A handy binge guide…
UPDATED 3/27/20: With so many people stuck at home, it seemed like a good idea to re-present this piece that was originally posted in 2018 in anticipation of Avengers: Infinity War. It was updated in 2019 in advance of Avengers: Endgame. The preamble and setup I’ve left mostly unchanged other than some tweaks because thematically they still work and I want readers to know how this story came about. Obviously, seeing Infinity War is paramount before seeing Endgame. But what of the rest? Read on…
ADDED 4/27/19: 13 QUICK THOUGHTS on AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Click here.
The other day, my friend Ruth told me that she’d never seen a Marvel movie. Knowing Ruth, who travels in a completely different pop-culture orbit than I do, this didn’t really surprise me. Except it did.
Since 2008 and, especially since 2011, the Marvel Studios movies, comprising the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have become increasingly ubiquitous. Even hopping around cable, it’d be hard not to come across one of the Avengers movies or maybe Guardians of the Galaxy or one of the three Iron Man movies.
But Ruth said she’d be game to get caught up — only she didn’t really know which ones to watch.
Sure, it’s tempting to say, “Start at the beginning and watch them all,” but that’s not realistic — nor, in some cases, desirable. And now the biggest one of them all is coming —
Avengers: Infinity War Avengers: Endgame.
So I decided to come up with a guide to help people get ready for it. In other words, here are the movies to watch — and the ones to skip — over the next couple of weeks:
Brief, but Important, History Lesson
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (aka MCU) is a series of interconnected movies revolving around the Avengers, Marvel’s preeminent super-team. They are produced by Marvel Studios, which is owned by Disney. This doesn’t include the X-Men or Fantastic Four movies, even though those are Marvel characters. Why not? It’s kind of complicated but basically, the film rights to those characters are owned by Fox. So don’t expect Hugh Jackman to show up as Wolverine in any of these. (Though, that could happen in the future if the Disney-Fox merger goes through, and … y’know what? Forget it. Let’s move on.) Spider-Man, arguably Marvel’s best-known character, wasn’t originally part of the MCU either. More on that later. (UPDATED: The merger went through but there’s still no clarity on when those other characters could show up in the MCU.)
What We’re Talking About
When deciding whether to recommend watching or skipping each of these movies, I decided to focus on what you need to see before Infinity War (and Endgame), a massive, Star Wars-ish event. These movies are HUGE. So if you want to be a part of it — and not fear getting lost while watching it — then that’s where this list will help you most. (You’ll even see that I recommend skipping some of my faves. That’s OK. I’ll explain as we go.)
The Big Plot
Each movie has its own plot and can for the most part be viewed on its own terms. But there’s a larger, overarching storyline involving an interstellar Really Bad Guy named Thanos, who is seeking to collect six cosmically powered gems called Infinity Stones. If he gets all six, it is Game Over. Many of the Infinity Stones show up individually in various movies. Just roll with it.
Always watch these movies all the way through the credits. Marvel Studios relishes tucking in little story tidbits and payoffs in the middle of the credits and at the end. It’s a studio calling card and a lot of fans get as excited about these as they do the rest of the movie.
Are There Spoilers?
Yes. But mostly mild ones.
Here’s a guide to what to WATCH and what to SKIP, in chronological order, which is important:
Iron Man (2008). This is where the series starts. Since the franchise was in its infancy, this is largely a standalone film, with no references to Infinity Stones or anything like it. (It does, however, introduce SHIELD, Marvel’s resident superspy agency. It’s led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who is assisted by Phil Coulson, played by Clark Gregg.) Robert Downey Jr.’s got enough charisma to power dozens of armored suits and his Iron Man is one of the central characters of the entire franchise. Since this is still the best of his solo movies, this is definitely a WATCH.
The Incredible Hulk (2008). Most definitely SKIP. Hell, Marvel Studios pretty much pretends it didn’t happen. Edward Norton, who starred as the Hulk’s alter ego, Bruce Banner, was replaced almost immediately after the movie was released. It’s not a bad movie, just not really relevant. For completists or Hulk fans only.
Iron Man 2 (2010). Marvel was still just getting its sea legs. It took two years to release three movies, and one of them was a sequel. This one is considered by many to be the MCU’s low point. It does introduce Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Rhodey. But the only real reason to watch is Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer. SKIP.
Thor (2011). Things start to pick up again here. Chris Hemsworth is the titular God of Thunder and his prime adversary is Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, whom many consider the MCU’s best villain. (He shows up a lot.) There’s also a cosmic-powered cube called the Tesseract, which turns out later to be an Infinity Stone. Jeremy Renner gets a cameo as Hawkeye. The movie’s uneven, but there’s a lot to see, so I say WATCH. (However, if you’re pressed for time, The Avengers catches you up pretty nicely.)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). OK, now we’re really cooking. Chris Evans plays Captain America with such stout dignity and strength that it’s like watching Christopher Reeve as Superman all over again. A lot of what happens in this one gets you ready for what happens after — but it still stands on its own as a World War II-set period piece. WATCH, for sure.
