At this point, the MCU is now a little longer than 150 hours of content. Fourteen films, ten seasons of five television shows, and some short films make up a massive film and television narrative that is interconnected in a multitude of ways. The danger for the MCU at this point is that it is just too big and complex to welcome new fans. If a Marvel fan, for example, were to begin dating a non-Marvelite, where would they even begin in sharing their favorite films and TV? Fear not true believers! We have a guide for you. We’ll help you prioritize what is most important in order to get an MCU initiate up to speed.
A couple of notes on this article. One, we are going to use the general metaphor of building a home. The metaphor is fleshed out below, but the general idea is that the MCU has three levels. The foundation, the frame and the decorations. Two, this is a completely subjective experience. Feel free to sound off in the comments, but remember this is only one opinion. And opinions are like butts: everyone has one and most of them stink. Third, this may not be the best way to watch the MCU. Watching all the properties in order of release is likely still the best idea, it just will take months or nightly viewing. Finally, remember that the goal here is to get someone up to speed as quickly as possible. Your favorite property may be declared superfluous to the main story, but that doesn’t mean we think it’s bad. In fact, some of the best MCU properties are great in large part because they aren’t heavily tied into the larger narrative. If you’d like an attempt to rate the quality of the films, check out our staff rankings.
The foundation of a house is its most basic element. For our metaphor, foundation properties are essential viewing and they determine the scope of the universe. Once a foundation is laid for a home, everything else has to fit into that blueprint. Watching these movies is the bare minimum someone needs to watch in order to make heads or tails of the overall story.
Iron Man-The reason this movie made the cut for this tier is that it sets up the world before heroes. Super powers proliferate the MCU quickly, but people are always talking about this as a new development in history. When you watch the journey of Tony Stark, you see the base level. Also, Robert Downey Jr. is the most pivotal and marketable star in the whole universe. His introduction is in some ways the magic sauce that made the universe work. It helps that this movie is also just so watchable.
Avengers-It would be easy to consider every solo movie essential viewing, but Avengers is a truly special film. Director Joss Whedon managed to make a movie that did many things at once, and one of them is to reintroduce all the main characters so that new fans aren’t left behind. The script provides enough grounding for all six Avengers that you can skip the origin stories and keep moving. This movie is also essential for showing how the team up films and solo movies relate to one another. Loki and his alien horde also show the way cosmic threats will play into the universe, as well as being the impetus for so many other plots in other properties. “The Incident” still roots much of what follows.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier-In many ways Marvel reset the universe with this movie. Without giving away the twist, the main structures which have held the universe together receive a massive shake. If you try to watch the later movies without watching this one, you will keep asking “Where did X go?” or “Why are things so different?” This film also shows a new viewer how varied tones can be from film to film in the MCU.
Avengers: Age of Ultron-It would be easy to look past this movie because it was such a disappointment to so many people. But the reality of the situation is that this story matters. Much of Phase Three is set up by the logic of the film’s plot. The Avengers make some terrible mistakes and innocent people die as a result. Throughout the universe, the failures of heroes in this movie send shockwaves, including the eventual Sokovia Accords. Also, several main characters in the universe appear for the first time in Age of Ultron.
Captain America: Civil War-At this point, Cap’s third adventure is provisionally put in this category. If the Sokovia Accords and the relationship fallout between Captain America and Iron Man lingers for several films, then this movie will continue to remain essential viewing. Certainly the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War will pick up in a place where this film is required for understanding what all is happening. The introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther are vital too.
The frame of a house is its overall shape, within the parameters of the foundation. For our metaphor, frame properties are important viewing and they determine the shape of the universe. They don’t break new ground, but they show the features of the universe and layout of the story. These movies aren’t essential to enjoying what’s coming but will clear up a ton of questions about details.
Thor-One question new fans will inevitably have is, “What does it mean to be a ‘god’ in the MCU? How do the Norse deities fit into the concept of the overall universe?” Thor does a good job of balancing the fantastic elements of Asgard with some sort of grounded explanation of what these beings are. Many supernatural or fantastic elements in the MCU will follow a similar approach of blending the fantastic with the scientific.
