In preparation for the massive premiere of Avengers: Endgame tomorrow, and to celebrate the end of my Marvel Cinematic Universe rewatch, I’ve compiled what I think is the proper viewing order for the films in this decade-spanning masterwork of storytelling. I did this so fans who don’t have time to rewatch everything can get caught up before seeing Endgame. It thus goes without saying that there are SPOILERS AHEAD.
I haven’t included the mostly-plot-disconnected TV shows in my calculus, but here’s my summary:
Daredeviland Jessica Jones are must-binge masterpieces.
Agents of SHIELD is good and tracks the film universe well, but only see it after seeing all the movies to avoid spoilers.
Luke Cage, Cloak and Dagger, and The Defenders are fine. Perfectly competent; solid viewing.
Iron Fist, Inhumans, and The Runaways are odd, confusing messes that you can safely ignore.
Right off the bat, there’s two Marvel movies you actually don’t need to watch for the full Marvel film experience.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK
In continuity it occurs just after Iron Man 2, ending about two days after the end of that film. We know this because we see a news report referencing Hulk’s fight with Ross at the university in the second-to-last scene. Hilariously, Thor probably ends around the same time. Yet nothing in this movie is remotely necessary for your understanding of Bruce Banner as a character or his situation, and Marvel switches actors by the next film involving the giant green rage machine. The introduction of Ross is interesting, as he pops back up a few times. When he does, though, there’s not much need to know he hunted Hulk once.
Here’s the one that’s gonna make folks mad. This movie is disappointing, boring, sloppily-written. But that’s not why it’s unessential – we included Thor: The Dark World, after all. It is unessential because it’s almost entirely self-contained. Nothing Carol Danvers did while on Earth in the 1990s had any impact, beyond two things. The first is the lending of her name to the Avenger Intiative. But we don’t need to know that for the saga. It’s simply a fun Easter egg that Fury got the idea from Carol’s Air Force callsign.
The second plot point is the Tesseract, but again, we do not need to know that it was used to help some Skrulls in the 1990s one time. The saga works just as well if we do not know this. It might be significant in Endgamethat Carol’s powers come from the Tesseract, but that’s a stretch.
Everything else that happens in this movie doesn’t build the universe at all. Nick Fury’s eye? It’s way better if we don’t know how he actually lost it. Carol’s character? She doesn’t have an arc in the film and is basically a humorless blank slate, which I’m sure will come across fine in Endgame. How about Carol’s powers? If you watched a trailer for this movie, you understand their extent, and again, I’m sure we’ll get a refresher in Endgame.
If you must watch this film, slot it right before Iron Man. Yes, it takes a while to see Carol again, but it works chronologically. Plus, you can then wonder along with me why Nick Fury didn’t press that Captain Marvel pager button at various times in the Infinity Saga, like when Earth was being invaded by an alien army.
Now, on to the films themselves!
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Steve Rogers, a scrawny young New Yorker with a heart of gold, desperately wants to serve his country in World War II. He gets the chance when Howard Stark and a German-American doc give him super steroids that make him a perfect physical specimen. He’s originally sidelined by the government, relegated to USO shows and stumping for war bonds. But Steve takes the opportunity to rescue his friend Bucky, facing HYDRA’s leader and former super soldier test dummy Red Skull in the process. In the following years, Bucky apparently dies during a mission, and Cap sacrifices his own life to stop Red Skull’s plan to use the Tesseract to bomb the United States. Eventually, Cap wakes up in modern-day NYC, welcomed by eye-patch-toting super-spy Nick Fury.
It’s 2008-ish. Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark is captured by terrorists who want him to build a missile for them. Instead, he crafts a high-tech flying suit of armor and escapes. Tony returns home less arrogant and determined to do better, shutting down his company’s arms manufacturing business and focusing on refining his armored suit. But a scheming company VP named Obadiah Stane goes mad with power, threatening Tony and those closest to him. We also meet Phil Coulson, SHIELD agent, and encounter Nick Fury again after Tony successfully puts Obadiah down.
IRON MAN 2
A few months later, Tony Stark’s in trouble. The element fueling the electromagnet in his chest, the power source for the Iron Man suit and the thing keeping him alive, is slowly poisoning him to death. On top of that, the son of his father Howard’s old business partner is out for revenge, working with a slimy business rival of Stark’s to take him down. Tony applies all his knowledge and skill to discover an alternative fuel for his “heart,” and defeats Whiplash and Justin Hammer. We meet Black Widow and War Machine too. And Tony and Pepper become an item. Lots of things happen.
Around the same time Iron Man 2 is happening, a hammer smashes into the New Mexico desert. It was thrown there by Odin when he cast his impetuous son Thor, God of Thunder, out of Asgard. The Norse myths are real, and as Thor’s tricky brother Loki schemes from behind the scenes, Thor himself must learn the value of humility and self-sacrifice with the help of Jane Foster and her scientist buddies in order to reclaim his hammer. Phil Coulson pops up again, and we meet arrow-shooter Hawkeye for like two seconds.