The Avengers (2012). Until Infinity War, this was the high-water mark for the entire franchise. Everything Marvel set up in the first five movies gets paid off here, while also setting up the Thanos-driven storylines to come. In an inspired casting change, Mark Ruffalo is now Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk. A completely winning film and the first time I saw it was one of the best times I’ve ever had at the movies. WATCH.
Iron Man 3 (2013). Better than the second one, not as good as the first. Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin is the best part of what is an often entertaining but sometimes listless movie. Downey’s cocky industrialist Tony Stark deals with some of the emotional fallout of The Avengers but you can pretty much SKIP this one.
Thor: The Dark World (2013). Dour, dull and largely forgettable. Most agree that this and Iron Man 2 are the weakest of the MCU films. A rare misfire. SKIP.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The MCU’s single best solo film. A lot of the Marvel movies fit into secondary genres — and this one is superhero-movie-as-paranoid-espionage-thriller. Doesn’t have much to do with the Thanos stuff, but it’s loaded with SHIELD. A great movie and in many respects the best of them all. Superb. WATCH.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). The MCU moves away from the Avengers for the first time, with a space-faring comedy adventure featuring a ragtag crew of interstellar criminals, led by Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. People love this movie. I only like it. But it does play a lot with the whole Infinity Stones/Thanos storyline — and it’s fun. WATCH.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Boy, this one’s tough. The longer it’s been since I first saw it, the less I care about Age of Ultron. If you’re really enjoying yourself and have the time, then do check it out. It does help set up other storylines, introduces Paul Bettany’s Vision and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, and you get to see a lot of relationship development among the heroes — chiefly, it deepens the divide between Iron Man and Captain America. When it comes down to it, though, you can SKIP.
Ant-Man (2015). Remember what I said about other genres these movies play with? Well, this is superhero-movie-as-heist-flick. Ant-Man mostly stands on its own, so for the purposes of getting ready for Infinity War, I say SKIP. But it’s really a kick — and it stars the always-charming Paul Rudd — so by all means go back and check it out when you have the time.
Captain America: Civil War (2016). Also known (unofficially) as Avengers 2.5. If Captain America is the MCU’s heroic heart, then Iron Man is its irreverent soul. But by this point, things have become increasing strained between the two and they — and many of their colleagues — are forced to take sides over an international push to get them to agree to government regulation. If that sounds like heavy stuff for a superhero franchise, it is, but it makes perfect sense in the telling, especially given how the franchise has developed to this point. Civil War doesn’t have much to do with Infinity Stones, but it has everything to do with how our heroes act and interact with each other. We’re also introduced to Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and … Spider-Man! (Thanks to a deal between Disney and Sony, Spidey’s now where he belongs — in the MCU.) WATCH.
Doctor Strange (2016). Benedict Cumberbatch plays the MCU’s Sorceror Supreme, though I’ll never understand why the producers insisted on making him an American. He is in the comics, but so what? Who doesn’t want to hear Cumberbatch speak with his natural British accent? One of the MCU’s most interesting-looking movies and it moves the Infinity Stones story forward but it’s not a vital entry. It’s enjoyable but you can SKIP. You can always go back later. (This theme repeats itself for the next few movies, to varying degrees.)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). More fun with the misfits. Kurt Russell shows up. I like it. If you liked the first one, you’ll like it too. (I actually liked this one better.) But for now, you can SKIP it. It’ll still be there when you have time later.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). Remember Tobey Maguire? Remember Andrew Garfield? They have nothing to do with this movie. This is a complete and total reboot, with Tom Holland as Peter Parker, picking up from his Civil War cameo. Michael Keaton, back in the world of superheroes, plays the menacing Vulture. Iron Man has a supporting role. The movie has a lot of high points but if you’re prepping for Infinity War (and Endgame), you can SKIP for now and return another time. You have my permission.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017). My God, is this movie funny. The funniest of them all, actually. We just watched it again the other night and it was better than I remembered. It’s a buddy comedy — Thor and Hulk try to escape a planet run by a dictatorial Jeff Goldblum, a sentence that makes me laugh just typing it. For the most part though, you can SKIP it if you’re cramming for Infinity War (and Endgame). Make it a point to come back, though. You’ll be glad you did.
Black Panther (2018). Given its nearly all-black cast and massive box-office haul, Black Panther is the first MCU movie to become a bona fide cultural moment. It’s an excellent film — and was nominated for Best Picture. Black Panther’s nation Wakanda looms large in Infinity War, so definitely WATCH.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018). WATCH, obviously. Endgame won’t have the same emotional resonance if you don’t. Plus, you’ll probably be lost trying to figure out what’s going on.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018). Um. Man. I barely remember what happens in this one. That’s not a good sign, right? It’s a likeable movie but not essential. SKIP.
