Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or fighting intergalactic gladiators on Sakaar, you’ve probably heard about Avengers: Infinity War. The Avengers battle the Mad Titan, Thanos, in a war of universal proportions. The cosmic conflict boasts a cast of 20+ larger-than-life characters!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been taking shape for a decade now, and it has all been building to this! You may need a refresher before hitting the theaters, or maybe you’re just not sure how [SPOILER redacted] fits into [SPOILER redacted] after seeing the film.
Fear not True Believers! We’re helping you make sense of everything in the MCU before the Infinity War. Below you’ll find a movie-by-movie breakdown of the main takeaways from each film. If you’re looking for more plot analysis for each film – because I’m not breaking down people like Malekith, I just flat out refuse to waste our time on some of the lesser elements of the MCU – you’ll find links to full plot summaries as well! plus you’ll see what key introductions are made in each film and a TL;DR description.
It should go without saying, but there are SPOILERS ahead for multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.
Phase 1 (2008 – 2012)
Key Introductions: Iron Man (Tony Stark), Pepper Potts, James Rhodey, Happy Hogan, JARVIS, Nick Fury, Agent Coulson
What You Need to Know: It’s hard to believe it now, but when Iron Man first came there was no guarantee this “Avengers Initiative” would work. The idea of building to this huge connected universe had never been executed before – and now seems to be overdone. (There is technically a shared Hasbro universe with G.I. Joe and Transformers…we may have gone too far.)
Iron Man was not a household name in 2008. He was considered a B-List superhero. Now he’s tasked with being the first shot in this ambitious concept. Thankfully, everyone knocked it out of the park. Still considered one of the best in the whole franchise, we’re introduced to plenty of characters that will pop up dozens of times over the years. The main takeaway here is Tony Stark becomes Iron Man – and ultimately reveals it to the world, because who needs a secret identity? We’re also introduced to Agent Coulson who name drops S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time. And in the first after-credits scene – a trend that MCU would adopt for all other films – we’re introduced to the charismatic Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., who informs Tony of an upcoming project known as the Avenger Initiative.
TL;DR: Let the fun begin.
The Incredible Hulk
Key Introductions: Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, and that’s it. I know what you’re thinking – what about the Hulk? I’ll explain…
What You Need to Know: Up until 2016 it was safe to assume Marvel was pretending this movie never happened. With a recasting of the Hulk, and no mention of any other characters from the film, it was as if this was all a bad dream. Well then “Thunderbolt” Ross popped up in Captain America: Civil War (more on that later), so there goes that theory. It’s one of the weakest chapters of the franchise, and had some fans beginning to sour on the Hulk – a smattering of boos could be heard two years later when Mark Ruffalo was announced as the new Hulk – WHO BOOS MARK RUFFALO?
After the credits, Ross is visited by Tony Stark who wants to talk about a little “initiative”. It’s the first instance of the MCU world building! So I guess this movie was good for something.
TL;DR: No Ruffalo, no point.
Iron Man 2
Key Introductions: Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff), War Machine, Mjolnir (Thor’s hammer)
What You Need to Know: The future MCU begins to take shape in Iron Man 2 as we are introduced to the future Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, who poses as an assistant for Tony. She is later revealed to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who is a master of hand-to-hand combat, but not a master of the Russian accent – the accent comes and goes over the next few films before being all but abandoned.
After the credits, Agent Coulson, is shown in New Mexico, calling Nick Fury about something they found. Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor.
TL;DR: Friends are important.
Key Introductions: Thor, Loki, Odin, Heimdall, Jane Foster, the Warriors Three, Sif, Hawkeye (Clint Barton), Asgard, the Tesseract
What You Need to Know: The MCU goes beyond earth for the first time. We’re introduced to the God of Thunder, Thor, his brother Loki, Odin, and a bunch of characters that feel like a cross between Lord of the Rings and Shakespeare. The most enjoyable of the non-Odin bunch being Heimdall, the guardian sentry of Asgard – it doesn’t hurt that he’s played by Idris Elba who is arguably the coolest person on earth.
