This post is for my brother, who has only a passing interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a son who really wants to see Avengers: Endgame.
He's only seen a handful of MCU movies, including the first Captain America, The Avengers, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Black Panther.
Those of us who've seen all the MCU movies know how much impact Endgame can have. I can only imagine confusion from anyone who hasn't seen all the movies. This handy guide is intended to help my brother get the most out of his viewing of Endgame. It's a noble goal that's probably futile, but hey, I like to write stuff.
MCU vital statistics:
- The MCU spans 22 movies so far, if you count Endgame (the 23rd movie will be Spider-Man: Far from Home in July)
- There are three phases of the cinematic universe
- Phase I includes Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers
- Phase II includes Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man
- Phase III includes Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2., Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnorak, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War; Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far from Home
- There are six Infinity Stones: Mind, Soul, Power, Space, Time, and Reality
Simplified plot summaries
Iron Man: Arms manufacturer and billionaire Tony Stark is wounded during a kidnapping attempt in the Middle East. He escapes by making a suit of armor and becomes obsessed with upgrading that armor to become a superhero. His best friend is James "Rhodey" Rhodes. He harbors a great deal of affection for his assistant, the put-upon Pepper Potts.
In this movie, he perfects the Iron Man armor and reveals to the world that he's a superhero, dramatically declaring, "I am Iron Man."
At the end of the credits, a man named Nick Fury approaches him about "The Avenger Initiative."
The Incredible Hulk: Dr. Bruce Banner can't contain the anger inside, which manifests itself as a green creature full of rage known as the Incredible Hulk. You know the story.
This mostly forgettable entry is notable for introducing us to General Thunderbolt Ross, who later becomes the Secretary of State in the MCU.
Iron Man 2: The sequel is notable for introducing Natasha Romanoff, the spy/assassin better known as "Black Widow." Tony continues to upgrade his Iron Man armor and runs afoul of a villain named Whiplash and another weapons manufacturer named Justin Hammer. Ultimately, Iron Man wins the day and his friend, Rhodey, gets a suit of armor of his own and becomes "War Machine."
Pepper and Tony further enrich their relationship.
Thor: Thor is a prince of Asgard, a technologically advanced society based in Norse mythology. His hammer, Mjolnir, can only be wielded by someone who is worthy. He has a brother, the clever but unbalanced Loki, who is adopted and resents Thor's status as heir to Asgard. Their father is Odin.
After ticking off his father, Thor is banished to Earth without his powers and unable to wield his hammer. He falls in love with a woman named Jane Foster, becomes worthy of Mjolnir once more, and returns to Asgard to face Loki. Loki, who has plotted to gain the throne and prove himself worthy of being a king, loses their battle and drifts off into space.
Captain America: The First Avenger: Scrawny guy Steve Rogers keeps trying to enlist in the Army to fight in World War II even though he's physically weak. His best friend, Bucky Barnes, heads off for war. A doctor sees something in Steve and offers him a chance to become a candidate in the Super Soldier Program.
Steve takes the Super Soldier Serum, which turns him into a "peak human" with exceptional size, strength, and speed. He remains a "good man" at heart and never gives up. After the doctor dies, Steve tours the country as "Captain America" to raise money for the war effort.
He eventually makes it to Europe, rescues a bunch of soldiers (including Bucky), and fights a bad guy named Red Skull, the leader of a Nazi offshoot called HYDRA. His reunion with Bucky is short-lived however, and Bucky dies during an attack on a HYDRA convoy (he's not really dead, though).
Steve also falls in love with a British Agent named Peggy Carter, but their story is cut short when Steve sacrifices himself by crashing a plane filled with explosives in the Arctic.
He remains frozen for 70 years before he's revived and brought to the present day.
Also, there's a very important object known as the Tesseract, which is the Space Stone.
The Avengers: Thor's brother Loki comes to Earth with a scepter powered by the Mind Stone in order to steal the Tesseract. He's working for a being called Thanos to take over the Earth. Only the Avengers stand in his way.
The team includes Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk. Also along for the ride are Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow, the spy introduced in the second Iron Man) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye, an expert archer).