A true cinematic event, bringing all the threads of the previous films together. Nick Fury and SHIELD are trying to understand the power of the Tesseract when it’s stolen by Loki, who seeks to take over the world with an alien army. To face this threat, Fury brings together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. Initially they squabble and fight amongst themselves, but eventually set aside their differences to save the world – or at least New York. A post-credits scene reveals a certain purple-headed mastermind behind Loki’s plot – Thanos, the Mad Titan.
IRON MAN 3
Haunted by nightmares and post-traumatic stress after the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark pours all his energy into making a fleet of Iron Man suits, ignoring his girlfriend Pepper and recklessly incurring the wrath of terrorist warlord The Mandarin. After an attack on his house leaves Tony battered, bruised, and thousands of miles from safety, he must use his wits to return and face his foe, a scheming megalomaniac infected with the combustion-causing Extremis serum. He learns that he doesn’t need his suits any more, blowing them all up in a dramatic gesture.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Weird things are happening in England. Jane Foster investigates and in the process is infected by the Aether, a source of power that could destroy not only Earth but the Nine Realms Thor’s sworn to protect. So naturally, he pops back to Earth and whisks Jane away to Asgard. Thor’s home is attacked by Malekith, a Dark Elf who is very evil and wants the Aether. Thor enlists a reluctant Loki to help him stop Malekith and the tricky Asgardian seems to die in the process. Except not really, because he tricks Thor into thinking he’s Odin and takes the throne of Asgard as Thor sets out across the galaxy. More importantly, it turns out the Aether is one of six Infinity Stones, singularities that when wielded give the user immense power.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Once the man of clear morals, Steve Rogers is trying to operate in a world of grey: international espionage. When a mission goes wrong and Nick Fury’s gunned down by a shadowy figure called the Winter Soldier, Cap and Black Widow decide to chase him down, with even SHIELD seeming to stand in their way. They eventually learn the terrible truth: SHIELD is being controlled from within by the remnants of HYDRA, Cap’s former enemies from World War II. To make matters worse, the Winter Soldier is Steve’s thought-dead friend Bucky, now completely brainwashed. Cap has to find a way to save the world, defeat HYDRA’s plan to use SHIELD’s technology to kill billions, and redeem Bucky.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
We take a break in outer space, encountering Peter Quill, a thieving rogue kidnapped from Earth at a young age who now goes by the name Star-Lord. Seeking a powerful McGuffin called the Orb, he allies with Gamora (Thanos’ daughter), a talking raccoon named Rocket, his giant living tree buddy Groot, and powerful but straightforward Drax. They stop a genocidal Kree fanatic named Ronan, an ally of Thanos, from destroying peaceful Xandar using the Orb – which turns out to be another Infinity Stone.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
After HYDRA’s final defeat, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner work together to create an AI named Ultron, attempting to protect the world so the Avengers no longer have to. But Ultron goes rogue, concluding that the Avengers must die for the world to be at peace. Aided by Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, two siblings granted powers by Loki’s mind-controlling scepter from The Avengers, Ultron sets out to build himself a better body powered by the Infinity Stone contained in the former villain’s staff. The Avengers thwart him and Jarvis, Tony’s personal AI, takes over Ultron’s intended body. Now called Vision, he joins the team to stop Ultron’s plan to destroy humanity by dropping the Eastern European nation of Sokovia from the sky like an asteroid. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch also switch sides, but Quicksilver dies in the battle. Ultron is eventually defeated, Sokovia’s destroyed, and everyone goes their separate ways again.
Shortly after the Sokovia Incident, cat-burglar ex-con Scott Lang breaks into the house of Hank Pym, an eccentric inventor and creator of the Ant-Man suit, which gives its user the ability to shrink and control ants. What follows is an elaborate heist movie as Scott works with Hank and his estranged daughter Hope to thwart Darren Cross, Hank’s former protege turned enemy, in his attempts to copy Hank’s shrinking tech and sell it to HYDRA.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
Meanwhile, back in outer space, the Guardians are still learning to work together as a team when they run across Ego, Peter’s father and a literal living planet. Peter, Gamora, and Drax return to Ego’s World to get to know him better. In the meantime, Peter’s surrogate dad and pursuer Yondu captures Rocket and Groot, but falls victim to a mutiny. Yondu, Rocket, and Groot escape and head for Ego’s World – just in time too, because it turns out Ego’s a villain who wants to use Peter to take over the galaxy. The Guardians work together to stop Ego and Yondu redeems himself by making the ultimate sacrifice to save Peter in this masterpiece centered around the importance of family and relationships.
