This article is part of Consequence‘s Marvel Pop Culture Week, examining all the ways in which the MCU invokes our world’s pop culture and creates its own. Here, we dig into just how often Marvel actually does reference other pop culture tropes. (It happens a lot.)
To understand something, first you have to know its full scope. Which is why we did… this. The below represents an attempt to capture all the times, and all the different ways, Marvel films and TV shows have mentioned pre-existing pop culture while telling stories of super-powered heroics.
How we created this list: Consequence intern Aurora Amidon led the way on compiling the references included, utilizing IMDB’s Connections listings for each film and other guides to the MCU. We then curated and edited this list to check that we were identifying the earliest possible references.
For what ended up becoming the most significant type of data involved in this list was dates, which became a fascinating lens into just what kind of pop culture references do and don’t make sense within the MCU. The primary example of this, we discovered, was how the Batman and Superman references made in 2019’s Eternals don’t actually break continuity, and even make a certain amount of sense given when those characters were created.
Another example: In Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) says, “Ninja Turtle, you better stop poking me!” to one of Korath’s (Djimon Hounsou) henchmen. Dates matter here, because the reference being made here could be one of a few different options: the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or the many, many screen versions that have been adapted from creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s originally self-published black-and-white comics.
In this case, the key is the fact that Peter Quill was abducted from the planet Earth in 1988, two years prior to the release of the blockbuster New Line film… but just after the premiere of the popular kids’ animated series, which debuted December 28, 1987 as a five-part miniseries, before going into proper syndication in October 1988. Actually, that is cutting it a little close, but it’s safer to assume that prior to his abduction eight-year-old Peter happened to catch the hot new cartoon of the year, as opposed to what was then still a relatively underground comic book.
In addition to exploring questions like this, one other fascinating element that came out of making the list was discovering what MCU properties leaned the hardest on referencing external pop culture. As you can see in the chart below (click to expand)…
The clear winner was Captain Marvel, and as you’ll see in the list, there’s one scene that’s the reason for it topping the charts: When Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) returns to planet Earth after years in space, she does so by crashing into a period-accurate Blockbuster Video, packed with VHS tapes of films that would conceivably have been available for rent in 1995.
With Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness only just now out in theaters, we had limited time and ability to parse it fully, and so we’ll save its potential inclusion for future updates. In addition, if you’re wondering, the following shows were not included in this list:
• Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
• Agent Carter
• Jessica Jones
• Luke Cage
• Iron Fist
• The Punisher
• The Defenders
• Cloak and Dagger
• The animated kids’ series
The reason is simple: In trying to create a unified sense of the MCU, we chose to focus on the theatrically-released films plus the Disney+ series, as those are the projects overseen by MCU megamind Kevin Feige and thus confirmed as 100% canon. While many of the above shows have clear ties to core Marvel projects, many of them (looking at you, Runaways) have only a vague connection to Marvel continuity, and others (looking at you, Inhumans) we might have good reason to forget about entirely.
Check out the full chronological list below, or visit it in spreadsheet form via this link. There’s sure to be nitpicking that ensues with a project like this — if we missed anything, we’re sure to hear about it on social media — but this represents at least an attempt to tackle the madness (in this one very specific cinematic universe).
Iron Man (2008)
Reference: Apocalypse Now (1979, Film)
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) says, “I love the smell of burning metal in the morning!”
Reference: Forrest Gump (1994, Film)
Tony Stark calls one of the soldiers riding in the Humvee “Forrest.”
Reference: Mad Money With Jim Cramer (2005-present, TV News)
The real Jim Cramer tells his viewers to sell their stock in Stark Industries.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Reference: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Film)
In the first scene in the soda factory, one of the machine sounds is the same sound as the carbonite freezing unit in Cloud City.
Reference: The Incredible Hulk (1977, Scripted TV)
The theme from the TV series gets used as background music.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Reference: Supernanny (2005, Reality TV)
Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) tells Tony Stark, “If you try to escape, or play any sort of games with me, I will tase you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet.”
Reference: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Film)
A S.H.I.E.L.D. agent describes Fandral (Josh Dallas) in his radio report about the arrival of the Warriors Three: “Base, we’ve got Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood.”
Reference: Xena (1995, Scripted TV)
See above. The “Xena” in this case is Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander).
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Reference: Peter Pan (1904, Fairy Tale)
A soldier heckles Steve Rogers (Chris Evans): “Nice boots, Tinker Bell!”
