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A beginner’s guide to Avengers: Endgame, the biggest Marvel movie, ever

It took 11 years of Marvel movie-making to get here.

Cap and Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame
Cap and Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In a few days — which will feel like an eternity to Marvel’s biggest fans — 11 years of Marvel movie-making, spanning more than 20 movies and 25 heroes, will come to an end with the biggest superhero film in history.

We are officially in the endgame for Avengers: Endgame.

Some of us have been watching since 2008, when Tony Stark was captured by terrorists in the Afghanistan desert. For others, Thor: Ragnarok and Chris Hemsworth’s new haircut, or Black Panther and the wonders of Wakanda, or Carol Danvers zipping through the galaxy or all three were the gateway movie that got us hooked. And maybe there are a steadfast few who just watch these movies hoping for another Hulk solo film.

Regardless of what kind of fan you may be or how you got into Marvel movies or how deep into the MCU you are, there isn’t a better time to brush up on where Earth’s Mightiest Heroes stand. Here’s a brief primer and supplemental viewing guide to what you may want to know before you see Endgame.

1) Where did Avengers: Infinity War leave the Avengers?

In Infinity War, the Avengers were tasked with preventing Thanos from obtaining the Infinity Stones. Early on, Thanos kills Loki, Heimdall, and many of the surviving Asgardians, while procuring the Tesseract that houses the Space Infinity Stone. Later on, he kills Gamora for the Soul Stone.

And by the end of the movie, Thanos assembled the Infinity Gauntlet and, despite a last-ditch effort from Thor, used said Gauntlet to eliminate half the life in the universe, implementing what Thanos believes to be balance. With one snap, half of all living things were gone — Avengers included.

The Avengers are now divided into five camps: vaporized, dead and not vaporized, alive on Wakanda, alive but MIA, and alive on Titan. Here’s how it breaks down:

Vaporized: Vaporized Avengers refer to heroes who disintegrated after Thanos’s snap. Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Star-Lord, Drax, Groot, Mantis, Bucky Barnes, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill were dusted away when Thanos eliminated half of all life in the universe.

Dead and not vaporized: These characters died before Thanos’s snap and were killed by Thanos: Loki, Heimdall, Vision (who got his Infinity Stone plucked from his forehead) and Gamora. It’s thought that, because these characters died at Thanos’s hands and not because of the Infinity Gauntlet, their deaths are a little less reversible than those who were simply dusted.

Alive on Wakanda: There’s a faction of heroes on Wakanda who helped to defend the country against Thanos’s forces. They — Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Okoye — were not dusted during the snap.

Alive but MIA: There’s a smaller group of Avengers who were not featured in Infinity War but are alive. They include Captain Marvel, who is currently zipping around the galaxy (at the end of Captain Marvel); Ant-Man who is stuck in the Quantum Realm (as seen in Ant-Man and The Wasp’s post-credits scene ); and Hawkeye who was on house arrest after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Endgame will tell us how these solo Avengers meet up with the core surviving Avengers from Wakanda.

Alive on Titan: Thanos traveled to Wakanda for the last Infinity Stone (the one in Vision’s head) after he obtained the Time Stone from Doctor Strange. He then defeated Strange, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy (with Nebula) — thanks in large part to Star-Lord’s freakout. Doctor Strange bargains with Thanos to let Iron Man live in exchange for the Time Stone, and Thanos teleports away shortly after. To be clear, all the Avengers and Guardians on Titan were alive when Thanos teleported away, but Nebula and Iron Man are the only heroes left post-snap, and they’re left drifting in space at the end of Infinity War.

2) Which Marvel movies should I watch if I want to get caught up with Endgame?

There are 21 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Watching all of them and Endgame (which has a running time of a little over three hours) would require 60 hours of your life (AMC is hosting a 60-hour Marvel marathon, in case that’s of interest). If I was going to narrow those 21 movies down to around 10, in order to have a real grasp of Endgame’s backstory, it would be these (they aren’t the best Marvel movies, by the way; rather, the ones that will arguably inform Endgame the most):

The Avengers: Marvel’s original and first team-up movie is still one of the best Marvel movies around. The Avengers — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye — finally assemble to take on Loki and an alien invasion. It sets up the team dynamic and gives a brief overview of the characters, while also introducing Thanos lurking in the background.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Age of Ultron was one of Marvel’s weirder offerings, featuring an iconic comic book villain voiced by James Spader and wistful, dark musings about control and the human yearning to have it. While its villain was sadly disposable, Age of Ultron is important in that it introduces Scarlet Witch and Vision (characters who might otherwise not make a lot of sense) and gives Hawkeye a backstory and depth.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Guardians of the Galaxy is so addictively fun because it introduced a new world of characters and civilizations, combined that world-building with a new, winsome team of characters — Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot — and threw away the self-serious nature of comic book movies.

