When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began with “Iron Man” in 2008, star Robert Downey Jr. was 43 years old. At the time, Xochitl Gomez was two. “I literally didn’t live in a world without it,” the “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” star points out.
And she’s far from the only new face in today’s MCU who grew up as the franchise took over pop culture. In 2008, “Ms. Marvel” breakout Iman Vellani was six years old. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” actress Dominique Thorne was 10. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” star Kathryn Newton was 11.
Now, all four women are part of the next big wave of heroes, a group that, as a whole, is far younger than the men and women who started this universe.
A New Age of Heroes
Known as the Infinity Saga, the first 11 years of the MCU were split into three phases, culminating with “Avengers: Endgame” (but officially ending with “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in 2019). Phase Four began in 2021 with “Black Widow,” and introduced a whole batch of new heroes, as the core group from the Infinity Saga were scattered, either dead or retired, or maybe even on the moon, and Marvel Studios looked to inject some fresh blood into the MCU’s future.
Phase Four projects brought the introduction of characters like Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), America Chavez (Gomez), Kamala Khan (Vellani) and more. Some are teens, some are in their 20s, some haven’t even hit their tweenage years yet (though Billy and Tommy did age rapidly in “WandaVision”).
As a result, many fans have raised hopes that perhaps the MCU equivalent of the “Young Avengers” comics, which focused on groups of adolescents who were directly connected to Marvel’s main group of Avengers, might be coming.
But, according to Marvel’s casting director Sarah Finn — who’s been responsible for casting some of the biggest heroes in the franchise, including Thor and Black Panther — this new age of heroes, both figuratively and literally, “wasn’t, from my experience, a proclamation,” from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. It was just the next step for the universe after the Infinity Saga concluded. And it was an exciting one.
“I will say that after ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ it was one of the things that really fueled me,” Finn told TheWrap. “You know, there’s that moment of ‘Wait, where do we go from here?’ After ‘Endgame,’ it felt so final. And then of course, that impulse is we go with more representation, more diversity, we go younger, there’s a whole fresh wave to explore here. And for me personally, that’s really given me tremendous energy to kind of move forward.”
The most recent young addition came in the form of Riri Williams, played by Dominique Thorne, who you might recognize from “Judas and the Black Messiah” or “If Beale Street Could Talk.” She made her Marvel debut in the final film of Phase Four, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” opposite Letitia Wright’s Shuri. Thorne is set to lead her own series on Disney+ this year, with “Ironheart.”
In the comics, Williams is a teen prodigy attending MIT who builds her own super suit by reverse-engineering Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit design. She’s also a genius like Tony, though Thorne would note that she only needs three words — as opposed to Tony Stark’s four descriptors: genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist — to describe the character: “Bad girl genius.”
For Thorne, it’s “super exciting” just to see the shift in Marvel’s heroes, let alone be a part of it. Being 10 years old when the MCU was created, she’s always loved the fun and the action of the films. But now, three phases later, being a part of the franchise is much more than just being an action star.
“I think the other thing that they do really well, that really does sort of seal the deal when it comes to the effect that you’re left with when you get the combination of them together, is true character development,” Thorne told TheWrap during press for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in November.
“And true stories that are rooted in people and relationship, that convicts the audience enough to go on the journey with them, so that by the time you’re seeing this metal suit fly up into the sky and shoot down something, you’re in it, and you’re believing it, and you’re supporting, and you might even be rooting for it.”
She continued, “And so now to see a variety of young new faces in the latter portion of the phases from Marvel, and to see them be a variety of continents, cultures, experiences, I think it really does mean that, as always, Marvel is continuing to tap into what works, and what matters, and what is really at the forefront of people wanting to sit down in one spot for two to three hours, which is something that’s authentic and truthful. And today that looks like the audience being able to see something that they too can identify with, which in turn means increasing the variation of stories being told, and the perspectives.”
Building the Roster
Even with those varying stories and perspectives, Sarah Finn notes that the process of casting the MCU — at least on a broad level — hasn’t changed all that drastically from the beginning to now.
“In so many ways, it’s not that different,” Finn said. “Because the pressure is always there to find the right person, and find someone that our filmmaker is going to feel great about. That Kevin, Lou [D’Esposito], Victoria [Alonso], all the powers that be at Marvel are going to feel great about, that is going to become, hopefully, a charismatic star that audiences love. And also to please the fans. So that is always there.”