Thor ends being cast down to earth to learn an important lesson. (Side Note: A running theme in the MCU is the arrogant but well-meaning protagonist needing to learn humility. Seriously, it happens to almost all of them.) Along the way he meets a bunch of humans, including Clint Barton, the future Hawkeye. Loki becomes the first memorable villain in the series, mainly because he’s allowed to have character development, and we first witness the complicated relationship he shares with his brother Thor – sometimes friends, sometimes enemies.
After the credits, we are get our first glimpse of an Infinity Stone, in the form of the Tesseract, that Nick Fury needs examined by one of Thor’s new earth friends, Dr. Erik Selvig. Only he’s under the control of Loki using another Infinity Stone! [Cue ominous music].
TL;DR: Thor likes earth and coffee.
Related: Trying to explain all the Infinity Stones is a task all by itself. Luckily – we already did it for you!
Captain America: The First Avenger
Key Introductions: Captain America (Steve Rogers), Bucky Barnes, Peggy Carter, Red Skull, Dr. Zola, H.Y.D.R.A.
What You Need to Know: Steve Rogers, a little guy from Brooklyn who was too dumb not to run away from a fight, wants to fight for his country in WWII. Only problem, his heart is big, his body is not. But he proves his worth in training and becomes the first test subject for a super-soldier serum. The operation is a success, turning him into a very buff Chris Evans. But the lab is destroyed by the evil organization HYDRA (Marvel’s sub-sector of the Nazi’s).
Captain America is used as entertainment for the troops – with nightly renditions of “The Star-Spangled Man” and Hitler face punches. But Cap wants to do more (he’s one of the few Marvel heroes that isn’t egotistical) and when his friend Bucky’s troop is captured, he steps into action. Rogers saves the soldiers, except for Bucky who falls from a train to what seems like a snowy death at the bottom of the mountains.
Captain ends up in a plane, headed to bomb New York, with the Red Skull. To stop Skull, who has the Tesseract with him, from making it stateside, Captain makes the ultimate sacrifice to crash the plane. The ensuing fight leads to Skull getting zapped away by the Tesseract, don’t ask, and Rogers calling Agent Peggy Carter to inform her he won’t be making that date he promised her. (If this doesn’t hit you right in the heart strings then clearly you side with HYDRA).
Rogers lands in ice and wakes up decades later in New York. That’s right, he was frozen! The film ends with Nick Fury informing him of a little initiative.
TL;DR: Captain America is the coolest senior citizen ever.
Marvel’s The Avengers
Key Introductions: Thanos, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner & Hulk, Agent Maria Hill
What You Need to Know: Yes, there is a plot to this movie, but the biggest thing here is finally seeing the Avengers assemble! Well after they clear up Hawkeye’s mind, who spends most of the film under the control of Loki (Hawkeye gets no respect). Loki opens a portal above New York, with the Tesseract, unleashing an army of CGI aliens that become perfect punching bags to the new super team. Iron Man almost sacrifices himself as he intercepts a bomb meant for the city through the portal into space. Stark makes it back but is clearly affected by the attacks.
After the credits we are introduced to a large imposing figure, known as Thanos, and his terrifying smile.
Also during the film, Agent Coulson gets killed by Loki – which apparently means killed off in the MCU, but is able to appear on the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – because why not?
TL;DR: Teamwork makes the dream work.
Phase 2 (2013 – 2015)
Iron Man 3
Key Introductions: None
What You Need to Know: Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD from the events of The Avengers. He’s also slowly dying from the reactor in his heart. By the end of Iron Man 3, Tony has successfully removed the reactor from his chest – though the suits still use them – and blows up all of his armor with the Clean Slate Protocol. Don’t worry – he obviously returns as Iron Man – so this is a bit of an odd ending. But hey you get to see Ben Kingsley in a rather fun role for the veteran actor.
TL;DR: Even superheroes can struggle with PTSD.
Thor: Dark World
Key Introductions: Aether
What You Need to Know: You’re introduced to Aether which will ultimately become the Reality Infinity Stone, and Loki “dies” but is revealed at the end to be hiding disguised as Odin. That’s it, there is nothing else about this movie you need to care about. NOTHING.