Captain America: Civil War: Of the three Captain America movies, Winter Soldier is the best one. But Civil War is crucial to understanding Endgame — specifically why the Avengers are divided, Black Panther’s place in the MCU, and why Tony Stark and Steve Rogers need to trust each other again if their plan to resurrect their friends is going to work.

Doctor Strange: Doctor Strange introduces a different point of view on the Infinity Stones, specifically the Time Stone, and why they’re valuable and important. The movie also introduces Doctor Strange and the concept of magic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; magic plays into Infinity War in a couple of crucial scenes, including Strange’s now-famous “We’re in the Endgame now” line.

Thor: Ragnarok: The best and most hilarious Thor movie by far, Ragnarok is also a table-setter for the beginning of Infinity War. This movie gives Thor more of an identity and personality — he finally understands responsibility and becomes a hero for his people, the Asgardians. And it makes it that much more painful when Thanos rips that away from him.

Black Panther: An absolute no-brainer, Black Panther explains the history of Wakanda, why it’s the most advanced place on the planet, and why the country has chosen to keep itself hidden all these years. There’s a reason the Avengers make their stand at Wakanda, and why Wakanda is the only place on Earth that could survive an alien assault from Thanos’s generals and the Mad Titan himself.

Infinity War: Since Endgame is the conclusion of the events of Infinity War, one should probably watch Infinity War first.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Ant-Man and the Wasp really play with what’s known as the Quantum Realm — a place you can only reach by shrinking to the size of atoms. And considering that the Quantum Realm might play a role in Endgame (fan theories love the idea of the Quantum Realm), this sequel is probably a little more valuable than its predecessor and still does a fine job in giving us the basics of what Ant-Man is fighting for.

Iron Man: It’s impossible to appreciate Endgame and the 11 years of Marvel movie-making without watching the movie that got it all started. It might be hard to remember, but there was a point in time when Iron Man was a relatively obscure hero, and Robert Downey, Jr. was still making a comeback after battling addiction and substance abuse. Had the movie failed and Downey, Jr. not given such a powerful and charismatic performance, there’s no way the 21 movies (including Endgame) that came after it would have been made.

The last 30 minutes of Captain Marvel: I wasn’t super high on Captain Marvel, mainly because the first act hinges too much on a middling amnesia plot, and at times, everyone but Captain Marvel gets the fun superhero stuff to do. But the last act of the movie is pretty great, and it helps explain why Carol Danvers is a hero that will hopefully turn the tide against Thanos.

3) Is Avengers: Endgame actually the end?

The end of Marvel’s superhero movies? Nah.

Marvel has announced a few movies in the works, including a Black Widow solo movie, a Black Panther sequel, a third Guardians of the Galaxy movie, a movie about the beings known as Eternals, a Doctor Strange follow-up, and a movie about Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first movie about an Asian superhero. The curious thing is that Marvel hasn’t revealed when these movies are going to be released, ostensibly in an effort to keep the attention on Endgame and not spoil future movies. We will probably see release dates for 2020 soon after Endgame hits theaters.

Endgame is a different kind of end, though.

Marvel pioneered the idea of interlocking, connected superhero movies and then usually bringing said movies together in a giant team-up flick like 2012’s The Avengers. The groupings of these individual movies with their respective team-up movie are what Marvel has deemed “phases”:

Phase One

Iron Man (2008)

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Thor (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Guardians of The Galaxy (2014)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Doctor Strange (2016)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Black Panther (2018)

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Captain Marvel (2019)

Though Marvel has said July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home officially marks the end of Phase Three, Avengers: Endgame will likely be the last time the current slate of Marvel heroes will all work together as a team in the same movie. Endgame is the bookend to Infinity War and the big-picture conclusion to the Infinity Saga — the umbrella term for the last decade of the MCU that has slowly revealed Thanos and the concept of the Infinity Stones, which were introduced in Phase One.

