What is the right order of the 22 films?
With the MCU turning 22 films old upon the release of Avengers: Endgame, many fans are using their considerable expertise to guide newcomers through Marvel’s complex timeline. But taking into consideration story flow, chronology, and plain common sense, just what is the best way to enjoy the franchise? With an emphasis on how all the movies link together, and how to have the best viewing experience possible, here’s the order we think is the best.
Captain America: The First Avenger may be the earliest setting the MCU has explored, but the franchise was born with 2008’s Iron Man, and it was Robert Downey Jr. and his genius billionaire playboy philanthropist who became the beating heart of Marvel’s narrative. Almost everything we associate with the MCU begins here: the origin story of the flawed but lovable hero, the graceful interweaving of elements from the larger Marvel narrative, and of course the compulsory post-credits scene, teasing larger things to come. Even if it’s not first in the timeline, the birth of the narrative was Iron Man, and no Marvel movie marathon should begin with anything else.
IRON MAN 2
Iron Man 2 hit theaters two years after The Incredible Hulk, but there a couple of reasons why you should watch Tony and Rhodey take out Whislash’s drones before Ed Norton’s lone MCU feature.
First, although chronology isn’t the most important thing to take into consideration, the events of Iron Man 2 mostly take place before Incredible Hulk. Then again, judging by the news footage of the Hulk’s rampages that can be seen in the background of the film’s penultimate scene, there is at least some overlap between the two movies’ timelines.
Second, and most importantly, with Tony agreeing to become a SHIELD consultant at the end of Iron Man 2, watching this movie first helps make sense of his appearance at the end of the next one.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Instead of a mid or post-credit scene, The Incredible Hulk features a short final scene that tied the events of the movie to the larger Marvel narrative. Considering Lieutenant Ross and Stark’s conversation, it seems likely that the original plan was to follow the trajectory of the comics and have the origin of the Avengers begin with a hunt for the Hulk. After plans changed, however, this scene stuck out like a sore thumb. Marvel’s solution was to release the short film The Consultant on the Thor Blu-ray, which we’ll include as a necessary watch after Incredible Hulk, but before Thor.
As a result, Tony Stark’s fruitless conversation with the General never goes anywhere exactly as “planned” and fits nicely into MCU continuity after all.
Agent Coulson exits the story in Iron Man 2 when a SHIELD assignment calls him to New Mexico. We catch up with him after that film’s credits as he locates Thor’s hammer in the desert, marking the first time a Marvel post-credit scene directly overlapped with an upcoming film. It’s also one of the reason s shifting Iron Man 2’s placement helps during a marathon. Otherwise, Thor follows Iron Man 2 immediately. This way, however, you get the tease of the hammer at the end of Iron Man 2 and are made to wait through Incredible Hulk for the tantalizing payoff. It’s also worth considering that Thor and Captain America should be watched back-to-back. Not only because they contrast wonderfully in their settings and each kick off in Norway, but also because the two movies work together to launch the cosmic side of the MCU with a basic concept: that science and magic could be seen as “one and the same.”
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
A lot of Marvel fans will tell you that Captain America: The First Avenger should be watched first since most of its story takes place first chronologically. But the movie is fine right where it is, coming after Thor doesn’t let anyone tell you differently. To really understand this movie’s place in the franchise, it’s important to take into account what happens to Cap at the end of the film. Without the Iron Man, Hulk and Thor films, this ending just doesn’t work! That’s why The First Avenger shouldn’t be the first movie in your marathon. But after Thor and before Avengers? It’s perfect.
There’s something uniquely satisfying about watching all five of the first MCU movies and then seeing so many of those characters unite in The Avengers. That satisfaction would work against a largely chronological viewing of the film in a couple of ways. The Avengers belongs right after Captain America firstly because of the importance of the Tesseract plays in both, and because of how Cap’s “man out of time” theme informs his arc in The Avengers.
But a chronological viewing order would also place 2019’s Captain Marvel in the number two pot, and unless you haven’t noticed Carol Danvers is nowhere to be seen in The Avengers. Watching her origin story then experiencing every Phase One hero except her come together in The Avengers would be needlessly jarring.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Although The Winter Soldier was actually the third movie released in Phase Two, there’s at least one good reason to watch it first. One of the more valid criticisms of Marvel Studios’ second Phase is that the Avengers never really helped each other out, even as each of the heroes found themselves in need of help. The Winter Soldier offers an explanation for this issue since the movie ends with the disbandment of S.H.I.E.L.D., which brought the Avengers together in the first place. Without Nick Fury there to bring them together, coordination between the Avengers may have been more difficult, hence Thor and Stark going solo in their next appearances.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD
The Dark World is probably best right after The Winter Soldier. You can’t push it too far down the order, because it’s the first time we see Loki answering for his crimes against Earth, but it also can’t come immediately after The Avengers. After all, the Dark World shows us the aftermath of Jane Foster’s discovery that Thor came to earth to fight the Chitauri but didn’t bother to drop her a line before or after. Coming so hot on the heels of the Avengers, her frustration might seem a little strange.
