The Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded, and some characters have been along for the entire ride.
After Phase 4 came to a close with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever on the big screen and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special on Disney+, there have been over 700 credited characters on screen.
That number ranges from heroes to villains, cameos to sidekicks, to that waitress in The Avengers. Out of that list, there have been only 12 characters to make a live-action appearance in every single phase.
1.) James Rhodes/War Machine
A real one from day one, kind of. James Rhodes has been a fixture in the MCU since the beginning as the best friend and partner of Tony Stark in Iron Man. Originally played by Terrance Howard, Don Cheadle took over the reins in Iron Man 2 and never looked back.
War Machine and Iron Man were the first two heroes to go back-to-back and create the team-up energy that would eventually own the MCU. Now, it is Rhodey’s turn to lead his own project with the newly promoted Armor Wars movie set to release sometime in Phase 6.
2.) Happy Hogan
Now the most real one from day one, one of the godfathers of this universe, Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan. Director of the MCU’s maiden voyage, Favreau has made a nice role for himself as a glue guy across a variety of franchises.
Happy Hogan started out as a tried and true side character with minimal speaking roles and has evolved into a top-tier supporting character. Being attached to two of the biggest names in the league, Tony Stark and Peter Parker, is a pretty nice life for the head of security at Stark Industries.
It is unclear if and when Happy will show up again after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, but he is always in play.
Another foundational piece to the MCU is Paul Bettany’s JARVIS, which eventually evolved into Vision. This is an incredible rise through the roster as Bettany originally just lent his voice as Tony Stark’s attended AI and eventually co-led his own series as Vision in WandaVision.
For all intents and purposes, he is just getting started. The WandaVision finale had fans saying goodbye to their favorite super robot for the third (fourth?) time while introducing a government-issued Variant in White Vision. No telling where that incredibly powerful chess piece will pop up next but the best bet is on Armor Wars.
4.) Bruce Banner/Hulk
Another recast hero that is one of the most pivotal pieces of the MCU puzzle is Bruce Banner. Originally, Edward Norton brought this comic book icon into the MCU with The Incredible Hulk. Mark Ruffalo took over in 2012’s The Avengers and has done nothing but make an impact in limited screen time ever since.
The movie rights with Universal Studios and Marvel Studios have prevented another full-length Hulk movie to be made, but there is a great story told over all four phases of the MCU. His latest appearance in She-Hulk introducing his son, Skaar, set Hulk up for a bigger role than he has ever had in his 14-year MCU career.
5.) Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
A cornerstone of the MCU and an all-time fan favorite is Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow. Truly a catalyst of continuity to the likes of which only Nick Fury has been, Natasha plays a major role in almost every Earth-based franchise.
After her heroic death in Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios went back a few years to add depth to one of their most frequently used characters with Black Widow. That movie played as a tribute to Scarlett Johansson as well as a passing of the torch to Florence Pugh’s Yelena; the Black Widow franchise will live on in Phase 5’s Thunderbolts.
The only character who has received a title project in every phase of the MCU is Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Given the advantage of being an ageless God both on and off screen, Hemsworth has told almost every type of Thor story.
The founder of the cosmic corner, Thor has played roles in world-ending events big and small on Earth and otherwise and looks to be on track to continue to do so. Thor: Love and Thunder did not close the book on the God of Thunder and set him up for another entry in the future.
When will that be? Only Odin knows.
7.) Jane Foster/Mighty Thor
Back in 2015, if anyone paying attention was told that Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster was going to be one of the dozen characters to appear in all four phases of the MCU, they would have laughed. But, her latest appearance as the Mighty Thor proves the point true.
Foster played nothing but a love interest in Phases 1 and 2 and barely had a cameo in Avengers: Endgame. Her comeback as a featured player in Thor: Love and Thunder cemented her legacy in Hollywood’s biggest movie franchise and left fans on a high note that did not seem possible after Thor: The Dark World.
A perennial top-5 MCU villain, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has made an impact in a variety of ways. The first Avengers-level threat in the MCU, the God of Mischief has had one of the best character arcs to date.
His role as a villain and thorn in Thor’s side was one of the best, and just like a quarterback who loses some speed with age, Loki reinvented himself as the catalyst for Loki, which is receiving a Season 2 in Phase 5.
Being able to secure Idris Elba back in 2011 as Heimdall is a win-win-win for the MCU. Heimdall never got a ton of the spotlight in the Thor franchise, and many consider him one of Marvel Studios’ most underutilized players.
Still, Heimdall showed up to work every day as a plot device in Thor movies and was rewarded with a heartwarming post-credits cameo in Thor: Love and Thunder. It does not seem like there is more gatekeeper energy in the future of the MCU, but it was good while it lasted.
10.) Clint Barton/Hawkeye
Here is a fun game. Ask people which two of the original six Avengers made this list, and watch everyone guess Hawkeye last.
A cup of coffee in 2011’s Thor and one of the most criticized roles in comic book history in Avengers, Jeremy Renner has had a polarizing career as the sharpshooting Avenger. All was resolved in 2021’s Hawkeye series where Renner was able to flex in the role like never before and usher in the new era of Hawkeye with Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop.
Much like Rhodey and Loki, Hawkeye might just be getting started.
11.) Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier
Don’t look now, but Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes is one of the most important characters in the MCU. A true sidekick role in Captain America: The First Avenger led to the main antagonist role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But people forget that the crux of Captain America: Civil War is Steve and Tony’s feelings toward Bucky.
Being so embedded in the Captain America franchise led Stan to get a lead role in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+. He parlayed that opportunity into what many believe will be a top-3 role in Thunderbolts coming in Phase 5.
12.) Peggy Carter/Captain Carter
If there is one lesson that can be learned from Marvel Studios’ first animated venture What If..?, it is that the people love Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter.
Atwell has done it all as Peggy. She has been a love interest, she received a spinoff series, she grew old and died, and then she even came back to give audiences one of the greatest happy endings in movie history.
To cap it all off, she had a cameo where she got to wield the shield in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness until she was cut in half by the woman who the love of her life defended to the extent of breaking up the Avengers.
There is more to come with What If…? Season 2, and more Captain Carter stories to be told.
Who Stays on the List After Phase 5?
12 characters have played a live-action role in every Phase of the MCU, and only two of them are confirmed to keep the streak alive in Phase 5: Bucky Barnes (Thunderbolts) and Loki (Loki Season 2).
Hulk, Hawkeye, Vision, War Machine, and Thor are all but guaranteed more appearances, but nothing is confirmed for the next Phase. Peggy is in line for another animated appearance, but that does not qualify her for this streak.
Fans have definitively said goodbye to Natasha, Jane, and Heimdall, but that has never stopped Marvel Studios before.
Happy Hogan is the biggest unknown, but if Jon Favreau has proven anything in his career, it is that he can hang on to his Marvel contract better than anyone.