to Bobby Boucher? All we can do is speculate, though frankly we're fine with how things turned out.

Saoirse almost plays the Scarlet Witch

Now that Disney has purchased 20th Century Fox (and consequently the X-Men franchise), can we call Scarlet Witch a mutant, instead of a genetically-enhanced super-human, or whatever the MCU has been calling her? Oh, wait... never mind

Well, wherever Scarlet Witch gets her powers, the character has been played by Elizabeth Olsen since her mid-credits debut in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. However, that wasn't originally the plan. The role of the super-powered Russian-born beam-shooter was originally offered to Bronx-born, Dublin-raised Saoirse Ronan. When Ronan passed on the part, it immediately went to Olsen, who has since played the part in three additional MCU films (and potentially a fourth, assuming the team can reverse "The Snap"). Given that she's also a part of the upcoming Scarlet Witch and Vision spin-off for the Disney+ streaming service, we imagine Olsen will continue cashing Marvel checks for some time to come.

Gordon-Levitt nearly shrinks down to play Ant-Man

Back in 2013, when Edgar Wright was still attached to direct Ant-Man (that's a whole other story), there were two actors still in the running for the part of the miniature marvel — Paul Rudd and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Gordon-Levitt was just one year removed from playing Robin — or Nightwing, or Batman Two, or some combination of the above — in Christopher Nolan's final entry in The Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Variety reported that he was one of the final two actors being considered for the part, alongside Rudd, who had a series of leading roles in comedic hits under his belt. That may have been what gave Rudd the nod, as Wright was going for an even more comedic tone than the other Marvel movies. 

However, Gordon-Levitt denied he was ever in the running, saying the rumors were "nothing but lies" and squashing them like — wait for it — a bug. So, maybe Gordon-Levitt wasn't actually up for the role? Anyway, it's all water under the bridge (or over the ant hill), as Paul Rudd has played the role in four MCU films, including the upcoming Avengers: Endgame.

Jessica was bugged about playing the Wasp

Of course, it wasn't just the title role that was up for grabs when Edgar Wright was still spearheading Ant-Man. Two-time Academy Award-nominated actress Jessica Chastain was rumored to have been offered the role of the movie's "female lead." While sources speculated the role was that of original Wasp Janet van Dyne, it's more likely (given what we now know about the plot) that she would have played Janet's daughter Hope, a part which ended up going to Evangeline Lilly. Janet, of course, would eventually be played by Michelle Pfeiffer in 2018's Ant-Man and the Wasp

An actor of Jessica Chastain's caliber certainly would have given the lighthearted, action-packed, bug-centric romp some gravitas, much like Hollywood legend Michael Douglas did in the role of Dr. Hank Pym. Clearly Chastain isn't anti-comic book movie, as she's currently playing a mysterious character in Dark Phoenix. Maybe we'll see her in the MCU down the road.

Marvel isn't Strange enough for Joaquin Phoenix

Here's some wacky casting that might have wound up being awesome. Academy Award-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix was apparently not only in the running, but the front runner to play the part of Marvel's favorite magician, Doctor Stephen Strange. Marvel really wanted Phoenix for the role, so much so he was rumored to be in final negotiations. Then, for whatever reason, the talks broke down. 

According to the acclaimed thespian (who is known for taking on quirky projects) it had nothing to do with Marvel's more mainstream brand of entertainment. "I think they make some great, fun movies," he explained. "I enjoy those movies sometimes, and I think they keep the f***ing industry going in some ways, so I don't have a problem with it at all... I think everybody was really happy with how things turned out. All parties were satisfied." So yeah, basically we have no idea what the issue was, but in any event, Phoenix didn't take the part, and it went to Benedict Cumberbatch. Phoenix, true to his word that he has no problem with comic book films, will soon be playing the medium's most famous villain in Joker.