The 32 best pop culture references in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is just bursting with pop culture references to famous films, TV shows, and even songs – it's enough to have you pointing right at your screen and exclaiming "I understood that reference!" in your best Steve Rogers voice.

It might be hard to keep track of all those shoutouts, but that's where we come in. We've rounded up the 32 very best pop culture references in the MCU, from Lord of the Rings to James Bond, all the nostalgia the '90s-set Captain Marvel brings, Star-Lord's obsession with Footloose, and Spider-Man's penchant for name-dropping iconic movies. We've got the obvious nods, like Loki revealing the true identity of a notorious criminal mastermind, to more subtle references that may have flown right over your head, like some of the musical shoutouts.

So, from the MCU's first outing with Iron Man all the way up to Eternals, here are the very best pop culture references that can be found in the MCU so far.

The Empire Strikes Back – The Incredible Hulk

(Image credit: Universal/Marvel)

In one of the first scenes, where Ed Norton's Bruce is working in a Brazillian soda factory, the machine sounds that can be heard are the same sounds as the carbonite freezing unit in Cloud City from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Of course, it’s not the only reference to the iconic sequel in the MCU – every Phase 2 movie features a person have their hand cut off (just like Luke during the final moments of Episode V) and Spider-Man references the movie in Civil War.

Ghostface Killah – Iron Man

Iron Man (2008)

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

The Wu-Tang Clan member’s debut solo album was called Ironman, so it’s no wonder he produced a song for the movie. It was called “Slept on Tony” and is heard during the jet scene with Rhodey getting hella drunk. The rapper also appears in a party scene, but it didn’t make the final cut.

Silent Running– Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

The climactic battle scene sees Iron Man and War Machine, at one point, facing off against some of Hammer’s drones in a dome filled with greenery, forestry and a waterfall. This is a nod to the 1972 film which also featured a geodesic dome and tech robots called drones.

Little Red Button – Captain America: The First Avenger

Red button in Captain America: The First Avenger

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

When Peggy, Steve, and Tommy Lee Jones’ Colonel Philips are chasing after a Hydra plane, the latter pushes a red button that speeds the car up despite a warning sign that reads "Do not push". This is a little nod to his Agent K character in Men in Black, who, in a similar scene, tells Will Smith’s Agent J to push a little red button too.

"We've got Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood" – Thor

Thor (2011)

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, one of the most hard-done by entries in the MCU, contains one of the best lines in the series. S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Garrett spots Lady Sif, Fandral and Hogun arriving in New Mexico and his nicknames are *chef’s kiss* perfection.

"No hard feelings, Point Break" – The Avengers

The Avengers

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Tony Stark might be the king of pop culture nicknames and this one is pretty damn apt for the surfer-looking Asgardian God of Thunder. So good, in fact, that Thor: Ragnarok references the reference by making it Thor’s password to access the Quinjet. Damn you, Stark. 

Galaga – The Avengers

Galaga in The Avengers

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

On SHIELD's helicarrier, one agent is seriously slacking off. Tony spots him playing Galaga, which the hero announces to everyone in earshot. At the end of the scene, Galaga Guy quietly goes back to playing his game.  

"Did you like that, Westworld?" – Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Another movie zinger from Tony Stark, who references Westworld, the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner as a killer cyborg. In Iron Man 3, the Extremis-enhanced villain, Eric Savin, looks a lot like Brynner’s Gunslinger and is just as deadly – as it turns out, though, he’s no match for the Mark XLII.

"Cake'n Up" – Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Jane Foster’s ringtone is by Young De, aka Demrick, and produced by Xzibit, and rings at an inopportune moment in the film. Alan Taylor, the director, said they chose the track because it “bugged” everyone when they heard it.

"The Path of the Righteous Man" – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

The quote written on Nick Fury’s gravestone is a reference to his Pulp Fiction character who famously recites the bible passage Ezekiel 25:17 before murdering a young guy on the orders of Marcellus Wallace.

