Dr. Bryan Carr provides some guidance on how newcomers should approach the MCU.
So it’s happened. You’ve decided to jump into the height of superhero hype with the impending release of Avengers: Endgame this month after years of your friends, family, co-workers, and random passers-by extolling the virtues of Marvel’s connected universe and its complex meta-narrative. You even booked tickets for the opening weekend!
Only one problem – you haven’t…actually…seen any of the movies. Or maybe you did, but you can’t remember who’s done what to whom or who that big purple guy is and why everyone you know is so mad at him.
Don’t feel bad. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of those rare pop culture phenomena that’s as byzantine as it is broad-based in its appeal, requiring the viewer to keep track of dozens of characters and their interweaving relationships across countless hours of film and television. Ideally, if you can, watching all these movies in release order is the best way to emulate the experience as the studio intended. Of course, given the hectic pace of modern life and the inconsistent availability of these films on convenient streaming services, that can be tough.
So, as the self-appointed Chair of Superhuman Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay and advisor to our Mass Media program in the Communication department, I will do my best to guide you through the over forty-five hours of film that presages the grand finale of Endgame (though not of the MCU as a whole, which will likely continue until the heat death of the universe). To that end, I have sorted all 21 movies into Must-Sees, Catch ‘Em If You Have Time, and Safe Skips based on the completely scientific and objective factors of how much they tie into the MCU narrative/Endgame itself (and whether they’re any good or not).
Trust me. I’m a doctor.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Billionaire industrialist gets blown up by his own weapons and then has to make a robot onesie to help him right the wrongs that he’s brought upon the world. Jeff Bridges is a bad guy, but is also still Jeff Bridges.
IS IT GOOD? Yeah. It’s pretty solid, even if some of its politics haven’t aged particularly well (and arguably weren’t great back then). RDJ is a tour de force and it’s not hard to see why this movie launched a multi-billion dollar mega franchise. It’s easily the best of the three Iron Man solo films.
WHY IT MATTERS: Honestly, it’s an edge case and it makes the “must see list” just because it’s the start of everything else as well as setting up SHIELD and the concept of the Avengers in its post-credits scene. More importantly, however, it sets up Tony Stark’s mentality as an “engineer first, worry about the fallout later” guy – which is pivotal to the rest of the franchise.
Captain America: The First Avenger
It’s World War 2, and sickly Brooklyn artist Steve Rogers laments that he can’t fight for his country – until a scientific experiment turns him into a superhuman soldier with a cool shield and a cooler theme song.
IS IT GOOD? It’s great. Joe Johnston, who famously directed The Rocketeer for Disney back in 1991, brings a similar throwback sepia-infused style to the film. Chris Evans proves in this film that he is Captain America, and Hayley Atwell is fantastic as Agent Peggy Carter, who sadly doesn’t have much else to do in the movies but got her own pretty swell TV show.
WHY IT MATTERS: It’s a fun movie, but more importantly it sets up the Tesseract (which is later revealed to be one of the Infinity Stones arch-baddie Thanos is after and keeps showing up like a bad penny throughout the franchise) and there’s one particular bit of Infinity War and presumably by extension Endgame that won’t make sense unless you watch this.
Director Joss Whedon takes all of Marvel’s best action figures and flies them around for two hours making lots of explosion sounds with his mouth.
IS IT GOOD?: It’s incredibly entertaining, even if parts of it haven’t aged well (and the cracks in Whedon’s feminist bona fides were starting to show). Seeing a great cast play iconic characters and team up in some of the best superhero action scenes put to film doesn’t hurt, either.
WHY IT MATTERS: Think of all the Avengers films as a sub-series onto themselves. If you want to understand Endgame, you really should start at the beginning, and the big reveal of who’s really behind Loki’s invasion of Earth sets everything else into motion.
Guardians of the Galaxy
A rag-tag team of D-list cosmic Marvel heroes unite to save the galaxy from a terrorist zealot. More importantly, this is the movie that proved Marvel Studios could make anything work – including a gun-crazy raccoon and his giant tree friend of few words.
