We are living in a golden age for superhero movies. On the Marvel movie timeline, especially, characters that most of the world had never heard of, have led blockbuster movies, either as part of a group (Avengers) or on their own (Iron Man).
But, if you’re not steeped in comic books or the entertainment industry, the Marvel movie timeline can be confusing. Where do you start your binge? Can you jump into the middle of a Marvel movie timeline and still keep up? And which movies are part of the Marvel canon? (Meaning, it fits into an overall storyline.)
See also: Marvel Movie Timeline Infographic
On the eve of the Captain America: Civil War premiere, a good friend of mine asked if she could just go see it, or if she should start from the beginning. As I was thinking about this, she also asked which movie to start with. Because I’ve seen all these movies several times, it’s easy for me to forget that the rest of the world might not be as knowledgeable about Marvel movies.
So, here’s a Marvel movie timeline for newbies to help you make sense of this universe. (This timeline does not include Sony or Twentieth Century Fox movies, like Spider-Man or X-Men or Deadpool. Those movies are not part of Marvel’s rollout phases, so they’re not included.)
Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 1
Iron Man (2008)
Iron Man was the first movie to kick off what Marvel refers to as Phase I. You might not remember that, when Iron Man was debuting, anyone who didn’t read comic books was like, Iron Man? Who’s that? Now, of course, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know Iron Man, and that Robert Downey, Jr. plays him. Even though it was the first one on the Marvel movie timeline, Iron Man brought in $318 million.
Iron Man is an origin story. Tony Stark is living large on the profits from the sales of the weapons that Stark Industries manufactures. In the Middle East, he’s in a ride-along that goes bad and winds up a captive of a terrorist organization. Guess whose weapons they’re using? Yep, Stark Industries. The terrorists want Stark to make weapons for them. Meanwhile, Tony, and his roommate, realize he’s got shrapnel that’s headed toward his heart. With the parts and tools they’re given, they come up with the arc reactor, and a very primitive Iron Man suit.
Iron Man is a really, really good movie. Its grounded style and character-driven story is a far cry from the slick action of Iron Man 3. While both movies work well, Iron Man shows Tony’s evolution from a playboy to a hero in a realistic and touching way.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? No.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Although Dr. Bruce Banner was played by a different actor than the one who stars in later movies, The Incredible Hulk is still considered canon, and part of Phase 1. Edward Norton (Fight Club) played Banner, the scientist who gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “go green” when he gets angry.
Although The Incredible Hulk wasn’t a huge success, the movie turned out better than fans had expected. We were all a bit wary after Ang Lee’s ponderous version came out in 2003. The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier, got mixed reviews that were mostly positive. However, it only took in $134 million in domestic gross. That may seem like a lot, but compare it to Iron Man, which was released the same year, and took in $318 million.
The Incredible Hulk is the Hulk’s origin story. Dr. Banner is exposed to gamma radiation, which turns him into a rage monster when he gets angry. While he’s trying to create a cure, the military is pursuing him, hoping to turn him into their own weapon.
The Incredible Hulk is part of the overall cannon of the Marvel movie timeline, meaning, its storyline is continued in later movies. For instance, in The Avengers, Dr. Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) mentions that the last time he turned into the Hulk he “broke Harlem,” referring to the story of The Incredible Hulk.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? No.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
I didn’t like Iron Man 2, but it brought in $312 million, only $6 million less than the first one, so someone liked it.
In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark is under pressure from the government to divulge the secrets to his flying suit of armor. He is resistant, because he fears the information will fall into the wrong hands. Meanwhile, a Russian scientist, Ivan Vanko, wants revenge on Stark for sins of Tony’s father against his own father. Vanko builds a suit that has electrified whips on both hands, which earns him the name Whiplash. Pepper Potts and James “Rhodey” Rhodes stand by Tony. Plus, we lay eyes on Black Widow for the first time; she was sent by Nick Fury to watch over Tony.
Iron Man 2 was good, but it suffered from too many villains, too many storylines. The final showdown came off as ridiculous, because not enough time was spent building up to it. The focus was split and so neither storyline received the attention it needed.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes. Iron Man.
Thor was a very different movie from the Iron Man movies. Kenneth Branaugh, who is known for directing successful Shakespeare adaptation, was brought in to stage and bring life to a story that could have been very stilted. He succeeded. But, of all the Avengers, Thor is probably the least beloved, so the box office draw was only $181 million domestically.
At the beginning of Thor, Odin, the king of Asgard, is about to hand the throne to his son, Thor. However, Thor is still too irresponsible and immature, so Odin decides to reign a little longer. After his angry outburst, Thor is banished, along with this hammer, to Earth. He must become worthy enough to lift the hammer before he can return.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? No.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger is a movie that’s overlooked when it comes to great Marvel movies. It’s set in the ’40s, and has an old-fashioned style. It’s also character-driven, spending time on Steve Rogers before he underwent the experiment that turned him into a super-soldier. Perhaps the old-fashioned style and slow pace, especially compared to the wham-bam fights of later Marvel movies, makes people think it’s not worth watching. They’re very wrong.
