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A Beginner’s Guide to Every Movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phases 1-3

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) celebrated its tenth birthday in May of 2018 and is a mind-boggling 20+ movies strong When Phase 3 wrapped with Spider-Man: Far From Home. That’s…a lot.

The MCU can be a lot to keep track of…and that gets even more difficult if you mistakenly import non-Marvel properties (well, at least they weren’t at the time) like Deadpool and the X-Men into Marvel’s timeline and universe.

So, we thought we’d lay every movie of the MCU all out for you quick and easy-like. Here are the movies that comprise the MCU to date, along with what each introduced and contributed to the connected narrative that is their shared universe.

Phase One

Iron Man (May 2008)

Iron Man is the movie that started the MCU, although it was still unclear how it would work, as nothing even close to the scale of the MCU had ever been attempted in the history of cinema.

In addition, Iron Man’s greatest contribution to the overall story of the MCU was Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, which was considered very risky casting at the time. Stark’s character, genius, and the technology he introduced to the MCU was all established in this movie.

Yet, the real magic came during a post credit scene, which was absolutely a novelty at the time. That scene introduced Sam Jackson as Nick Fury and the idea of The Avengers Initiative. You also get introduced to James “Rhodey” Rhodes (but not the one we’ll have longterm), Pepper Potts, Agent Coulson, and Happy Hogan, a minor but fan-favorite character.

93% Fresh Tomatoes
$585.2 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Iron Man, Nick Fury
Villain: Obadiah Stane (Iron Monger)

The Incredible Hulk (June 2008)

The Incredible Hulk establishes the basics of the Bruce Banner / Hulk transformation, a little bit of Banner’s own science credentials, and more talk of the Avengers via a Tony Stark cameo in the post-credits scene.

And not much else, really. While the movie isn’t retconned, not much of what you’ll get from The Incredible Hulk is ever really talked about going forward, aside from an occasional appearance of General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross in upcoming movies.

Intellectual property (IP) rights bubble up occasionally in regards to the MCU. Marvel Comics was forced to sell the movie rights to several of their characters when they filed bankruptcy following the 90s comic book bust. As a result, although Marvel purchased back the rights to the Hulk following the 2003 Ang Lee film, Universal Pictures retained the distribution rights, which is thought to have prevented further solo movies starring the Hulk.

Meanwhile, Edward Norton was recast as the Hulk by Mark Ruffalo, who has played him throughout the rest of the MCU.

67% Fresh Tomatoes
$263.4 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Hulk
Villain: The Abomination

Iron Man 2 (May 2010)

Although it isn’t the revelation that the first Iron Man movie was, Iron Man 2 was a solid sequel. From this movie we get the Rhodey we come to know and love as Don Cheadle took the acting helm from Terrance Howard, suiting up in what is called the War Machine armor which will feature occasionally right on through to Infinity War.

But the biggest addition was Scarlett Johansson being introduced as Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow!

73% Fresh Tomatoes
$623.9 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Black Widow, War Machine
Villain: Justin Hammer, Whiplash

Thor (May 2011)

Thor was the MCU’s first trip off-world, giving viewers gods and space in a single film. That’s quite a way to expand a cinematic universe quickly.

While the earlier post-credits scene in Iron Man 2 had Agent Coulson locate Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, popcorn munchers were now able to see Chris Hemsworth bring Thor to life on screen.

We’re also briefly introduced to the Tesseract which we later learn is one of the Infinity Stones, the artifacts that will drive the plot of MCU movies for the years to come.

77% Fresh Tomatoes
$449.3 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Thor, Odin, Heimdall, Hawkeye
Villain: Loki, The Destroyer

Captain America: The First Avenger (July 2011)

The MCU made another tonal shift by giving viewers a 1940s period piece that was gosh-golly wholesome and sincere. The big takeaway was the appearance of Chris Evans playing Steve Rogers aka Captain America.

