Everything You Need to Know About the MCU Before ‘Avengers: Endgame’

In Culture, Featured, Joe Campbell by Impact Admin

– By Joe Campbell –

The following contains spoilers for the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With 22 movies, eleven years, and dozens of heroes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) may seem like a daunting task to anyone wanting to dip their toes into the massive superhero saga today.  But with Avengers: Endgame bringing all these intersecting threads, characters, and elements to a head this week, staying up to date is almost necessary just to follow the plot of a single movie.  Even for those who have been keeping up to date, the sudden appearance of a forgotten character or the current location of an Infinity Stone can confuse you if you haven’t seen…say…Thor: The Dark World since it was released.

Never fear!  I’m here to break down over 50 hours of an ever-changing cinematic universe in one crash course, so you don’t have to!  So sit back while we go over every movie in the MCU, and see how it ties into the larger story.

Iron Man (2008)

Directed by Jon Favreau

Brilliant inventor/mechanic Tony Stark (self-proclaimed billionaire playboy philanthropist), owns a weapons manufacturing company (Stark Industries) inherited from his dad (Howard Stark).  Tony is kidnapped by terrorists, builds a metal flying suit to escape (in a cave, from “a pile of scraps”), returns to New York, shuts down the weapons division of his…weapons manufacturing company, and builds a better Iron Man suit to fight terrorism.  His evil business partner builds a bigger, badder suit which Tony blows up, then Tony reveals his identity as Iron Man to the public.

Things to Remember:

  • Tony’s dad is Howard Stark; we’ll find out more about him in future movies.
  • Tony powers his suit with an arc reactor (powerful energy source) implanted in his chest.
  • Nick Fury, head of a secret government organization called S.H.I.E.L.D., pops up in the end credits to tell Tony about “The Avengers Initiative”.  We’ll find out more about that in…The Avengers!
  • We are introduced to James Rhodes, Tony’s friend in the military and future member of the Avengers.
  • Phil Coulson, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., hangs around.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Bruce Banner is a scientist who was exposed to gamma radiation, which naturally turns him into an big green invulnerable monster every time his heart rate spikes.  He spends the movie running from the US military, which is hunting him down so they can weaponize him. He leaves his hiding place in South America in an attempt to find a cure to his…Hulkness (he doesn’t find it), subdues a bigger, badder rage monster the military created, then goes into hiding in Canada.

Things to Remember:

  • Bruce Banner is played by Edward Norton in this movie.  He’ll look different the next time we see him.
  • The program that creates both the Hulk and Abomination is the US government’s attempt to replicate a “super soldier serum” they had perfected in WWII.  This will be expanded upon in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Iron Man 2 (2010)

Directed by Jon Favereau

Tony Stark’s body is being poisoned by the toxic waste produced by the arc reactor in his chest.  With the help of Nick Fury (remember him from the end credits of the first movie?) and his father’s old research, Tony creates a new element to power his suit that won’t– you know– slowly kill him.  Oh, and there are a bunch of plots involving the US government trying to get Tony to surrender his Iron Man suit, the military building their own fleet of remotely controlled drones, and a Russian scientist who builds a bigger, badder suit to kill Tony, but these are all tidied up by the end of the movie and have little lasting impact on the MCU.

Things to Remember:

  • We are introduced to Agent Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., who will go on to become a member of the Avengers.
  • James Rhodes (from the first Iron Man movie), refits one of Tony’s suits to become War Machine.
  • Tony’s parents died in a car crash when Tony was young.  This will be expanded upon in Captain America: Civil War.
  • Phil Coulson is still hanging around.
Thor (2011)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

The MCU really opens up as we are taken to Asgard, an alien planet inhabited by superpowered beings who have posed as the Viking gods.  Prince Thor is a rebellious, impulsive Asgardian who is banished to Earth by his father (Odin) for starting a war with giant ice aliens.  There he has wacky adventures with human scientists in a small desert town where he learns about responsibility, self-sacrifice, and coffee (he likes that drink), before he is deemed worthy of wielding the magical war hammer “Mjolnir” (pronounced “mule-near”).  His brother Loki is revealed to be an adopted Frost Giant who can shapeshift and is jealous of Thor’s birthright, so he manufactures all the events in the movie to get in Odin’s good graces and get Thor out of the picture. Thor returns to Asgard, exposes Loki, and reclaims his rightful place as prince of Asgard.

