We are living in a golden age for superhero movies. On the Marvel movies 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.)

Here’s a Marvel movie timeline for newbies to help you make sense of this universe.

P.S. 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.

P.P.S. If you’re confused by this guide, skip to the bottom where we explain how to read it.

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 Mock 1

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.

The Incredible Hulk

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.

Tony Stark in a Race Car

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 (2011)

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.

Loki and Thor

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

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.

This quiet Captain America origin story only took in $176 million.

Do I need to see any movies before this one? No.

Avengers (2012)

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.  Avengers was a huge hit, bringing in a whopping $623 million.

The Avengers Assemble

In 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? Yes.

  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • Iron Man
  • Iron Man 2
  • Thor
  • The Incredible Hulk (optional)

Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2

With Avengers, the formula for Marvel movies was perfected (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.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

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.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) ©Marvel Studios 2013

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.

Iron Man 3 was an extravaganza of action and special effects. In the hands of a different actor, the movie would have been a runaway train, but RDJ deftly turns from comic to morose and makes it all work. Iron Man 3 has a few great plot twists, to keep you on your toes.

Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes.

  • Iron Man
  • Iron Man 2
  • 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.

Loki in Chains

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.

The movie should have been titled Loki, because Tom Hiddleston runs away with it. Dark characters are frequently more interesting than good guys, which is the case in Thor: The Dark World. That’s not to say Chris Hemsworth doesn’t do his brooding best, but the story turns on Loki’s back story and future intentions.

Thor: The Dark World was a better movie than Thor, simply because both Marvel and Hemsworthy had a better understanding of the Asgardian god. Plus, he could be a god, rather than a rebellious youngster with no powers.

Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes.

  • Thor
  • Avengers

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

By far, the best of the Marvel movies is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This movie just knocks it out of the park. There’s a lot of character development, which is hard to squeeze in when there’s a ton of action. Too frequently Captain America is seen as just a white-bread goodie-goodie. Here, we get to see some of the sadder, darker aspects of his personality. Robert Redford is fantastic in his role as a S.H.I.E.L.D. big wig, and seeing Cap’ runnin’ around with Black Widow is nothing’ but fun. 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.

Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) Ph: Zade Rosenthal © 2014 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

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
  • 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!

Marvel's Guardians Of The Galaxy..L to R: Drax (Dave Bautista), Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)..Ph: Film Frame..?Marvel 2014

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 Marvel movies is finding Infinity Stones. These stones have special powers. One guy in particular wants them all: Thanos. He was behind Loki’s army in 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.

Avengers Age of Ultron Poster

Avengers Age of Ultron Poster

This time around, the movie 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 die-hard fans 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
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Ant-Man (2015)

Of all the Marvel movies that have been released, Ant-Man was the one everyone was ready to pile on. (Paul Rudd as a superhero?) However, Ant-Man was 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 called 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.

Marvel's Ant-Man..Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)..Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal..? Marvel 2014

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.

Paul Rudd was the perfect choice for the thief with a heart of gold. Like Robert Downey, Jr., he’s able to play serious and silly equally well. Sometimes, he does it in the same beat! The rest of the cast is just as delightful, with everyone having their own special moments.

It should be noted that Ant-Man is especially family-friendly, much more so than most Marvel movies.

Do I need to see any movies before this one? No, but you would understand more of the dialog 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 and Iron Man in 'Captain America: Civil War'

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.

Captain America: Civil War starts to explore more of the dark underbelly of what it means to be a superhero. The leads — Cap’, Tony Stark and Winter Soldier — all struggle with their identities, as well as the consequences of their decisions and actions.

Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes.

  • Avengers
  • Iron Man 3
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • 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, which means we find out how he got his powers. 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 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 Teaser Photo

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 focuses on how he got his powers, like other movies before, but Stephen Strange’s trails are 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 is satisfying, because it is realistic. When it comes time to fight the bad guys, he isn’t suddenly amazing at his abilities. He still struggles, and a lot of his success is 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.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (May 5, 2017)

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Star-Lord and his eclectic crew have formed a mercenary team. While on a mission, Rocket steals batteries from an alien race, which makes their ruler rather angry. On their way out of the galaxy, they run into a mysterious man who claims to be Peter’s father. The whole crew gets in on the action and the result is a fast-paced story full of special effects and after-school-special moments. Read my full review.

Peter Quill and Ego the Living Planet

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2..L to R: Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Ego (Kurt Russell)..Ph: Chuck Zlotnick..©Marvel Studios 2017

Do I need to see any movies before this one? Yes.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy

To Be Released

These are Marvel movies 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, which is why the dates reach so far into the future.

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)

How to Read Media Medusa’s Marvel Movies Guide

Phase what? Marvel movies were rolled out in three phases. Think of the phases as acts, as in Act I, Act II and Act III. They categorized them as they went, using big plot points to decide which phase in which to include a movie. For instance, Phase 2 kicked off after aaaaallllll the Avengers came together.

Title (Date) Simply the title of the movie and the date it was released.

Star Rating Our opinion of the movie, out of five stars.

Text Some background information, a synopsis and a short review of each movie.

Do I need to see… We let you know which Marvel movies to see before the one in question. You might not need to see any Marvel movies before some of them.

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See the whole Marvel Movie Timeline for the MCU