TL;DR: It’s the shortest MCU movie for a reason.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Key Introductions: The Winter Soldier, Falcon (Sam Wilson), Agent 13 (Kate), Wanda Maximoff, Pietro Maximoff
What You Need to Know: Sometimes filmmakers throw the phrase “everything you know is about to change” when describing the latest installment of a series. This is one of those times where the cliche is completely earned. The Winter Soldier finds Captain America adjusting to life in the 21st century. Along the way he befriends a fellow war veteran, Sam Wilson, and has nightly chats with his neighbor Kate (who is later revealed in Civil War to be the granddaughter of Peggy Carter…so the Cap really loves the Carters).
As if finding yourself in a new decade isn’t tough enough (complete with seeing memorials dedicated to you in a museum exhibit) Rogers faces a completely new threat. SHIELD director, Nick Fury, is gunned down by unknown assailants, and they’re coming after Steve next. What follows is a love letter to 1970’s espionage films, as Rogers, Black Widow, and their new friend Sam (the future Falcon) are on the run from a mysterious threat that hits closer to home than ever thought.
The first jaw-dropper from the Winter Soldier is the titular mercenary himself. Rogers isn’t the only super soldier from WWII – his buddy Bucky has been transformed into a Manchurian Candidate-like hitman for HYRDA. As if that wasn’t bad enough, HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD, giving Marvel fans the first big “Oh no they didn’t!” moment of the MCU. The big reveal gave audiences a taste of how much of the status quo Marvel is willing to alter. Plus it causes Captain to think twice about trusting anything going forward. While the big moment of Nick Fury seemingly dying is revealed to be a cover-up, there are still plenty of moments in this movie to change to course of the MCU.
Because all that craziness isn’t enough, after the credits, we are introduced to two super-powered twins that will play a huge role in the next Avengers film.
TL;DR: Don’t trust anyone.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Key Introductions: Star-Lord (Peter Quill), Gamora, Drax, Rocket, Groot, Nebula, Yondu, The Collector, the Power Stone
What You Need to Know: Guardians of the Galaxy features characters most fans have never heard of, a setting that keeps it away from previous Marvel movies, a soundtrack of classic tunes, and 2 of the most enjoyable hours in all the MCU. This film brings together a rag-tag group of lovable losers that band together for a common goal. It’s also the first appearance of Josh Brolin’s Thanos, and gives the audience their first taste of the mystery behind this growing collection of Infinity Stones. It’s the first Marvel movie to not include one of the big three (Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor) and it doesn’t suffer one bit from their absence. Who needs them when you have a wisecracking raccoon, a tree with his own three-word language, and David Bowie on the soundtrack?
TL;DR: We are groot.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Key Introductions: The Vision, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Ulysses Klaue, Wakanda vibranium
What You Need to Know: Sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the direst of consequences. Age of Ultron finds Tony Stark fearful that the Avengers won’t be enough one day to stop threats against earth. Working with Bruce Banner, the two create a “global defense program” in the form of Ultron. The creation uses artificial intelligence found in Loki’s scepter (the Mind Stone) because that is clearly a great idea. The sentient Ultron decides the only way to save the earth is to eliminate humanity. With the help of the Maximoff twins, the evil android sets off to complete his plan. You can pretty much guess how well that goes since there have more movies made after this one.
So much to digest in this Avengers adventure. Thor sees an apocalyptic future in a hallucination that features those pesky Infinity Stones. The Vision is created using the same science Ultron was made with (but he has a cape so that’s probably why he never turns evil). Wakanda, Vibranium, and Ulysses Klaue, from the world of Black Panther, are introduced. The fictional nation of Sokovia is lifted from the ground and dropped right back down (not a misprint). Bruce Banner and Black Widow start a will-they-won’t-they relationship. Quicksilver dies just as quickly as he’s introduced. We also get a look at the new Avengers team: Captain America, Black Widow, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, War Machine, and The Vision. Finally, Thanos pops up again, teasing his future dark intentions.