Around the same time Ant-Man’s occurring, gifted neurosurgeon Stephen Strange is horrifically injured in a car accident, losing function in both his hands. Searching for a cure, he stumbles upon Kamar-Taj, headquarters for a society of mystic magic wielders led by The Ancient One who protect the world from the Multiverse’s threats. Strange trains with the Ancient One to stop Caecilius, a radical attempting to summon eldritch horror Dormammu, who would obliterate the world forever by merging it with his Dark Dimension. In the process, another Infinity Stone pops up – the Time Stone, which Doctor Strange wields to manipulate time and defeat Dormammu, becoming the Sorcerer Supreme.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
In the wake of Sokovia and a subsequent incident of collateral damage, the world’s governments create a series of accords placing the Avengers under the direction of the United Nations. Tony, again plagued with guilt and desperate for control, becomes its advocate. But Captain America, worried by the seeming framing of Bucky Barnes for the assassination of the king of Wakanda, won’t. The ensuing conflict, orchestrated by Sokovian survivor Helmut Zemo, leads to an epic clash between Avengers (plus newbies Spider-Man and Black Panther) and a knock-down, drag-out fight between Cap and Iron Man when it’s revealed that Bucky killed Tony’s parents as the Winter Soldier. Cap and a group of heroes go on the run, and the Avengers once again scatter.
Fresh off his debut in Civil War, high schooler Peter Parker dons a red-and-blue outfit and stops crime in New York City using his spider-like abilities. Feeling neglected and babied by absent father figure Tony Stark, who gave him his new suit after their team-up, Peter works to stop the villainous Vulture while learning how to be a true hero. After succeeding, Peter turns down Tony’s offer to join the Avengers and returns to NYC.
After thwarting Zemo’s plans in Civil War, T’Challa returns home to Wakanda, a hidden but highly advanced African nation built atop a mountain of vibranium, to become the Black Panther – warrior-king of Wakanda. But Erik Killmonger, an exiled Wakandan of royal blood, returns to challenge for the throne, endeavoring to use Wakanda’s technology to arm oppressed Africans around the world. After his defeat, T’Challa must join forces with his family, his faithful bodyguard, and CIA operative Everett Ross to stop Killmonger and become the true Black Panther once again.
After removing his scheming brother Loki from the throne of Asgard and returning to Earth, Thor encounters Hela, his previously unknown sister and the goddess of death. Hela shatters Thor’s hammer and sends both Asgardian brothers hurtling across the galaxy, taking Asgard for herself. Thor and Loki end up on Sakaar, a madcap world run by the Grandmaster, creator of a gladiatorial spectacle called the Contest of Champions. Thor faces the Hulk, who apparently crash-landed on Sakaar after Age of Ultron, and escapes to face Hela with the aforementioned green giant and Valkyrie, a hard-drinking Asgardian warrior. Aided by his compatriots, Loki, and Heimdall, Thor awakens his true powers as God of Thunder and defeats Hela by unleashing Ragnarok, destroying Asgard altogether. The remaining refugees flee with Thor at their head, encountering a massive ship.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
The ship from Ragnarok’s end belonged to Thanos, the Mad Titan, who slaughters the remaining Asgardians (including Loki) and steals the Tesseract, adding its Infinity Stone to the Power Stone he had already taken from Xandar. Heimdall uses the last of his strength to send Hulk to Earth to warn the Avengers, and Thor is left for dead. On Earth, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange battle two of Thanos’ minions to prevent them from gaining Strange’s Time Stone. They end up aboard the minions’ spaceship, bound for Thanos’ homeworld of Titan. Meanwhile, the Guardians of the Galaxy rescue Thor, who heads off with Rocket and Groot to create a weapon to kill Thanos. The remaining Guardians try to stop Thanos from getting the Reality Stone but are too late, and Gamora is captured. Thanos sacrifices her, the daughter he loves most, to gain the Soul Stone – bringing his total to four – and heads for Titan. Back on Earth in Wakanda, Cap and the rest of our heroes make a final stand against two more of Thanos’s flunkies and their army to prevent them from reaching Vision and his Mind Stone. They’re aided by the last-second arrival of Thor, fresh off the epic creation of his new hammer-axe Stormbreaker. On Titan, Doctor Strange calculates that there’s only one possible scenario where the heroes ultimately defeat Thanos. Thanos arrives, and explains to Strange that he wants the Stones to destroy half of all life in the galaxy, in order to guarantee enough resources for the remaining population. After a pitched battle, Strange saves Tony Stark by offering Thanos the Time Stone. Thanos heads for Earth, uses the Time Stone to take the Mind Stone from Vision, and survives an axe to the chest from Thor long enough to use the six Infinity Stones to achieve his goal. Half of all life in the galaxy crumbles to dust, but not before Nick Fury sends a distress signal to Captain Marvel.
ANT-MAN AND THE WASP
During (or just before) the events of Infinity War, Scott Lang is dealing with the last days of house arrest after aiding Captain America in Civil War. He’s soon recruited (reluctantly) by Hank and Hope, who need his help finding Hank’s wife Janet in the quantum realm, where Scott ventured in Ant-Man. Also pursuing the lab are Sunny, a charismatic arms dealer, and Ghost, a girl affected with a condition that’s gradually causing her quantum deterioration. Scott helps Hope and Hank rescue Janet, who returns with healing powers somehow gained from her time away, all while dodging a nosy FBI agent. After release from custody, Scott ventures into the quantum realm again for research aided by Hope, Hank, and Janet, but the line goes dead and Scott is stranded there when all three dissolve into dust thanks to Thanos.
And now you’re all caught up! Hope you enjoy Avengers: Endgame.