IRON MAN 3
One of the most important aspects of Iron Man 3 is Tony’s space-induced PTSD, since it explains just why Stark is willing to risk so much in Age of Ultron. Giving two movies of space in between Avengers and Iron Man 3 is helpful for this, since it demonstrates that he’s had some time for his trauma to simmer. Placing it later in the viewing order than The Winter Soldier would also explain why the destruction of Tony’s home and kidnapping of the President don’t rate highly on the SHIELD priority list, again, because they’re not around anymore.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
There isn’t much to tie Guardians of the Galaxy to the rest of the MCU, so you might think you could watch it at any point in your marathon. The only tangible connection was the brief appearance of Thanos, who’d been introduced during the credits of The Avengers. But the Mad Titan is also the exact reason why you should make sure to put Guardians right after Iron Man 3 and before Age of Ultron in your viewing order. This mid-credits scene from the Avengers’ first sequel marks the end of Thanos’ strategy of acquiring the Infinity Stones through intermediaries. If Guardians don’t stay before Age of Ultron, Thanos’ mid-credits proclamation doesn’t make sense.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Avengers: Age of Ultron’s spot is a pretty solid no-brainer. The dissolution of both SHIELD and Hydra, as well as Maria Hill’s career, move to Stark industries, both happen in Winter Soldier. We see the results of Stark’s trauma in Iron Man 3, which pushes him to create Ultron in secret. Finally, Thor’s knowledge of the Infinity Stone in Ultron comes, in part, from his experiences during the Dark World. The table is set for the Age of Ultron’s story, so this one’s placement is easy.
As the final film of Phase Two, Ant-Man is firmly set between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. We know it takes place after Age of Ultron, partly because of Scott tussles with Falcon in full Avenger mode, and partly due to Hank Pym’s comments about the Battle of Sokovia. We also know it takes place right before the Civil War because Ant-Man ends with Scott learning that Falcon is looking for him and in the Civil War, we find out exactly why.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
There isn’t anything too complicated to figure out about the placement of Captain America: Civil War. Just sit back and enjoy the straight continuity of Scott Lang’s arc from Ant-Man, and the return of Cap’s new Avengers team, last seen at the end of Age of Ultron. What gets tricky, however, is what comes next since Civil War introduces two new major heroes to the MCU, who each need establishing along with all the other characters Phase Three brings to the franchise.
Although it wasn’t released until around halfway through Phase Three, Black Panther really does belong right after the Civil War since the events of Tony and Steve’s feud lead directly to the crisis in Wakanda. While we’ve broken with strictly chronological viewings of the franchise earlier on in this list, we want to strongly emphasize it here. Few true Marvel Zombies would disagree that waiting for four films between Civil War and Black feels like far too long to wait to see the next chapter in T’Challa’s story.
Like Black Panther, the events of Spider-Man: Homecoming follow directly from those of Captain America: Civil War and ever revisits some of the Civil War during its prologue. But it’s good to keep at least one movie between Homecoming and Civil War because the end of Homecoming seems the return of Pepper Potts to the franchise. During the Civil War, we learned that Pepper and Tony were “taking a break”, while in Homecoming they seem perfectly happy with one another. And everyone knows that fractured relationships heal in exactly the amount of time it takes for a Wakandan succession crisis to be resolved.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL.2
After Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.2 war released, there was a lot of noise made by fans about Stan Lee’s cameo mentioning his Civil War appearance, despite James Gunn’s instance that the movie took place before the events of Civil War. Forget about the nitty-gritty and just watch Baby Groot dance. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is best served here not for any chronological reason, but because there are only two movies left before Infinity War, and one of those is Thor: Ragnarok. These two are both great fun, but you don’t really need to put two witty, snarky, intergalactic epics back-to-back.
There’s an argument to be made to put this movie closer to The Winter Soldier since Jasper Sitwell mentions Strange’s name in a list of potential Hydra targets for Project Insight during the Captain America sequel. But that tease is pretty vague and Hydra’s pretty evil. Who knows why they’re targeting a rich surgeon in Manhattan? So even though Sitwell’s threat could place this film earlier on our list, it’s still better off right here. Doctor Strange’s placement also breaks up two space-based flicks: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor:Ragnarok. And considering Doctor Strange’s mid-credits scene is in fact a little slice of Ragnarok, it’s nice to get hose two movies back-to-back.
When fans experienced Ragnarok’s mid-credits scene in theaters, it was difficult to imagine that the looming shadow was from anything but Thanos’ ship. At the time, that was an almost cruelly tantalizing tease for the next step in Thor’s journey. Now that Avengers: Infinity War has been released and the brutal fate awaiting Loki, Heimdall, and the other domed passengers has become clear, it feels a little strange not to watch Ragnarok right before Infinity War, especially considering the first thing audiences hear in Infinity War is the Asgardian refugee ship’s distress call. Sticking with Marvel Studios’ order of release which puts Black Panther after Ragnarok just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
Marvel Studios put some unbelievable time effort, and money into the build-up to Avengers: Infinity War, and you have to believe they had a reason to release it when they did. Yes, they may have put fans through torture by putting two movies between Infinity War and its resolution but, by this point, Marvel is at the top of its game. The studio’s not going to steer you wrong here. Trust in Feige, and try to remember that there’s probably no good reason to move Infinity War any closer to its conclusion in Avengers: Endgame.
ANT-MAN AND THE WASP
For the most part, Ant-Man and the Wasp seem to take place at roughly the same time as Infinity War. And in the mid-credits scene, we see the latter movie’s devastating effects take hold on Scott Lang’s world. But don’t be tempted to move Ant-Man and the Wasp to an earlier place in your viewing order. Not only does this movie give away what happens during Infinity War, but it also provides some much-needed laughter after the massive downer that was Infinity War’s ending. Why take the chaser before the shot?
Because Captain Marvel makes such a point of its 90s setting, those arguing for a strictly chronological viewing would happily move this movie all the way to the beginning of Phase One. But doing that will seriously affect your enjoyment of Avengers: Endgame. The first meeting between Carol Danvers and the Avengers is sure to be a huge moment for the franchise. If Marvel had told these stories chronologically, however, and released Captain Marvel twenty films ago without mentioning her again since, would that still be the case?
Think of it this way: there’s a reason why Pulp Fiction earned its place in cinema history. Sometimes, for a story to make any kind of sense, you have to tell it out of order. And the fact that this franchise is as good as it is. Well, Nick Fury himself thinks it could even be divine intervention.
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