But you actually get a whole lot in this one: Captain America (obviously), Bucky Barnes is established and then promptly killed (*wink wink*), Peggy Carter, who will go on to star in her own Agent Carter TV series, the Tesseract comes into the possession of SHIELD, and Captain America falls asleep in the Arctic in the 1940s but wakes up in New York in 2011.

80% Fresh Tomatoes
$370.6 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Captain America, Peggy Carter
Villain: Red Skull

The Avengers (May 2012)

Now the Avengers are assembled! Building upon the groundwork laid in 4 years worth of solo movies, the MCU now brought those heroes together to battle a threat that they couldn’t defeat alone.

When Cap, Tony, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye circle together back-to-back, nerds everywhere pumped their fists. And although they had been introduced in previous movies, the heroes were now given a movie where they interacted with one another, something that carried forward as the MCU progressed.

Thanos is also spotted in the post credits scene.

92% Fresh Tomatoes
$1.518 Billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Maria Hill
Villain: Loki, an invading Chitauri army

Phase Two

Iron Man 3 (May 2013)

Coming off the team-up spectacle that was the Avengers, the MCU tightens back up with the 3rd Iron Man solo flick. Interestingly, the movie still made over a billion dollars at the box office despite being a solo film, highlighting the incredible popularity of Robert Downey, Jr’s portrayal of Tony Stark.

The movie didn’t introduce any new heroes, odd for the MCU. But it did do a clever twist on the Madarin, the movie’s perceived villain. Yet, like most MCU movies, the intent is never to make the villain the star, it’s always to shine a spotlight clearly on the heroes.

80% Fresh Tomatoes
$1.214 Billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: None
Villain: AIM, The Mandarin

Thor: The Dark World (November 2013)

As a contrast to the high-tech Tony Stark, the MCU took a gamble by leaning in heavily on the mythic nature of the character of Thor. The Dark World attempted to play up the Norse lore, elevate the language with an element of Shakespearean prose, and give the entire movie a mythic tone.

The gamble didn’t pay off as the movie was one of the remarkably few times that a MCU didn’t score a 80% plus fresh rating. Natalie Portman was just working for a paycheck, the villain had no charm, and the movie lacked the humor and whit that the MCU had already become known for.

It’s a film that is easily skipped, although a post-credits scene does carry forward the story of the Infinity Stones and foreshadow the Guardians of the Galaxy.

66% Fresh Tomatoes
$644.6 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: None
Villain: Malekith, Loki

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April 2014)

An over-looked strength of the MCU is how effortlessly they make radical tonal shifts in their movies. Whereas the first Cap movie was a charming period piece, Captain America: The Winter Soldier took a radical departure toward an action-packed espionage spy thriller.

Featuring an incredibly tight storyline and some of the absolute best fight choreography in all of cinema, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is among the absolute best of the MCU films, which is something to say, considering the MCU is the highest rated movie franchise of all time.

A post-credits scene begins to set up Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, major players in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

89% Fresh Tomatoes
$714.3 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Falcon, Agent 13
Villain: Batroc the Leaper, Winter Soldier, Hydra

Guardians of the Galaxy (August 2014)

Hoo boy, the MCU went gonzo with this movie. It’s almost as if Marvel tried to see how much they could get away with and darned if everything didn’t turn out golden.

Guardians of the Galaxy was not only the most fun MCU movie to this point, but it also introduced the wackiest characters. But the wonderful thing about the movie is that it has an incredible “found family” emotional core that holds everything together.

Yondu, Nebula, Korrath, The Collector, and a hundred more characters make an appearance, cameo, or are placed as an Easter egg in this film. It’s hard to catch everything but the good news is that the movie is so darned entertaining that it begs for repeat viewings.

91% Fresh Tomatoes
$773.3 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Star-Lord, Gamorra, Drax, Rocket Racoon, Groot
Villain: Ronan the Accuser, Thanos

Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 2015)

For a second time, the Avengers assemble. Unfortunately, gone is the novelty of their first time teaming up and the movie also suffers from trying too hard. The humor is forced, the script is too packed. Yet, it’s still pretty darned good, a testament to just how darned good the MCU movies are, because even the stumbles stand head and shoulders above most.

