The New Viewer’s Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

A peculiar thing happened recently after the release of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix. Friends, family, and coworkers alike begin approaching me and telling me how unexpectedly enjoyable they found it after finally giving it a chance this past week. It’s the first time that they had given any attention to a Marvel property and were pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t just a bunch of silly comic book superheroes running around in tights and capes like they thought it might be. Similar encounters took place after the release of Captain America: Civil War earlier this year. “It was SO GOOD!” people exclaim with genuine surprise. They’re always eager to discuss and pick my brain. People of all types gravitate towards comic book superheroes not just as an escape from their own lives, but also as a way to see people that look like themselves doing extraordinary things. They’re a source of hope and inspiration. And nobody does it better than Marvel, so I’m always happy to spread their gospel.

Marvel is most noteworthy for being a comic book publisher going back as early as the 1960’s. The company dates back as far as the 1930’s, however, under different names such as Atlas Comics and Timely Publications. Their popular characters such as Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, and countless others have been the subject of endless film and TV adaptations. Until as recently as 2008 however, Marvel Entertainment licensed their properties to other studios to create these adaptations. They didn’t anticipate how little profit or creative control they would truly get from their deals with those studios though. So in 2005, Marvel Studios was formed and became the first major independent film studio since the formation of Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks.

Studio chief Kevin Feige realized early in the game that, although they had already farmed out their popular X-Men and Spider-Man characters to other studios, Marvel still maintained the rights to the central characters that formed The Avengers team. It was Feige’s idea to create a “shared universe” throughout their films just as their comic book source material had decades ago. That shared universe was established in 2008’s Iron Man, the studio’s first outing. Marvel Studios would go on to produce one of the most successful entertainment franchises of the new millennium that stretches beyond film and television into tie-in comics, short films, viral marketing, video games, amusement park attractions, television specials, guidebooks, and more.

New to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or “MCU” for short) and feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry! This guide is officially here to help!

Avengers Assembled

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The Avengers. From left: Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

Unlike trying to decide where to begin with nearly a century’s worth of comics, it’s pretty obvious to start with the beginning of the MCU. That means you’ll want to start with “Phase One,” otherwise known as “Avengers Assembled.” This is the first set of movies produced by Marvel Studios that introduces the main universe in which they’re set. They also tell the origin stories of our central characters of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Nick Fury. You’ll also be introduced to the heroic S.H.I.E.L.D. organization and the scheming and villainous HYDRA. And last but certainly not least, you’ll witness the culmination with the formation of the Avengers, otherwise known as Earth’s mightiest heroes!

This chapter of the MCU contains:

  1. Iron Man (2008): This film mostly serves as an introduction and origin story for the Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) character. You’ll want to stay tuned for the first appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury discussing the “Avengers Initiative” towards the end of the movie though…
  2. The Incredible Hulk (2008): Like Iron Man before it, this film mostly serves as an origin story for Bruce Banner/the Hulk. Star Edward Norton will later be recast with Mark Ruffalo in future appearances of the title character.
  3. Iron Man 2 (2010): This sequel sees Don Cheadle taking over the role of Rhodey/War Machine from Terrence Howard in the original film. It also introduces super spy and future teammate Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson. It ends with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) discovering Thor’s Hammer.
  4. Thor (2011): This is the origin story of Asgardian god Thor (Chris Hemsworth). It also introduces future teammate Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Like the films preceding it, this movie serves up the backstory of arguably the most famous Avenger, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). It also introduces us to the popular Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) character, who will go on to headline her own spinoff series on ABC.
  6. The Avengers (2012): It all builds up to here when Nick Fury activates the “Avengers Initiative” to assemble a team of Earth’s mightiest heroes to save the planet!

Bridging the Gap

The wait between new Marvel movie releases can sometimes be excruciating. Thankfully, the formation of Marvel Television and their subsequent productions have made it so we never have to go too long without new content! Shortly after the release of The Avengers, ABC was the first to jump into the fray with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Though it initially garnered terrible reviews, the show is now in its fourth season and tends to run concurrently with the film franchise. Often times, events from the films directly impact what goes on within the show. The show’s lead is Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, one of Nick Fury’s most trusted agents.

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The stars of Netflix’s current Marvel series. From left: Charlie Cox of Daredevil, Mike Colter of Luke Cage, and Krysten Ritter of Jessica Jones.

S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t the only time ABC’s dipped into the Marvel honey pot. For two seasons, Hayley Atwell carried Marvel’s first female-fronted project titled Marvel’s Agent Carter during S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s off-months. After the success of these two series, Netflix got into the game by announcing not one or two series, but five projects they were developing for the streaming giant. These would include Marvel’s DaredevilMarvel’s Jessica JonesMarvel’s Luke Cage, and the upcoming Marvel’s Iron Fist. The four characters at the center of these series will eventually come together, like their movie predecessors did in The Avengers before them, in the Netflix miniseries Marvel’s The Defenders.

