A Non-Fan’s guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe before Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame releases in 28 days. It is going to be a cinematic phenomenon on par with the first Star Wars reboot. But it’s also the 21st film in an increasingly interconnected series. And if the last one is anything to go by, the Russo Brothers will not be giving us much exposition to help people who aren’t caught up.

Not all of us have seen every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or remember every detail. And with 19 films out already and another in theaters, it’s not feasible for people to go from 0 to 100 in time for the release date. But not all those movies are necessary to get the later ones. The story of the MCU isn’t a straight line like the Harry Potter Series. It’s more like a tree, which branches out over time. And some of those branches are dead ends.

This guide will explain which movies are dead-ends, and which ones are must-watch. It will also cover the “summary” movies, movies which are relevant to the ongoing story, but in small enough ways that you can get by with a quick refresher. Ideally, you should be able to understand everything happening in Avengers: Endgame, just by watching all the “Must-Watch” movies on this list and reading the summaries I’ve written for the others. And because people do have social lives, there will be only 8 must-watches. That’s enough that, if you start this weekend, you only have to watch one movie every Friday and Saturday evening. Steep, but manageable, and even easier if you’ve already seen one or two of the must-watches.

Bear in mind: this is NOT a list of which Marvel movies are the best, or most important. This is a guide for how to get up to speed in time for Avengers: Endgame. That means cutting out some movies that are otherwise very good, but ultimately skippable within the current continuity.If you go by this list, you will miss four of my top five MCU flicks. So, if you enjoy the ones you do see, consider going back and checking out the ones I’ve only summarized.

With that in mind, let’s dive right in.

Iron Man (2008): Must Watch

You can’t skip the first movie in the MCU. It’s what sets the stage for all the rest. You need to know who Iron Man is, and what makes him tick, because he’s a critical character in all the later movies. But more importantly, you need to get used to the tone of these films, and how they start to fit together. Do not miss this one.

The Incredible Hulk (2008): Skip

Not only does this movie not add any important detail to the continuity, watching it will actively make you more confused. It is the easiest skip in the entire series.

Iron Man 2 (2010): Summary

SOME SPOILERS AHEAD: Iron Man 2 is almost completely skippable, but there are a few details you need from it. The important parts are:

1. Pepper and Tony Stark are dating now, 2. his buddy Rhodey now has his own suit called War Machine that’s based off Tony’s old tech, and 3. there’s a badass secret agent working for Nick Fury and played by Scarlett Johannsen. Her name is Black Widow.

Thor (2011): Must Watch

Thor is a kinda unremarkable movie on its own, but, and I speak from experience here, if you try to watch the Avengers without seeing it first, you will be VERY confused. Thor and Loki don’t get much of an introduction in The Avengers, and you need to know who they are. A summary won’t do it. Just watch this one.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Summary

Captain America, on the other hand, gets a pretty good intro in the next must-watch movie, so you don’t need to see this one as badly. The important details:

Captain America is a super-soldier created during World War II to fight the Germans. Specifically, he got sent after their special science division, Hydra. Hydra had a blue cube called The Tesseract that they used as a power source for all kinds of lasers and shit that you don’t want Nazis to have. They win, but his best friend Bucky gets killed and the Tesseract gets lost for days. You’ll understand how he’s still alive in the present when you watch the next movie.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012): Must Watch

Chances are, you’ve already seen this one, because everyone’s seen this one. But on the off chance you haven’t, yes, you have to see it before Avengers: Endgame.

Iron Man 3 (2013): Skip

There is precisely one important thing from this movie: Tony Stark has made a LOT of Iron Man suits now, and he’s gotten really good at it. He can also get one on and off with basically no outside help now.

Not only is there nothing else of significance in this movie, other plot points in it will actively confuse you without some added context. It’s a good movie, but skippable.

