Over the past 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has grown from a single film (Iron Man) to 25 (and counting) and is only getting bigger. If you haven’t been faithfully following the saga, it can be daunting to figure out what’s going on and whether you’ll get lost watching a given film.
Well never fear, true believer! We’ve assembled this guide for you to navigate through the franchise.
- What to watch before Wandavision
- What to watch before The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
- What to watch before Loki
WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND!
What is the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, is a shared universe of movies and television shows featuring characters from the pantheon of characters from Marvel Comics. The MCU is categorised into phases and is currently in its fourth phase. The first three phases are collectively referred to as The Infinity Saga.
For the purposes of this article, we will focus on movie and television productions that are definitively in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—i.e., productions by Marvel Studios.
- On ABC: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Agent Carter, and Inhumans.
- On Netflix: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and The Punisher.
- On Hulu: Runaways.
- On Freeform: Cloak & Dagger.
The MCU is also notable for its use of mid- and post-credit sequences, often involving hints of upcoming events in future films. Sequences relevant to the overarching development of the MCU’s narrative have been added to this article.
MCU movies by order of release
I. Iron Man (2008)
The film that started it all. Tony Stark, an arrogant but brilliant defense contractor, is kidnapped and wounded in Afghanistan by terrorists representing a group known as the Ten Rings. Following this life-changing experience, Stark builds a special weaponized exoskeleton.
Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D—a government agency—is introduced. Fury informs Stark that he is not the only “superhero,” and that he wants to talk to him about the “Avenger Initiative.”
II. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Dr. Bruce Banner, a physicist, agrees to undergo an experiment led by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross designed to make humans immune to gamma radiation. The experiment is an offshoot of a joint WW2 era U.S./UK initiative dubbed “Project Rebirth,” which was designed to create super soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the experiment goes awry, causing Dr. Banner to transform into the Hulk when his heart rate is above 200 bpm.
General Ross is approached by Tony Stark at a bar in British Columbia and informed that a team is being assembled.
III. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Tony Stark is back! Following his reveal as Iron Man at the end of Iron Man, Stark has been put under pressure by the U.S. government to hand over the reins to the Iron Man technology. This time around, Stark has to deal with both his declining health and antagonists tied to his family’s past.
- The first appearance of Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff
An extraterrestrial artifact—a hammer—is discovered in the New Mexican desert.
IV. Thor (2011)
So it turns out that Norse mythology isn’t mythical at all—at least not in the MCU! God of Thunder, Thor Odinson—a brash and arrogant god and the prince of Asgard—is banished to earth by his father Odin. Stripped of his powers, and the use of his magical hammer Mjolnir, Thor must learn how to adapt to life as a mere mortal while thwarting the machinations of his brother, Loki—the god of mischief.
- Odin brings the Tesseract—a powerful cosmic cube—to earth in Tønsberg, Norway in 965 AD.
- The first appearance of Clint “Hawkeye” Barton.
- The first appearance of Darcy Lewis.
Dr. Selvig is welcomed into a S.H.I.E.L.D research facility by Director Fury. It is revealed that Selvig is actually Loki in disguise.
V. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Tønsberg, Norway, 1942 AD: HYDRA, the Nazi deep-science division, discovers the Tesseract inside a village church.
In New York City, Steve Rogers has been continually rejected for active military service due to his weak physical condition. Recognised for being pure of heart, Rogers is selected for a government experiment known as Project Rebirth that transforms him into a super soldier. Along with his best friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes and Agent Peggy Carter, Rogers is deployed to help with the war effort.
At the end of the film, Rogers is trapped in ice and thawed out in 2012.
Director Fury presents Captain Rogers with a mission to save the world.
VI. The Avengers (2012)
Loki is gifted a scepter by Thanos (aka the “Mad Titan”), an intergalactic warlord under the condition that he invades Earth to retrieve the Tesseract. The Avengers—Earth’s mightiest heroes—are founded to fight against this effort.
The end of Phase 1 finally introduces the ensemble together on screen for the first time: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye.
The climax of the film is an event known in the MCU as the Battle of New York, which features one of the most iconic shots in the franchise:
Thanos appears for the first time.
VII. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Following the Battle of New York, Tony Stark is haunted by his near-death experience and the guilt over the lack of world security in facing an external alien threat. Compounding this is the re-emergence of the Ten Rings and a shadowy figure known as the Mandarin.
VIII. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The Dark Elves threaten to plunge the universe into a primordial darkness with a substance known as the Aether. Thor sets out to stop the Dark Elves at all cost and reluctantly drags along his brother Loki, who has been incarcerated for his crimes in Thor and The Avengers.
