The Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU is a ridiculously dense shared universe of films produced by Marvel Studios and centered around characters created by Marvel Comics. (And remember, not all movies featuring Marvel characters are part of the MCU.) Although the films can all stand alone, “it’s all connected” on a massive scale. There are crossovers, Easter Eggs and hidden references that you’ll only get if you’ve seen all of the films. I’m going film by film to discuss which characters are introduced, how the films intersect, and which ones qualify as a “must watch”. Although plots are not part of the discussion, there will be some spoilers throughout. And of course, my primary recommendation is to watch all of the films, in the order they were made. (And always watch through the credits. Always.)
Iron Man was the first film in the MCU. It gives us the origin story of Tony Stark/Iron Man and introduces Nicky Furry, Phil Coulson, James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts, all of whom appear in future films. A post credit scene introduces the “Avengers Initiative”. This is the first of three Iron Man films, although Tony Stark makes appearances throughout the MCU.
My Take: Definitely a must watch introduction to the MCU. That said, other than the character introductions and Iron Man origin story, you could probably follow along with all of the films that follow, even without seeing this one.
The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk gives us the Bruce Banner/Hulk origin story. Although there are other Hulk films, this is currently the only Hulk film in the MCU. We’re briefly introduced to the World War II “Super Soldier” program, which will be a major part of Captain America. There is a pre-credits scene with Tony Stark. Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, but he is played by Mark Ruffalo in all future films.
My Take: One of my least favorite MCU films. That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Just one that you can easily skip while still following along with the subsequent movies, assuming you are already familiar with Hulk’s origins.
Iron Man 2
In Iron Man 2, we’re first introduced to Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. We also see Rhodey’s War Machine origin story. (He’s also now played by Don Cheadle, who replaced Terrence Howard.) Of particular importance in this film is learning more about S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) and the role Tony Stark’s father, Howard Stark played there. A post credit scene reveals the discovery of a “large hammer” in New Mexico, which leads into the next film.
My Take: Worth watching for the introduction of Black Widow. The S.H.I.E.L.D. information is also important background for future films.
Thor isn’t exactly an origin story since Thor was born a god. We do see him on earth as a mortal. A reverse origin story, perhaps? We learn about the importance of his hammer, Mjolnir. The story also introduces Thor’s adopted brother Loki, the Asgardian sentry Heimdall, and scientist Erik Selvig. All make multiple appearances in future films. Thor is the first of three Thor films. Thor also has the first look at an Infinity Stone in an MCU film. The Tesseract (Space Stone) is shown in a post-credit scene.
My Take: Worth watching just for the background on Asgard. It’s also important to understand the Thor/Loki relationship. This sets up how Thor becomes part of the Avengers Initiative.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger gives us the origin story of Steve Rogers/Captain America. Tying back to the previous film, we learn more about the Tesseract that was found at the end of Thor. The majority of the film takes place in the 1940s, with the beginning and end taking place in the present day. We’re introduced to the “Super Soldier” program first mentioned in The Incredible Hulk. We meet Peggy Carter, Bucky Barnes and Howard Stark (Tony Stark’s father), all of whom make appearances in future films. We also learn about Hydra, a terrorist organization that will appear again. A post credit scene teases Captain America’s introduction to the Avengers. This is the first of three Captain America films.
My Take: An important film to watch, both for the Captain America origin story and learning about Hydra. Bucky is also central to both Captain America sequels.
The Avengers is the final film in Phase One of the MCU. The Avengers introduces Clint Barton/Hawkeye, although he had a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in Thor. We’re also introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill, who appears in several future films. This is the first film where we finally see the “Avengers Assembled”. Loki’s scepter in the film is the second appearance of an Infinity Stone, although it is not acknowledged as such. The Mind Stone will make another appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The third act of the movie includes the Battle of New York, which will be important in several future films. In a mid-credit scene, we get a first look at Thanos, the primary antagonist in Infinity War.
My Take: It goes without saying that all Avengers films are mandatory viewing if you want to keep up with the MCU.
Iron Man 3 is the first film in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film takes place a few months after the events of The Avengers. Notable here is the re-branding of Rhodey’s War Machine as Iron Patriot. Bruce Banner makes an appearance in a post-credit scene.
My Take: My least favorite of the Iron Man films. Although the emotional conflict Stark is going through in the film gives good insight into his character (and it does echo in future films), this is one you can skip and still follow along with the rest of the MCU. Still, it is the introduction to Phase Two, and has some important character development.
Thor: The Dark World
In Thor: The Dark World, we’re introduced to the second Infinity Stone, the Reality Stone/Aether. We’re also introduced in a mid-credit scene to the Collector. The Collector will reappear in Guardians of the Galaxy and Infinity War.
My Take: The introduction of the Aether is important, so it’s worth watching just for that. The Dark World is my least favorite of the Thor films.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we’re introduced to Sam Wilson/Falcon and Sharon Carter/Agent 13. Hydra makes an appearance, leading to the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. In a mid-credit scene, we’re introduced to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.
My Take: A lot happens here that you’ll need to understand for future films. This also leads directly into Age of Ultron, which is a must-watch.