Thor: The Dark World (2013): Skip

This is probably either the second- or third- worst movie in the MCU, and is famous for not changing the greater story at all. The only thing you need to know is that something called an “Infinity Stone” is now in the hands of a creepy dude called “The Collector”.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): Try to Watch

If you’ve already seen one of the Must-watch movies and you still have time, this is the one you should replace it with. It’s amazing and important, but not /quite/ as important as some of the others. Key details:

Remember how Captain America’s friend Bucky was killed? Just kidding. He’s alive, he’s got a super-strong metal arm, and he’s been brainwashed into being a villainous assassin. This guy:


You know Shield, Nick Fury’s organization with the helicarrier? It’s collapsed. It is no more. And since it was keeping Loki’s scepter from the Avengers safe, it’s lost.

Black Widow and Steve are good friends now.

And Captain America has a black sidekick in a flying metal suit, now, too. His name is Sam Wilson AKA The Falcon, and he’s got this fancy wingsuit that lets him fly. He’s also got machine guns. He’s not a /major/ figure in the later movies, but keep an eye out for him. This guy:


And seriously, just watch this movie if there’s any way you can fit it in.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Must Watch

This movie is about an entire team of other heroes, separate from the Avengers, and you aren’t getting any better introduction for who they are. It also covers a pile of other important details in other movies. Don’t miss it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Must Watch

It’s a close call between this one and Winter Soldier, but ultimately the characters you meet in this movie are more important to the rest of the plot than the ones you meet in Winter Soldier, AND it does more to set up future movies. You will definitely be confused by later movies if you skip Age of Ultron.


Ant-Man (2015): Skip

Ant-Man is a dude named Scott Lang who has a suit that can make him shrink. He’s a cool guy.


He’s also had some run-ins with the “Quantum Realm”. Basically, if his shrinking tech breaks the right way, he’ll just keep shrinking until quantum physics takes over and he’s in this weird other world with different laws of physics from our own. It’s really trippy, and it might be important later.

Captain America: Civil War (2016): Must Watch

There is so much in this movie that you need to know to understand what’s happening later on. It’s basically Avengers 2.5. Do yourself a favor and watch this one.

Doctor Strange (2016): Summary

Doctor Strange is a really important character in future movies, and you will be confused if you don’t watch this one. But he’s only one character, and other movies are more important. After Winter Soldier, this is probably the one you should see for maximum comprehension. Here are the details:


This is Doctor Strange. That isn’t a codename, he’s a literal doctor named Steven Strange. Because of shenanigans, he becomes a very powerful wizard charged with protecting the earth from magical threats. He’s got a sidekick named Wong who is also a sorcerer, and a living cape that has more personality than half the villains in these movies. Oh, and you know those Infinity Stones everyone keeps talking about? He wears one around his neck like some all-powerful bling. It’s the Time Stone.

With that one, quick recap on Infinity Stones. There are six of them in total. We know where five of them are. The Tesseract (Space Stone) is stashed away in Odin’s vaults on Asgard. The Reality Stone is with the Collector, that dude from Guardians of the Galaxy (mentioned in Thor 2). The Power Stone is kept in a vault by the Nova Corps, also from Guardians of the Galaxy. The Mind Stone is in Vision’s forehead. And the Time Stone is wonderfully accenting Doctor Strange’s aesthetic. The sixth is MIA.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017): Summary

Key details:

Remember Nebula, the blue cyborg lady? She and Gamora have made up. She’s got a ship and she’s trying to hunt Thanos.

The Guardians have a new member now. Her name is Mantis, she has the power to make people sleep by touching them and to read their feelings like telepathy for emotions, and she is the most adorable special snowflake who must be protected. This is her:


Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017): Skip

This movie is amazing and you should definitely go back and watch it. It also has basically nothing important to the greater story. You already know Spider-Man, because he was in Civil War. There aren’t any new characters. But seriously. It’s really fun. And you should see it when you get the chance.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): Must Watch

If you skip this movie, when you start Infinity War, you will have no idea what is happening. It’s also probably the funniest movie in the entire MCU. You can’t miss it.

