Ultimate Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): Phase 1

Ultimate Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): Phase 1

The MCU changed the name of the game for superhero franchises. In the past, there had been several iterations of the Batman, Superman, and Spiderman series’. But the MCU has somehow managed to make 21 (so far) superhero movies in an intertwined universe. And people are even more invested now than they were 15 movies ago!

One downside to such a vast series is the sheer amount of content to watch if you’re just now catching up! Luckily for you, we’ve condensed the first 21 movies in the MCU with the major plot points and highlights you need to know to understand the most highly anticipated installment in the franchise.

Avengers: Endgame, premiering April 26th, 2019

Please note, we listed these in the order the movie released, which is not actually chronological order. Similar to Star Wars, the order you watch is based on preference. I prefer to watch them in release order, since the reveals are more meaningful that way. But to each their own! Here is a list of the films, and the counterpart Marvel TV shows in chronological order.

The movies are full of wit, humor, and action. And you would definitely benefit from having seen them in full! But if you’re just wanting a refresher on the ones you’ve already seen, or want to jump in at the end with Avengers: Endgame, the recap should help!

Iron Man

In the first official film in the MCU, we meet everyone’s favorite billionaire, genius, playboy philanthropist, Tony Stark. Stark Industries manufacturers military weapons, and Tony visits the Middle East for a demonstration. His convoy is ambushed, and Tony is left with shrapnel in his chest, inching towards his heart.

A terrorist group kidnaps Tony and commission him to build them a bomb. His cellmate is a doctor and designs an electromagnet that will keep the shrapnel from his heart. Under the guise of building a bomb for the terrorists, Tony instead builds a super suit to aid in his escape. Once back home Tony announces that his company will no longer be manufacturing military weapons.

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go over well, and his colleague Stane stages a coup to take over as CEO of Stark Industries. After a few near death experiences, Tony manages to defeat Stane using the new and improved suit he built at home. He decides to forego the usual superhero secrecy and announce to the world that he is Iron Man. At the conclusion of the film, Nick Fury visits Tony, informing him of the Avengers Initiative.

The Incredible Hulk

This is essentially the least popular movies in the MCU. It is mostly a stand-alone film and doesn’t have much impact on the rest of the MCU. One thing worth noting is the cast change from this film to the rest of the franchise. Edward Norton stars as Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, and Mark Ruffalo took over the role for the remaining films.

We’ll keep this synopsis brief! Scientist Bruce Banner is working to recreate the Super Soldier serum. *see Captain America below* In an experiment gone wrong, he is exposed to mass quantities of gamma radiation. The radiation has given him the power to unleash his alter ego, The Hulk. Controlling his powers, or lack of, is a recurring theme throughout the MCU.

Iron Man 2

In the second installment in the Iron Man arc, Vanko, son of Tony’s father’s former business partner has taken up arms against Stark Industries. Vanko builds his own version of the arc reactor and uses it to create electrified whips he attempts to kill Tony with. Vanko says he has attacked Tony to prove to the world that Iron Man is in fact human.

Tony has stood firmly against selling his suit designs to the military. But after a fight with his best friend, Rhodes takes the Mark II for the air force to use. The Mark II suit, combined with Vanko’s arc reactor gives the military the ability to weaponize the suits. After a hefty, airborne battle, Vanko commits suicide by blowing up the suit he is wearing.

Nick Fury arrives to tell Tony of his father’s former allegiance to S.H.I.E.L.D. But informs him that because of his difficult personality he’ll be only a consultant. The end credits tease the next movie, Thor, by showing a large hammer in the middle of a crater in New Mexico.


Thor is the charming God of Thunder from the outside planet of Asgard. His father Odin, the King of Asgard, has been preparing Thor to take over the kingdom. But his ego gets the best of him in a battle, and he ends up destroying the fragile truce Asgard has held with the Frost Giants. Odin punishes him by stripping him of his powers and sending him to earth.