IS IT GOOD? It’s fantastic, even if some of its jokes land with a thud. Writer-director James Gunn brings his off-kilter comedic sensibilities to the fore without sacrificing genuine emotional development, managing to develop a team of also-rans into one of the most popular groups in all of superhero cinema. Great performances and some genuinely emotionally affecting moments – the Nova Corps’ last stand on Xandar in particular gets me every time.
WHY IT MATTERS: This movie is crucial to establishing the family dynamics that will inform the Infinity War/Endgame duology, and is our first real and complete look at what the Infinity Stones are and what they are capable of. Plus, Rocket Raccoon’s emotional arc has been one of the most strangely moving and fulfilling in the entire meta-franchise and it starts here, likely to pay off in a big way in Endgame. Oh yeah, you get some Thanos and some hints toward his greater ambition in here too.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
The Avengers reunite to take down a robotic James Spader who spends five minutes on the Internet and decides humanity must be eradicated. This isn’t a joke. It is the actual plot.
IS IT GOOD? No. It’s actually pretty bad by MCU standards. There’s good things in it, to be sure. Yet Ultron is arguably the pinnacle of the studio interference and overreach that plagued some of the MCU’s first half, anchored by a poorly-conceived and borderline offensive Black Widow subplot, a bunch of characters who exist primarily to set up other movies, and a decision to give Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye a family that will likely deny us a proper adaptation of Matt Fraction’s sublime Hawkeye comics run (though hopefully the reported Kate Bishop streaming series could fill that niche).
WHY IT MATTERS: Unfortunately, as a result of all that padding it also matters a lot to the larger narrative, setting up most of the major plot threads for the back half of the MCU. It establishes Klaue and Wakanda for Black Panther, sends Thor and Hulk on respective journeys for Ragnarok, establishes Vision and why he matters for the overall Infinity Stones plot, sets up the Sokovia problem that will echo throughout Civil War and later films, and so much more – it’s the roadmap for Endgame in a lot of ways. C’est la vie.
Captain America: Civil War
Thanks to the Avengers basically destroying a sovereign nation while fighting a swarm of murderbots, the UN asks if the team would kindly sign an accord and register themselves as government agents. Tony Stark says yes, Steve Rogers says no, and now our dads are fighting.
IS IT GOOD? Yes, if a bit overstuffed. It tries to do a lot of heavy lifting from the narrative side of things, including giving us our first look at Black Panther, working Spider-Man into the MCU storyline after a deal was settled with Sony Pictures to use the character, and giving us a lengthy superhero brawl in that most exciting of comic book locales, a German airport. At its best, Civil War is a thought-provoking examination of the limitations of the superhero in a real-world context as well as an occasionally powerful character study, with Daniel Brühl playing one of the most complex, tragic (and successful) antagonists in the series.
WHY IT MATTERS: The film sets up the fractured relationship between Iron Man and Captain America that informs key scenes in Infinity War and will result in undoubtedly a powerful reunion moment in Endgame. Understanding where these pillars of the Avengers are at mentally and emotionally will be helpful to raising the dramatic stakes for Endgame.
Thor goes on a quest, only to come back and find his brother is up to his old tricks, his dad is dead, and the terrible sister he’s never met is taking over the kingdom while he’s stranded on a literal garbage planet. He also runs into an old friend.
IS IT GOOD? Yes. Heavens yes. It is the best MCU movie. Director Taika Waititi brings the goofy charm and heart of his indie films What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople to the MCU, treating Thor’s story like a quirky indie comedy with occasional big budget punch-ups and some sly sociopolitical commentary. Hemsworth truly comes into his own in the title role, Tessa Thompson is fantastic as Valkyrie, Cate Blanchett manages to make Hela both hilarious and horrifying, and Jeff Goldblum is operating at peak Goldblum. Couple that with some great new characters (Korg the failed revolutionary is an all-timer) and visuals that come straight from a Jack Kirby comic and I could watch it all day every day.
WHY IT MATTERS: It literally sets up the events of Infinity War and we may be seeing some of Ragnarok’s heroes come back for Endgame. Even if it didn’t, it’d be on the Must-See list because it’s the best one. Maybe also add What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople to your MCU catchup list too while you’re at it.