Additionally, this movie is a strong lynchpin for what goes forward. Several new heroes are introduced, Thanos is teased yet again, and many of the emotional beats that are introduced will be born out in later movies.

75% Fresh Tomatoes
$1.405 Billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Vision
Villain: Baron von Strucker, Klaw, Ultron

Ant-Man (July 2015)

The MCU added a heist movie with Ant-Man. Think Oceans 11 meets Honey I Shrunk the Kids but with superheroes.

Ant-Man is another movie that shouldn’t work, yet it does. It is effortlessly funny, every character in the wide cast clicks, and the shrinking powers of Ant-Man added a whole new element to the action.

Both post-credits scenes were pivotal in setting up future movies, one teasing the Wasp and the other setting the stage for Civil War.

82% Fresh Tomatoes
$519.3 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Ant-Man
Villain: Yellowjacket

Phase Three

Captain America: Civil War (May 2016)

Marvel really loves to have their heroes fight each other and they finally brought that to the big screen with Captain America: Civil War. The cast is huge, featuring pretty much every hero introduced at this point. And they fight each other.

Audiences by this point had been investing in the characters for 8 years and a dozen movies. Given the scope of the movie and those aforementioned personal stakes, this is a movie that by all rights should have collapsed under its own weight. But it’s brilliant.

91% Fresh Tomatoes
$1.153 Billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Black Panther, Spider-Man
Villain: Zemo, Crossbones, themselves

Doctor Strange (November 2016)

Again, the Marvel pivots with Doctor Strange and introduces another corner of the MCU: magic. The result is a trippy origin story of the Sorcerer Supreme who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Doctor Strange comes on the heels of the character-packed Civil War, so it serves as much more of a standalone film, although the characters and themes of the movie play a large part of the upcoming couple of years of the MCU.

Doctor Strange also features a clever third act and I’d be remiss if it wasn’t mentioned one more time that the visuals of the movie bring a whole new element to the MCU.

89% Fresh Tomatoes
$677.7 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Doctor Strange, Wong
Villain: Kaecilius, Dormammu

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

Marvel took everything nuts and gonzo about Guardians of the Galaxy and dialed it up to 12 1/2. Vol. 2 featured a similarly killer throwback soundtrack and took viewers to an absurd amount of new locales while also introducing hordes of new characters. The movie features a living planet for heaven’s sake.

It shouldn’t be possible for such a gloriously fun and entertaining movie to contain a powerful emotional core like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has. Again, the Guardians movies are about found family, so while they provide as many laughs as other MCU movies, they also bring the most feels.

Vol. 2 had five post-credits scenes.

83% Fresh Tomatoes
$863.8 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Baby Groot, Mantis
Villain: Ego, Ayesha, Taserface

Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 2017)

Having bought back the rights to their own character from Sony, Marvel now endeavored to re-establish Spider-Man on screen after him being introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Tom Holland took on the role of Peter Parker and, although the movie changed several elements in order to update them for contemporary audiences, I can’t imagine any long-time comic reader being unhappy with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This movie oozes the tone of Spider-Man. It feels like Spider-Man in a way that no other Sony-produced Spider-Man has been able to accomplish.

Spider-Man Homecoming also had a villain story better than the vast majority of superhero films.

92% Fresh Tomatoes
$880.2 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: None
Villain: Vulture

Thor: Ragnarok (November 2017)

The MCU again shifts tone, both from the decent, coming-of-age story that was Homecoming and from what was previously seen in the two earlier Thor movies. Thor: Ragnarok is bonkers. It’s also the most metal movie in the MCU, the dream of Led Zeppelin fans.

It’s funny, it’s action-packed, and it features a glam Cate Blanchett as Hela as well as the ever-quirky Jeff Goldblum. Weaving elements of comic storylines like World War Hulk and Walt Simonson’s iconic 80s run, you can’t summarize this movie, you have to experience this movie, then you’ll immediately want to watch it again.

