Perhaps as penance for the astonishingly high death toll of April’s Avengers: Infinity War, the newest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man and the Wasp, out Friday, introduces a bevy of new superheroes and villains. There’s Hank Pym’s longtime nemesis Bill Foster, played by Laurence Fishburne; his adoptive daughter, Ava Starr, aka Ghost, played by Hannah John-Kamen; Michelle Pfeiffer as the quantum-addled Janet Van Dyne; and there’s the reveal of Evangeline Lilly as The Wasp, which, as early coverage has diligently noted, marks the first time a woman superhero has been named in the title of a Marvel film. And yet, few of the film’s caped, masked, and powerful can contend with Cassie Lang, played by Abby Ryder Fortson. The 10-year-old reprises her role as the daughter of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang), in the second installment, quipping with the best of them and even going head-to-head with an FBI agent intent on putting her dad back in prison.
Cassie continues a time-honored legacy of indispensable Marvel civilians, those who are not endowed with costumes or vibranium accessories or supernatural abilities, and yet without whom none of the Avengers would be able to do their jobs. She’s among the best, but every movie has one.
So: Here’s the definitive ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s finest non-Avenger non-Guardians.
The qualifications are entirely invented and entirely consistent: no superpowers, no supersuits; agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are allowed because, though they’re aligned with the good guys, they are more of an elite police force than anything; ditto bad guys, who are permitted so long as they don’t breathe fire or liquefy their opponents—much as I wanted to include Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok below, canonically, he’s some kind of alien elder and also he can read minds. Also, civilians earn bonus points for particularly notable glow-ups between franchise sequels—looking at you, Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts.
Here, the best civilian in every Marvel movie, so far.
19. Stellan Skarsgard as Erik Selvig in Thor
Erik Selvig, the brilliant astrophysicist played by Stellan Skarsgard, is mentor to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster—a scientist herself, and love interest of the titular Asgardian god—until he falls under Loki’s control thanks to a certain mind crystal. Points detracted for helping the god of mischief invade earth; bonus points for ensuring the plot couldn’t succeed. (Eventually, you’ll note a theme: You can usually get by without superpowers in Marvel’s version of Earth so long as you’re really, really smart.) Also, points detracted for being significantly less helpful in the Thor sequel.
18. Linda Cardellini as Laura Barton in Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ahead of the release of Age of Ultron, the roles played by Linda Cardellini and Julie Delpy were treated as state secrets—so much so, Cardellini didn’t even tell her family about the part. As it turned out, Cardellini plays Laura Barton, wife of Clint Barton, the Avenger better known as Hawkeye. It’s a surprising reveal, considering, like the audience, none among the haggard-looking group of Avengers who arrive on the Bartons' front porch have a clue that their fellow crime-fighter had a family in the first place. Let alone that his wife is Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay Weir. (Except, it appears, Black Widow, who knows everything.)
17. Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen in Iron Man 3
Like so many others who orbit the Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen is simply a very attractive nerd. She's so smart, in fact, that she engineers a virus that makes supersoldiers. Pretty cool! Of course, this turns out to be something of an issue, since Iron Man 3’s villain Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) used Extremis on himself, giving him the ability to breathe fire on people (??). And then he weaponizes it, attempting to sell it to terrorist factions. Oops.
16. John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey in Guardians of the Galaxy
As far as soldiers go, it’s not clear how much Rhomann Dey adds to the cause; as comic relief, we’ll keep him.
15. Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
As the grizzled, gristly-voiced Ravager Stakar Ogord in Guardians 2, Sylvester Stallone plays a character who was to the first generation of Guardians what Peter Quill, aka Starlord, is to the band’s current incarnation. (Stallone’s team also included Michelle Yeoh and Miley Cyrus.) Ogord, aka Starhawk, might just be your regular old space pirate—sans powers, sans supersuit—in Guardians 2, but he gets a few points for having principles (no trafficking children!) and for being, you know, Sylvester Stallone.
14. Daniel Brühl as Baron Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War
For a long time, the Avengers had a villain problem—none of them felt nearly as compelling or formidable as the Avengers themselves. So why not turn the heroes on themselves? And in Civil War, it was Daniel Brühl’s Baron Helmut Zemo—a Sovokian citizen who seeks penance for the deaths of his family and friends in the mass destruction of Avengers: Age of Ultron—who sowed the seeds of discord in the ranks of the Avengers that erupted into, well, civil war.
13. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger
World War II saw a massive influx of women into the global workforce while men ventured off to join the war effort. It was at this time that Peggy Carter, an office staffer with the British military played by Hayley Atwell, was promoted to code-breaker, began participating in field work, and, eventually, became one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D.—in defiance of gender norms of the mid-20th century. She took shit from no man, either, showing a mean right hook to any soldier who got a little mouthy. And most importantly, without Peggy Carter there would be no Captain America; she ushered him through the supersoldier program. Also, she lived to a ripe old 95.
12. Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter, aka Agent 13, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Steve Rogers owes a whole lot to the Carter family. First came Peggy Carter, then some 90 years later, her great niece, Sharon Carter—herself an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.—goes undercover as Rogers’s unassuming neighbor, quietly watching over him on the orders of Nick Fury. (Black Widow, meanwhile, keeps encouraging Steve to ask her out.) Good thing, it turns out, since HYDRA is on his scent. She saves him, demonstrating sometimes being an Avenger is just not enough.
Sidebar: It’s not till Civil War, during Peggy’s funeral, that Steve makes the family connection. Is it weird that as soon as Peggy has died, Steve decides to make out with Sharon? Can we still ship?
11. Paul Bettany as J.A.R.V.I.S. in Iron Man
Before he becomes Vision, the mind-stone-endowed physical embodiment of Tony Stark’s most ambitious AI project to date, he’s J.A.R.V.I.S., Iron Man’s cool British computer assistant voiced by Paul Bettany. He’s like a super-responsive Siri or Alexa (which, given the events of Age of Ultron, perhaps doesn’t bode amazingly for our own virtual assistants); the name stands for “Just a Rather Very Intelligent System,” which sounds like something a cool British computer assistant might call itself. Self-awareness! The mark of true artificial intelligence. J.A.R.V.I.S. gets perhaps the most incredible glow-up of the Marvel Comic Universe when he becomes Vision and starts dating Elizabeth Olsen.
10. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in The Avengers
I mean, does Samuel L. Jackson need a superpower if he's Sam Motherf—in Jacksson?
Indeed, Nick Fury, head of S.H.I.E.L.D., has nothing more than an eye patch and a penchant for Matrix fashion. Despite that, the Avengers literally would not exist without Fury, who assembled the team after Loki, threatening Earth invasion, killed S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Phil Coulson. He's always just one step ahead.
9. Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer in Doctor Strange
“I have a rule against dating colleagues,” says Christine Palmer, staving off a jealous Stephen Strange, at the outset of Doctor Strange. “I call it the Strange policy.”
But Christine, a trauma surgeon at the same New York hospital as Stephen, is no embittered ex. As arrogant and self-absorbed as Dr. Strange can be, Christine is as gentle and patient—and, where the future Avenger’s rival Nick West (Michael Stuhlbarg) was unable to save his hands after they were crushed in a road accident, Christine manages to fully save his life. Without her, Earth would have passed over into the Dark Dimension long before Thanos arrived to cull half the galaxy’s population.
8. Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis in Thor: The Dark World
Darcy Lewis, the sarcastic poli sci student-turned-assistant to Natalie Portman’s astrophysicist Jane Foster, catapulted ahead of many other Marvel civilians with two words: “Meow, meow.” (That's her personal nickname for Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer.) Though not a hard scientist, Darcy nevertheless recognizes an apparent equipment malfunction as evidence of a scientific anomaly—one that indicates the impending Convergence. She holds things down on Earth, scooping Selvig out of an asylum, when Jane goes missing. She acquires an intern of her own. She fends off Malekith’s disciples while Thor takes on the bad guy himself. And still, no one takes her seriously. Darcy deserves better.
7. Michael Peña as Luis in Ant-Man
Luis is the fast-talking heart of the first (and otherwise snoozy) Ant-Man film, at once a classic heist-comedy trope of the bumbling sidekick and its own sendup. His stories unspool with a truly impressive objectivity, the most meaningless and meaningful details given equal weight—what, in Ant-Man and the Wasp is described as “like a jukebox—you have to let him play the whole song." Of course, this makes him an idiot savant at the art of distracting a villain until an actual hero can save the day.