Captain America: The First Avenger tells the tale of the little guy from Brooklyn who wanted to serve his country. His bravery and good heart made him the perfect “specimen” for an army experiment. The experiment worked, making Rogers bigger, stronger and faster than a regular man. After a tour as a performing monkey, he finally ends up in Europe, defending his country and saving the lives of dozens of men, who were held captive by the Red Skull.
While the last two Captain America movies have been the best of all the Marvel movies, this quiet origin story only took in $176 million.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? No.
The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers was the movie Marvel fans had been waiting for. The previous movies, that starred single superheroes, were just the appetizer to the main superhero meal. Marvel did not disappoint. The Avengers was a huge hit, bringing in a whopping $623 million.
In The Avengers, Loki shows up on Earth and steals the Tesseract, an alien cube that gives unlimited power. Nick Fury and Black Widow, of S.H.I.E.L.D., bring in Dr. Banner to find the cube, and Steve Rogers to bring down Loki and rescue Hawkeye, who is under Loki’s spell. Iron Man and Thor appear in the midst of the fight. Fury works to bring them all together to form the Avengers, just in time for an epic battle with aliens.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? You can watch Avengers on its own, but you will be MUCH better informed if you have seen all the previous movies. You can skip The Incredible Hulk, if you want to save time.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
With The Avengers, Marvel had perfected their movie formula (in no small part because of director Joss Whedon). The combination of action and small, character-centered moments would become the general formula for all Marvel movies from this point forward.
In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark is grappling with, essentially, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was the only Avenger who went into space and saw the enormous alien army that they had been up against. He knows just how close they came to losing in New York. Meanwhile, the Mandarin comes gunning for Tony, and he must defend himself and figure out the Mandarin’s end game before it’s too late.
After Iron Man 3 debuted, there was a lot of speculation about whether Robert Downey, Jr. would hang up his iron helmet, or sign on for other Marvel movies. Lucky for us, the money is just too good to turn down. RDJ now gets a big cut of each movie, and Iron Man 3 racked up $403 million at the box office.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes. Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Avengers.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
With Marvel’s reputation for making hit movies firmly secured, Thor: The Dark World premiered to a built-in audience. While Thor still isn’t as popular as Iron Man or Captain America, The Dark World saw a higher box office draw than Thor, jumping from $181 million to $206 million in domestic gross.
In Thor: The Dark World, we meet the Dark Elves, a race who looks to take over all the realms, starting with Asgard. Thor is thrust into a leadership role, and even calls on Loki, who has been imprisoned for his shenanigans in The Avengers.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes. Thor and Avengers.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
By far, the best film on the Marvel movie timeline is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This movie just knocks it out of the park. There’s character development, which is hard to squeeze in when there’s a ton of action. Plus, the events of The Winter Soldier cause the entire Marvel ‘verse, including TV’s Agents of SHIELD, to pivot. The Russo brothers, the directors, used handheld cameras to shoot the action, which gave it a very gritty, grounded feel. Captain America: The Winter Soldier took in $259 million at the box office.
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America and Black Widow are working for SHIELD. But after they suffer a personal and professional setback, all hell breaks loose. Captain America and Black Widow end up on the run from SHIELD, recruiting veteran Sam Wilson to help them battle an unseen enemy.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes. Captain America: The First Avenger and Avengers.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy seemed like a gamble. Sure, Marvel was producing hit after hit, but Guardians starred an untested (at the time) leading man, as well as characters very few people had ever heard of. Plus, the whole movie had a completely different vibe from the other films on the Marvel movie timeline. And it’s set in space!
Turns out, Guardians of the Galaxy was a big hit, with $333 million in domestic gross. Guardians has a 91% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Chris Pratt became the action star after Hollywood saw him play Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord. And a sequel was greenlighted pretty quickly.
Why Guardians of the Galaxy? The one thread through all of these movies is the Infinity Stones. These stones have special powers. One guy in particular wants them all: Thanos. He was behind Loki’s army in The Avengers, and he’s the bad guy behind the bad guy in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Peter Quill steals a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan, a powerful villain. With a target on his back, Quill is forced to ally himself with a gang of misfits: Rocket, a gun-toting raccoon; Groot, a tree-like humanoid; the deadly and secretive Gamora; and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer. After they discover what the orb can do, they band together to fight Ronan and save the universe.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? No. It would help if you watched Avengers, just to get a taste of Thanos, but it is by no means required.
Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015)
By the spring of 2015, it had been a year since we laid eyes on any of the Avengers. When we catch up with them in Avengers: Age of Ultron, they’re hunting down Loki’s sceptor, which takes them to a made-up country called Sokovia. After they retrieve it and take it to Stark Tower, Tony and Bruce start tinkering with it, hoping to create artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, they succeed, in the form of Ultron. Ultron begins a systematic takedown of the Avengers, all while sticking to his secret agenda. In the end, the world suffers a catastrophe, but one that isn’t as big as it would have been, if it weren’t for the Avengers.
This time around, filming the Avengers runs like a well-oiled machine. Joss Whedon directed Ultron, although it was his last film with Marvel; the sheer enormity of it exhausted him. For the most part, critics enjoyed it. Even though audiences were dying for their favorite superhero group, the general public wasn’t as interested. (Maybe they were getting bored with Marvel?) For whatever reason, the movie only grossed $459 million, down nearly $200 million from The Avengers.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes. Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Of all the Marvel movies that have been released so far, Ant-Man was the one everyone was ready to pile on. (Paul Rudd as a superhero?) However, Ant-Man is a solid movie, that just happens to look very little like the Marvel movies that came before. If Ant-Man would have been released before the non-stop action and quip show Avengers, or the slightly darker, but still full of action, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, expectations would have been very different. Ant-Man proved to be a hit with critics, but only brought in $180 million, which is on par with Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger.
Ant-Man introduces us to Scott Lang, a small-time thief who tries to go straight for his daughter. Just when it seems like his old life is sucking him back in, scientist Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man calls on him to do a job. The job turns out to be a test, which Lang passes with flying colors. Pym takes Lang under his wing, training him to be Ant-Man. Pym’s daughter, Hope Van Dyne, helps her dad train Lang, as well. (She will have an important role to play in future Ant-Man movies.) Darren Cross, at Pym Industries, wants to sell the Ant-Man technology to the wrong people, and it’s up to Lang, Pym and Van Dyne to stop him.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? No, but you would be much better informed if you watched Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 3
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The anticipation for Captain America: Civil War was higher than the Stark Tower. Fans were nearly frothing at the mouth to watch Team Cap’ and Team Iron Man battle each other. But the big question was, would it be any good? Even after so many hit movies, there were doubts that a film with so many superheroes would work.
Captain America: Civil War blew away expectations. In just two weeks, Captain America: Civil War raked in over $310 million. Sure, it’s got some flaws, but they’re minor when it comes to the overall picture. I’d say Civil War is better than the Avengers movies, but not as good as The Winter Soldier.
In Captain America: Civil War, a fight in Laos goes wrong and civilians end up dead. Meanwhile, Tony Stark feels guilty over the disaster in Sakovia. He consents to sign the Accords, an agreement between over one hundred countries that would put the Avengers under the control of the government. Captain America chafes at the idea of taking orders from a government who might not have the people’s best interests in mind. A terrorist attack that’s been allegedly orchestrated by the Winter Soldier sets superhero against superhero. Eventually, dark secrets come to light that set the Avengers even further apart.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes. Avengers, Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron. It would help if you watched Ant-Man, but it’s not a requirement.
Doctor Strange (Nov. 4, 2016)
Doctor Strange is an origin story. After a horrible accident, talented surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) must find a new purpose in life. He is mentored by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). A lot of controversy has surrounded Doctor Strange. After it was revealed that Tilda Swinton would play The Ancient One,who is an Asian man in the comic books, the Internet exploded with cries of “whitewashing.” Marvel Kevin Fiege, however, told Deadline, “Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man?” I mean, really, you can’t win.
Doctor Strange raked in $85 million in its opening weekend and easily took the top spot at the weekend box office overall. It’s also very popular with critics, getting a whopping 91% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes.
Doctor Strange is different than the other Marvel movies. The movie was focused on how he got his powers, like other movies before, but Stephen Strange’s trails were more about mastering his inner demons, rather than mastering his outer skills. It’s a character study, more about his development than the action.
The climactic battle was satisfying, because it was realistic. When it came time to fight the bad guys, he wasn’t suddenly amazing at his abilities. He still struggled, and a lot of his success was due to luck and his wits, rather than his newfound powers.
As you might expect, Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Stephen Strange, hitting all the right notes. And although I can understand why people were upset that Tilda Swinton played The Ancient One, rather than an Asian man, I also appreciate that Marvel was trying to give a powerful role to a woman, something that is in short supply in the MCU.
Do I need to see any movies before this one? No. It would help if you saw the previous Avengers movies, just to give you some context when the characters talk about what happened in New York. But there’s nothing that happens within Doctor Strange that’s confusing if you didn’t see the previous movies.
To Be Released
These are future films on the Marvel movie timeline, that have not premiered yet. In the fall of 2015, Marvel laid out their plan for upcoming movies starring the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as stand-alone heroes.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (May 5, 2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (Nov 3, 2017)
Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1 (May 4, 2018)
Black Panther (Feb 16, 2018)
Captain Marvel (Mar 8, 2019)
Avengers: Infinity War, Part 2 (May 3, 2019)
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