Captain America and Iron Man, in particular, have trouble connecting. Although I didn't mention it in the Captain America summary, Cap worked with Tony's father, Howard, who had a lot of respect for Cap. Tony has a strained relationship with his father, who died in a car crash in the 1990s.
The team doesn't work well together at first but eventually gets it together and defeats Loki.
The Mind Stone is turned over to SHIELD while Thor takes Loki back to Asgard with the Tesseract/Space Stone.
Iron Man 3: Tony Stark defeats a villain called the Mandarin in a movie that's more of an action comedy than a superhero entry. Nothing major really happens that affects the overall MCU.
Thor: The Dark World: A Dark Elf lusts after the Aether, which is the Reality Stone. The Aether attaches itself to Thor's girlfriend, Jane Foster, who must be taken to Asgard in order to be cured.
Thor's mother, Frigga, is killed in the movie (important for Endgame). She's played by Rene Russo...Tom Berenger's girlfriend in Major League.
After some interdimensional shenanigans, the Aether is removed from Jane Foster and taken to a safe place. Loki fakes his own death and assumes the identity of Odin.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Cap learns that SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA for decades. He manages to stop HYDRA's plan to kill millions of people perceived as "threats" to HYDRA's new world order.
Cap also meets the Winter Soldier, HYDRA's top assassin, who turns out to be the not-so-dead Bucky Barnes. Bucky has been brainwashed for years and doesn't know who he is. They fight at the end but Bucky ultimately prevents Cap from drowning and then disappears into obscurity.
Guardians of the Galaxy: An idiot from Earth named Star-Lord teams up with a talking raccoon, a talking tree, a green alien woman, and a warrior who takes everything too literally. It's better than it sounds.
This movie is notable for introducing the Power Stone. Thanos makes an appearance here as well. He's the "father" of the green alien woman (Gamora) and her sister (Nebula). These relationships are very important for Infinity War and Endgame.
Avengers: Age of Ultron: This movie is notable for introducing Vision, an android powered by the Mind Stone, as well as Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlet Witch) and her brother Pietro (don't get too attached).
Strains appear in the relationship between Cap and Iron Man. Black Widow and Hulk have an ill-fated romance (important for Endgame). Iron Man creates an advanced AI named Ultron that tries to destroy the world and kills several people in a country called Sokovia.
And, very important to Endgame, we learn that Hawkeye (the archer) is a family man. Only Black Widow is aware of this.
The Incredible Hulk blasts off into space at the end.
Ant-Man: Thief Scott Lang finds a suit that allows him to shrink down to the size of an ant. He works with Hank Pym and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne, to stop a generic CEO-ish supervillain from misusing a similar shrinking suit. HYDRA goons are also involved.
Notably, Scott is a convicted thief who has a daughter named Cassie. She means everything in the world to him.
This movie is one you should probably see because it's a light-hearted comedy. It also introduces the concept of the Quantum Realm, a plane of existence where the rules of time and space work differently than they do in our world.
Captain America: Civil War: After the disaster in Age of Ultron, world governments want to hold the Avengers accountable with the Sokovia Accords. Iron Man wants everyone to sign up, but Cap refuses, creating a rift that splits the Avengers into factions.
Vision and Scarlet Witch have a romance. Bucky is framed for a bombing that kills the leader of Wakanda, whose son is the Black Panther. Hawkeye comes "out of retirement" to fight for Cap's side. Falcon recruits Ant-Man for Cap's side. Iron Man recruits a kid named Peter Parker (you know Spider-Man!) to help him.
- Team Cap: Cap, Bucky, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man
- Team Iron Man: Iron Man, War Machine, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Black Widow, and Vision
In the end, Iron Man learns Bucky was framed for the bombing. However, he discovers that Bucky is responsible for killing his parents when HYDRA brainwashed him. Cap knew but didn't tell Iron Man, creating a rift that won't heal for years and leaves the Avengers splintered when Thanos puts his plans into action.
This movie does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of character work leading up to Infinity War.
Doctor Strange: A brilliant but arrogant surgeon severely injures his hands and seeks help through "alternative therapy" (um, it's magic). He learns to become a sorcerer and stops a plot from the "Dark Dimension" to take over Earth.
