Ten years and 18 films later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is approaching an ending of sorts, as a burgeoning cast and converging narrative meet the real-world realities of contract expiry and expanding budgets. Avengers: Infinity War may not be the final film of the MCU, but it definitely feels like, and is being marketed discreetly as, a culmination. It may not be the end, but it could be the beginning of the end.
With that in mind I’ve had a stab below at highlighting those films in this series I think are essential to a viewer’s understanding of the MCU and the characters within. This isn’t me rating them — some of my favourites don’t make the cut — but something I hope can be used as a guide for anyone trying to get into these things at such a late stage. Given that Infinity War is due out about a fortnight from the time of writing, I’ve probably left this too late to be of use to anyone, but, fuck it, it occupied a damp Sunday afternoon, so it’s served that purpose at least.
There’s a recap at the end of the article so feel free to skip to the end if you don’t want to hear my justification for any of this.
As the film that kicked all this off, this is the obvious entry point and fortunately it’s a great film in its own right, with only Tony Stark’s floppy hair dating things somewhat. Iron Man doesn’t just give you an introduction to Tony Stark but also Jarvis, Pepper Potts, Phil Coulson and, briefly, Nick Fury. The tone of the whole MCU was largely set here and hasn’t noticeably diverged since. An important film for understanding the MCU, and a piece of film history as well. Not to be missed.
The Incredible Hulk
An early wobble in the MCU, I’ve a fondness for Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk but with hindsight this turned out to be a vestigial film, an offshoot where almost nothing established is ever returned to. Edward Norton would leave the part of Bruce Banner to be replaced later by Mark Ruffalo, and the notion that Stark and the Avengers would be teaming up with General Ross against the Hulk would be quietly discarded. The Incredible Hulk is fine, really, but watching it won’t offer much insight into the MCU, so it can safely be skipped.
Iron Man 2
The sequel to the well-received Iron Man is a little overstuffed and feels like a slightly panicked response to a surprise success. While it’s always enjoyable to watch Robert Downey Jr. as Stark, there’s not a lot else here that needs to be seen; this is Don Cheadle’s first appearance as James Rhodes, but the character was already introduced by Terrence Howard in the previous film, and while Scarlett Johansson appears for the first time as Natasha Romanoff, the character gets a better re-introduction later on in Joss Whedon’s Avengers. Iron Man 2 is a decent way to kill a couple of hours, but it’s still fundamentally skippable.
I’m a little torn on this one, because I like the film a lot, and it introduces Thor and Loki, both of whom go on to become absolutely essential parts of the MCU. Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is a brisk, fun piece, full of colour and life, and the supporting cast is excellent. On the other hand, much of that supporting cast drifts quietly away as the MCU progresses, and Whedon’s Avengers re-introduces both Thor and Loki again anyway. In the end I’ll go with inessential, but it’s not meant to be disparaging as there’s a lot to enjoy here.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Joe Johnston’s Captain America really can’t be missed. While the film’s middle is a bit of a cheat, filling the gap with a montage of what looked like a series of clips from other Captain America films, the introduction to the character, played by real-life Captain America Chris Evans, is wonderful, the film introducing his heroic nature long before introducing his heroic six-pack. With Captain America’s basic character being the mournful man out of time, you’ll never quite understand him if you skip this one.
Joss Whedon’s Avengers does a lot of heavy lifting for the MCU, efficiently re-introducing everyone from the previous five films and also introducing Mark Ruffalo as the new Hulk, then bringing all those characters together in a coherent and enjoyable way, all the time maintaining everybody’s distinct personality and skillset. It’s hard to get across now how groundbreaking this film was, proof that the previous half-decade of build-up had paid off, and it’s absolutely essential. One of my favourites, not just within the MCU, but of all time.
Iron Man 3
I was cool towards Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 on my first watch but grew to love it over time, noticing and appreciating far more of the film’s subtle character moments and sparkling script. That said, the film stands apart from the MCU and is pretty self-contained, establishing nothing that isn’t resolved by the film’s conclusion. I genuinely think Iron Man 3 is a great film, but it’s also one you can comfortably save for your annual Christmas Shane Black film.
Thor: The Dark World
While this isn’t a terrible film, certainly not by the standards of most comic adaptations, it’s uneven and gloomy and only lights up when Loki is involved. There’s little here that has any bearing on future films, and not much fun to be had. Entirely skippable.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America’s first standalone film after Avengers should not be missed, not only for which characters it introduces and for what it does to the established fabric of the MCU, but also because it’s a solid piece of filmmaking in its own right, tonally and narratively inspired by the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s, and full of fantastic character beats and thrilling, punchy action.
