For nine years, Marvel Studios has been doing what once seemed impossible: accurately recreating the complex and intertwining stories of traditional comic books on the big screen. Kicking off in 2008 with Iron Man, Marvel has released 16 films across nine separate series, each a piece of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The problem with recreating the complexity of comic book storylines is theyre, well, complex. Audiences arent trained to scour the background of movies for hints about the future. While it became apparent Marvel was building a bigger universe, if youve missed a piece it can be confusing to know where to catch up.
The MCU is only getting bigger, with every hero from previous films making an appearance in Avengers: Infinity War, hitting theaters May 4, 2018. Now is the perfect time to catch up on the story arc, if you want a clear understanding of whats going on when you walk into the theater this May. And our handy guide is here to help.
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Marvel films come in phases, each telling a segment of the greater story of the Marvel Universe. Marvel popularized the use of post-credit sequences to set up the next part of the storyline, starting with Iron Man. Even when the idea of a vast comic book movie universe was still in the early stages, Marvel knew it was building towards something. When it comes to picking the order you watch these movies in, its important to remember these post credit sequences. Sometimes the placement of a film is the result of what that post-credit sequence reveals.
This order is not chronological, but merely the best way to enjoy the unfolding story. We’ve done our best to avoid major spoilers, but if you’d like to remain completely in the dark, watch the films in this order and ignore the explanations.
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Phase 1: Say hello to the Marvel Cinematic Universe
1. Iron Man
2. Captain America
3. The Incredible Hulk
4. Iron Man 2
Phase 1 of the MCU is the loosest this super-franchise has ever been. While the movies after Avengers quickly get wrapped up in establishing the future story, the original five films build our heroes’ universe. At the beginning of the first three films, none of the characters are aware the others exist. Iron Man thinks hes the first hero of his kind, Captain America is a legend, and the Hulk is a monster on the run. Iron Man 2 sets up the idea that our heroes arent as unique as they think, and greater threats abound in daylight and the shadows alike.
The world-building continues with the introduction of both magic and space in Thor. Interdimensional beings from beyond are about to become a big theme in the MCU, and Thor does a sound job establishing the idea. Asgard is a place where magic coexists with high technology. As Thors people protect the universe, Loki makes a deal with an alien race to subjugate Earth.
Just like Iron Mans appearance escalated the rate of super crime, Thors exile to Earth brings unwanted attention to our little blue planet. Phase 1 ends with the heroes coming together to face their first threat that cant simply be punched into submission. There is a big dark universe out there, and it just turned its eyes on Earth.
If this all sounds overly serious, dont worry. At the end of the day, were still talking about movies involving a robot man, a big, green, angry monster, a frozen superhuman, a demigod, a Russian super assassin, and a guy who can shoot arrows well enough to help stop an alien invasion.
After completing this group, take a break, stretch your legs, walk the dog. And get ready to binge these next films.
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Phase 2: Whats the deal with infinity stones, and is everyone OK?
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Iron Man 3
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Phase 2 of the MCU takes a decidedly darker turn than the first films in the series, which is why were starting with the one that’s the most fun. Avengers introduces the idea of Thanos in its post-credit sequence, but Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates why hes a threat to be concerned about. It also further expands on the MCU, showing us there are millions of worlds beyond Earth. However, the main reason to watch Guardians of the Galaxy first is its clear explanation of the Infinity Stones.
The Infinity Stones are significant factors in Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Doctor Strange, Age of Ultron, and the upcoming Infinity War. While Guardians of the Galaxy was technically the fourth film to be released in Phase 2, watching it first raises the stakes of Thor: The Dark World, while adding a layer of background dread to the more grounded problems of Iron Man and Captain America.
While Thor and the Guardians are dealing with untold powers beyond imagination, our Earth-bound heroes are struggling with the last few years of their lives. Post-Avengers Iron Man is dealing with PTSD from his battles and the sudden realization that we are not alone in the galaxy. Meanwhile, Captain America, lost in time, finds out that not only is his childhood best friend still alive, but the people he trusted most have been keeping that information from him.
It all builds to Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the absurd power of the Infinity Stones and Tony Starks paranoia finally collide to threaten the world. Phase 2 of the MCU establishes two major threats: the impending rise of Thanos and, more importantly, the fissures that have started to form within the Avengers as a team. Thankfully the original team has picked up some new blood in the form of Scarlet Witch and Falcon. Theyre going to need it in Phase 3.
Phase 3: The next generation
16. Doctor Strange
Before purists cry foul, lets establish that, officially, Ant-Man is part of Phase 2 of the MCU. For this viewing guide, however, Ant-Man fits better in Phase 3, the next generation of Marvel heroes. With the world shaken by the destruction we witnessed inAge of Ultron, Winter Soldier, and Dark World, the MCU is in a strange place when Phase 3 begins. The Avengers are fractured, working together but always at each others throats. New heroes like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange are flying under their radar, while Iron Man has taken notice of Spider-Man.
Phase 3 establishes the future of the MCU, introducing new characters while simultaneously showing why theyre necessary. Thankfully its a joyful experience. Ant-Man is a brilliant heist movie even if you take it out of the context of the MCU. Civil War is a thoughtful spy film that just so happens to include robot suits and reality-altering magic powers. Meanwhile,Doctor Strange further explores the vastness of this universe, introducing near-Gods beyond the concept of human understanding.
When watching Phase 3, ignore the release order. Spider-Man: Homecoming may have just come out, but it directly follows the plot of Civil War, literally starting during Spider-Mans first adventure with the Avengers. Homecoming also deals with Tony Starks struggles to train up a new generation of heroes, questioning when theyll be ready to join the Avengers. Back in space, our friends in the Guardians of the Galaxy are learning more about their place in the greater universe, making new allies and powerful enemies that are sure to pop up again in the future.
We suggest closing with Doctor Strange, even though it was released before Guardians of the Galaxy 2and Spider-Man, because of its direct ties to the next MCU film, Thor: Ragnarok. Doctor Strange is our first real introduction to the broader world of magic in the MCU. Sure, Loki has powers, but Doctor Stranges sorcery is beyond even Asgards imagination, literally enough to go toe to toe with an alternate dimensions God. It also puts the final Infinity Stone in play.
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Thor makes a brief but important appearance during the post-credits sequence that sets up the plot of Ragnarok, out Nov. 3, 2017. Thats right; there are still plenty more Marvel movies to come. Ragnarok will be followed by Black Panther Feb. 16, 2018, with Avengers: Infinity War coming out two months later on May 4, 2018. Two months after that is the release of Ant-Man and the Wasp on July 6, 2018.
Then Marvel is giving you a break. Its next filmand first to be headlined by a womanwill be Captain Marvel on March 8, 2019, with the as-yet-untitled fourth Avengers film following it on May 3, 2019. Spider-Man 2 will reportedly set up the next Phase of the MCU after that. By the time the MCU is 11 years old, it will have 23 movies in the series. If you want to catch up and keep up, it’s time to get watching.
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