Sif and Volstagg deliver the Aether to the Collector (Taneleer Tivan). “Infinity Stone”, in reference to the Aether, is mentioned for the first time in the MCU.
IX. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Following the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers is finding it difficult to adjust to life in the modern world and begins to grow disillusioned with S.H.I.E.L.D and the state of world governments. Rogers teams up with Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff and new ally Sam “Falcon” Wilson to fight against a threat that has grown secretly inside S.H.I.E.L.D since its inception in the 1950s. Compounding this is the appearance of an assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
Tonally, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a love letter to 1970s espionage thrillers with a good dose of Jason Bourne-style action thrown in.
S.H.I.E.L.D is revealed to have been infiltrated by HYDRA as far back as its inception in the 1950s.
Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are introduced.
The Winter Soldier visits the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution and encounters a memorial for Bucky Barnes.
X. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
A ragtag group of intergalactic thieves band together to stop a renegade zealot from acquiring an object of untold power—the power stone.
First appearance of the power stone.
XI. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The Avengers infiltrate a secret HYDRA base in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia, to obtain Loki’s scepter. Upon touching the scepter, Tony Stark has a vision of the deaths of the Avengers and the total destruction of the Earth. Shaken by this vision, Stark and Banner begin work on a global peacekeeping AI called Ultron.
- Ideological tensions rise between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark leading to Captain America: Civil War.
- Rogers is increasingly critical of government oversight.
- Stark feels more needs to be done to control the Avengers.
- Thor has a vision of the destruction of Asgard, leading to Thor: Ragnarok.
- Arms dealer Ulysses Klaue is introduced, leading to Black Panther.
- The Vision is introduced.
Thanos appears once again, this time to actively take part in his quest to obtain the Infinity Stones.
XII. Ant-Man (2015)
Scott Lang, an engineer turned thief, comes to the attention of Hank Pym, an entomologist and quantum physicist—and disgruntled former S.H.I.E.L.D scientist. In the ’60s, Pym developed the technology to shrink humans down to miniscule size while simultaneously increasing strength at an inversely proportional rate. At some point after 1998 and the beginning of the film, Pym was ousted from his company by his protege.
In the present, Pym and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne, hire and train Lang to infiltrate Pym Technologies to steal the latest incarnation of the technology before any widespread damage can be done.
Hope introduces the Wasp suit, foreshadowing her future role in the Ant-Man saga.
XIII. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, now the U.S. Secretary of State, is working alongside the UN in passing the Sokovia Accords—a legal document intended to regulate the actions of enhanced individuals. Tony Stark, still reeling from the failure of the Ultron program, is more concerned than ever that the Avengers requires an oversight initiative. Steve Rogers’ distrust of the government is at an all-time high. Compounding this is Bucky’s awakening from the Winter Soldier programming, leading Rogers to take him on the run from the law. The rest of the Avengers are split on how best to move forward leading to an awesome battle at Leipzig-Halle Airport in Germany:
- Agent Peggy Carter dies of natural causes at the age of 95.
- T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, is murdered in a bomb explosion.
- The first appearance of T’Challa—the Black Panther.
- The first appearance of Peter Parker—Spider-Man.
- The first appearance of Baron Helmut Zemo, leading to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
- The beginning of Wanda Maximoff and Vision’s relationship, leading to WandaVision.
In Wakanda, Bucky goes back into cryostasis until a cure can be found for his mind control programming.
Peter Parker receives new web-shooters from Tony Stark.
XIV. Doctor Strange (2016)
Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon, is injured in a car accident that cripples his hands, leaving him unable to perform surgery again. In his quest for alternative methods to heal his hands, Strange discovers the hidden world of magic and the mystic arts.
Doctor Strange meets with Thor to discuss Loki’s presence on earth, and the whereabouts of Odin who has gone missing.
XV. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2016)
The Guardians must band together to face a new threat tied to the past.
The Watchers make their first appearance in the MCU, leading to What If…?
XVI. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, high school student Peter Parker dreams of being an Avenger. However, balancing school and battling against an airborne villain known as the Vulture isn’t as easy as it seems.
Vulture (Adrian Toomes) meets Mac Gargin in prison and is informed that there are others out there interested in getting rid of Spider-Man.
XVII. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Following on from Thor’s vision of the destruction of Asgard in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor, Loki, and Hulk face off against Hela, the goddess of death.
Primarily a comedy, Thor: Ragnarok is a tonal shift from the previous two entries in the Thor franchise. With comedic director Taika Waititi at the helm, Thor: Ragnarok embraced the more colorful and fanciful aspects of the source material.
A large spaceship appears before and looms over the vessel housing the remaining population of Asgard. This leads directly into the opening of Avengers: Infinity War.