It is here, in New Mexico, that Thor meets scientist Dr. Jane Foster and her mentor Dr. Eric Selvig. Thor attempts to retrieve his hammer, Mjolnir, but S.H.I.E.L.D. is on the scene and confiscates it. In a disheartening moment, Thor realizes that after Odin stripped him of his powers, he cannot hold Mjolnir anymore. He has to prove his godhood to retrieve the hammer. *Hercules vibes anyone?*

Back on Asgard, Thor’s brother Loki discovers that he is actually adopted. Once Odin fades into Odinsleep, Loki takes over as king in his stead. Loki sends The Destroyer to kill Thor’s friends who have gone to earth to rescue him from exile. Thor almost dies to save his friends and is then restored of his powers and godhood.

Odin wakes in time to stop Loki, who is attempting to destroy the Bifrost, a bridge between worlds. When faced with his father’s disappointment, Loki seemingly commits suicide by letting himself fall off the bridge. In the end credits scene, Nick Fury is showing a mysterious blue cube to Dr. Selvig, saying it may contain untold powers. An invisible Loki uses his mind control powers to prompt Dr. Selvig to agree with Fury. We will come to learn that this is the Tesseract, and contains the Space Stone, one of six infinity stones.

Captain America: The First Avenger

In the Arctic in 1942, Nazi scientist Johann Schmidt discovers and steals the tesseract, realizing it had enormous power! Back in NYC, Steve Rogers is trying to enlist in the Army to serve in World War II. After several rejections due to his physical ailments, he is allowed to join, with one caveat. He will be a test subject of a new super soldier serum.

Soon after the successful experiment, the scientist who performed it is murdered, and his serum lost. The Army begins parading Steve around on tour, not exactly what he signed up for. While on tour he hears that his best friend Bucky Barnes’ unit has gone MIA in a battle against Johann Schmidt’s forces. With the help of Agent Peggy Carter, and Howard Stark (Tony’s dad!) he launches a solo rescue mission behind enemy lines.

He infiltrates Schmidt’s Nazi division, Hydra, and frees Bucky and his fellow soldiers. Steve and his friends plan an attack on Schmidt’s bases, and Howard Stark gives him his signature vibranium shield. During the mission, Schmidt removes his mask, revealing a red, skull-like face, hence the nickname Red Skull. Red Skull is planning on using the power of the tesseract to attack major American cities. The soldiers thwart his plans and the tesseract is retrieved, but Bucky falls off a moving train and dies in the battle.

Upon return the tesseract burns a hole in the plane carrying it and falls into the arctic ocean. Steve can’t find anywhere to land, he crashes the plane into the arctic as well. Stark is able to recover the Tesseract, but cannot find Steve Rogers, presuming him dead. Rogers then reawakens 70 years later in modern day NYC. In the post-credits scene, Nick Fury approaches him about joining the Avengers Initiative.

The Avengers

With the Avengers, the MCU manages to intertwine the first 5 films, like no franchise has before. Remember Loki, the God of chaos? Well, he’s back and up to no good. He’s struck a deal with the leader of the Chitauri race, and plans to retrieve the Tesseract for him in exchange for an army to conquer Earth with. He uses a wormhole to reach earth and steal the Tesseract. Then uses his mind control powers to take Dr. Selvig and Hawkeye under his control. Fury uses the attack to bring The Avengers together, including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and the Hulk. When Hawkeye isn’t being controlled by Asgardian gods, he is also a member of the Avengers team.

Loki tries to distract the group while Hawkeye steals an element needed to stabilize the Tesseract’s power. Loki is captured during the distraction and escorted to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. In route to S.H.I.E.L.D., Thor releases his adoptive brother, hoping he will abandon his plan and return to Asgard. Loki doesn’t get far before he is recaptured. Now with the Avengers torn over how to deal with him, and the knowledge that S.H.I.E.L.D. wants to weaponize the Tesseract. The conflicting personalities and egos throughout the team don’t help their case either.

Loki escapes after killing fan favorite, Agent Phil Coulson. Then uses the Tesseract to open a wormhole above Stark Tower in NYC. The Avengers reconvene to fight Loki’s incoming army, ending with Stark redirecting a nuclear missile at the Chitauri mothership. Thor then returns Loki and the Tesseract to Asgard, where they will be under close watch. In the end credits scene, Nick Fury reports that the Avengers will be ready to come back together if needed.