The Avengers (2012)
Reference: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000, Film)
Tony’s “Glow Stick of Destiny” line refers to the Green Sword of Destiny.
Reference: Point Break (1991, Film)
Tony Stark calls Thor (Chris Hemsworth) “Point Break.”
Reference: Rock of Ages (2005, Theater)
“What, Rock of Ages giving up so easily?”
Reference: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949, Song)
Iron Man calls Loki “Reindeer Games” because of his horned crown.
Reference: Snow White (1937, Film)
After falling from the sky, Iron Man wakes up saying: “Please tell me nobody kissed me.”
Reference: The Lord of the Rings (2001, Film)
As Iron Man takes Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to a rooftop, he says “Better clench up, Legolas,” referring to the archer played by Orlando Bloom in the Tolkien adaptations. (Yes, this could also be a reference to the books.)
Reference: The Wizard of Oz (1939, Film)
Steve Rogers reacts to the mention of “flying monkeys” by exclaiming, “I understood that reference!”
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Reference: A Christmas Story (1983, Film)
Tony Stark says to a kid reminiscent of Ralphie, “I loved you in A Christmas Story.”
Reference: Dora the Explorer (2000, Kids TV)
Tony wears a Dora watch.
Reference: Super Friends (1973, Kids TV)
Happy (Jon Favreau) refers to the Avengers as the “Super Friends.” (Another subtle reference to the DC universe!)
Reference: Westworld (1973, Film)
Tony Stark calls Eric Savin (James Badge Dale) “Westworld,” presumably due to his resemblance to Yul Brynner. (It’s unlikely that this was a reference to the HBO show, given that Iron Man 3 predates the series by three years.)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Reference: I Love Lucy (1951, Scripted TV)
Reference: Rocky I, II, and III (1976, Film)
Reference: Star Trek (1966, Scripted TV)
Reference: Star Wars (1977, Film)
On Steve Rogers’ original catch-up list.
Reference: Trouble Man (1972, Album)
On Steve Rogers’ catch-up list, after Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) recommends the soundtrack.
Reference: Top Gun (1986, Film)
When a helicopter flies by S.H.I.E.L.D HQ, a soldier says, “Negative, the pattern is full,” quoting that film.
Reference: Pulp Fiction (1994, Film)
There is a Pulp Fiction quote on Nick Fury’s tombstone.
Reference: WarGames (1983, Film)
“Shall we play a game?” Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) says.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Reference: ALF (1986, Scripted TV)
Peter Quill’s spaceship includes an Alf sticker.
Reference: Cobra (1986, Film)
Another quote: “You’re the disease.” / “I’m the cure.”
Reference: Footloose (1984, Film)
Quill tells Gamora (Zoe Saldana) all about the classic dance film starring Kevin Bacon.
Reference: Slither (2006, Film)
A meta-reference, but the alien slugs from James Gunn’s Slither are in the Collector’s collection.
Reference: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987 (cartoon series premiere), Kids TV)
Quill calls one of Horath’s henchmen a “ninja turtle.”
Reference: Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Lost Ark (1981, Film)
Reference: The Maltese Falcon (1941, Film)
Quill drops multiple references in this line: “This orb has a real shiny blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.”
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Reference: Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956, Theater)
Tony Stark says his day has been “Eugene O’Neil” long.
Reference: Pinnochio (1940, Film)
Ultron sings and quotes “I’ve got strings” multiple times.
Reference: The Man Who Would Be King (1975, Film)
“The man who wouldn’t be King,” Stark says.
Reference: In Like Flint (1967, Film)
During a heist, Kurt (David Dastmalchian) says that Lang is “in like the Flint.”
Reference: Sofia the First (2012, Kids TV)
Cassie Lane (Abby Ryder Fortson) has a Sofia the First bucket.
Reference: The Andy Griffith Show (1960, Scripted TV)
“No, don’t whistle. No whistling. It’s not The Andy Griffith Show. No whistling,” says Scott (Paul Rudd).
Reference: Titanic (1997, Film)
While explaining how a safe doesn’t do well with cold, Scott (Rudd) asks Luis (Michael Peña) what the iceberg did to the actual Titanic. Luis responds, “Yeah man: It killed DiCaprio.”
Reference: The Little Mermaid (1989, Film)
Cassie has a stuffed Flounder toy.
Reference: Thomas & Friends (1984, Kids TV)
During the climax, Ant-Man and Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) shrink and battle in a Thomas the Tank Engine playset.