The Marvel Cinematic Universe has existed for over a decade at this point, and while plenty of characters have come and gone during that time, quite a few from the early days have stuck around for the long-haul.
In a recent interview, Bucky Barnes actor Sebastian Stan commented on how long he has been in the MCU, saying, “Me and [Chris] Hemsworth might be the oldest ones around – which, I mean, I couldn’t be more thankful for!”
Stan was referring to a friend’s comment that his character Bucky Barnes and Hemsworth’s character Thor seemed to be the only two Phase 1 heroes still left in the MCU. However, while they have certainly been around for the long-haul and 2021 marks both of their 10-year anniversaries in the franchise (even longer if production on the films counts) neither of them are actually the longest-lasting superhero in the MCU.
Of course, this raises the question of who has been in the MCU the longest? Which on-screen superhero (who is still active in the MCU's current timeline) did fans first become aware of once the franchise started in 2008? It’s a much more complicated situation than one might think, and depending on an individual’s personal criteria, it could be one of several characters.
Let’s take a look at all the Phase 1 superheroes still standing and see who’s in the conversation for this title, starting off with an explanation why the two characters who Stan brought up are not contenders for the crown.
THOR AND THE WINTER SOLDIER
As stated above, both Thor and Bucky Barnes (who didn’t get his Winter Soldier title until the second Captain America movie but can potentially still be counted as a hero before that as he fought in World War II) both made their MCU debuts in 2011 via Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, respectively.
These were the fourth and fifth movies in the franchise, coming toward the end of Phase 1. Three MCU films were released prior to 2011: Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008 and Iron Man 2 in 2010. Since there are characters who appear in these movies lined up for various Phase 4 projects, that takes Thor and Bucky (and consequently, Hemsworth and Stan) out of the running.
The only argument that can be made for these two characters being the longest-standing heroes in the MCU is an in-universe one. If the five years Bucky was gone during the Blip and all the time he spent cryogenically frozen are included in his age, he is 106. Since he joined the army in the early 1940s, this means the time he’s spent fighting has stretched much longer than any other hero that remains in the MCU as of Phase 4.
Thor has Bucky beat when it comes to the universe as a whole, though. His age is approximately 1500 years, making him the oldest MCU superhero at this point, and it’s a pretty safe bet he’s spent much of this time fighting various battles on Asgard and beyond.
However, Thor will be overtaken in this metric when Eternals is released. The titular race of superpowered beings in that film have secretly lived on Earth for over 7000 years, so they will take that crown once they appear in the franchise.
Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton is in the same situation as Thor and Bucky, minus the in-canon clout for being a superhero for a particularly long stretch of time.
He first appeared in 2011’s Thor - meaning 2021 also marks his tenth anniversary as part of the MCU - and he’ll finally get to have a starring role in a project when the Hawkeye series drops on Disney+ - but again, there are heroes in Phase 4 who debuted in the MCU before him, so he isn’t a contender.
Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff first appeared back in Iron Man 2. The movie came out in 2010, and she’s going to be involved in Phase 4, but given the circumstances concerning the character’s most recent outing and the upcoming project she’ll be in it’s hard to consider her a candidate for the longest-standing MCU superhero.
Black Widow sacrificed herself in Avengers: Endgame and her self-titled movie is going to be a prequel. It seems likely that the film will be the final venture for the character in the MCU, so considering this and that the current rollout schedule has projects featuring Phase 1 heroes set to come out after it, we’re officially counting her out.
Not to mention the fact that there are characters who have been in the MCU longer than her, such as…
Both Bruce Banner and his green alter ego first showed up in the MCU via 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. The hulking powerhouse never got another solo venture after this, but appeared in many subsequent MCU projects with an arc that culminated in the two beings combining to become one known as Smart Hulk. He is set to appear in the Disney+ series She-Hulk, which is slated for a 2022 release.
With the death of Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame, Smart Hulk is officially the longest-standing original member of the Avengers in the MCU. However, not only are there other superheroes who have been in the franchise even longer, the Hulk might not count for what Sebastian Stan was describing as being one of “the oldest ones around”.
The character was played by Edward Norton in the 2008 film, and the next time Hulk showed up was in The Avengers, henceforth played by Mark Ruffalo. This was in 2012, meaning even though the character has been in the franchise longer than Thor and Bucky, the actor has not. So for those who look at both as part of their criteria, the Hulk would be out of the running even if no one from Iron Man has made it to Phase 4.
Speaking of people from Iron Man, here we have James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who has been in at least two projects in every Phase of the MCU thus far. This includes Phase 4 since he’s already guest-starred on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and has his own series, Armor Wars, coming to Disney+ in 2022.