So while it may not be an official finale (one has to wonder how much Marvel will promote Far From Home, its last movie of the year in conjunction with Sony, as the “official” end to Phase Three), it represents the final chapter for many fans.

4) Will Iron Man or Captain America die?

One of the biggest theories surrounding Endgame is that it will result in the death of Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. I believe that — Cap didn’t have a lot to say in Infinity War, but his most memorable line is about how the Avengers “don’t trade lives” when he tells Vision they won’t remove his Infinity Stone (which will kill him) in order to save the world. Endgame could present a scenario in which Cap will sacrifice himself to save his friends and the rest of the world, going back to that idea of trading lives.

The reason theories about Captain America and Iron Man dying are circulating is because it’s believed that Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans’s are done working on Marvel movies. The specifics of each actors’ Marvel contract is largely confidential, but fans generally believe that actors sign on for six movies at a time. But last year, during the tour for Infinity War, Evans intimated that this was it for Downey, Jr. and him, as well Hemsworth.

“Myself, Downey, Hemsworth, we all kind of started roughly at the same time, and I think we all, through [Endgame], kind of wrap it up,” Evans told Good Morning America in 2018, during the press tour for Infinity War.

And though Evans mentions Hemsworth as ending his Marvel run, too, it’s generally believed that the success of Thor: Ragnarok, combined with Hemsworth’s positive comments about working on the film and director Taika Waititi’s take on the character, could bring Hemsworth back for Thor 4.

5) Is Shuri actually dead?

Shuri (Letitia Wright) in Black Panther
Shuri (Letitia Wright) in Black Panther
Marvel Studios

One of the biggest surprises post-Infinity War was Shuri’s apparent off-screen death from Thanos’s snap.

The typical rule of thumb is that major characters are usually alive unless you see their death happen on screen or in a comic panel — a rule fans thought applied to Shuri. The princess of Wakanda was barely in Infinity War and was not seen getting vaporized with the other Avengers and main characters.

But in March, Marvel released a set of posters that confirmed Shuri’s death. The posters were solo portraits of the Avengers and major characters divided into two groups: black-and-white and color. The posters in color represented heroes who didn’t die and were not snapped away. The ones in black-and-white were for what Marvel calls the “fallen” heroes, and Shuri’s was in black-and-white, confirming she did not survive the snap.

While Shuri’s death may be distressing, you have to trust the Avengers will find a way to bring her and all the heroes back in Endgame.

6) Who is going to live?

The funny thing about Marvel is that it killed off a bunch of characters in Infinity War, even though many of those characters had hugely successful debut movies — and now have sequels in the works. With the rise of Disney+, Disney’s streaming service, there are also a few television shows featuring Avengers on the schedule.

So if one were to keep track of those projects and cross-reference this with the knowledge that actors sign multipicture deals with Marvel, one could, if they wanted, use a process of elimination to determine which killed characters are coming back from being turned to ash (I’ve compiled a list for anyone inclined).

But we’ll all have to see Endgame (or read trade publications) to figure out who’s officially making it out alive.

7) Have there been Avengers: Endgame spoilers?

The only spoiler I feel comfortable revealing is the Russo brothers have confirmed there’s a Stan Lee cameo in Endgame, and it’s the last one Lee filmed before his death in 2018.

As for spoilers, I understand the idea that, because of the way the movie sequel business functions, there are some general spoilers out there as to who lives (see: Spider-Man: Far From Home’s trailer ). But there’s something to be said about preserving Endgame’s specific plot and details for fans who have been waiting for this movie and invested a lot of time into watching these stories come to life.

While Marvel has been doing its best to keep everything under wraps and a surprise for its army of fans, there has been at least one leak of footage from the movie circulated on social media platforms like Twitter and on YouTube. It’s available for those who are seeking it out. In response to the leak, the Russo Brothers and Marvel have asked moviegoers to not spoil anything about Endgame for fans:

“Because so many of you have invested your time, your hearts, and your souls into these stories, we’re once again asking for your help,” they wrote in a letter to fans on April 16 (they did the same for Infinity War last year). “When you see Endgame in the coming weeks, please don’t spoil it for others, the same way you wouldn’t want it spoiled for you.”

Fans looking to preserve their Endgame viewing experience can take precautionary steps like muting certain words on Twitter or limiting how much social media browsing they do, especially if they’re not seeing the movie on opening night.

Avengers: Endgame will officially be released in theaters on April 26.

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