Black Panther (2018): Summary

It hurts to say it, because this movie is amazing, but like Spider-Man, you already know this guy from Civil War. You should see it, like, if you haven’t already you’re missing out, but you don’t have to see it before Endgame.

Key details:

Black Panther’s country of Wakanda isn’t actually a poor third-world nation. It’s African Atlantis, a hidden super-advanced civilization where everything is made of Vibranium like Captain America’s Shield. He’s got a little sister named Shuri who makes all the tech, she’s super smart and super snarky. The captain of his personal guard is a bald warrior woman named Okoye, this lady:


Honestly, just watch this movie if you can. It’s so good.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018): Must Watch

I know. Shocker.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018): Skip

Remember that Quantum Realm stuff? He has a portal that can take him there and back safely now. Oh, and that thing at the end of Infinity War also was a thing with his sidekicks, and he’s stuck in the Quantum Realm because of it. That’s all.

Captain Marvel (2019): Summary

This is an important one, but it’s still in theaters so watching it’s a bit more of a hassle, so key details:


That’s Captain Marvel. She went through some shenanigans and came out with all kinds of super powers. She can fly, breathe in space, I’m pretty sure she’s bulletproof, she can shoot giant destructive laser beams from her hands, she’s super strong, super fast, she’s got a Thor-level power suite. She’s been away from Earth since the 1990s, but back then she was good friends with Nick Fury. Remember the Kree, bad guys from Guardians of the Galaxy 1? She’s got a history with them. It’s complicated.

Avengers: Endgame (2019): Must Watch

If you want to understand what happens in Avengers: Endgame, watching Avengers: Endgame is probably a good idea.

What to Watch if You Have Extra Time

If you only see the Must-Watch movies in this list and read the summaries for the rest, you will probably understand 95% of what you see in Avengers: Endgame. But understanding is not the same as appreciating, and there is a LOT of extra detail and character development that you’ll miss if you stick to this list. So if you have extra time, of if you’ve seen some of the must-watches, here’s a rough list of which movies you should try to squeeze in.

  1. Captain America: the Winter Soldier. It’s by far the most important one of these movies if you want to understand what happens, and it’s one of the best movies in the MCU. It’s your top priority.
  2. Doctor Strange/Black Panther. Doctor Strange plays a bigger part in the next few movies, so you’ll be less confused if you watch it. On the other hand, Black Panther is a better movie, and it’s kind of a cultural phenomenon on its own. Depending on your priorities, you should pick one or the other.
  3. Captain Marvel/Spider-Man: Homecoming. Captain Marvel is still in theaters, of course, but she’s probably gonna be important in Avengers: Endgame, and she isn’t in any of the other movies. On the other hand, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a better movie overall, and it’s easier to find.
  4. Ant-Man and the Wasp. If you do this one, read up on what happened in the first one in more detail than I gave. There are a lot of characters and abilities that are important in the Ant-Man movies but don’t come up in the crossovers. I only mention it because it’s on Netflix right now.

After those, you can really add any movie you want. Just make sure if possible to watch them in the order they were released, because it gets complicated otherwise. Also, add Thor 2, Iron Man 2 and 3, and Hulk last. They add the least to your overall viewing experience, and they’re all worse than the other skip movies.


The Marvel Cinematic Universe can be daunting for new viewers. There are so many movies, and they’re so connected, that it’s easy to get lost in the continuity or to give up before watching one of the main events.

But it doesn’t have to be. Even now, a month away from the Endgame, there is still plenty of time to get on this hype train before it leaves. You might not be able to get the full Marvel fan experience, but if you haven’t already seen some of these movies, chances are that’s not something you want anyways. And if you follow this guide, you’ll be fully up to speed by the time Endgame releases, without even having to spend the entire time glued to a screen.

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