Spoilers ahead, especially if you haven’t caught up on the previous Avengers release.
Last we saw Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Thanos had collected all six Infinity Stones, snapped his big purple fingers and made half the universe’s population disappear in an instant at the end of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. In that moment, we lost Spider-Man, Black Panther, and many of our other favorites. This all brings us to Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Endgame hits theaters April 26, so we’ve put together a quick guide to the eight movies you must watch to be caught up. Our selections provide a cheat sheet for getting to know the essential Avengers and/or the buildup to the ultimate battle with Thanos to avenge those lost in “the Snap.”
This goes without saying: spoilers ahead. These films are listed in chronological order, not by release date. If you have time to watch all 21 movies, they are listed in chronological order — not by release date — at the end of this list.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Diminutive do-gooder Steve Rogers becomes super soldier Captain America thanks to a U.S. government experiment during World War II. The Captain’s first major mission stops HYDRA, a Nazi-offshoot whose other-wordly weapons are powered by the Tesseract, a blue cube holding the Space Stone (and can bend space for teleportation). However, Captain doesn’t join the Avengers until the 2000s, when he awakens from nearly 70 years of sleep and U.S. government agent Nick Fury asks him to join a superteam tasked with protecting humanity from potential extraterrestrial threats.
Best moment: While every other soldier in WWII basic training keeps trying to climb the pole to capture the flag and failing, a still-tiny Rogers simply removes a pin holding up the flag pole, waits for it to drop and grabs the flag at ground level. That heart and Brooklyn street smarts put Rogers in line to become Captain America.
Now we take a trip back to the 1990s. Vers, a super-powered soldier from a faraway planet slowly discovers she’s actually a human, and former U.S. Air Force pilot, named Carol Danvers. The last six years of Danvers’ life have been a lie. She is not an alien. Her work as an alien soldier involved killing refugees, not terrorists. And the force within her she’s constantly told to suppress comes from having absorbed the Tesseract’s power when a USAF mission to help those same refugees went awry. Danvers harnesses her abilities in time to save the refugees from her former employer and, as Captain Marvel, vows to protect the galaxy from all evil. Right before leaving Earth, she reconfigures Nick Fury’s pager to be able to communicate with her in case of an absolute emergency.
Best moment: Captain Marvel is all about the 90s and a very specific 90s-era girl power, and no moment captures these two themes as well as the major fight scene toward the end of the film. With the pressure on, Danvers recalls everyone who’s ever doubted her for inspiration, fully harnesses the power of her photon-shooting hands, and starts blasting away her enemies as No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” plays.
Imagine a world where Elon Musk and Zac Efron fuse to become a super-genius playboy/military contractor extraordinaire and you get Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. The Iron Man supersuit is initially created for no other reason than Stark needing to save himself from terrorists who want him to build them a weapon of their own. Eventually, Stark dons improved versions of this armored human weapon to protect the world from the type of defense systems he once manufactured. Having already recruited Captain America, Nick Fury shows up at the end here as well, asking Stark to join the Avengers.
Best moment: Stark gets oh so close to keeping his Iron Man alter ego a secret, but he can never shy away from public adoration. “The truth is, I am Iron Man,” not only finishes Stark’s press conference and the movie, it’s also the launch point for the rest of the MCU. (Iron Man was the first film released in the series in 2008.)
Marvel’s The Avengers
Nick Fury’s dream of assembling a superteam is put to good use. Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk and norse god of thunder Thor have joined Iron Man, Captain America, ex-spy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, and bow-and-arrow marksman and special agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye to save Earth from an alien invasion led by Loki, Thor’s brother. Carrying the brain-controlling Mind Stone in his scepter to force humans to join his fight, Loki enters Earth through a Tesseract-created portal on a mission to conquer humanity and steal the Tesseract (aka the Space Stone) for a mysterious alien warlord. The Avengers beat this alien force — while completely trashing midtown Manhattan — and all seems OK for now. The pivotal moment in this movie is our introduction to the alien warlord behind the attack, Thanos, during the last scene. His plans thwarted, he vows to try again soon.
Best moment: Being a super hero must be exhausting. Having to constantly save the planet, or the entire galaxy, is hard work. And what better way to relax and recharge after the Battle of New York than by silently going to town on some midtown Manhattan shawarma? Superheroes, they’re just like us.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Here we head to space and meet half-man, half-god Peter Quill/Star-Lord and his ragtag Guardians of the Galaxy (Gamora, Rocket Racoon, Groot and Drax the Destroyer) as they try to obtain an orb holding the Power Stone, which contains enough energy to destroy entire worlds. The Guardians are mostly doing the job for the money, but soon find out someone else is in hot pursuit of the orb for galaxy-dominating reasons — Thanos. (Who else, really?) After getting hold of the Power Stone, the Guardians are able to fight off soldiers hired by Thanos and hand off the Stone to a police force for safekeeping. Thanos remains determined to finish the job, somehow.
