This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS.
With Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame on the horizon, now is as good a time as any to get up to speed with the events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But if you don’t have time to watch the movies, here’s our attempt at putting all of the important information from the first 20 films into some kind of coherent story (in the order they take place)…
Captain America: The First Avenger
During World War II, Steve Rogers is rejected from the army for being medically unfit. Luckily, he’s chosen to be the test subject for a new breed of super-soldier! Although they only get around to making one. Rogers becomes Captain America, the world’s first (?) superhero.
Along with Peggy Carter, Howard Stark and the Howling Commandos, Steve manages to help defeat the paramilitary organization Hydra, which is using the power of the Tesseract – a strange device which contains one of the Infinity Stones – to defeat the allied forces. During the fighting, Steve’s best friend Bucky is apparently killed but the Red Skull’s plan to attack America is stopped.
Unfortunately, Steve and the Red Skull are apparently killed and the Tesseract lost when the plane crashes in Antarctica – until Steve’s body and the Tesseract are recovered from the ice and reawakened by SHIELD in the present day.
When weapons manufacturer, inventor, and absolute cad Tony Stark (the son of Howard Stark) is captured by the terrorist organization the Ten Rings in Afghanistan, he secretly builds a mechanical suit of armor powered by his father’s arc reactor technology to escape – and keep him alive after bomb shrapnel gets lodged in his chest. He returns to the US and builds a new version of the armor and turns over a new leaf, neutralizing warzones as the superhero Iron Man.
When Stark refuses to turn the armor and reactor into a product, his business partner Obadiah Stane attempts to create his own version, though he later dies in battle with Stark. After the dust settles, Stark reveals to the world’s press that he is Iron Man.
In a post-credits scene, Nick Fury of SHIELD visits Stark at home and suggests they talk about the Avengers Initiative…
The Incredible Hulk
The victim of a strange gamma radiation accident, Bruce Banner is tempted back from exile in Brazil in search of a cure – however, the military forces led by General Ross are determined to capture him. When one of Ross’ soldiers, Emil Blonsky, is injured in battle with Banner’s alter-ego, The Hulk, he undergoes an experimental procedure that turns him into the Abomination. Hulk and the Abomination fight in Harlem and the Hulk wins, though the destruction caused leads Banner to return to exile.
Iron Man 2
The US government insists that Stark give them a version of the Iron Man suit, so he eventually allows an older (but ultimately much cooler) model to be piloted by his best friend James Rhodes, aka War Machine, aka the best MCU superhero. Meanwhile, Ivan Vanko – the son of Howard Stark’s business partner – is recruited by Tony’s rival, Justin Hammer, to build Iron Man suits. Vanko tricks Hammer and creates humanoid drones that he sends against Tony and Rhodes, although they are ultimately victorious.
Tony’s new assistant reveals herself to be the Black Widow, an agent of SHIELD, and helps them defeat Hammer and Vanko. Tony and his former assistant Pepper (who we probably should have mentioned earlier but she doesn’t do a lot in the first movie to be fair) begin a relationship.
Heir to the throne of Asgard, Thor is exiled to Earth after disobeying his father Odin. His brother Loki, who is jealous of Thor, attempts to prevent his return and eventually sends the Destroyer to kill Thor.
Aided by Jane Foster, Eric Selvig, and the Warriors Three, Thor manages to defeat the Destroyer, proving in the process that he’s worthy enough to wield his hammer and return to Asgard. Also, Jane and Thor fall in love apparently, although it’s sort of hard to tell from watching the film, and Hawkeye’s around for about 8 seconds.
Thor comes home just in time to save his father from exiting the franchise early at the hands of Loki’s betrayal, and Loki is cast into the exterior darkness.
Loki returns to Earth in an attempt to recover the Tesseract and conquer Earth. Nick Fury assembles the Avengers to stop him. Loki mind controls Hawkeye and Eric Selvig but he’s eventually captured by a combination of Iron Man and Captain America and later Thor turns up to recover him. The Black Widow convinces Bruce Banner to return from exile to assist the team.
Meanwhile, Hawkeye is rescued, but Loki escapes and apparently kills Agent Coulson who had only been making cameos up until now so you’ll have to trust us that this mattered. Loki then attempts to open a portal so that a Chitauri army can attack Earth, but the Avengers succeed in defeating them and capture Loki.
In a post-credits sequence, it’s revealed that Thanos is the one who sent Loki to get the Tesseract.
Iron Man 3
In what is arguably the best MCU movie (depending on who you’re arguing with), Tony Stark is recovering from his experiences defeating the Chitauri when a terrorist named “The Mandarin” begins to threaten his life. Meanwhile, War Machine is rebranded by a Think Tank named AIM as the Iron Patriot.