TL;DR: Never trust a robot who sounds like James Spader.
Key Introductions: Ant-Man (Scott Lang), Hope van Dyne, Dr. Hank Pym
What You Need to Know: One of the lighter entries into the MCU. Brilliant scientist – because there aren’t enough of those in the MCU – Dr. Hank Pym finds reformed criminal Scott Lang to take over the mantle of Ant-Man. Why a criminal? He sees potential in Lang – who doesn’t love Paul Rudd after all? The decision doesn’t sit well with his daughter Hope, though, who is more than capable of taking over the suit. Dr. Pym doesn’t want his daughter in that type of danger.
Ant-Man is a return to the classic form of hero origin stories. Person introduced, person gets said powers, person faces adversity, person ultimately saves the day. It’s a fun chapter of the MCU, but not required viewing.
TL;DR: Paul Rudd makes anything better.
Phase 3 (2016 – 2018)
Captain America: Civil War
Key Introductions: Black Panther (T’Challa), Spider-Man (Peter Parker), Sharon Carter, May Parker, Everett Ross
What You Need to Know: The third solo Captain America outing is better classified as Avengers 2.5. Iron-Man comes across the mother of a soldier that died in the Sokovia attacks – you know that moment in Age of Ultron WHERE A WHOLE COUNTRY IS PICKED UP AND DROPPED. Stark is hit with even more guilt after the ordeal. Elsewhere, the Avengers mission in Lagos, Nigeria, ends with Scarlet Witch losing control of a contained explosion, causing the blast to hit the seventh floor of a hotel. The event leaves Wanda in tears, and the Avengers at the center of a media blitz that calls into question their power.
The unfortunate events lead to Tony meeting with Gen. Thunderbolt Ross which results in the creation of the Sokovia Accords. (Side Note: By including Ross this basically was the MCU saying the 2008 Hulk film still does count in their universe – sigh.)
Long story short on the Accords – the government wants all the Avengers to operate under a panel’s supervision, which is ratified by 117 countries. Some agree (with Stark being the biggest to side with the idea) and some don’t (clearly Captain America also saw The Winter Soldier and knows you can’t really trust the government in matters like this.)
Because the war that splits up the Avengers isn’t enough plot for you. All sides are also tracking down Bucky, who is now wanted in an explosion at the Accords ratification event, that kills off the leader of Wakanda, T’Chaka. The tragedy introduces the world to T’Challa, and his alter-ego, the Black Panther.
After an epic clash between superhero teams (seriously, the fight at the German airport is one of the best moments in the MCU). The truth about the bombing that killed T’Chaka is revealed. Bucky was framed, but now Iron-Man and the gang know that – yay – but it’s revealed one of his missions, while brainwashed, was to kill Tony’s parents – boo. The conflict splits Tony and Steve, but Tony lets Steven, Bucky, and his crew walk away. The Avengers now shattered, and Captain America now considered a criminal. Bucky ends in Wakanda, where he is placed under cryogenic sleep while the T’Challa’s team looks to find ways to help him.
TL;DR: When heroes become outlaws.
Key Introductions: Dr. Stephen Strange, Wong, Mordo, the Time Stone
What You Need to Know: The acclaimed but egotistical Dr. Stephen Strange (think Tony Stark, but as a neurosurgeon) ends up in a horrific car accident where he suffers severe damage to his hands. Exhausting all ways to repair himself, he ends up at the secret compound of Kamar-Taj in Nepal. It’s there where he is taken in by The Ancient One, who begins to train him in the art of sorcery. Strange begins digging into secret texts from the Kamar-Taj and learns of the Eye of Agomoto pendent and begins to train with it. Along with Wong (the keeper of the scrolls) and Mondo, Strange eventually becomes strong enough to defeat Dormammu.
The film ends with Strange now in full control of his new magical powers, complete with a cape that has a mind of its own. Mondo leaves the order, frustrated with how reckless the sorcerers have become with the laws of nature.
TL;DR: Sherlock learns magic y’all!