T’Challa, the newly-crowned king of the hidden African nation of Wakanda and our title hero, must grapple with the legacy of his father and his country when the mistakes of the past come to his nation’s borders.
IS IT GOOD? Of course it is. The only MCU film to win an Academy Award (multiple, in fact, as well as a nomination for Best Picture), there’s no denying the impact this film had on audiences around the world. It’s a rare superhero movie with something important to say, in this case about colonialism and the African diaspora, and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger transcends the Marvel villain role to become something truly special and thought-provoking. Couple that with some stunning action scenes and a great soundtrack, and it’s a winner, even with some dodgy CGI.
WHY IT MATTERS: This is an edge case film for the overall narrative but I’m including it on this list because Wakanda is crucial to the setup of Infinity War and smart money suggests some key Wakandan heroes will be part of Endgame too.
Avengers: Infinity War
Intergalactic tyrant Thanos is very close to completing his midlife crisis bucket list and wiping out half of all life in the universe, if only those pesky heroes would stop getting in his way.
IS IT GOOD? This is a film that defies that question. It cannot stand on its own, but as the first part of a two-part finale culminating a decade of films and storytelling it’s exceptional. The Russo Brothers, in their third film for the MCU, demonstrate a clear mastery of the craft and the characters, juggling multiple storylines, heroes, and personalities in a way that must have been beyond daunting but looks effortless. Brolin makes Thanos a seductively compelling figure, hiding his genocidal rhetoric behind a calm and even reasonable exterior, and the CGI work on the big baddie is jaw-dropping. This is a film where dread permeates every frame, culminating in a stunning finale that is still haunting a year later.
WHY IT MATTERS: This is the first half of Endgame. You kind of have to see it.
A mysterious woman claiming to be part of a race of noble warriors from outer space crash lands in 1995 California in search of their long-time antagonists, the Skrulls…but who is this Carol Danvers person, and why does she look so familiar?
IS IT GOOD? It somehow took Marvel 11 years to make a movie with a woman in the lead, but it was mostly worth the wait. It’s not the top tier of the MCU – there are some questionable pacing issues, editing and camera movement that make early fight scenes borderline incomprehensible, and some plot expositions that could use time to breathe – but Brie Larson embodies the title role in a clever and understated way, and the supporting cast is great (check out the digital de-aging on Samuel L. Jackson). Moreover, it’s a film that has something to say about the female experience and how those in power can twist the truth to their own ends – even though it’s set in 1995, it’s unquestionably a film of the moment.
WHY IT MATTERS: As the star of the final MCU film before Endgame, it’s pretty clear Captain Marvel is going to be really important to whatever scheme the heroes come up with to stop Thanos.
CATCH ‘EM IF YOU CAN
Arrogant son of the advanced alien civilization of Asgard falls to earth and has to learn to become a more humble, selfless hero in order to wield his powers again. Enjoy Natalie Portman’s endearing performance while you can.
IS IT GOOD? It’s better than it gets credit for. Director Kenneth Branagh brings a pseudo-Shakespearean flavor to the proceedings, the production design on Asgard’s buildings, weapons, and armor is great, and there’s some fun fish-out-of-water material. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is the standard-bearer for Marvel villains – as you’ll see, he’s in these movies a lot.
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO CATCH IT: Much like Iron Man, this is an edge case but I’m recommending it for establishing the fraught relationship between Thor and Loki, which is another consistent throughline that provides these movies with some of their best moments – especially in Infinity War. Still, its importance to the overall plot is relatively minimal.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America, a man out of time in a world he’s still trying to understand, becomes embroiled in a deadly conspiracy when his former best friend returns from the dead with a sweet robot arm.
IS IT GOOD? It’s great! Put the pitchforks down! Honestly it’s exceptional, with some stunning fight scenes and performances. It’s also the first Marvel film to really interrogate the foundation on which it is built, with a second-act reveal that calls into question everything you knew about the series on both a textual and meta-textual level. Many consider this to be the best Marvel film – I disagree, but it’s certainly in the conversation. It also made Agents of SHIELD must-watch TV for the first time, so it’s got that going for it.