Dr. Strange possesses the Time Stone, which grants kind of unspecific abilities regarding time. This means we've now encountered the Mind, Space (Tesseract), Reality (Aether), Power, and Time Stones, leaving only the Soul Stone undiscovered so far.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: There are no more Time Stone shenanigans here, but we learn more about Star-Lord's background. All the Guardians are back, though Star-Lord and Gamora are in a relationship now (important for Infinity War and Endgame).
Also, Gamora and Nebula, the "daughters" of Thanos, start to repair their fractured relationship. There's a lot of entertaining stuff in this movie, but not much of it impacts the overall MCU.
Spider-Man: Homecoming: You've seen this one, so I won't go into too much detail. Just remember that Iron Man recruited Spider-Man, who is kind of a surrogate son to him. Spidey looks up to Iron Man and is eager to please.
Thor: Ragnorak: Thor and Loki learn they have a sister named Hela who's bent on taking over Asgard once their father, Odin, dies. Thor and Loki end up on a backwater world where Thor is forced to become a gladiator. He fights the Incredible Hulk, who ended up on the same planet after Age of Ultron.
They eventually escape and return to Asgard. However, Thor's home planet is destroyed and Hela is killed. Loki, because he's Loki, takes the Space Stone (Tesseract) from Asgard.
Thor takes the remaining Asgardians into space in order to find a new home. Unfortunately, they run into Thanos instead.
Black Panther: You've seen this one, so I'll keep it brief. Black Panther is an awesome hero with awesome allies. He's working to deprogram Cap's friend Bucky. This movie also gives us a compelling villain in Killmonger.
Avengers: Infinity War: You have to watch this one to understand anything about Endgame. Thanos collects all the Infinity Stones. He kills Loki and half of Thor's Asgardian survivors, acquiring the Space Stone (Tesseract) along the way. He already has the Power Stone.
His wants to collect all the Stones and embed them in his Infinity Gauntlet. He sees overpopulation and inadequate resources as an obstacle to the continuation of life in the universe and plans to snap half of all life out of existence. This dude is completely committed to the cause.
Thor joins up with Star-Lord and the Guardians of the Galaxy. They eventually split up; Thor goes to acquire a weapon that can kill Thanos while Star-Lord and his friends go to retrieve the Reality Stone (Aether). Star-Lord and his friends encounter Thanos, who already has the Reality Stone and kidnaps Gamora.
Thanos sacrifices Gamora to acquire the Soul Stone, the only Infinity Stone we haven't encountered yet. In order to earn that one, you must sacrifice something you love. This plays another major role in Endgame.
Dr. Strange refuses to give up the Time Stone and tells Iron Man he will do anything to keep it safe, even if it involves letting Iron Man or anyone else die. He eventually relents when Thanos is about to kill Iron Man, giving up the Time Stone in a surprising move that speaks to Iron Man's importance in the future.
Meantime, Cap, Black Panther, and their allies mount a furious defense in Wakanda, where they're trying to keep the Vision safe (he has the Mind Stone embedded in him). They face an onslaught from Thanos' army and hold them off for a bit.
Despite their efforts, Thanos kills Vision and gets the Mind Stone, giving him a complete set. Thor makes a timely appearance and almost kills Thanos. Still, the villain manages to snap his fingers, using his Infinity Gauntlet to harness the terrible powers of the collected Infinity Stones.
Half the universe dies as a result.
- Snapped Heroes: Bucky, Falcon, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord, Groot (talking tree), Drax (literal warrior guy)
- Unsnapped Heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Hulk, Thor, War Machine, Nebula (Thanos' other "daughter"), Rocket (talking raccoon)
- Dead Heroes: Loki, Gamora, Vision (all died before the Snap)
Ant-Man and the Wasp: As a whole, this movie is simply another fun Ant-Man caper filled with humor. The end credits scene, however, introduces us to the concept of "time vortexes" within the Quantum Realm. Ant-Man becomes trapped in the Quantum Realm after Thanos' Snap.
Captain Marvel: Notable for introducing Captain Marvel, who plays a small but important role in Endgame. She's a super-powerful hero originally from Earth who has spent the last couple decades patrolling in space. She's a friend of Nick Fury and inspires his idea for "The Avenger Initiative."