The recasting situation comes into play here once again, as Rhodey is played by Terrence Howard in Iron Man but Don Cheadle in all the character’s subsequent appearances beginning with Iron Man 2. In both major cases of recasting in the MCU, the Rhodey actor started before the Hulk one; Howard appeared in Iron Man a month before Norton did in The Incredible Hulk back in 2008, and Cheadle took over Howard’s role in 2010, two years before Ruffalo did Norton’s in 2012.
The other potential catch here is that, much like Bucky not becoming the Winter Soldier until his second movie appearance, Rhodey doesn’t suit up as War Machine until Iron Man 2. However, like Bucky, he was part of the military long before becoming a superhero, specifically an officer in the United States Air Force as seen in Iron Man.
However you slice it, Rhodey’s time in the MCU is one of the longest spans of any character, and he is certainly in the running to be considered for the crown.
JARVIS AND VISION
This one is complicated. Strictly talking about how long actors have been in the MCU, Paul Bettany might just take the cake (rivaled solely by the upcoming final entry on this list). He has been involved in the franchise since the original Iron Man, has appeared in Phase 4, and it seems likely he will return again at some point in the future.
However, there are multiple other factors to consider, the most obvious being that he technically plays two characters (more if you count the different versions of Vision as separate ones) the more “heroic” of which doesn’t debut until towards the end of Phase 2 (which also marks Bettany’s first on-screen appearance in the franchise).
He first appears as JARVIS (Just Another Rather Very Intelligent System), the first AI used by Tony Stark, and then secondly as an android created by Stark and Bruce Banner named Vision. JARVIS eventually becomes part of Vision when the latter is created in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the AI isn’t completely left out of the heroics until then, as Tony is able to connect to him via all of his Iron Man suits.
This is very much a “mileage may vary” situation (though really, so are all of these final entries on the list). Whether one considers JARVIS and Vision the longest-standing MCU hero depends on the factors mentioned above and also if dying at any point rules out a character, as Vision has died multiple times in the MCU.
It also depends on whether fans view Rhodey as a hero from the get-go, or factor in consistency of actors (if so, it should be noted that Rhodey shows up in Iron Man before JARVIS does, though Paul Bettany outlasted Terrence Howard in the franchise and has been involved longer than Don Cheadle). There are so many variables at play, but in some respects, JARVIS/Vision can be considered the longest-standing heroic being in the MCU.
The last potential candidate is Nick Fury. For those who have stipulations preventing themselves from considering Rhodey or JARVIS/Vision for the crown, Nick Fury may be the man. He’s been in the MCU since Iron Man, has been played by the same actor - Samuel L. Jackson - the whole time, and will be starring in the Phase 4 series Secret Invasion next year.
There are two main potential knocks against Fury. The first is that if at least one of the previous two characters on the list meets personal criteria for this title, Fury is out of the running. He doesn’t show up until the post-credits scene in Iron Man, while the others debut much earlier in the film.
The other is that while Fury is integral to the MCU as the former Director of SHIELD and founder of the Avengers, he doesn’t actually have any superpowers of his own. He’s taken on the Winter Soldier and a group of Kree army members, but doesn’t have any supernatural abilities or high-tech suits, and wasn’t part of the gargantuan battle against Thanos in Avengers: Endgame.
There’s no doubt that Nick Fury is a hero who has helped make the MCU what it is and will continue to do so for a while. But referring to him as a superhero is certainly a bit more debatable. Still, heroics are heroics, and he’s definitely a candidate for the crown.
SO, WHO TAKES THE TITLE?
Again, there is no definitive answer here. It all depends on who should count as a hero, how long they are counted as a hero for, and whether one considers the length of an actor’s run in the franchise rather than just their character.
James “Rhodey” Rhodes AKA War Machine seems like the most obvious choice, but those who consider his tenure as starting with Iron Man 2 because it’s the debut of the suit and/or Don Cheadle in the role may end up with a different conclusion.
JARVIS AKA Vision is a more complicated situation with a lot of technicalities involved, but if you’re taking actors into account and consider JARVIS as being part of Vision and/or a hero in his own right, he might be the answer you arrive at.
NICK FURY is perhaps the least complicated choice to go with, but he technically doesn’t appear until after the two aforementioned “finalists” and isn’t a superpowered individual, so he’s probably more of a backup option if you don’t count either of the others.
THOR is only here as an option for people who somehow disqualify all the previous three finalists. If criterium for the crown is a singular superpowered character who has been played by the same actor for their entire run in the MCU, who is also appearing in Phase 4 and isn’t dead (sorry, Black Widow) he’s the one.
So, it looks like - on a plethora of technicalities - Sebastian Stan and his friend may have been right about Thor after all. (Probably not, though.) But hey, this is all in good fun; Stan clearly wasn’t throwing shade on any of his Marvel co-stars, his comment just sparked an interesting question with a variety of possible conclusions. At the end of the day, fans are lucky that so many of these actors have stuck around with the franchise for this long.
Now it’s time for you to be the judge: which character do you consider the longest-standing hero in the MCU? Let us know in the comments below!