XVIII. Black Panther (2018)
Following the death of his father T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa faces a series of trials on his journey to becoming the new king of Wakanda—a hidden high-tech African country.
T’Challa speaks before the UN and announces that Wakanda will open its borders to the outside world.
Bucky is awoken from cryostasis.
XIX. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
It is established that during the Big Bang, six elemental crystals were sent out across the universe. Each crystal is the remnant of a singularity that existed before the Big Bang. Known as the “Infinity Stones”, each controls an essential aspect of existence. They are:
- The space stone: First introduced as the “Tesseract” in Thor.
- The reality stone: First introduced as the “Aether” in Thor: The Dark World.
- The power stone: First introduced inside an orb in Guardians of the Galaxy.
- The soul stone: First introduced in this film.
- The mind stone: First introduced as Loki’s scepter in The Avengers.
- The time stone: First introduced as the Eye of Agamotto in Doctor Strange.
Any being who possesses all six Infinity Stones wields unlimited power—which is exactly what Thanos is hell-bent on achieving. It is warned that with all six stones in his possession, Thanos can wipe out half of the life across the universe with a snap of his fingers. It will take the combined efforts of both the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy to even have a remote chance of this succeeding.
Avengers: Infinity War, is a gargantuan film acting as a direct sequel to 18 films and an ensemble cast that includes characters from every film that preceded it.
- Loki dies.
- Vision dies…twice.
- Everybody except the core six Avengers dies at the end of the film.
Nick Fury and Maria Hill are driving through Atlanta as the effects of the Snap begin to wreak havoc on the city. Before turning to dust, Fury sends a message to an unknown recipient on a pager.
XX. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
This film is set prior to and during the events of Avengers: Infinity War. Following the events of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang is under constant house arrest and monitoring of FBI Agent Jimmy Woo. Ant-Man (Scott Lang) and the Wasp (Janet Van Dyne) face against Ghost—a mysterious figure out
- First appearance of the Quantum Realm.
- First appearance of Jimmy Woo.
While Scott Lang is harvesting quantum particles in the Quantum Realm, Hank, Janet, and Hope turn to dust in the aftermath of the Snap. Lang is left trapped in the Quantum Realm.
XXI. Captain Marvel (2019)
Set in 1995, Captain Marvel follows Captain Carol Danvers—a pilot in the United States Air Force who is caught in an intergalactic war between two alien empires.
The remaining members of the Avengers are trying to discover who Fury was attempting to contact on his pager. Captain Danvers appears back on earth, demanding to know where Fury is.
XXII. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Set five years after Avengers: Infinity War, this film follows the aftermath of Thanos’s snap, and half of all life across the universe is dead. The remaining Avengers are: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, War Machine, Rocket, Nebula, and Captain Marvel. Can balance be restored to the universe?
Like Avengers: Infinity War before it, Avengers: Endgame is a film of epic proportions. How epic? Check out not only the size of the cast, but also how many Academy Award winners are in tow:
- Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff dies.
XXIII. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Set directly after Avengers: Endgame, this film follows the repercussions of 1) the death of Tony Stark (among others), and 2) the return of half of the life across the universe—set against the backdrop of a high school trip.
J. Jonah Jameson (once again played by J. K. Simmons!) reveals Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a news bulletin.
Nick Fury and Maria Hill’s presence in this film are revealed to be Skrulls in disguise. The real Nick Fury is aboard a Skrull ship in orbit over Earth.
D+I. WandaVision (2020)
Following the Vision’s death at the hands of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Wanda Maximoff’s mental state has been in decline. WandaVision is a mind-bending trip down sitcom memory lane. Doesn’t make sense? You’ll have to watch to believe it! Jimmy Woo (as Randall Park) is also back from Ant-Man and the Wasp along with Darcy Lewis (Thor and Thor: The Dark World) as the comedy duo you never knew you needed.
Wanda Maximoff, having now completely become the entity known as Scarlet Witch, lives in solitude in the wilderness to study the dark arts.
D+II. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)
Following the events of Avengers: Engame, Sam “Falcon” Wilson and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes must deal with a world without Captain America. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is another action-packed spy thriller in the same vein as Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
D+III. Loki (2021)
Loki is back! Well, not the Loki we knew anyway. This series follows on from a timeline forked off from Avengers: Endgame and deals with the concept of multiple timelines and universes. Loki officially opens the doors of the multiverse to the MCU—which would mean this could be considered the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse?
XXIV. Black Widow (2021)
Black Widow starts halfway through Captain America: Civil War and follows Natasha Romanoff as she goes into hiding after the confrontation at Leipzig-Halle Airport. In this film, Romanoff must lay low to avoid detection while dealing with secrets from her past. Like Falcon and the Winter Soldier, this film has stylistic similarities to Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Julia Louis Dreyfus appears once again as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine to provide Yelena Belova, the next Black Widow, with intel on who she thinks is ultimately responsible for Natasha Romanoff’s death—Clint “Hawkeye” Barton.