She continued, “Even in this new phase, for example, we had really established stars like Oscar Isaac. And in the previous phase, when we cast, you know, Chris Hemsworth, he wasn’t a known person. When we cast Chris Pratt, he wasn’t known. So I think, early on, we had to also do searches and take risks. And right now, we are still dealing with some established stars and newcomers. But I think that, for me, it’s been making friends with fear and the unknown, because I don’t know what’s going to come next. And we’re just going to sort of humbly go out there saying we know we’re going to search, we’re going to work hard, and we’re going to do our best, but we don’t know what we’re going to find.”
What exactly does it take to become a Marvel hero now? For Finn, there’s no one X Factor. The clearest sign that they’ve found the right person is if she doesn’t feel like she’s watching an audition, but rather just sitting in a room with the character themself. Of course, there are important aspects that still need to be considered.
“Look, talent is number one, right?” she said. “Does this person have talent? Do they have talent not only to play what’s in front of them, but potentially go the long distance? Because we’ve seen so many of these characters evolve and change over time. So I certainly think talent is a starting point.”
Don’t rule out the charm-factor either.
“Charisma is really important,” she added. “Are we drawn in? Do we want to watch them? For me, heart. You know, is the audience going to connect? And I think there is a connective tissue in the MCU in terms of humor, you know, there is a sense of humor, there is a wink in the eye.”
And, especially with Marvel’s new generation of younger heroes, there is one additional layer that Finn is cognizant of.
“Maturity is an important, I wouldn’t say quality, but an important aspect, an important factor that I take in when we’re casting it,” she noted. “Because what they’re thrust into — the sort of worldwide attention, the social media attention, everything — for someone as young as Xochitl, as young as Iman, I want to know that they’re gonna be OK. And it’s hard. It’s a lot, you know? But both of them are handling themselves so beautifully.”
Of course, Xochitl Gomez and Iman Vellani themselves would chalk some of their ability to handle the pressure of the MCU up to the co-stars with whom they’ve been paired.
Speaking to TheWrap for the release of “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+ last year, Vellani noted that Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris, who play Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel and Monica Rambeau respectively, were immediately “observant” of her mental state while working together on their upcoming Phase Five film “The Marvels,” and regularly checked in. It was something that helped her significantly.
“If I’m having, like, an off day, or I’m really exhausted but powering through and not really taking care of myself, [Brie] will see that, and she will come up to me, and she will talk to me, and just make sure that I’m taking care of myself,” Vellani said. “Because you can get so, you know, overwhelmed and lost in this world, and just — there’s so much being asked of us, and it’s really important to kind of take a step back and see what you need in your environment to be able to do this work.”
She continued, “Because we’re doing like 10-14 hour workdays, in really uncomfortable costumes, and you know, it’s very physically and emotionally demanding, and so it’s just really nice that Brie and Teyonah kind of check up on me, and make sure I’m doing OK. And I feel like I do the same for them, but it’s not, you know, at the same level!”
For Xochitl Gomez, who got her start on Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club,” the person checking in on her most while working on “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was Benedict Wong, who plays the MCU’s current Sorcerer Supreme (and connective thread between projects), Wong.
“He was constantly there for me, literally from the very first day,” she said. “And he’s like, ‘Anything you need, I am here.’ He’s kind of just like that. Just a really genuine and warm person. And I really hope we get to work together more. He’s just awesome.”
But Gomez’s co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen, who play Doctor Stephen Strange and Wanda Maximoff (a.k.a the Scarlet Witch) respectively — or “BC and Lizzie” as Gomez gets to call them — made sure to mentor the young actress in their own ways too.
“I mean, Lizzie was the one that told me that ‘Marvel wants your feedback. And don’t be shy to give ideas,’” Gomez recalled. “So I did that sometimes. And it would be really crazy when we’d be able to shoot an idea that I had.”
Kathryn Newton — who made her MCU debut in February as the new older version of Cassie Lang, Scott Lang’s daughter — says Paul Rudd offered similar advice to her while filming “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” encouraging her to not shy away from letting her voice come through in the franchise.
“You know, we fell right into Cassie and Scott immediately. And we had some rehearsals, Paul was doing some improv, and I would just do a little bit,” Newton explained. “And when we started filming, we did a couple scenes with Michael [Douglas] and Michelle [Pfeiffer] and Evangeline [Lilly], and Paul and I were on our break. And he was like, ‘Listen, I can tell you’re funny. Just don’t hold back.’ He’s like, ‘If I could say one thing, don’t finish this movie and wish that you didn’t try that joke. Just don’t hold back, do it all.’ He’s like, ‘It’s a movie. At the end of the day, they’re gonna cut it if it’s not funny, and they might use it if it is.’ And I was like, ‘Really? On a Marvel movie, you can try things? And he’s like, ‘Yes.’”