6. Danai Gurira as Okoye in Avengers: Infinity War
Shortly before Avengers: Infinity War, Wakanda opened its borders to the world, revealing a nation of stunning technological innovation rather than the poverty-stricken central African country that had been known to the outside world. (A less-than-subtle commentary on western perspectives on the continent.) “When you said we were going to open Wakanda to the rest of the world,” says security chief Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, as the Wakandans brace for space invaders, “this is not what I imagined.” So what did she imagine? T’Challa asks. “The Olympics,” she replies, looking at him. “Maybe even a Starbucks.”
So yes, Okoye gets her one-liners in, but her real value is as a very smart military mind with a whole lot of martial arts training. She has no superpowers, not even a super lab (not that we’re counting that against Shuri—see below). As chief of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-women security force, she might even be getting her own spin-off film—an honor basically unheard-of among Marvel civilians.
5. Abby Ryder Fortson as Cassie Lang in Ant-Man and the Wasp
“So, how long have you been Ant-Man again?” Cassie Lang asks her dad, Scott Lan in the opening moments of the trailer for Ant-Man and the Wasp. Nothing gets past this girl. In the second Ant-Man installment, Cassie has begun spending weekends with her dad, who remains under house arrest after the events of Captain America: Civil War, and even though most of the film’s drama centers on another dimension—the quantum realm—it’s the younger Lang who’s the real winner of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Cassie is an excellent gift-giver: She bestows a Hello Kitty Pez dispenser on Luis, and a trophy reading “World’s Greatest Grandma” on her dad. She basically body-blocks an FBI agent to help her dad out of a bind. And, while she hasn’t revealed any powers to speak of yet, she expresses interest—and a bit of jealousy—in becoming her dad’s partner in crime. (In the literal sense.) In recent interviews, Abby Ryder Fortson, the 10-year-old actress who plays Cassie, has also said she might like to be a superhero—and, canonically, there’s definitely a place for her as the young Avenger known as Stature. For now, even without the ability to grow and shrink at will, she’s still proven herself indispensable to her dad’s criminal, and crime-fighting, exploits.
4. Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in Iron Man 2
Pepper Potts ranks this high because she has to deal with Tony Stark being Tony Stark all the time. That's a superpower, right?
3. Zendaya as Michelle, or “M.J.,” in Spider-Man: Homecoming
Tom Holland might not be able to resist releasing Marvel state secrets to the world, but ahead of the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Zendaya at least managed to steer clear of spoilers. The former Disney Channel star plays a high-school classmate of Peter Parker named Michelle—who everyone involved with the film has been careful to specify is not Mary Jane, despite their shared initials—who, judging by the wistful glances she casts his way, might have more in common with the character previously played by Kirsten Dunst (and Shailene Woodley, before her scenes were cut from The Amazing Spider-Man) than anyone is letting on.
And even though Homecoming is really all about introducing the new Peter Parker before the Avengers beckon him into the Thanos resistance, Michelle manages to capture the film with markedly less screen time. A book-smart math whiz who doodles in class, she’s something of a high-school reject (she was, apparently, based in part on Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club character) who thinks little of throwing Peter Parker a middle finger every once in a while. But her real superpower? The nonchalance with which she butters, and eats, a slice of toast at a “lame” high-school house party.
2. Taika Waititi as Korg in Thor: Ragnarok
Among the Grandmaster’s prisoner “champions” is a bluish dude constructed of rocks, perennially accompanied by an “insect that has knives for hands” (yes) named Miek, with a thick New Zealand accent. This is Korg, Ragnarok’s comic relief in a film that is basically comic relief all the way down. The motion-captured character is played by the film’s director, Taika Waititi, of Instagram fame. Korg, the self-professed leader (“kind of like the leader in here,” more precisely) always, always has a plan. The one time he tried to start a revolution, he didn’t print enough pamphlets—but he’s not letting that get him down! He’s planning another revolution, if you’d be interested in something like that!
1. Letitia Wright as Shuri in Black Panther
If T’Challa doesn’t come back from the Rapture, Shuri can take over as queen of Wakanda. Letitia Wright, a relative newcomer among Black Panther’s seasoned cast, which included Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman, Danai Gurira, and Lupita Nyong’o, scooped moments out from under her co-stars with her deadpan delivery and knack for taking her big brother Black Panther down a few pegs. Shuri might not have any powers of her own—unlike her brother, she’s got no Black Panther potion—but without her, he’d be suitless, gadgetless, and not remotely equipped to see Wakanda through its reintroduction to the world.
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