"Well on my planet, there's a legend about people like you. It's called... Footloose" – Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy

(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

Star-Lord uses the movie to get Gamora to dance and describes its “hero” Kevin Bacon. The gag runs through to the end of the film and later in Avengers: Infinity War. When Thor calls the Avengers “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” Mantis replies: “Like Kevin Bacon?” Footloose is mentioned again on Titan when Star-Lord asks if it’s still the greatest movie in history. He was not happy with Spider-Man’s answer.

Wolfram & Hart - Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

When Scarlet Witch puts a vision into Thor’s mind it includes three people wearing a wolf, a ram and a hart (AKA a stag) mask. This refers to Joss Whedon’s Angel series which includes the villainous law firm Wolfram & Hart. Fun fact: Whedon put a Thor reference in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, too, as Olaf the Troll God’s Hammer is his version of Mjolnir which she can wield because she is worthy.

“Playing ‘Disintegration’ by the Cure” - Ant-Man

Yellowjacket in Ant-Man

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

There is nothing like an epic anthem to soundtrack a fight scene and it's even better when the villain, in this case Yellowjacket, accidentally picks it by yelling "I'm going to disintegrate you!" Good job, Siri.

"It’s your conscience!" - Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

When Scott Lang is messing with Tony’s suit he says, “It's your conscience, we don't talk a lot these days,” which is pretty much exactly the same line Marlin uses with Dory in Finding Nemo. Maybe Scott watches a lot of children’s movies with his daughter Cassie?

"Wong. Just Wong? Like Adele?" – Doctor Strange

(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

The tempestuous early relationship between Stephen and Wong is one of the best and their first meeting sees the Doctor rattling off a few famous names including Aristotle, Drake, Bono and Eminem. To be fair, Wong is iconic enough to go by one name.

"I’m Mary Poppins, y’all" – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy 2

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Star-Lord says Yondu looks like the famous nanny as he floats to the ground holding his arrow. When Yondu asks “Is he cool?” Star-Lord looks at his surrogate father and says “Hell yes” in a super poignant recognition of love. *Weeps*

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming

(Image credit: Sony/Disney)

Kirk R. Thatcher appeared in the 1986 sci-fi film as a boombox carrying punk and cameos in the Spidey film carrying a boombox too. He said that, “spiritually speaking”, he’s playing the same character, but we doubt Paramount would be OK with that crossover.

"Tell her she’s dreamin" – Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Topaz says the above line to The Grandmaster when Valkyrie demands her price for delivering Thor, which is a nod to the 1997 comedy The Castle in which Michael Caton’s character Darryl repeats variations of the phrase in response to prices of random items for sale in the paper. Taika Waititi sure loves a niche reference.

“Is this Wakanda?” “No, it's Kansas” – Black Panther

Shuri in Black Panther

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

We love it when Shuri (Letitia Wright) gets sarcastic. She drops this little Wizard of Oz retort to Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) right after calling him “Coloniser.” We stan a cheeky genius who knows her technicolour classics.

"Get lost, Squidward" – Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Another brilliant bit of name-calling from Tony Stark, this time against Ebony Maw, who looks a lot like the grumpy-looking Spongebob Squarepants cartoon character. This might be one of the most quotable lines of the movie and makes us chuckle every time.

“Have you ever seen that really old movie, Aliens?” – Avengers: Infinity War

Spider-Man in Avengers: Infinity War

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Peter Parker loves referencing old movies he’s watched, especially when they come in handy, tactically speaking. In this case, they recreate the end airlock scene of Aliens to dispose of Ebony Maw. See, watching movies does come in handy. 

“Whazzup?!!" – Ant-Man & The Wasp

Ant-Man and the Wasp

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Luis (Michael Pena) pulls up alongside Scott (Paul Rudd), Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and Hank (Michael Douglas) and utters the infamous Budweiser advert line and, of course, his audience isn’t receptive. Janet’s life is on the line, Luis! No time for jovial ‘90s references, okay?

Mallrats – Captain Marvel

Stan Lee in Captain Marvel

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

There are so many 90s references in Captain Marvel, for obvious reasons, but nothing beats seeing Stan Lee reading lines from Kevin Smith’s movie script. Mallrats was released in 1995, the same year Captain Marvel is set, and Stan Lee even appeared in the teen comedy as himself. Meta, meta cameo.

