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Breaking down each phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Here's which Marvel movies fall into each phase of the MCU and a look at what's to come.

Aug 18, 2020, 9:03 am*

Internet Culture

Michelle Jaworski 

Michelle Jaworski

More than 10 years ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it launched, creating a shared and interlinked canon complete with distinct Marvel phases, tie-ins, and epic team-ups.

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Marvel phases are a way of grouping several films in the MCU together. They may accomplish similar things or may all be a response to events from a previous film. It’s part of the design, Marvel Studios’ way of referencing several films at once. To date, the MCU movies have fallen under three Phases:

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  • Phase 1 introduces us to each of the Avengers.
  • Phase 2 handles the fallout from The Avengers.
  • Phase 3 features an uneasiness among the superheroes after Avengers: Age of Ultron (and introduces more heroes), leading us into the showstopping Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame.

Phase four is set to launch after Spider-Man: Far From Home, the follow-up to Endgame. Black Widow will be the first film in the new Marvel phase, which was postponed to November 2020 due to coronavirus’ impact on theatrical releases.

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Was it a massive risk? Absolutely. There was always the possibility that the MCU would fail even as Marvel’s early films raked it in at the box office, but it didn’t completely click until the release of The Avengers, which tied every single MCU movie released to date together for an epic showdown in New York against Loki and an alien army.


WATCH: What’s the Best Order to Binge Every Marvel Movie?

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It doesn’t always work for major studio productions. (Just ask Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures.) But $22 billion later (and counting), Marvel Studios has the kind of interconnected universe that has the feel of the comics with enough organization that even more casual fans can follow.

Marvel phases: MCU phase 1

1) Iron Man (2008)

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Iron Man had a tall order to fill: Not only did it have to function as an entertaining movie on its own, it had to tease something much bigger (but not too big in case Iron Man didn’t work). Luckily for us, it did that and more as it introduced us to Tony Stark, showed how he got the arc reactor placed in his chest and the birth of his first Iron Man suits, and deception from someone he trusted.

And not only did Iron Man throw the concept of a secret identity out the door with Tony telling the world that he was Iron Man, it gave us our first Marvel post-credits scene, which would soon become an MCU staple. It’s less than a minute long, and it contains a line from Nick Fury that opened a wealth of possibility: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”

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2) The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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Bruce Banner’s origin story—he turned into the Hulk after a failed experiment attempting to restart the program that created Captain America—is revealed along with the Hulk’s early years as he attempts to find a way to cure himself—none of which, obviously, were very successful. Although it’s part of the MCU (albeit a movie some fans tend to skip), Marvel replaced lead actor Edward Norton with Mark Ruffalo, who’s played supporting roles in several Marvel movies since. And the Avengers thread continues with Tony Stark passing along word of making a team.

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3) Iron Man 2 (2010)

mcu phases - iron man 2
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Iron Man 2 is a revenge story: The son of a disgraced physicist (who once worked with Howard Stark) tries to ruin Tony Stark’s life, but in the grand scheme of the MCU, the film is marked by the introduction of two new characters: a new James Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) and the first appearance of Black Widow. It also leads straight into Thor as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson goes to New Mexico to investigate Thor’s hammer Mjølnir.

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4) Thor (2011)

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Thor is the ultimate fish-out-of-water story on a cosmic scale: After being deemed unworthy of taking up the throne of Asgard, Thor is banished to Earth without his powers, which are contained within Mjølnir. (Naturally, hilarity ensues as Thor encounters a group of scientists, Hawkeye, and S.H.I.E.L.D. along the way.) But it also kicks off the start of Thor and Loki’s Shakespearean drama, which usually ends being much more fascinating than whatever forces come their way. For the first time, Thor begins to tease beyond the next film as the post-credits scene begins to lead into The Avengers.

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5) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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The Captain America origin story takes us back to World War II as Steve Rogers is transformed into a strong fighter with super-soldier serum and takes on Red Skull and HYDRA forces. Featuring one of Marvel’s best romances (and one of its strongest ships), it grounds a character that could be cartoonish complete with a heartbreaking ending. Of course, we know Captain America will eventually get out of that ice. He’s plucked out in present-day, which he quickly figures out, putting him in the right spot to be an essential part of the Avengers.

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6) The Avengers (2012)

The superhero team-up that was six movies and four years in the making, Avengers makes the impossible work. It takes most of the movie for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye to work together as a united front—particularly as Loki, armed with the Tesseract and Mind Stone, successfully pits them against one another. But when it happens, you know that moment is earned. Thanos, on the other hand, is just a mysterious creature on a throne far off in space with only hints of the mass chaos he would eventually bring onto the universe.

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Marvel phases: MCU phase 2

7) Iron Man 3 (2013)

Tony Stark faces off against another villain who’s set out to destroy him as he attempts to grapple with the events of Avengers as well as the panic attacks he’s now having as a result of them. After the Mandarin is revealed to be a sham, Tony and Rhodes (with help from Pepper Potts, who’s been infected with an experimental treatment called Extremis) take down the true mastermind. Tony eventually has surgery to remove the shrapnel in his heart. But at least one post-Avengers relationship has endured as the movie is bookended by Tony relaying the film to Bruce Banner, who ends up nodding off.