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO CATCH IT : Honestly, for the greater narrative, it’s only crucial to provide some backstory on the Winter Soldier and why he will eventually become the wedge issue between Captain America and Iron Man, but you can glean most of that from Civil War.
Paul Rudd plays Paul Rudd, but with the ability to shrink down to microscopic size and talk to ants.
IS IT GOOD? It’s an incredibly entertaining attempt by Marvel to play in other genre sandboxes – in this case a heist film – with lower stakes. Some great sight gags, an entertaining supporting cast (Michael Peña and Evangeline Lilly in particular are highlights) and arguably the best and goofiest final battle of any MCU film.
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO CATCH IT: It doesn’t do much for the overall Thanos-Infinity Stones narrative and is mostly self-contained apart from one significant Avenger cameo, but if you want to know more about Ant-Man and why he’s likely going to be a crucial part of the “stop Thanos” plan this is a good place to start.
Doctor Stephen Strange is the world’s most accomplished surgeon until a horrific car accident shatters his hands and leaves him penniless and wandering until he finds a mystic city promising to heal his hands with magic – or perhaps make him the world’s greatest sorcerer. You know. That old story.
IS IT GOOD? It’s pretty good, even if a lot of MCU fans don’t think much of it. Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine Doctor Strange and there are some astounding visuals in the film (watch it in the highest resolution and on the biggest screen you can). The filmmakers attempt to deal with the creeping Orientalism that has long been a part of Strange’s character to mixed results, and I’d be remiss not to mention the whitewashing controversy that surrounded the film. That said, it’s a fun detour in the MCU and has one of the other best confrontations in the franchise, wherein the hero resolves the main problem with wit and sacrifice rather than explosions and punching (and a city is literally put back together in the process).
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO CATCH IT: Strange is a pretty big deal in Infinity War, and the film reveals another one of the Infinity Stones and what it is capable of – that said, it’s not clear how big a role he will play in Endgame and you can more or less pick up what he’s able to do in the other films.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2
Having already saved the galaxy, our favorite ersatz family of space weirdos runs afoul of a mysterious and powerful being named Ego, who may not be all he seems.
IS IT GOOD? Anecdotal review of MCU fan opinion on this film is that it’s lesser than the original, but I disagree – I felt the story and its emotional beats are stronger, the villain is more compelling, and the jokes were more consistent. It’s a gorgeous film visually, too, and the ending is a beautiful tearjerker. The new cast members are great too, particularly Pom Klementieff’s Mantis, an underappreciated comedic force in the MCU.
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO CATCH IT: This is a direct sequel to the first Guardians, and it doesn’t really have much to do with anything else – Thanos is barely mentioned and there are no Infinity Stones – so you can probably pass on it if you’re pressed for time. That said, I love Rocket Raccoon’s character arc in these films and so much of what he does in this one informs how he relates to the people around him in Infinity War and presumably Endgame. The movie does a lot of heavy lifting in exploring how our relationships with our parents can shape us, but don’t have to define us – see the surprising twist in the Gamora-Nebula relationship (which is also important to the Infinity/Endgame duology). You also get baby Groot.
Spider-Man deals with teenage angst and superheroics, as well as the world’s weirdest internship.
IS IT GOOD? It’s great, especially if you have an affinity for John Hughes-style teen comedies. Director Jon Watts was open about their influence on the film and it shows in every frame. The cast is great, too – Tom Holland is endlessly charming as Peter Parker, Jacob Batalon and Zendaya are delightful as his friends, and you get some great Tony Stark moments. Michael Keaton plays one of the best antagonists in the entire MCU as the Vulture, though, with a perfect blend of pathos, menace, and comedy. If Into the Spider-Verse didn’t exist, this would be a contender for “best Spider-Man movie”.
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO CATCH IT: Again, this is a largely self-contained film. Apart from the requisite cameos and extended role for Tony Stark, the events of Homecoming don’t influence the overall MCU narrative much. That said, it does provide texture to the relationship between Peter Parker and his mentor/surrogate dad Tony Stark – which echoes into Infinity War and likely Endgame as well.