Captain America: The First Avenger-A little sub-pocket of the MCU is the WWII era. While Iron Man is the true start of superheroes, in a way the Super Soldier program and early SSR set the roots of powered people. While the main movie storyline only requires a little of Steve Rogers’ story to make sense, other properties like Agent Carter need this film as background.
Guardians of the Galaxy-Space is another important corner of the MCU. The existence of aliens is made clear in Avengers, but a fuller picture of what the cosmos looks like outside earth comes with James Gunn’s space opera. The standalone nature of the film keeps it from being part of the foundation of the universe, but it’s important to grasping how big the universe is.
Daredevil-Without the Netflix shows, the MCU is a relatively bloodless universe. People get cut and even blown up, but it’s all very PG-13. Daredevil is the introduction to the MCU of a different level of violence and villainy. Instead of taking over the world, the villains here are in a way more depraved, doing terrible things to normal people for petty reasons. This show is the one which sets this tone for this part of the universe. Marvel also has made it the back bone for the rest of the Netflix shows in several ways.
Doctor Strange-Like most of this tier, Doctor Strange gives structure to things that are only hinted at in other places. In the same vein of Thor and Guardians, this movie moves into new corners of the universe and answers the questions of “How does magic work?” Without this movie, future moves into other dimensions will make some, but little sense to a new viewer.
The decorations of a house are the visual elements that fill out a room, further defining the frame. For our metaphor, decoration properties are helpful, but unnecessary viewing and they determine the character of the universe. These properties exist entirely inside the parameters of the settings and rules described in the two previous levels but provide a richer picture of their corner of the universe. These properties could be skipped and it wouldn’t hurt the story much, but you’d be missing a lot of what makes the MCU special.
The Incredible Hulk-This movie set up a lot of storylines for the future, and none of them came to fruition. Most of the supporting characters disappeared and are never heard from again. Even the character development work is scrapped some since a different actor took over to play the green goliath in the rest of the MCU. So the movie is fine but unnecessary to the flow of the overall story.
Iron Man 2-In a way this movie feels like it exists just to keep the Iron Man momentum going. It doesn’t build on much that came before, and with the exception of introducing Black Widow doesn’t really matter for what follows. The other major piece to the movie is making Tony’s relationship with his father a little more developed.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.-None of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s major moments really occurs on the ABC show, but most of what fans know about the agency comes from four seasons on the airwaves. Various events surrounding the movies have more context and the fallout of the films also come into focus. This show is really best for the fan who’s seen all the movies and still wants more.
Iron Man 3-The end of this movie almost feels like a continuity break. Instead of helping viewers understand Stark better in his next appearance, the story seems to have been ignored entirely in Age of Ultron, though Civil War finally came back around to things. This movie is about closing out the Iron Man trilogy but is a bit disconnected from everything else.
Thor: The Dark World-Even some of the most ardent MCU fans forget what happened in this movie and can hardly tell you why it matters. A fun romp for Thor, but not important otherwise.
Agent Carter-This ABC show could be more important if it ever did what it was supposed to do (i.e. explain how S.H.I.E.L.D. was founded). Instead, viewers were treated to great characters and stories, which did nothing to really expand what we know about S.H.I.E.L.D. or even tell us about character developments heavily hinted at, like how Peggy gets married.
Ant-Man-Another really fun MCU adventure that is essentially its own entity. We meet Ant-Man, but his origin really doesn’t connect to much else.
Jessica Jones–Jessica Jones might be the best TV show Marvel has ever produced. But her struggle with Kilgrave is very personal and tightly connected to her own life and little else. As such this show isn’t really important for moving along the story of the Netflix MCU, much less the universe at large.
Luke Cage-Again, these Netflix shows are great at creating deep characters. The MCU is better for having a show like Luke Cage, but missing it will likely mean nothing to the plot of anything else. Even The Defenders is being billed as a show which doesn’t require knowledge of this or any other previous property.
Various One-Shots and Slingshot-A few other non-TV and non-film projects are part of the MCU. They largely are promotional devices and have almost no importance to the MCU. One day All Hail the King may matter for a future Iron Man story, but that seems like a more remote possibility as time goes on.
Hopefully, this is of help from those of you just getting into the MCU. It’s a fun universe and everyone likes something different. So find what you like and enjoy!