"So, Back to the Future's a bunch of bullshit?" – Avengers: Endgame

(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

One of the funniest scenes in Avengers: Endgame comes when the team argue over how time travel works and are disappointed that Star Trek, Terminator, Timecop, Time After Time, Quantum Leap, A Wrinkle in Time, Somewhere in Time, Hot Tub Time Machine, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and basically any movie that deals with time travel, got it wrong. Or so the Marvel writers say.

"I got this. I got this. Okay, I don't got this!" – Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame

(Image credit: Marvel Studios/Disney)

This is a cute little nod to Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety. Spider-Man, trying to hold onto the Infinity Gauntlet, mimics the line delivered by Brophy in the 1977 comedy, where he tries to lift Thorndyke’s trunk and says “I got it, I got it, I got it, I ain’t got it!” before dropping it on the floor. He didn’t have any heroes to help him out.

"Oh, I love Led Zepplin!" – Spider-Man Far From Home

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios)

Peter gets the band wrong when Happy puts on the AC/DC tune “Back to Black.” In a movie filled with Iron Man tributes and references, this is another, as it’s the same song used in the opening of the first Iron Man, which Jon Favreau directed. I’m not crying, YOU'RE crying. #LoveYou3000

Sitcoms – WandaVision

WandaVision release schedule

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

WandaVision is absolutely full of references to iconic sitcoms, with episodes paying homage to the likes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, and Modern Family. There are also clips from actual sitcoms in the series, too, like a moment where Wanda sits and watches Malcolm in the Middle.

Gandalf – The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier introduced us to the "big three" – that's androids, aliens, and wizards – but Bucky straight-up refuses to believe wizards exist. "Who are you fighting now, Gandalf?" he asks Sam, who's mostly just amazed Bucky knows what Lord of the Rings is (it turns out the onetime Winter Soldier read the Hobbit when it was first published, in 1937).

James Bond – Black Widow

Black Widow

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Black Widow may find herself on the run in her first solo movie, but that doesn’t mean she can't catch a movie. While lying low in Norway, Natasha kicks back with Moonraker, a film she's apparently watched so many times she can recite the dialogue to herself. 

DB Cooper – Loki

Tom Hiddleston in Loki

(Image credit: Disney)

Who knew the answer to one of the 20th Centuries most puzzling mysteries is none other than the God of Mischief himself? In Loki, we discover that DB Cooper – a totally anonymous man who hijacked a plane, stole a load of cash, and promptly vanished – is actually the titular god, who lost a bet with Thor.

Movie posters – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings movie posters

(Image credit: Disney/Marvel)

Look closely at Shang-Chi's apartment, and you'll see he has a few posters on the wall. One poster is for martial arts comedy Kung Fu Hustle, and there's also a quick glimpse at a poster for The Godfather. In fact, actor Wah Yuen appears in both Shang-Chi and Kung Fu Hustle – in the former as Master Guang Bo, and the latter as the Landlord. 

Batman and Superman – Eternals

Ikaris in Eternals

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Eternals apparently brings the DCEU into the MCU with references to two of DC's most famous heroes – Batman and Superman. The son of Phastos thinks Ikaris is the Man of Steel himself, while Gilgamesh calls Kingo's valet Alfred, AKA Batman's butler. 

For more Marvel goodness, be sure to check out our guide to how to watch the Marvel movies in order.

Freelance writer

Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic who has bylines at GamesRadar+, Total Film magazine, Variety, BBC Culture, The Guardian, British GQ, IGN, Yahoo Movies, and so many other publications. Hanna has also appeared as a critic and commentator on Sky News, Sky Cinema, BBC World Service, and BBC Radio 5 Live, and can be frequently found as a Q&A host at MTV UK, BFI, and BAFTA. When Hanna isn't writing reviews, interviews, and long-form features about the latest film and TV releases, she specializes in topics concerning representation and diversity.