Best moment: In possession of the Power Stone, Thanos ally Ronan the Accuser is about to conquer a whole planet when Star-Lord begins to sing and dance to Five Stairstep’s “Ooh Child” to distract him. It works long enough for Drax and Rocket to shoot Ronan and Star-Lord to recapture the Power Stone. Guardians is an action comedy heavy on fun, oldies tunes. We get it all right here.
Captain America: Civil War
Back on Earth, the Avengers are in crisis. After the destruction left in the wake of their many battles across the globe, public opinion of the Avengers has soured. The United Nations establishes a panel to control them, but not every hero agrees. This divides the Avengers into two camps: Iron Man-led heroes who agree to the sanctions, and Captain America’s group who wants to maintain its freedom. Iron Man wants to peacefully bring the other faction in line, but fights break out instead. Things end in a stalemate, with Captain America’s platoon on the run as fugitives. However, Captain America tells Iron Man he knows the team will have to come together again someday and he’s willing to put their differences aside for the greater good when that day arrives. Thanks to T’Challa/Black Panther (initially on Iron Man’s side because he thought Captain’s friend Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier killed his father, King T’Chaka), Captain gains asylum in the African nation of Wakanda, where the metal vibranium that powers his shield is mined.
Best moment: Stark needs one more person to reel in Captain’s team of renegade Avengers and he thinks a teenager will do the trick. Recruiting Peter Parker/Spider-Man introduces us to the wonderful teen comedy portion of the MCU.
This film represents much more than T’Challa’s rise to the throne of King of Wakanda or how he becomes the Black Panther. T’Challa wrestles with his nation’s dual personality of being a super-advanced society powered by the little-known metal vibranium, while pretending to be an isolated third-world country in order to protect itself from the devastating oppression its African neighbors have suffered for centuries. Every detail in Black Panther is about black empowerment and the celebration of all cultures of African decent. It answers the question, what would a thriving black society look like in our world today? Yes, it is still a fun superhero movie with epic battles, explosions, and funny quips, but the film’s significance goes beyond its place in the MCU. T’Challa concludes fear and isolation aren’t the answer and chooses to use his nation’s powers to help oppressed people everywhere, instead. Even so, Wakanda represents a threat to the establishment across the universe.
Best moment: For superheroes, family tends to be an emotional burden you overcome (Tony Stark’s daddy issues) or someone who keeps getting in your way (Thor vs. Loki). So it’s nice to see a lighthearted, sibling ribbing session when Shuri makes fun of her brother T’Challa’s horrible fashion sense while showing him the new Black Panther gear she’s created.
Avengers: Infinity War
After previous attempts at using others to collect the six Infinity Stones failed, Thanos vows to do it himself. Infinity War opens with Thanos having already taken the Power Stone (the energy to crush entire worlds) from the incompetent police force entrusted with its care (see: Guardians of the Galaxy above). He then quickly takes the Space Stone (the ability to bend space) after killing Loki, despite Thor and the Hulk’s best efforts. Thanos gains possession of the Reality (alters reality), Soul (controls others’ souls) and Mind Stones (the power of mind control) by killing anyone who’s in the way, even when it means sacrificing the life of his adopted daughter Gamora. Thanos gains the Time Stone (time travel) in much easier fashion: Time Stone-protector Doctor Strange just hands it to Thanos after looking into more than 14 million potential futures and seeing that the path of least resistance results in Thanos’ ultimate defeat. With the six Infinity Stones in his possession, Thanos snaps his fingers and half of the universe’s population instantly turns to dust. Thanos sees this as the only way to achieve balance when there’s only a finite amount of resources. The film concludes with Nick Fury sending a distress signal to Captain Marvel right before he disintegrates.
Best moment: The MCU features three of Hollywood’s leading men named Chris. Two sort of break the fourth wall for a moment in a fairly-LOL battle for Chris supremacy when Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) lowers his voice to Thor’s level (Chris Hemsworth) when he feels threatened by his superior leadership skills aboard the Guardians’ ship.
How to catch up on the MCU in chronological order
Should you find yourself with about forty-four hours to spare before the premiere of Avengers: Endgame, you could do yourself a real favor by unearthing the origins of the Marvel Universe, start to finish. Here’s the chronological order of the 21 MCU movies, available now for streaming (or binging).
The MCU in chronological order:
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Captain Marvel
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: The Dark World
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Captain America: Civil War
- Black Panther
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- Doctor Strange
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Avengers: Infinity War
- Ant-Man and the Wasp