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Key Introductions: Mantis, Stakar Ogord
What You Need to Know: We were left wondering who Star-Lord’s father was at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. Volume 2 answers that question, while featuring another awesome classic rock soundtrack. Turns out the lovably narcissistic (seriously Marvel, we get it, you like this character trait) Peter Quill is the son of a powerful being named – wait for it – Ego. And if that’s not enough, Ego is a LIVING PLANET.
In a plot twist you can see coming a mile away, Ego wants to cause mass destruction – and gave Peter’s mother the tumor that killed her. Not cool Kurt Russell, not cool. Ego’s plan is foiled, and his assistant Mantis joins the Guardians.
The star of Vol. 2 though is Yondu. This is his redemption story. The Ravagers, the Guardians, and Peter himself. He’s redeemed in the eyes of all. The emotional impact of seeing him sacrifice himself for Quill still gives Marvel fan goosebumps.
TL;DR: Yondu may not be Peter Quill’s father, but he is his daddy! …And Mary Poppins…
Key Introductions: Vulture (Adrian Toomes), Michelle, Aaron Davis, Ned, Karen (Suit Lady), Mac Gargan
What You Need to Know: Thankfully, Marvel realized that fans didn’t need their third Spider-Man origin story in 15 years. After a fun romp through the events of Civil War from Pete Parker’s perspective, we see your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man doing all he can to balance high school and crime-fighting.
Tom Holland balances sincerity and awkwardness to create the strongest big screen Spider-Man yet. Tony Stark also shines as the pseudo father figure, while Happy Hogan gets his most fun moments since the first Iron-Man.
This movie also marks a trend for Marvel introducing compelling villains. A formal the MCU had yet to figure out before this, with only a handful of memorable baddies. Hopefully this isn’t the last we see of Vulture.
TL;DR: It’s like John Hughes made a superhero movie.
Key Introductions: Valkyrie
What You Need to Know: If you only see one Thor movie, see Ragnarok. It took three times, but we finally get a great God of Thunder story. Thor and Hulk weren’t present for Civil War, so it’s nice to see the two of them shine in this interstellar space epic. The film trades the Shakespeare-like undertones for Flash Gordan, and it’s a match made in Valhalla.
The success comes at a price. Thor loses his eye, his hammer, his hair, his father Odin, and ultimately his sister he never knew he had. In the process of defeating his sister Hela, he also must destroy Asgard. A plot twist you would have expected if you had studied what Ragnarok is in Norse mythology. Before everything does blow to pieces, Loki steals the Tesseract from the Asgardian treasure room during the fight with Hela.
As for Hulk, he’s spent the last two years fighting intergalactic gladiators on Sakaar, for the enjoyment of Jeff Goldblum. (Technically Goldblum is playing a character called the Grandmaster, but really this is just a chance to see him hamming it up in a funny costume.) Hulk’s biggest reveal that he’s a separate person that lives in Banner. Before he was the mindless rage of the good doctor, but now the two are roommates in one body.
The movie ends with the surviving Asgardians aboard Thor’s cruiser, when Thanos pulls up next to them.
TL;DR: Thor gets a haircut and a personality. Goldblum continues to be a gift we are not worthy of.
Key Introductions: Nakia, Okoye, Shuri, M’Baku, W’Kabi, Erik Killmonger, Ramonda, Dora Milaje
What You Need to Know: T’Challa returns to his home of Wakanda, after the events of Civil War. The technologically advanced African nation is hidden from the world and T’Challa plans to keep them secluded to prevent conflict. Erik Killmonger arrives with the intention of taking the throne and using the mined vibranium to help operatives around the world.
Black Panther features the MCU’s most sociological story yet, as both heroes and villains fight for what they believe is right. It’s one of the few times the lines of good and evil are blurred, only the intentions of those involved force the lines back into focus. Killmonger’s methods may have been wrong, but his message is received by the end of the film. T’Challa opens the borders of Wakanda to the world, and begins to use their fortunes to create outreach programs.
You need to see Black Panther. Not because Wakanda’s roll in Infinity War, but because director Ryan Coogler crafts a film rich with complexity rather than cliché.
TL;DR: A society does not advance from technology alone.
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