D+IV. What If…? (2021)
It is no mistake that What If…? follows on directly from Loki as it deals with the multiverse. As an animated anthology series, What If…? presents a new scenario, per episode, that provides a glimpse into different side timelines that differ from the main MCU timeline seen thus far. What makes this especially exciting is the rumors that characters that appear in this series may make their live action debuts in future Marvel films or Disney+ shows. Unusual for a franchise cartoon, this series features performances from the actors of the films.
XXV. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
The Ten Rings are back! Introducing Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, and his journey to face his family’s legacy. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is slated to open internationally in September 2021.
MCU movies timeline (chronological order)
Not all the events in the MCU films occurred in the order in which they were released. If you want to watch the whole shebang in chronological order, here it is:
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Captain Marvel
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- The Avengers
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Captain America: Civil War
- Black Widow
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- Doctor Strange
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- Black Panther
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Ant-Man and The Wasp
- Avengers: Endgame
- What If…?
- The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
- Spider-Man: Far From Home
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Here are tips on how to prepare for the latest TV releases everyone’s talking about. WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS.
What to watch before WandaVision
Captain America: The Winter Soldier [optional introduction]
- Two HYDRA test experiments are introduced in the mid-credit sequence. One who can move at super speed, and one with telekinetic abilities.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff—Sokovian orphans—are introduced as “enhanced” HYDRA experiments.
- Pietro can move at super speed.
- Wanda is adept at telekinesis and energy manipulation.
- The Maximoff twins side with Ultron, an AI turned robot hell-bent on destroying The Avengers.
- The Vision is born from the Mind Stone.
- Pietro is killed.
- Sokovia is destroyed.
Captain America: Civil War
- On a mission in Lagos to stop Crossbones (Brock Rumlow) from stealing a biological weapon, Wanda accidentally destroys a section of a building, killing several Wakandan humanitarian aid workers in the process.
- Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the UN aims to establish the Sokovia Accords to hold the Avengers accountable for their collateral damage.
Avengers: Infinity War
- Two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Wanda and Vision are hiding in Scotland.
- Vision is killed by Thanos.
- Wanda Maxmimoff returns from the dead.
What to watch before The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The First Avenger
- New York, 1942. The bond between childhood friends Steve Rogers and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes is introduced.
- During a secret mission in Europe towards the end of the Second World War, Steve and Bucky are tasked with apprehending HYDRA scientist Armin Zola from a moving train. The ensuing battle leads to Bucky falling from the train to his apparent death in the icy crevices below.
- The end of the film sees Steve Rogers steering a plane full of dangerous weapons away from a populated city in an act of self sacrifice. Rogers crashes the plane into an Arctic shelf.
- Steve Rogers is thawed out of the ice in 2012.
- Steve Roger’s first major mission in the modern era.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Since waking up in 2012, Steve Rogers has been working alongside S.H.I.E.L.D and the Avengers on various crime-fighting efforts.
- Sam Wilson, a USAF pararescueman, is introduced.
- Since readjusting to modern life, Rogers has begun to doubt the intentions of S.H.I.E.L.D and current world governments.
- Following an attack on Nick Fury, Rogers pursues the assailant and learns that he is a Russian urban legend known as “The Winter Soldier”
- The Winter Soldier is revealed to be Bucky, who was captured by HYDRA, brainwashed into becoming an assassin, and continually placed in and out of cryostasis for a period of 70 years.
- Cracks begin to appear in the Winter Soldier’s facade as he slowly begins to realise his true identity.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Tensions arise between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.
- Rogers’ distrust of oversight and world governments grows stronger.
Captain America: Civil War
- Bucky is now fully cogent. The Winter Soldier programming is gone.
- Rogers takes Bucky on the run which leads to a confrontation that ultimately fractures the Avengers.
Black Widow [optional]
- Brief mentions of the Winter Soldier program.
Avengers: Infinity War
- Bucky, having spent time in Wakanda, is back to his old self.
- Steve Rogers retires and passes on his shield to Sam “Falcon” Wilson.
What to watch before Loki
- Loki is introduced
- Loki, acting as Thanos’ emissary, attempts a take over of Earth in an attempt to secure the Tesseract.
Thor: The Dark World
- Loki is held accountable for his crime following The Avengers.
- Thor reluctantly breaks Loki out of incarceration to help deal with the dark elves, forcing the brothers to work together.
- Loki and Thor grow closer.
Avengers: Infinity War
- Loki dies.
- A new, side timeline is established leading to a new story for Loki.