It soon emerges that AIM is behind both Iron Patriot and the Mandarin, who is actually a disgraced actor named Trevor Slattery. They kidnap the President and Tony succeeds in rescuing him. He also gets the shrapnel removed from his chest, so we don’t have to worry about that plot device anymore.
Thor: The Dark World
When a planetary alignment breaks down the walls between dimensions, Jane Foster wanders into an ancient vault and is attached to the Aether, another infinity stone. Thor brings her to Asgard and Malekith and the Dark Elves attack, while Frigga dies protecting Jane. Malekith gets hold of the Aether and Thor gives chase with Loki, who is apparently killed.
Thor battles Malekith across the dimensions and eventually defeats him with Jane’s help. After rejecting the throne of Asgard, Thor returns to Earth to be with Jane, and Loki is revealed to be alive, but posing as Odin to rule Asgard.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
When Nick Fury is apparently killed, Captain America and the Black Widow uncover something rotten at SHIELD: the organization has been infiltrated by Hydra, which is planning to use three new helicarriers to execute and control the population. While on the run, Steve and Natasha are pursued by the Winter Soldier and join up with Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Nick Fury reveals that he faked his death, and Steve realizes that the Winter Soldier is his friend, Bucky, who is somehow alive but amnesiac. The four heroes eventually take down SHIELD’s helicarriers and Nick Fury heads off to Europe for a vacation.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Abducted from Earth as a child, Peter Quill finds himself on the trail of The Orb (spoilers: another Infinity Stone) as rival forces attempt to obtain it. Ronan, an agent of Thanos, and Nebula, Thanos’ daughter, manage to obtain the stone before Ronan turns rogue against his master and uses it to attack the Nova Corps homeworld.
The Guardians of the Galaxy, comprised of Quill (Star Lord), Gamora, Drax, Groot, and Rocket Raccoon, manage to stop him and, in the process, become a team of space adventurers and surrogate family. How nice. Although Groot is apparently killed, he releases a seedling that later grows into a baby Groot. Also, the Nova Corps takes possession of the Orb so they can keep it safe. Don’t forget that one.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Shortly after the events of the first movie, Peter Quill encounters his biological father, Ego, a celestial who has assumed the form of a planet who has assumed the form of Kurt Russell. The Guardians and Nebula discover Ego’s plan to… er… wait let us get back to you after we’ve read Wikipedia.
Oh right. The Guardians and Nebula discover Ego’s plan to transform thousands of worlds into extensions of himself, potentially killing billions, and defeat him with the help of Yondu, the Ravagers, and Ego’s own ward, Mantis. Sadly Yondu is apparently killed, but the Guardians are rewarded for their bravery as the galaxy’s foremost team of heroes.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
After assembling repeatedly, the Avengers have defeated Hydra and recovered Loki’s scepter. When they dismantle it, they realize it contains an Infinity Stone.
Tony uses the Mind Stone’s protective AI as the basis for a new global defense system called Ultron, but the AI becomes self-aware and attempts to take over the world. Ultron enlists the help of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, two Sokovians who had been radicalized by Hydra and given superpowers.
The Avengers put a combination of JARVIS and the Mind Stone into Ultron’s new body to create the Vision. When the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver realize that Ultron is evil, they turn on him and assist the Avengers, eventually defeating Ultron, but Quicksilver is killed in the fight.
Although they save the world, Sokovia is nearly destroyed in the process. The Vision then executes Ultron, although he does do it very nicely. Meanwhile, Bruce Banner returns to exile and Thor leaves to investigate the constant and worrying appearance of the Infinity Stones.
Reformed criminal Scott Lang is convinced to perform one last heist, breaking into the home of former SHIELD scientist Hank Pym. There, he discovers the Ant-Man suit, which allows him to shrink and talk to ants.
When Pym’s company is threatened by Darren Cross, an evil businessman, Hank’s daughter, Hope, teams up with Scott and his friends to defeat Cross and stop Pym’s technology from being weaponized. Although they have a brief altercation with The Falcon when they attempt to steal a vital component from the Avengers HQ, they successfully defeat Cross.
Proud of his daughter’s achievements, Hank gives her the equipment once meant for her mother so that she can become the Wasp.
Captain America: Civil War
Following the destruction of Sokovia, the World Security Council decides to regulate the actions of super-powered individuals including the Avengers, causing an ideological split in the team – not least because Cap remembers how easily SHIELD was corrupted by Hydra.
When the Winter Soldier resurfaces and is framed by Heinrich Zemo for a fatal attack on the Wakandan King, Cap and Iron Man find themselves on opposite sides of an extremely cool fight as Iron Man attempts to apprehend Bucky and Captain America attempts to prevent him from being apprehended. Although the team apparently reconciles, Stark discovers that it was Bucky who killed his parents and is unable to forgive him or Cap for protecting him.
