The most impressive thing about the MCU is undoubtedly the way in which Marvel Studios has managed to weave together a rich, interconnected, and ever-growing narrative that — while it keeps on pressing ahead — still never forgets where it’s come from. While new heroes and villains are introduced all the time, the franchise frequently throws fans a curveball by bringing back a familiar face we’d long-since assumed was never going to come back.
Phase Four, in particular, saw the resurrection of many a person from the past, and that’s something that looks set to continue in Phase Five, what with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania bringing back an old villain in a fresh form. Yes, as the movie’s latest trailer gave away, Corey Stoll will return as Darren Cross/Yellowjacket, but not as you know him. While we wait for Quantumania to get here, let’s recap the other most shocking MCU returns, in chronological order.
MCU absence: The Incredible Hulk (2008) – Captain America: Civil War (2016)
2016’s Captain America: Civil War marked the beginning of Marvel’s Phase Three, so by that time the franchise had been going on long enough that it was a big deal when it brought back someone from its early days. Enter Thaddeus Ross, William Hurt’s gruff Hulk-hating general who was re-introduced in that movie as the Sokovia Accords-pushing Secretary of State. In fact, Ross is due for another shocking return soon, as he’ll be back in Captain America: New World Order — this time played by Harrison Ford.
MCU absence: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Red Skull is indisputably Captain America’s arch-nemesis in the comics, but Steve Rogers and Johann Schmidt only had a single confrontation in The First Avenger. The HYDRA leader seemed to have vanished from the MCU entirely, then, until he made a surprise return in Avengers: Infinity War, as the guardian of the Soul Stone on Vormir, which neatly explained his ambiguous TFA fate. Ross Marquand took over the role from Hugo Weaving for both Infinity War and his matching cameo in Endgame.
MCU absence: Thor: The Dark World (2013) – WandaVision (2021)
Darcy Lewis was never the most significant character in the MCU, filling a comic relief role in the first two Thors, so it’s doubly surprising not just that she came back after 8 years in WandaVision but also that her return transformed her into a firm fan-favorite. Darcy’s popular role in the breakout Disney Plus hit was swiftly followed by a cameo in Thor: Love and Thunder and, more memorably, an episode of What If…?, in which she married Howard the Duck. We’re still waiting on that spinoff, Marvel.
MCU absence: The Incredible Hulk (2008) – What If…? (2021)
Thunderbolt Ross isn’t the only Ross to make a shock MCU comeback. While Liv Tyler has yet to reprise her role as Bruce Banner’s original love interest since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, the character herself did return for What If…? season 1, episode 3’s retelling of that movie’s events — which put right Marvel continuity by recasting Mark Ruffalo in Edward Norton’s place. Stephanie Panisello voiced Betty in this appearance.
MCU absence: Avengers: Endgame (2019) – What If…? (2021)
Hayley Atwell’s Marvel career is essentially one long series of unexpected returns, from her Ant-Man cameo to her occasional pop-up roles in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. After she and Steve got the perfect happy ending in Endgame, though, we really thought she was gone for good. And then Atwell returned as Captain Carter, first in animation in What If…? and then in live-action in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Expect more from Peggy in What If…? season two.
MCU absence: Thor: The Dark World (2013) – Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Peggy isn’t the only former love interest to make a brief comeback in Avengers: Endgame only to gain their ex-boyfriend’s superpowers themselves in Phase Four. The same is true of Jane Foster, with Natalie Portman becoming the Mighty Thor herself in 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder, almost a full decade after she appeared to leave Marvel behind in 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. Sadly, her tragic end suggests Portman’s time in the MCU is now over for good, but then again, who knows?
MCU absence: The Incredible Hulk (2008) – She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022)
All of these long-lost characters were very different from their original portrayals once they returned, but the one who takes the crown for the most eyebrow-raising transformation has to be Emil Blonsky aka Abomination. Tim Roth’s villain was a no-nonsense militaristic monster in Incredible Hulk, but his comeback 14 years later in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law saw Blonsky 100% redeemed as a zen yoga retreat guru who had let go of all of his former hate.
MCU absence: Ant-Man (2015) – Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023)
Yes, it was something of an open secret anyway, but now we can say for sure that Scott Lang’s original enemy Darren Cross will be back in this February’s Quantumania. It seems that he didn’t die when Ant-Man shrunk him down to an infinitesimal size and he actually descended into the Quantum Realm, now with a giant head. That’s right, Corey Stoll is the MCU’s M.O.D.O.K., the major Marvel comics villain fans are hoping will stick around now that he’s finally been added to the franchise. Let’s hope the gap before Stoll’s next Marvel appearance won’t be as lengthy.