92% Fresh Tomatoes
$854.0 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Valkarie, Korg
Villain: Hela, Skurge, The Grandmaster, Surtur

Black Panther (February 2018)

After almost 20 movies, any reasonable person would have bet big money that the quality of the MCU movies would have inevitably declined by this point, yet Black Panther is arguably the best of them all, and has legitimately received buzz at award ceremonies.

Black Panther pulled back the curtain on another corner of the Marvel Universe the hidden and advanced African country of Wakanda.

The acting was superb throughout, yet the breakout performance was Michael B. Jordon playing Killmonger, the most charismatic MCU villain yet.

97% Fresh Tomatoes
$1.346 Billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Nakia, Okoye, Shuri, M’Baku
Villain: Killmonger, Klaw

Avengers: Infinity War (April 2018)

Ten years of movies brought viewers to Avengers: Infinity War, the huge story of every known hero in the MCU coming together to battle Thanos the Mad Titan who, once powered by the Infinity Gauntlet, planned to wipe out one half of all life in the universe.

Avengers: Infinity War took audiences to about a dozen crazy locales across the galaxy and juggled a cast of about 100 heroes. There is no logical way that a movie of this scope would be anything other than a convoluted mess, but it was brilliant. It remained the Marvel humor while also being thrilling and emotional.

Designed to end on a cliffhanger, the full arc of the story won’t conclude until the conclusion of Phase 3 of the MCU, which is Avengers: Endgame.

84% Fresh Tomatoes
$2.048 Billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: None
Villain: Thanos, The Black Order

Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 2018)

The success of Ant-Man triggered and sequel, but this Ant-Man has a partner in Hope Van Dyne aka Wasp. Ant-Man faced consequences of his choices in Civil War and while he attempts to rebalance his home life, he receives an urgent new mission.

This features the same great humor as the first Ant-Man movie but it actually dials up the visuals even further, as the shrinking and growing rings a kinetic element to the action sequences.

Wasp was a great addition to the MCU and a post-credits scene cleverly tied the movie into the events of Avengers: Infinity War.

88% Fresh Tomatoes
$622.7 million at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Wasp
Villain: Ghost

Captain Marvel (March 2019)

Captain Marvel was hugely anticipated not only because every Marvel movie is at this point, but also because it is the first MCU movie headlined by a female. The title character is played by Academy Award winner Brie Larson.

The movie is set in the 1990s and introduces the Skrulls, who will be a killer addition to the MCU.

Here is the marketing copy: “Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.”

78% Fresh Tomatoes
$1.1 billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Captain Marvel
Villain: The Kree? The Skrulls?

Avengers: Endgame (May 2019)

This is it, the capstone of first 3 phases of the MCU. It was a major shake-up in Avengers: Endgame. Heroes were taken off the board and many, many more were repositioned.

Just like Avengers: Infinity War (2018), a movie as big and sweeping as Avengers: Endgame had no business being good as it was. But Marvel absolutely stuck the landing and it became the biggest movie of all time.

It’s funny how often a scene of this movie will come to mind mind during casual day-to-day activities. It is absolutely a part of our cultural lexicon.

94% Fresh Tomatoes
$2.8 billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: None
Villain: Thanos, The Black Order

Spider-Man: Far From Home (July 2019)

Marvel likes to have a quieter movie after the big, universe spanning epics. Spider-Man: Far From Home served that purpose, while also serving as the movie that will lead audiences into Phase 4 of the MCU.

It’s yet another billion dollar movie that also scored 90%+ positive. And it earned it. Tom Holland firmly established himself as the best Spider-Man to ever appear on screen and the appearance of Mysterio was a “wonder” for audiences to behold. Not only that, but the movie gave us Night Monkey.

It was a sweet, fitting close to the first 10 glorious years of the MCU.

91% Fresh Tomatoes
$1.13 billion at the Box Office

Marvel Heroes Introduced: Night Monkey
Villain: Mysterio

Good gravy, what a run it had been to that point.

Now click here for the full list of where they go from here!

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