“We’re All Trying to Do the Same Thing”
While working with actors who have been in the universe for years at this point has proven helpful, perhaps more important is the fact that these new heroes are also there for each other.
Though their respective projects haven’t overlapped much just yet, they’ve met at premieres and events, and started developing their own friendships. According to Newton, Xochitl Gomez is helping her get better at being on TikTok.
“I think that there is, in a way, a camaraderie almost like being on the same team,” Newton said. “It reminds me of my golf team experience in high school. Like, you see each other, you know what you’re both trying to do, and you have this respect, but you can also goof around and like call each other out, because we’re all trying to do the same thing.”
Gomez sings Newton’s praises just as loudly, noting that the “Quantumania” star actually texted her just prior to Gomez’s interview with TheWrap. The “Multiverse of Madness” performer has also made a point to connect with “Shang-Chi” star Simu Liu, as well as “Ms. Marvel” star Iman Vellani.
In fact, early on, Gomez and Vellani set aside time to grab dinner together, where they were able to “bond over being young, brown girls in the MCU and what that means.” The young women also discussed their experiences with fans — both positive and negative — and spoke openly about the difficulties that come with those experiences.
“It was just nice to be able to have these shared experiences that made me feel like, OK, I’m not the only one,” Gomez said. “And especially with harassment and haters and stuff, and being able to be like, ‘OK, it’s not just me, this happens to you, it happens to a few other people as well.’ But it’s like, sometimes, when it’s in the moment, you forget, and it just becomes like this thing of like, ‘What is going on to me?’”
She continued, “And it’s just so much worse for brown people. Because there’s layers of racism, and it’s just, it’s tough. And so being able to talk to [Iman] and be like, ‘You’re not the only one,’ and being able to show my support, and being able to kind of take her out to dinner, and be able to take her mind off it, be able to like release it all. And then afterwards, being able to laugh and just be like, ‘Look at the conversation we just had!’ Look at that, we’re laughing and it’s great.”
So, knowing that they have each other to talk to and lean on, Marvel’s young stars are simply trying to go about their lives. With just over a month until “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” first hit theaters, Newton said her life was largely the same as it’s always been. Granted, she’s no stranger to the industry, having starred in hits like “Big Little Lies” and “Freaky,” but the MCU is a whole different animal. Still, she’s taking it one step at a time.
“I haven’t thought about it, life is pretty normal,” she said, ahead of the holidays. “You know, I’m here at home with my dogs, getting ready for Christmas and playing golf. And I think the best part is knowing how much I loved making this movie, and that soon we get to share it. I don’t know what people will think of Cassie, but I know just as a human, getting to be a part of this franchise, and this Ant-Man movie in particular, is just like a very cool experience. I had the best time making the movie.”
Gomez looks at her turn as America Chavez in “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” much the same way, admitting that she still regularly has to process that it even happened.
“It’s pretty crazy, is what it is. It’s pretty freakin’ insane,” she said with a laugh. “And every day, it’s just kind of one thing I look at and I’m like, ‘Wow, I did that. That’s something that I did!’ And I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity, and that I was able to play America. It just means the world to me. And I think sometimes I forget that I did such a crazy thing.”
The idea that the young heroes they’re playing could, or even possibly have already, become a new young fan’s favorite at the level of Iron Man or Black Widow or Spider-Man hasn’t quite sunk in for the actors yet — but it’s starting to.
“I really wonder what impact it will have,” Newton said. “I don’t think I was aware of what a big impact ‘Iron Man’ had on me when I was — I was very young, the first time I saw that movie. I saw it with my dad at the movie theater and that memory, you know, we still go to the movies together. So the whole experience of being young and watching people on screen is more influential than you know when you’re just going to the movies with your parents or your friends. So, you know, time will tell. And hopefully, we can do something really great together, all of us.”
As for Sarah Finn, the woman who continues bringing these actors into the MCU fold, she hopes that Marvel’s next generation will create another generation of fans, much like the Infinity Saga did.
“I hope, personally, that they will connect with a more diverse audience, they will connect with a younger audience, they will bring in new fans, and they will reinvigorate our existing fans with new stories and new perspectives and new energy,” Finn said. “But I really hope that all of these new voices that we’re going to be hearing in the MCU give inspiration and a feeling of empowerment to all the viewers.”
But, for as much as this new wave of heroes seems to signify big change, the kids of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are also excited about the small things that come with joining this family.
Xochitl Gomez carries her America Chavez action figure around with her at almost all times, and Kathryn Newton is thrilled to see a Cassie Lang locker door as part of the scenery in the “Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure” ride at Disneyland.
“I feel like a Disney princess now,” Newton said.