Several Avengers are imprisoned for breaking the Sokovia Accords, though Cap – still at large – releases them from jail. Black Panther and Spider-Man are also hanging around being cool.
When expert surgeon Stephen Strange is injured in a car accident, he turns to mysticism to repair his hands. Under the tutelage of The Ancient One, Strange masters the mystic arts, even as the disciples of Dormammu attempt to undermine the entire magical order.
Eventually, The Ancient One dies and Strange and his friend Wong are left to defend the world. Strange manages to defeat Dormammu by using the power of the Eye of Agamotto – actually the Time Infinity Stone – trapping them both in a loop until the demon backs down.
Strange abandons his plans to return to surgery while his former partner, Mordo, renounces all magic and decides to remove it from the world permanently.
Following the death of his father at the hands of Zemo, T’Challa (the Black Panther) is crowned King of the futuristic African paradise, Wakanda. Unfortunately, his claim is challenged by Eric Killmonger, the son of an exiled Wakandan who believes the country’s isolationism has caused them to abandon the oppressed. He sort of has a point right?
Unfortunately, his plan is to wage war on the rest of the planet so that’s where the sympathy stops. Aided by his loyal family and generals – Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye – T’Challa reclaims the throne and Killmonger chooses to die to make his point. Meanwhile, under T’Challa, Wakanda decides to open outreach centers across the globe to aid the oppressed. Wakanda forever!
Fresh from the events of Civil War, Spider-Man is given license to be a superhero under the supervision of Tony Stark. Meanwhile, a blue-collar worker named Adrian Toomes sets out on a crime-spree after salvaging alien technology from Loki’s failed invasion.
When Spider-Man defies orders to leave the Toomes case alone, Iron Man strips him of his advanced suit, but Spidey pursues and eventually defeats Toomes. For proving himself, Tony plans to invite him to the Avengers, but Spidey declines in advance thinking it was just another test.
At the climax of the movie, Peter is interrupted mid-costume change by his Aunt May…
Unable to find information about the Infinity Stones, Thor returns to Asgard and finally uncovers the deception by his brother Loki. Aided by Doctor Strange, Thor and Loki attempt to find Odin on Earth just in time to witness him apparently die. With Odin gone, Thor and Loki’s sister, Hela, is released from imprisonment and slaughters many key recurring Asgardians.
Hela exiles Thor and Loki to a planet run by the Grandmaster, who puts Thor into his arena where he faces the Hulk, who was transported there following the events of Age of Ultron. Aided by a former Valkyrie, Thor, Loki, and the Hulk escape the Grandmaster and manage to take down Hela by releasing the fire demon Surtur. Asgard is lost, but not before Loki can steal the Tesseract from Odin’s vault.
Thor and the remaining Asgardians head out on a ship to find a new world only to be confronted by Thanos’ vessel…
Avengers: Infinity War
Thanos and the Black Order, having stolen the power gem from the Nova Corps, attacks the Asgardians in an attempt to recover the Tesseract from Loki. They succeed, apparently killing Loki, but the Hulk is able to return back to Earth while Thor is left adrift in space. Thor encounters the Guardians of the Galaxy, who recognize him as a fellow warrior in the fight against Thanos and assist him in creating a weapon to defeat Thanos.
Back on Earth, Banner warns Doctor Strange of the threat that’s coming and the disbanded Avengers face the Black Order, though the Hulk refuses to come out and fight. Stark, Strange, and Spider-Man head into space to fight Thanos, meeting the Guardians and Nebula along the way.
Thanos, meanwhile, is assembling the rest of the Infinity Stones, and sacrifices his daughter Gamora to unlock the Soul Stone. Strange and pals directly assault Thanos but are unable to stop him from escaping to Earth. Strange points out that they are now in the endgame, which is actually a reference to the title of the next Avengers movie.
When Thanos reaches Earth, he kills the Vision and completes the set of Infinity Stones, then enacts his plan to wipe out 50% of the universe’s population. Most of the Avengers apparently die, Thanos retires to tend a farm, and then in a post-credits scene, we see Nick Fury summon Captain Marvel on a pager before he too apparently dies.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
After being penalized for illegally assisting Captain America during the events of Civil War, Scott Lang is finally ready to leave house arrest and rejoin society. Unfortunately, he becomes re-entangled with the likes of Hope and Hank Pym when it turns out he has a connection to the missing Janet Pym, who has been trapped in the Quantum Realm.
The group ends up fighting the Ghost, a villain who wants to use Scott’s connection to the Quantum Realm to cure herself. Working together with Hank’s former partner, Bill Foster, they are able to save Janet and work on a cure for the Ghost.
However, in a post-credits scene, Hank, Janet, and Hope apparently die and Scott is stuck in the Quantum Realm. This may become important later.
And that, more or less, brings us all up to date for Captain Marvel…