As Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan is the latest hit for Disney’s MCU. As a character only created in 2014, she stands in contrast to counterparts like Iron Man and Thor, who were comic book legends decades before Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth would bring them to life. But even though many of Marvel’s most popular characters are over 50 years old, it took until the 21st century for them to be realized on screen.
This left decades of fans to fan-cast for their own perfect Spider-Men and Captain Americas, and this exercise was particularly ripe in the 1980s, an era defined by larger-than-life movie stars who were superpowered on screen even without the capes. Looking back, it is still fun to wonder what might have been.
Though Cruise was briefly attached to play Spider-Man for Cannon Films before the studio went under, his future work as Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible films show he was much better suited to Steve Rogers. From early comedies like Risky Business and Cocktail to action hits like Top Gun and Days of Thunder, Cruise was able to convey an all-American aura while maintaining a glint of mischief.
Captain America was never a very popular character for comics fans, as his first great arc was in Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier story in 2004. So it would make sense for a Captain America film in the Reagan-era to look like many of the other jingoistic actioners of the time.
While he plays the elderly Hank Pym in today’s MCU, Michael Douglas was in a prime position to play Tony Stark in the 1980s. After a few years as a producer in the ’70s, the son of screen legend Kirk Douglas only became a star in his own right in 1984’s Romancing the Stone. In that tongue-in-cheek adventure, Douglas displayed his knack for abrasive charm as a modern-day Indiana Jones without the romantic ideals.
Further on in the ’80s, in films like Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, he embraced the smarm and became (much like his father before him) the cynic’s movie star, playing reprehensible characters that audiences would follow despite themselves. All of this makes him a natural fit for Stark, especially the “Demon in a Bottle” Tony of the 1980s.
He may be America’s sweetheart now, but the Tom Hanks of the 1980s was a very different actor. Coming off of the otherwise forgotten sitcom Bosom Buddies, Hanks’ movie career began with him as an angsty comic dupe. In films like Splash and The “Burbs, he was as much the frustrated butt of the joke as he was the protagonist. This bottled rage would’ve made him a natural fit for Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered man who is just trying to keep it together.
A CGI Hulked-out Hanks would’ve been nearly impossible to pull off at the time, so it would be natural to bring in the man who actually was the Hulk in the 80s as Hanks’ alter ego, which is Lou Ferrigno. In the popular TV show of the late ’70s and early ’80s, The Incredible Hulk, Ferrigno and Bill Bixby tagged teamed the role. No doubt Hanks would make for a dramatic upgrade.
She may be best remembered as the speaking voice of Jessica Rabbit, but Kathleen Turner had several classic performances throughout the 80s. She first rose to stardom as a femme fatale in 1981 with the erotic thriller Body Heat, then parodied that role in Steve Martin’s The Man with Two Brains before co-starring with the previously mentioned Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone.
Turner would’ve brought her sensual gravitas to Natasha Romanoff in a way that would make Disney excess blush today but fit right in for the sensibilities of the ’80s. But she would have excelled at the sarcasm that Scarlett Johansson brings to the role, as well, slinging zingers to cut her hyper-masculine co-stars down a peg.
From Red Dawn to Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze was the kind of actor that could thrive in any genre and still remain himself on screen. He was tough, charming, and often had a great sense of humor about himself, all perfect traits for the charismatically hubristic Thor, especially the iteration of the character that dominated the earlier days of the character.
In the theoretical Swayze vehicle, he would have likely started the film as Dr. Donald Blake. As the lore goes, Odin turned his arrogant son Thor into a normal human in order to teach him humility. But when Odin grants his memory back, Blake was then able to access his Asgardian powers whenever he needed them.
Kurt Russell was quietly one of the most interesting stars of the 1980s. Most often paired with director John Carpenter on films like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, Russell carved out a role as the everyman action star. He had Harrison Ford’s looks, but his delivery was more arch, imbuing each line with a glint of self-awareness that would only fully come into fashion decades later.
This would’ve made him ideal for the wry and world-weary Clint Barton. While Jeremy Renner’s take is serviceable albeit vague, Russell could have turned the master archer into a real fan favorite. He would have perfectly inhabited both the supreme confidence in his own skills while still feeling out of place amongst gods and super-humans.
Martial arts films were largely met with derision in 1980s America. While Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh were dominating the Hong Kong cinemas, U.S. audiences simply weren’t interested. Thusly, Taimak’s star turn in 1985’s The Last Dragon is only now appreciated as a cult classic and the martial artist’s career never got off the ground.
However, he would’ve been perfectly suited to T’Challa had the role been presented to him. Where the Ryan Coogler film drew heavily from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run in the early 2010s, this version would likely draw from the blaxploitation-infused run of comics in the 70s, making for a film much closer in spirit to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon than film modern audiences got.
Michael J. Fox was born to play the put-upon webhead. The star of Family Ties, Teen Wolf, and the Back to the Future trilogy was the go-to high schooler of the 1980s, and with each successive project, he seemed to further define the archetypal high school underdog that we still see today, most notably in Tom Holland’s Peter Parker.
He was witty without being smug, likable without being popular, and capable while constantly being in over his head. Even his voice feels like a perfect match for Spider-Man’s succession of quippy fights, and a face-off between him and a Vulture played by Back to the Future co-star Christopher Lloyd sounds like an instant classic.
In a world of Norse gods and metal-clad billionaires, a scientist who can make himself really tiny isn’t the most awe-inspiring option. Yet Hank Pym is a very interesting character in the larger Marvel world, and the cinematic potential of his power-set is not only apparent in the current Paul Rudd movies, but also in classic films like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Fantastic Voyage.
Pym, being both absurd in concept and somewhat of a cantankerous character in execution, perfectly fits the Bill Murray of the 1980s. In comedy hits like Stripes and Ghostbusters, Murray was a charming anti-hero capable of saving the day while grumbling the whole time. This would port nicely into the shrinking superhero with a big ego.
It would be natural to pair Bill Murray with his Ghostbusters love interest Sigourney Weaver. Rising to immediate stardom with 1979’s Alien, Sigourney Weaver became one of the 80s’ biggest stars in everything from action movies to romcoms. She exuded both elegance and toughness in equal measure and paved the way for many of the women starring in the MCU today.
As evidenced by the two Ghostbusters films, Weaver and Murray had fantastic rom-com chemistry, and this would no doubt translate to these diminutive heroes. Their dynamic would be much like the current Rudd/Evangeline Lilly duo on steroids. Murray could’ve provided the wisecracks while Weaver handled action, resulting in a film that could’ve supplanted Ghostbusters as the definitive action-comedy of the 80s.
NEXT: Every Unmade Marvel Movie, Explained