Ant-Man & the Wasp
Ant-Man is back, and he brought a much more capable and competent friend with him!
IS IT GOOD? It’s good, but not quite as fresh as the original. Mostly this is a self-contained crime caper, with the returning cast sticking to a formula that works and some fun new additions. Hannah John-Kamen is great as Ghost, another fascinating and tragic antagonist, and there are some fun action sequences that really test the limits of the concept of things growing and shrinking. It’s a pleasant diversion that has basically nothing to do with the main franchise…
WHY YOU MIGHT WANT TO CATCH IT: …until the mid-and-post-credits scenes, which take that pleasant diversion and swerve hard to connect to the main narrative to a frankly kind of upsetting degree that feels a little out of place. If you’re really pressed for time, just watch those to know exactly why Ant-Man might be so important to Endgame.
Iron Man 2
The world knows Tony Stark is Iron Man and it turns out that not everyone in the world is okay with that, as the sins of the father come back to haunt his son. But more importantly: franchise building!
IS IT GOOD?: It’s mostly better than it gets credit for but it’s an early example of Marvel trying to do too much in one film. The main story flirts with adopting the harrowing and iconic “Demon in a Bottle” storyline in which Iron Man grapples with alcoholism, but stops short of truly interrogating the concept of a dying man trying to self-medicate while wearing a highly-advanced war suit in favor of more cameos and references to upcoming movies. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell are both pretty fun as the antagonists, though.
WHY YOU CAN SKIP IT: It basically means nothing to the overall storyline, apart from establishing that for all his intelligence and skill, Tony’s still a pretty reckless guy. But you can get that from just about any other movie he’s in on this list.
The Incredible Hulk
Bruce Banner and his giant green id are on the run from the government – at least I think that’s Bruce Banner. He looks different…
IS IT GOOD?: It’s fine. There’s nothing particularly memorable or great about this film. Ed Norton was a promising Bruce Banner but ultimately chafed at being part of the Marvel system and caused friction behind the scenes, so the role was recast with the incredibly charming Mark Ruffalo. It’s a fun movie to see what might have been had he stuck around, but it’s far from essential.
WHY YOU CAN SKIP IT: It’s not that great, and it has zero impact on the overall narrative. Marvel was still figuring stuff out.
Iron Man 3
After the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark is grappling with the limits of his humanity – and his undiagnosed PTSD – while a mysterious terrorist (and yet another mistake from his past) threaten the life he’s building with his now-girlfriend Pepper Potts.
IS IT GOOD?: I go back and forth on this depending on the day. On the one hand, writer-director Shane Black consistently makes some of the best action cinema today and he works incredibly well with Robert Downey, Jr. The two tell a compelling story of the human frailties that make Tony Stark a definitive Marvel character, and there’s a great second-act swerve that cleverly deals with another outdated and culturally insensitive aspect of the source material. On the other hand, the villain is kind of lame, and Black works in pretty much every recurring cliché from his greater body of work (smart-alecky kid, a Christmas setting), as well as a kind of disturbing scene where Stark improvises weapons to storm the villain’s compound. The post-credits tag is funny but not really worth sticking around for.
WHY YOU CAN SKIP IT: See “Iron Man 2” on this list.
Thor: The Dark World
Thor must defend both Asgard and Earth from the threat of some…elves, or something?
IS IT GOOD?: Not really, but its crime is less “being bad” than it is “being forgettable”. There’s some fun action scenes (the last battle is great comic book slapstick) and we get great performances out of the supporting cast – particularly Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings, who make their series curtain calls in this film – but the villain is completely inconsequential to the plot to the point that none of it matters all that much. I’m struggling to figure out what to write about it. I’ll stop here. Go watch Ragnarok instead.
WHY YOU CAN SKIP IT: Apart from introducing another Infinity Stone (which isn’t identified as such until later) virtually nothing that happens in this movie matters for the overall storyline.
By Dr. Bryan Carr
Bryan Carr is an Associate Professor in the Communication, Information Science, and Women’s & Gender Studies departments. Among other things, he is the host and producer of “Serious Fun”, a podcast taking an academic look at popular culture on the Phoenix Studios podcast network.