Captain Marvel (2019). A lotta people loved this movie. I thought it was… OK. It takes place in the ’90s and (obviously) gives you the back story for Brie Larson’s interstellar ass-kicker. However, all you probably need to know going into Endgame — MILD SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN INFINITY WAR — is that she’s been summoned to help our heroes. I say SKIP — though I imagine the movie will become essential viewing for the direction the MCU is likely to take after Endgame.
OK, got it? That’s nine movies: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War.
You can swing that, right?
So, go have a good time!
And check out the latest trailer for Endgame:
— 13 QUICK THOUGHTS on AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Click here.
— The TOP 13 MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE Movies — RANKED. Click here.
March 28, 2018
This list just proves the point that the Cap movies are consistently the best of the entire MCU canon.
March 28, 2018
Thanks, Chris. It’s really not a contest, is it?
December 31, 2022
I like this list. Although, there are some movies I do like watching on my MCU rewatch.
Iron Man 2
Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Guardians of the Galaxy (I always like to watch the first as an intermission after AOU)
Captain America: Civil War
Avengers: Infinity War
March 28, 2018
What an amazing guide! Thank you Dan – I’ve got the next four weeks planned : ) Ruth
March 29, 2018
Hahahahaha. Happy to be of service.
February 5, 2019
Thank you so much!! I’ve seen a lot of them, but my boyfriend hasn’t even seen the first Avengers movie yet, and I’ve been trying to find a way to catch him up on the Avengers side of things. We’ve seen the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, Dr. Strange and Black Panther and he absolutely loved them. But all the other lists were way too long. I’m glad I can share the other great movies that don’t really advance the plot after we see Infinity War.
April 12, 2020
I like this, seen now all the Infinity Saga and is trying to cut them down to watch it quicker so I agree with this list, but I added Ragnarok for Thor and Hulk’s story for Infinity War and Endgame. Avengers 1 is my favorite MCU movie.
December 13, 2019
Great list but Ant-Man and Wasp have an important tie-in
December 29, 2019
I’d argue that Thor Rangnarok has a pretty important tie in too given infinity war literally picks up from where it ends. I feel without knowing the end of Thor you’d have no idea what’s happening at the start of Infinity War. It’s definitely a must watch in terms of continuity.
March 27, 2020
I love the Captain America movies but I think “Civil War” was a huge misfire. The combination of light hearted wisecracks and superheroes in concentration camps doesn’t work for me. It’s my least favorite MCU movie.
March 18, 2022
I disagree, what you disliked is actually what made it great. Reminders of how good of friends they were juxtaposed against the necessary violence from each sides convictions made it difficult to watch and difficult not to watch.
March 28, 2020
By now, Marvel has amassed an incredible film library.
March 28, 2020
At this point, I’m pretty much done with the Marvel movies. I routinely don’t see them anymore in the theatre even before the COVID shut everything down. My biggest beef and this may sound odd but I can’t stand how every scene the hero jumps into they are ripping their masks, helmets etc off so we can be sure we are seeing the actor’s face. And, while the stories aren’t true cannon and are more dark than I care for seeing, the DC show Titans I have loved. Simply because they aren’t afraid to show the heroes as they would appear in the comics.
But, I will say I still love watching over and over the following:
Cap 1 – even though they wasted story material to rush him to the present,
Ironman 1 and 2 – the first is my favorite of the three. I’ve only seen the third one once.
Avengers 1 – When they take on Loki, that scene was fantastic.
Thor 1 – good even without the helmet. Jane Foster’s character is little too much. But, Asgard….that was great.
Dr. Strange – looked like it was right out of a Ditko page
Cap II – was okay. Never a fan of the retrocon of Bucky.
Cap Civil War – was okay though not a fan of heroes fighting heroes
April 27, 2020
I wanted to express my appreciation for taking the time to post such a thorough list. I haven’t seen Marvel movies until day before yesterday. Decided due to COVID-19 it was a fantastic time to binge the movies in chronological order. This helped me so much. Skipped a few but was great to know what to continue watching, and what I can skip and go back and watch. SO HELPFUL!!
April 27, 2020
Glad to be of service! Stay well!
May 28, 2020
If you REALLY want to understand the movies you have to watch all of them. I just watched all of them and the are the best movies ever. Watch the first Avengers movie for sure. Also something in Endgame has to do with Iron Man 3.
June 25, 2020
You are totally right ant man and the wasp is pritty important as well because of the end of it and also watch the end of all the movies because their is a little clip at the end of every film of what the next movie is going to be like.
November 29, 2020
I’m just on Dark World and thought about skipping it after reading this, but glad I’ve watched it. That and Iron Man arnt bad films at all.
January 20, 2022
Don’t make a suggestion such as skipping The Incredible Hulk. This movie at least gives a more accurate portrayal of the character and his essence
May 10, 2021
We just finished Civil War; now on to Black Panther. Thanks for the helpful list.
August 17, 2022
Antman and the Wasp is definitely not a skip. It explains the Quantum Realm before Endgame.