Guardians of the Galaxy
In Guardians of the Galaxy, we get the group’s origin story. Star-Lord/Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Groot and Rocket Racoon each get at least an expository individual introduction within the film. A fourth Infinity Stone, the Power Stone, is introduced. Guardians of the Galaxy is the first of two Guardians films, with a third film planned for 2020.
My Take: One of my favorite films in the MCU. Since the Guardians have not yet been introduced to the Avengers, this film can function as a stand-alone and isn’t necessary to watch to follow along with the other films in the MCU. The Collector’s introduction of the Infinity Stones (which had not been named in prior films), all of the Thanos background, and the Guardians participation in Infinity War make it an absolute must-watch before Infinity War and beyond.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
In Avengers: Age of Ultron we’re introduced to Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were seen briefly in a mid-credit scene during The Winter Soldier.) We also meet Ulysses Klaue who will make an appearance in the upcoming Black Panther. The Mind Stone plays a particularly important role in the film.
My Take: It’s an Avengers film, so it’s a must watch.
Ant-Man introduces us to Scott Lang/Ant-Man, Hope van Dyne and Hank Pym. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark make an appearance in a flashback with Hank Pym. Sam Wilson/Falcon also makes an appearance mid-film. A post-credit scene with Steve Rogers and Wilson references the “accords”, which ties into the next film, Civil War.
My Take: I really love this film-it feels like more of a heist film than a superhero movie. Ant-Man can, for now, function as a stand-alone film. Ant-Man makes an appearance in the next film, Civil War, making the knowledge of his origin story helpful. It’s also a must watch before catching the upcoming sequel.
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War is sometimes known as Avengers 2.5 because of the size of the cast. Civil War introduces us to T’Challa/Black Panther and Peter Parker/Spider-Man. This film also includes the creation of the Sokovia Accords which will impact future films.
My Take: Civil War is a great film, but it’s hard to watch the internal destruction of the Avengers. It’s an absolute must watch, though. That’s especially true before going into Black Panther and Infinity War.
Doctor Strange gives us the origin story of Dr. Stephen Strange. We’re also introduced to another Infinity Stone, the Time Stone. This is the fifth of six Infinity Stones, with only the Soul Stone left to uncover. Thor appears in a mid-credit scene.
My Take: For now it can serve as a stand-alone film, but Doctor Strange does appear in Infinity War, and the Time Stone is important in that film.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 introduces Mantis, who will be appearing in Infinity War. There’s also a fair amount of discussion about Thanos. A mid-credits scene teases the introduction of Adam Warlock, who could have a huge impact on future films.
My Take: Vol. 2 is a great film. A must watch for fans of the first film and before watching Infinity War. It’s definitely helpful to have watched the first Guardians before diving into this one.
Although there are other Spider-Man films, Spider-Man: Homecoming is the only Spidey film in the MCU. Spider-Man was first introduced in Civil War, and there are brief flashbacks to that in the film. The film also has a flashback that takes place immediately after the Battle of New York. Tony Stark/Iron Man, Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts all appear in the movie. A sequel is planned for July 5, 2019.
My Take: Homecoming is a great movie. It assumes you know the Spider-Man origin story. It’s helpful, but not necessary, to see Civil War prior to viewing. For now, it can serve as a stand-alone film, but Peter Parker will appear in Infinity War, making it a good idea to watch Homecoming first.
Thor: Ragnarok marks the first time we’ve seen Hulk/Bruce Banner since Age of Ultron. It introduces several new characters, but it’s currently unknown if any of them will appear in future films.
My Take: This is, by far, my favorite Thor film. It would be helpful to have seen Age of Ultron in addition to the prior Thor films before watching this one. It also shares some important background heading into Infinity War.
Black Panther continues the story of T’Challa/Black Panther from where it left off in Captain America: Civil War and introduces us to the nation of Wakanda. The film introduces a lot of characters that will be seen in Infinity War.
My Take: This is a must watch film just because it’s so good! It’s helpful to have seen Captain America: Civil War before watching, but otherwise this can serve as a stand-alone film. Definitely watch this one before Infinity War because of all of the new characters and the fact that part of Infinity War takes place in Wakanda.
Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War is the third Avengers film. It’s a dense movie, with a lot (but not all) of the important characters introduced in the previous films. To get the most enjoyment from this one you’ll want to have seen as many of the previous MCU films as possible.
My Take: Walk into this one knowing you’re watching the first half of a two-part movie. Resolution is going to come (hopefully) in Avengers: Endgame.
Ant-Man and The Wasp
Ant-Man and The Wasp takes place chronologically before the events of Infinity War. Make sure you check out Ant-Man and Civil War before watching this movie.
My Take: If you loved Ant-Man, you’ll love Ant-Man and the Wasp. There’s a mid-credit scene that will answer where Scott Lang was during the action in Infinity War.
Captain Marvel takes place in the 90s, and introduces us to a young and two-eyed Nick Fury. We’ll also get to see earlier iterations of Ronan the Accuser and Agent Phil Coulson. (All done with the same actors, utilizing Marvel’s pretty kick-ass anti-aging technology.)
Captain Marvel will be in theaters on March 8.
Avengers: Endgame is in theaters on April 26, 2019.
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