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8) Thor: The Dark World (2013)

With Loki locked away on Asgard—for part of the movie, anyway—Thor has an even bigger (albeit not as interesting) threat on his hands with the dark elf Malekith, made much more pressing after Thor’s girlfriend Jane Foster accidentally gets hold of the Aether (aka the Reality Stone). Malekith is stopped, but not before Thor is led to believe that Loki died in the effort. Meanwhile, Loki, while impersonating Odin, takes control of Asgard. Now removed from Jane, the Reality Stone is handed over to the Collector for safekeeping.

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9) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller that puts Steve Rogers on the run—not for the last time—as he discovers that the threat of HYDRA he fought decades earlier is still thriving right under everyone’s noses. And with a mind-controlled Bucky Barnes, Steve (alongside Black Widow and Falcon) has his biggest fight yet. But HYDRA and Bucky’s experimentation only scratches the surface. He’s far from the only human to be experimented on as we’re briefly introduced to Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.

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10) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Thanos and the Infinity Stones come into the limelight for the first time after Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) unknowingly gets his hands on the Power Stone. The ensuing chase, attempt to sell the stone to the highest bidder, and the battle once Ronan gets his hands on it transforms five strangers—Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Racoon, and Groot—into a dysfunctional family. It also opens the MCU up even further as it showcases the infinite possibilities by featuring a film set almost entirely in space.

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11) Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

After teaming up for another mission, Tony Stark attempts to build an AI called Ultron to operate as a peacekeeper for Earth. Naturally, everything goes awry: Ultron determines the best way to do that is to wipe out all of humanity, and the Avengers are forced to take Ultron and his army out with help from Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision, a synthetic body with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s AI and the Mind Stone. Thanos, however, is impatient with his effort to obtain the Infinity Stones and vows to get them himself.

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12) Ant-Man (2015)

Ex-con Scott Lang is recruited by physicist Hank Pym to wear his old Ant-Man suit and steal his company’s own technology after Hank’s protege attempts to make a suite based on his old tech. Although Hank’s daughter Hope van Dyne is more capable in practically every way, Scott manages to stop Yellowjacket and discovers the Quantum Realm for himself. And while Hope does eventually get her own suit, Ant-Man’s world is about to get even bigger.

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Marvel phases: MCU phase 3

13) Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Sometimes referred to as “Avengers 2.5,” most of Marvel’s superheroes have to choose a side after superheroes are required to register as superheroes under the Sokovia Accords. We’re introduced to Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man for the first time while the fight between Iron Man and Captain America (with Bucky Barnes right in the middle) quickly gets personal for both of them. Many of the heroes end up going into hiding while Bucky is put under while Wakanda’s best figure out how to remove his brainwashing.

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14) Doctor Strange (2016)

After his hands are damaged in a car accident and medicine and therapy fail him, Dr. Stephen Strange discovers Kamar-Taj and starts to learn sorcery under the tutelage of the Ancient One. With the use of the Time Stone, Dr. Strange is able to stop the efforts of Kaecilius and Dormammu in the dark dimension while breaking the laws of time and space in his efforts.

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15) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Peter Quill comes face-to-face with Ego the Living Planet and begins to bond with the father he never knew while the family dynamic of the Guardians of the Galaxy—complicated by Gamora and Nebula’s estranged relationship and Peter’s guardian Yondu—begins to fracture. But just as the Guardians become aware of Ego’s true intentions with Peter, they save each other (and the galaxy once again) from total annihilation.

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16) Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

After the exhilaration of fighting alongside the Avengers in Civil War, Peter Parker finds it hard to get back into the swing of things as he juggles school, keeping his secret identity under wraps, being mentored by Iron Man, and a looming threat from the Vulture.

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17) Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor’s sister Hela (who was imprisoned for millennia) escapes after Odin’s death to claim the throne of Asgard, destroys Mjølnir, and sends Thor across the galaxy, where he’s captured and forced to fight the Hulk gladiator-style. Only by teaming up with the Hulk, Valkyrie, and Loki (with an assist from Ragnarok) can Thor, who’s still learning just what he can do, take his sister down.

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18) Black Panther (2018)

After his father’s death in Civil War, T’Challa becomes king of Wakanda and gets ready to rule the country. But his cousin, whose existence was hidden for years, emerges to stake his claim, sending the royal family into hiding while Killmonger’s first plan of action as Wakanda’s king threatens to tear Wakanda apart.

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19) Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Thanos’ plan to obtain the Infinity Stones and wipe out half the universe goes into overdrive as he travels from planet to planet and overwhelms the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. A final standoff in Wakanda ends in disaster after Thor’s new ax injures Thanos but doesn’t kill him, allowing the Mad Titan to set his plan into action and turn many of Marvel’s heroes into dust. With his final act before succumbing to his fate, Nick Fury sends out a distress call to Captain Marvel.

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20) Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne enact their plan to rescue Janet van Dyne from the Quantum Realm after Scott Lang discovers a connection to her during the final days of Scott’s house arrest. But their plan faces a threat from Ghost, who wants to use the Quantum energy Janet will possess to help stabilize her own body.

