Marvel movies come in phases, each telling a segment of the greater story of the Marvel Universe. Marvel popularized the use of post-credit sequences to set up the next part of the storyline, starting with Iron Man. Even when the idea of a vast comic book movie universe was still in the early stages, Marvel knew it was building towards something. When it comes to picking the order you watch these movies in, it’s important to remember these post-credit sequences. Sometimes the placement of a film is the result of what that post-credit sequence reveals.
This order is not chronological, but merely the best way to enjoy the unfolding story. We've done our best to avoid major spoilers, but if you'd like to remain completely in the dark, watch the films in this order and ignore the explanations.
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MCU Phase 1: Say hello to the Marvel Cinematic Universe
1. Iron Man
2. Captain America
3. The Incredible Hulk
4. Iron Man 2
Phase 1 of the MCU is the loosest this super-franchise has ever been. While the movies after Avengers quickly get wrapped up in establishing the future story, the original five films build our heroes' universe. At the beginning of the first three films, none of the characters are aware of the others exist. Iron Man thinks he’s the first hero of his kind, Captain America is a legend, and the Hulk is a monster on the run. Iron Man 2 sets up the idea that our heroes aren’t as unique as they think, as greater threats abound lurk in daylight and the shadows alike.
The world-building continues with the introduction of both magic and space in Thor. Interdimensional beings from beyond are about to become a big theme in the MCU, and Thor does a sound job establishing the idea. Asgard is a place where magic coexists with high technology. As Thor’s people protect the universe, Loki makes a deal with an alien race to subjugate Earth.
Just like Iron Man’s appearance escalated the rate of super crime, Thor’s exile to Earth brings unwanted attention to our little blue planet. Phase 1 ends with the heroes coming together to face their first threat that can’t simply be punched into submission. There is a big dark universe out there, and it just turned its eyes on Earth.
If this all sounds overly serious, don’t worry. At the end of the day, we’re still talking about movies involving a robot man, a big, green, angry monster, a frozen superhuman, a demigod, a Russian super-assassin, and a guy who can shoot arrows well enough to help stop an alien invasion.
After completing this group, take a break, stretch your legs, walk the dog. And get ready to binge these next films.
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MCU Phase 2: What’s the deal with Infinity Stones, and is everyone OK?
8. Thor: The Dark World
9. Iron Man 3
Phase 2 of the MCU takes a decidedly darker turn than the first films in the series, which is why we’re starting with the one that's the most fun. Avengers introduces the idea of Thanos in its post-credit sequence, but Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates why he’s a threat to be concerned about. It also further expands on the MCU, showing us there are millions of worlds beyond Earth. However, the main reason to watch Guardians of the Galaxy first is its clear explanation of the Infinity Stones.
The Infinity Stones are significant factors in Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Doctor Strange, Age of Ultron, Infinity War, and Captain Marvel. While Guardians of the Galaxy was technically the fourth film to be released in Phase 2, watching it first raises the stakes of Thor: The Dark World, while adding a layer of background dread to the more grounded problems of Iron Man and Captain America.
While Thor and the Guardians are dealing with untold powers beyond imagination, our Earth-bound heroes are struggling with the last few years of their lives. Post-Avengers Iron Man is dealing with PTSD from his battles and the sudden realization that we are not alone in the galaxy. Meanwhile, Captain America, lost in time, finds out that not only is his childhood best friend still alive, but the people he trusted most have been keeping that information from him.
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It all builds to Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the absurd power of the Infinity Stones and Tony Stark’s paranoia finally collide to threaten the world. Phase 2 of the MCU establishes two major threats: the impending rise of Thanos and, more importantly, the fissures that have started to form within the Avengers as a team. Thankfully the original team has picked up some new blood in the form of Scarlet Witch and Falcon. They’re going to need it in Phase 3.
