If the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels like supersized seasons of television, then the Avengers films are akin to season finales. With the stakes higher than ever and all-star casts in their roster, the Avengers films are an amalgamation of everything that came before it—and with that comes a proper order in which to watch them.
Although you can shift the order of your MCU marathon depending on factors like a chronological timeline or by release date, the viewing order for the Avengers films remains one and the same: The first one comes first, and so on.
For some, sticking to the Avengers movies might lead to a bit of confusion; they often work best when you’re familiar with all of the movies that came before it. But for those well-versed in the MCU, it’s like skipping both character-driven and more filler movies just to get to the big action sequences. With that in mind, here’s how to trim the fat and watch the Avengers movies.
Avengers movies, a refresher
1) The Avengers
Eight years after the release of The Avengers, it’s hard to imagine that the ultimate Marvel superhero team-up was such a risk. But while the five movies that came before it made money, they weren’t the guaranteed successes that the MCU films generally are today. The Avengers drastically changed that; even outside of any larger connections, The Avengers is extremely watchable.
It already had the foundation of two Iron Man films, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk. But with the addition of Black Widow and Hawkeye, the use of Loki and an alien army as the main villain (and cementing him even further as a Marvel fan-favorite), and a simple plot, it also introduces us to the greatest threat to the MCU: Thanos and the Infinity Stones.
2) Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron pulls from the MCU films that came before it like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3, but it largely functions as more of a direct sequel to The Avengers than anything else. The main threat of Ultron is a creation of the Avengers’ own making: In an effort to help maintain peace, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner created Ultron, who is now planning to wipe out all of humanity with a massive AI-controlled robot army after coming to the conclusion that humans are the cause of Earth’s problems.
It hasn’t quite managed the juggling act of its expanding Avengers line-up yet, and some of its plots work better than others. (Even later Avengers films basically ignored the Bruce and Natasha romance subplot from Age of Ultron.) But that’s not to say it’s a complete failure. We’re introduced to Scarlet Witch and Vision (who is powered by one of the Infinity Stones), and many of Age of Ultron’s repercussions fuel much of the MCU’s Phase 3.
Technically, Civil War isn’t an Avengers movie. But thanks to the structure, the inclusion of most of Marvel’s roster, and the key introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther, it might as well be. While the villain is largely forgettable, the conflicts and consequences of this movie have a lasting effect leading all the way up to Infinity War. (In your Avengers watch, place this movie in-between Age of Ultron and Infinity War.)
Despite the focus on the Avenger-on-Avenger fight in a German airport, the film’s heart is a character-driven conflict between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, who may know each other better than almost anyone alive and know just how to drive a wedge into their friendship. The conflict splits the Avengers into different factions, one that results in many of them being forced to go into hiding until Infinity War picks the story back up.
While every Avengers movie has several Marvel movies worth of backstory to set up the larger, it’s never more evident than with the gap in-between Age of Ultron and Avengers: Infinity War. For many of the characters, Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok are far more critical to Infinity War than Age of Ultron.
But it also pays off 18 previous Marvel movies’ worth of stories to bring a battle spanning the universe. Thanos, fed up with his minions’ failures over the MCU’s run, takes it upon himself to obtain the six Infinity Stones to complete his gauntlet; along the way, parts of his backstory start to unfold. And despite their best efforts and the kinds of team-ups that we could only dream of, the Avengers failed. As a result, Thanos got all six stones and effectively wiped out half the universe with a snap of his fingers.
Two more Marvel movies were released between Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but their effects on the larger story are minimal: We’re introduced to Carol Danvers, and Scott Lang spends the next five years in the Quantum Realm for the next five years, but otherwise, Captain Marvel and Ant-Man and the Wasp are largely inconsequential. And while previous Avengers movies expanded the line-up, Endgame kicks off with a very reduced roster.
By circling back to the original Avengers line-up—plus Captain Marvel, Ant-Man, War Machine, Nebula, and Rocket Racoon—Endgame puts its focus on the characters even as the spectacle is greater than ever before. Endgame is a movie that involves time travel to obtain the Infinity Stones, inserting more resonance on one of the MCU’s more forgettable films, comic book mechanics for getting everyone unsnapped, and an ending that will make your brain hurt if you try to logic your way through it. But a lot of those complaints disappear away when you get to see the Avengers—finally all together again—assemble against Thanos.