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21) Captain Marvel (2019)

Largely taking place in 1995, Captain Marvel is an origin story for Air Force pilot Carol Danvers, who is caught in the middle of a war between the Kree and the Skrulls. When she crash-lands on Earth, she meets S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury, discovers the life she once had on Earth, how she came into her powers, and learns that there is much more to the war than meets the eye.

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22) Avengers: Endgame (2019)

With half the universe (and Marvel’s heroes) obliterated by Thanos’ snap, the remaining Avengers team up for one final attempt to reverse what Thanos did by traveling back in time to obtain previous versions of the Infinity Stones. And while they succeeded, it came with immense consequences: Black Widow gave up her life on Vormir to obtain the Soul Stone, Iron Man’s snap wiped out Thanos for good (but the effort killed him), and Captain America stayed in the past and grew old before he gave the shield to a new hero.

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23) Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

After the events of Endgame, a still-grieving Peter Parker just wanted to go on his European summer vacation with his classmates. Thanks to an intervention from Nick Fury (who’s actually the Skrull Talos in disguise) and the appearance of Mysterio and the Elementals, it’s anything but; along the way, Peter and MJ’s romance grows with the latter eventually figuring out Peter’s secret. The movie builds up to Peter defeating Mysterio in London, but the disgruntled ex-Stark Industries employee-turned-villain gets the final laugh: after his death, Mysterio’s crew released a doctored video insinuating that Spider-Man killed Mysterio along with revealing his secret identity to the world.

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Marvel phases: MCU phase 4

24) Black Widow (2020)

Black Widow’s origin story is finally coming to light on-screen with Scarlett Johansson reprising her role. Florence Pugh will play Yelena Belova while the Taskmaster will be the film’s primary villain. Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, and Ray Winstone have also joined the cast. Jack Schaeffer wrote the script and Cate Shortland is directing. The film was originally supposed to hit theaters May 1, but as of now, is still scheduled with a November 6 release date.

25) The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (on Disney+)

Sam Wilson (who received Captain America’s shield in Endgame) and Bucky Barnes are at the center of the first Disney+ limited series, which will have Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan once again playing the roles. Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), who we last saw in Civil War, will be the main villain, while Emily Van Camp is reportedly back as Sharon Carter. Malcolm Spellman wrote the series and Kari Skogland will direct all six episodes. The show was supposed to premiere in August 2020, but due to production delays, it was postponed. There is no new release date at the moment and it is unclear if it will air in 2020.

26) The Eternals (2021)

The Rider‘s Chloé Zhao will direct The Eternals, which features a high caliber cast that includes Angelina Jolie as Thena and Salma Hayek as Eternals leader Ajax. The cast also features Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo Sunen, Byran Tyree Henry as Phastos, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Ma Dong-seok (who is also known as Don Lee) as Gilgamesh, and Lauren Ridloff as Makkari.

27) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Simu Liu, Awkwafina, and Tony Leung will star in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was written by David Callaham and will be directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Liu will portray Shang-Chi while Leung will portray the Mandarin (whose name was previously used in Iron Man 3 by a fraudulent character.)

28) WandaVision (2021 on Disney+)

Taking place after Endgame, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany’s Scarlet Witch and Vision, respectively, are at the center of a series that will introduce Teyonah Parris as an adult Monica Rambeau, who previously appeared in Captain Marvel.

29) Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2021)

Benedict Cumberbatch will return to portray Doctor Strange while Olsen’s Scarlet Witch will make an appearance. It will also be the first film that we know of that will loop in what happens in a Disney+ show into the MCU.

30) Loki (2021 on Disney+)

The Loki limited series, which will see Tom Hiddleston returning to play the trickster, will show us what happened after Loki gained control of the Tesseract and disappeared in Endgame.

31) What If…? (2021 on Disney+)

Jeffrey Wright will portray the Watcher in an animated series that will explore alternate timelines of MCU events and feature a wide selection of MCU alums reprising their roles.

32) Hawkeye (2021 on Disney+)

The Hawkeye limited series will feature Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton, who will pass the mantle of Hawkeye to Kate Bishop, a fan-favorite character who has operated under the Hawkeye moniker in the comics.

33) Thor: Love and Thunder (2021)

Taika Waititi is writing and directing another Thor film that will star Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, and Natalie Portman, who will take on the mantle of Thor, which has happened in the comics within the past few years.

Marvel phases: Beyond MCU Phase 4

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was originally supposed to be released in 2020 but was pushed back after Disney fired (and then rehired) director James Gunn; Gunn is planning to finish Suicide Squad 2 first. At San Diego Comic-Con 2019, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige confirmed sequels for Black Panther and Captain Marvel. He also teased a new Fantastic Four and a film with mutants and introduced Mahershala Ali as the new Blade in a remake of the Wesley Snipes film; Blade doesn’t have a director or screenwriter attached to it.

Aside from the 2008 Incredible Hulk and both Spider-Man movies, you can watch all of the Marvel phases in order on Disney+.

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*First Published: Aug 15, 2018, 6:00 am