You can also keep an eye out for the upcoming Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, the first MCU project for cable network Freeform.

Phase Two

Phase Two of the MCU stretched from 2013 to 2015 and far surpassed the box office success from the first phase. It primarily focuses on the world our characters live in after the Battle of New York during the climax of The Avengers. It also introduces us to even more heroes that will eventually join the ranks of the superhero team including Falcon, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Ant-Man, the Winter Soldier, and the Guardians of the Galaxy.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s revealed that HYDRA has been working from within S.H.I.E.L.D. for years and leads to the eventual dissolution of the organization. This event causes major implications that ripple across the entirety of the MCU, specifically in ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the team-up sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, the latter of which sees Tony Stark and Bruce Banner mistakenly creating an artificial intelligence hell-bent on humankind’s destruction.

This section of the MCU contains:

  1. Iron Man 3 (2013): This is the third and (so far) final solo outing for Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role. It does a great job, by the end of the film, of changing up the established roles for Tony, Pepper, and even Rhodey.
  2. Thor: The Dark World (2013): The sequel to the first Asgardian tale, this installment follows Thor’s attempts to rescue his human love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) from a mysterious weapon that turns out to hold a great deal more importance than anyone currently realizes.
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): This sequel is the first film to follow Captain America in the modern age and teams him up with Black Widow, Nick Fury, and newcomer Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to take down HYDRA as they successfully bring down S.H.I.E.L.D. and use Cap’s former best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as a weapon against him.
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): The first film of this phase to introduce entirely new characters, this is the origin and formation story of the Guardians of the Galaxy team who fight against a sadistic enemy to retrieve an object of great power.
  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Tony Stark and Bruce Banner build a hostile artificial intelligence called Ultron (James Spader) to fight HYDRA. But when Ultron gains power and self-awareness, he instead targets the Avengers and humanity as a whole.
  6. Ant-Man (2015): This film introduces the backstory for both the new and former versions of Ant-Man and the Wasp, superheroes capable of shrinking to the size of insects while gaining enormous strength. The film’s post-credits scene also sets up the following phase.

The Future

Now that you’re all caught up, the third phase of the MCU has only just begun. Earlier this year, the third phase got rolling in Captain America: Civil War. In the film, public opinion of superheroes has become so divided after Ultron’s attacks and causes the Avengers to split into two warring factions against one another. A number of new characters are set to be introduced in this phase as well, including Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in his own solo film next month. The third phase is also set to wrap up much of the MCU’s ongoing story threads with the collection of the legendary Infinity Stones by the time it comes to a close.

Though only Civil War has been released thus far, here is the complete slate of Phase Three that you can anticipate seeing soon:

  1. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
  2. Doctor Strange (2016)
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
  4. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
  5. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
  6. Black Panther (2018)
  7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
  8. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
  9. Captain Marvel (2019)
  10. Untitled Avengers film (2019)

This list is on top of Marvel’s Iron FistMarvel’s The Defenders, and Marvel’s The Punisher all coming to Netflix soon. Cable outlet Freeform also has Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger upcoming, but it’s unclear whether that series will fit into the MCU as we know it.

Suggested Viewing Order

So now that you have at least some idea of what goes on and how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is connected, you’re probably wondering how on Earth you’re ever going to be able to fit in all this viewing? Not to mention when you add Marvel’s TV projects into the mix, it gets a little confusing knowing which order to watch everything in to make the most sense out of it.

Thankfully, Marvel has crafted their stories so that, while there’s always something present to connect everything, they also work with mostly self-contained stories. For example, you can watch Guardians of the Galaxy or any of the Iron Man or Thor films without seeing anything else. And while the presence of the Avengers is referred to fairly often in the Netflix series, the same applies to them — you don’t have to watch the films to love Marvel’s Netflix shows. Things also make sense when you just plain watch them in order of their release.

But if you want to shake out how things fit together chronologically, that’s a whole different ballpark. The list below details the perfect order in which someone could watch every Marvel property (courtesy of the fine folks at CNET):

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Keep in mind this viewing order doesn’t even include any tie-in short films or comics. Just the bare bones film and television MCU entries. Needless to say, there’s practically never a lack of anything to entertain yourself with from Marvel. Furthermore, it’s easily one of the most expansive fictional universes in existence right now and for fellow fans of tightly-developed continuity, there’s little else that compares to it!

Happy viewing!

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