Guardians of the Galaxy
I’ve routinely described James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy as one of the best sci-fi TV pilots I’ve ever seen; where Avengers got five films to build up that part of the universe, Guardians has just one, so much of what’s touched upon has a sense of “We’ll maybe return to this later one day”, and that can feel a little dizzying. Fortunately this is a generally likeable piece, and Thanos — the big villain of Avengers: Infinity War — gets more screen time here than he’s had anywhere before or in any film since. As a film that establishes the whole cosmic, space-set part of the MCU and a brace of new characters, Guardians of the Galaxy is essential viewing, and fortunately it’s also a fun way to spend some time.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
I was faintly underwhelmed by Ultron when I first watched it, feeling like it was a decent sequel to Avengers but not quite as good or meaningful; multiple viewings have turned me around and I’ve grown to appreciate and love the film for what it is as much as for what it isn’t. Ultron is a chance to see the Avengers at their peak, working together as an efficient, coherent unit, the fractious teamwork of their first film now second nature to the whole group. James Spader as Ultron is a perpetual hoot, and this is also where recurring characters Vision, Wanda Maximoff and Ulysses Klaue first appear. Ultron is a strong, confident film, and it’s a decent refresher as to how the morality of the MCU should work.
A throwaway piece that I found to be fun while watching and then immediately forgettable. Mostly detached from the rest of the MCU, all you really need to know from Ant-Man is that there’s someone in the MCU who can shrink to the size of an ant; there could be some value in watching this as a palate cleanser between some of the more serious MCU films, but aside from that this can be skipped until you’ve got some time to kill and are in the mood for something unchallenging.
Captain America: Civil War
This is another tough one to judge because while Civil War introduces even more characters into the MCU, including the first appearance of Spider-Man and T’Challa/Black Panther, and the entire plot is around breaking up the Avengers, I found the actual film to be lacking, a disposable piece full of fan-service and not much else; a film of breadth rather than depth that suggests at the end that not much has actually changed — these characters all love each other far too much for long-term conflict to be an issue. In the end I’ll come down on this being inessential; it talks a big talk, but nothing more.
A film that looks and sounds incredible but with a boringly conservative story and rote characterisation that you’ll have seen plenty of before, this film is skippable. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange gets a cameo further down the line in Thor: Ragnarok that introduces him just as well as this whole film does, and that’s probably all you need.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Much as I wanted to, I didn’t love Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, feeling that it had a tendency to belabour and repeat its own jokes at the expense of story and character development. I’ve no qualms about marking this one as inessential as it doesn’t notably connect to the rest of the MCU; watch it if you like, but be prepared for me to whinge about its failings if we ever talk about it in person.
If you watched Civil War then you’ve already had an introduction to Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, and his standalone film doesn’t provide him with any more depth than that. I found Homecoming to be functional but forgettable; everyone knows who Spider-Man is, so if you’ve skipped both this and Civil War, you’ll probably cope.
Perhaps the most inventive film of the MCU and absolutely the funniest, there’s no way I was going to suggest skipping this. From an MCU perspective this is largely self-contained, aside from Doctor Strange’s cameo at the start and what happens at the end, but no matter; Thor: Ragnarok is a ridiculous joy to watch and provides both Thor and Loki’s finest moments. Definitely watch this one.
While the character was introduced earlier in Civil War, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther recaps and reestablishes him so comprehensively that skipping Civil War shouldn’t be an issue. Even putting aside the social and cultural ramifications of this film, from an MCU perspective this is a seismic work, upending the MCU and setting the stage for (at least parts of) Infinity War. A deep and solid film, I’d be surprised at this point if anybody had missed it; for the record, you shouldn’t.
The essential recap
So, that’s Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther. Eight films with an approximate total running time of about 16 hours.
For anybody wanting to get into the whole shebang now this is obviously still a lot to get through, but I hope that eight films is seen as slightly more digestible than 18 (and if I’m honest, I’m on the fence about Ultron being essential, but we’re here at the end and I’m not going back now). A downside to the shared universe concept is that as it goes on, casual viewers can get left behind even as dedicated fans are rewarded; I believe it’s not just on the producers to provide easy jumping-in points and recaps, but on the fans as well. Some of the films mentioned above, whether I’ve marked them as essential or not, have become some of my all-time favourites, and it’s a shame if people that feel excluded or overwhelmed might miss them because of it.
So, I hope this list can help someone, in some small way.