MCU Phase 3: The next generation
15. Black Panther
17. Doctor Strange
18. Thor: Ragnarok
21. Captain Marvel
Before purists cry foul, let’s establish that, officially, Ant-Man is part of Phase 2 of the MCU. For this viewing guide, however, Ant-Man fits better in Phase 3, the next generation of Marvel heroes. With the world shaken by the destruction we witnessed in Age of Ultron, Winter Soldier, and Dark World, the MCU is in a strange place when Phase 3 begins. The Avengers are fractured, working together but always at each other’s throats. New heroes like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange are flying under their radar, while Iron Man has taken notice of Spider-Man.
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Phase 3 establishes the future of the MCU, introducing new characters while simultaneously showing why they’re necessary. Thankfully it’s a joyful experience. Ant-Man is a brilliant heist movie even if you take it out of the context of the MCU. Civil War is a thoughtful spy film that just so happens to include robot suits and reality-altering magic powers. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange further explores the vastness of this universe, introducing near-Gods beyond the concept of human understanding.
When watching Phase 3, ignore the release order. Spider-Man: Homecoming may have just come out, but it directly follows the plot of Civil War, literally starting during Spider-Man’s first adventure with the Avengers. Homecoming also deals with Tony Stark’s struggles to train up a new generation of heroes, questioning when they’ll be ready to join the Avengers. Back in space, our friends in the Guardians of the Galaxy are learning more about their place in the greater universe, making new allies and powerful enemies that are sure to pop up again in the future.
We then suggest the one-two punch of Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok. Even though Doctor Strange was released before Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Spider-Man, it ties nicely into director Taika Waititi's critically acclaimed third Thor installment. Doctor Strange is our first real introduction to the broader world of magic in the MCU. Sure, Loki has powers, but Doctor Strange’s sorcery is beyond even Asgard’s imagination, literally enough to go toe to toe with an alternate dimension’s God. It also puts the final Infinity Stone in play.
Thor makes a brief but important appearance during the post-credits sequence that sets up the plot of Ragnarok. While the rest of the Avengers have been bickering on Earth, Thor has been on task searching the cosmos for the infinity stones that big-baddie Thanos is trying to get his hands on. While Thor's story veers into an adventure involving the Hulk and Jeff Goldblum's trash planet, it also contains important plot points (we won't spoil them for you) that lead into Infinity War.
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Black Panther, which debuted to broad acclaim in February 2018, also directly follows the events of Captain America: Civil War, but it stands apart from Spider-Man Homecoming, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. Villain Ulysses Klaue is introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron, so as long as you've seen that and Civil War, you're ready to watch Black Panther. That gives you the option of viewing it in the No. 14 spot right after Civil War or last if you prefer to keep things chronological. For the purposes of this list, we like it after Spider-Man Homecoming because Thor: Ragnarok makes more sense as a launching point into Avengers: Infinity War.
It’s fitting that Ragnarok is the most gleefully fun Marvel movie because you’ll be following it up with the darkest entry in the series, Avengers: Infinity War. After a decade of development and 18 separate films, almost the entire MCU comes together to face the mad titan Thanos. By giving fans time to fall in love with each of these characters over the course of multiple movies, Infinity War hits like a gut punch. Our beloved heroes have never faced a threat like Thanos or his deadly allies in the Black Order. Spanning the entire universe, Infinity War gives nods to each movie that came before. Brutal, breathtaking, and legitimately surprising, Infinity War is a fitting goodbye to Phase 2. It's followed, of course, by Ant-Man and the Wasp, whose events are altogether unrelated to those in Infinity War with the exception of its first post-credits scene.
After all that, Marvel is giving you a break. Captain Marvel, which serves as an origin story for both Carol Danvers and Nick Fury, is largely a prequel with enough hints to the larger universe while introducing the superhero who plays a role in facilitating the defeat of Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. Cap it off with Spider-Man: Far From Home, which deals with the fallout from Endgame as it introduces a new threat to Earth (and Peter Parker's summer vacation) and ends by throwing a major wrench into Peter's world. By the end of Far From Home, the MCU is 11 years old and has 23 movies in the series. If you want to catch up and keep up, it's time to get watching.