Alt:Mag's Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2019 Edition)

On November 18th 2018, beloved comic book writer Stan Lee lost his fight with pneumonia. He was the figurehead of Marvel Comics and created many of today’s most famous superheroes including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk. In the light of his death – and the upcoming release of the film Avengers: Endgame – I decided to revisit a feature I first wrote for Alt:Mag when Infinity War was released. This is a primer for newcomers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the bestselling film franchise based on Lee’s creations. If you read last year’s feature, feel free to skip to the end for a revised viewing order including all the films in Phase 3. If you haven’t, then read on. It’s time to suit up.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU for short) is the most successful superhero film franchise of all time. It was started by Marvel itself, who formed their own studio to produce films that not only did their characters justice but brought them all together in a shared universe. As a result, each superhero’s stories aren’t self-contained. Like seasons in a TV series, the MCU’s films are split into groups called “phases”. Each phase follows a storyline that develops over the course of several films, moving from one hero to the next until they come together for a climax. Because of this, you can’t treat a single hero’s films as a separate series – for example, you can’t watch all of Iron Man’s films then move on to Captain America’s. In most cases, it’s best to watch the films in the order they were released. There are exceptions, though, which I’ll talk about later. All the films include additional scenes during the credits, which set up future storylines and hint at the film(s) you should see next. Some don’t come until after the credits, but they’re a trademark of the MCU – and always worth the wait. Of course, you can always fast-forward to them at home if you’re strapped for time.

When Marvel released its first MCU films (2008’s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk), I was a naïve secondary school student who only cared for two of its heroes: Spider-Man and the Hulk. I didn’t take my first real look at the franchise until six years later, when I saw Thor and Avengers Assemble at university. That was when I became aware of the films’ success – and their two main strengths. For ten years the MCU has taken audiences around the world and beyond to many weird and wonderful places, from the mythical realm of Asgard to the farthest reaches of the universe. Their sheer variety, and the way these settings are brought together, have earned worldwide acclaim. However, they wouldn’t be half as amazing without their inhabitants. Unlike the recent DC films, the MCU introduces its heroes one film at a time, allowing you to get to know them in more detail. You’ll learn about their lives, their relationships, and the personal struggles they each face when they’re not out saving the world. If you take away their suits and superpowers, they aren’t that different from you or I. Every one of them has something you can relate to: Tony Stark/Iron Man wants to feel secure in life; Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, wants to do right by his family; Bruce Banner/Hulk must learn to live with a life-changing condition; and Peter Parker/Spidey wants to prove himself to the big guy. Each hero has their own needs and desires and, as it is with real people, they change over time. Their enemies are given the same treatment as well. You might see something of yourself in Loki, Thor’s adoptive brother. You may connect with Adrian Toomes, the Vulture, who does whatever it takes to support his family. You might even relate to Thanos, the so-called “Mad Titan”, who endures incredible loss in pursuit of his life goals. Not all the villains are so well-developed, but whatever your background, you’re bound to find someone to relate to whether they’re good or evil. And they’re played by an all-star cast including Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, and Samuel L. Jackson. Oh, and keep your eyes peeled for Stan the Man – he appears in every film and even filmed a cameo for Avengers: Endgame before he died!

With Endgame's release, there are now a staggering twenty-two films in the MCU. Endgame will be the last film in phase three and the finale of all the films before it – now known collectively as the Infinity Saga. The first two phases follow a clear order, but the films in phase three are less linear, allowing viewers to find an order to watch them in that best suits them. Here’s a list of them all in the order I’d recommend to newcomers.

Phase One

1. Iron Man (2008)
2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
3. Iron Man 2 (2010)
4. Thor (2011)
5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
6. Avengers Assemble (2012)

Phase Two

1. Iron Man 3 (2013)
2. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
5. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
6. Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three

1. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
2. Black Panther (2018)
3. Spider-man: Homecoming (2017)
4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)
5. Doctor Strange (2016)
6. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
8. Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018)
9. Captain Marvel (2019)
10. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

If you’d like to know what happens between the films, there are comics, short films, and TV series that fill in the gaps – but you don’t need to check them out to enjoy the films. Some of you might want to stop at Endgame due to the sheer number of films we have now – myself included – but if you’re still hungry for more after Thanos’ swan song, you’re in luck. Marvel are planning more films for the future including Spider-Man: Far from Home and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Whether they’ll follow the phase structure made famous by past films remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Marvel Studios aren’t going to stop anytime soon!

Avengers: Endgame will open in UK cinemas April 25th. Are you going to see it? Thinking of playing catch-up before you do? Leave a comment below and sound off on Facebook and Twitter, and tell us where you are in the MCU now!

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