Things to Remember:

  • An end credit scene reveals that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a glowing power cube called the “Tesseract”.  This is the first of six Infinity Stones we’re introduced to, and will become a central focus of the MCU.
  • Loki is last seen falling into outer space.  He’ll be back.
  • Introduction of Hawkeye, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who uses a bow and arrows.  He’ll become one of the Avengers.
  • Phil Coulson is still hanging around.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Directed by Joe Johnston

During WWII, the US military develops a serum that will turn ordinary soldiers into “super soldiers”.  This serum is used on patriotic everyman Steve Rogers, who uses his new super strength to fight Nazis. He eventually faces off against Johann Schmidt (the Red Skull), a Nazi who is a bigger, badder super soldier as the result of an early version of the serum.  Red Skull finds the Tesseract (remember that magical power cube glimpsed in the credits for Thor?) hidden away in a monastery, and we find out that it’s a incredible power source of unknown origin.  He uses its energy to power laser guns, all of which are confiscated by the 1940’s version of S.H.I.E.L.D. after Schmidt is beamed away to who knows where by the Tesseract at the end of the movie (pro tip: don’t pick up glowing cubes of mystical energy with your hand).  Steve Rogers finds himself on a bomber bound for all the major US cities, and crashes it into the ice of Antarctica, where he is frozen in sleep before being awoken by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who find him in 2011.

Things to Remember:

  • Red Skull created a division called “Hydra” with plans to take take over the world.  S.H.I.E.L.D. confiscates all of its Tesseract-powered laser guns. Hydra will be back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Captain America’s famous shield is made of vibranium, a rare impenetrable metal that will become important later.
  • Steve’s best friend, Bucky Barnes, falls off a train during a mission and is seemingly killed from the fall.  He will show up later (if a character seemingly dies, just presume he survived).
  • The Tesseract ends the movie in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody.
The Avengers (2012)

Directed by Joss Whedon

Loki, last seen falling through space, is revealed to have been picked up by a race of aliens called the Chitauri who send him to Earth with a scepter that allows him to shoot blue beams of energy and brainwash anybody he touches with it.  Loki is instructed to obtain the Tesseract and use it to open a portal to Earth, leading an invasion of Chitauri soldiers. To stop him, S.H.I.E.L.D. assembles all the heroes we’ve seen before:

  • Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow already work for S.H.I.E.L.D..
  • Iron Man is fully inducted into the Avengers team.
  • Thor returns to Earth to help apprehend Loki.
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. finds Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) and recruits him.

In the end, the team learns to work together, Iron Man nukes the Chitauri spaceship on the other side of the portal before closing it, Thor takes Loki back to Asgard, and everyone gets Shawarma.

Things to Remember:

  • The Tesseract ends the movie in the possession of the Asgardians.
  • We will find out later that Loki’s scepter houses the Mind Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones (I promise I’ll get to them eventually)  It ends the movie in the possession of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • The Chitauri were hired by a mysterious being to obtain the Tesseract.  This big bad will be revealed as Thanos (if you’re looking forward to Avengers: Endgame, you may have heard of him).
  • Phil Coulson is now dead.
Iron Man 3 (2013)

Directed by Shane Black

Tony, suffering from anxiety after the events of The Avengers, manufactures over 40 Iron Man suits, all of which are capable of operating on their own without a pilot.  Left homeless when a terrorist demolishes his house, he spends the movie palling around with a kid in Tennessee and solving a corporate cover up involving weaponized genetic manipulation.  He overcomes the evil scientists but, more importantly, he overcomes his anxiety.

Things to Remember:

  • Tony removes the arc reactor from his chest and vows to scale back his work as Iron Man, as he intends to devote more time to his relationship with Pepper Potts, the CEO of Stark Industries and his long time partner.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Directed by Alan Taylor

After the events of The Avengers, Thor returned to Asgard and spent the next year helping his dad (Odin) keep the galaxy in order (interplanetary diplomacy takes a while).  Back on Earth, his long-distance scientist girlfriend Jane (she was in the first movie), accidentally stumbles into some dark cosmic energy liquid called the Aether, which in turn wakes up some Dark Elves who want to use the Aether to make the universe dark and edgy.  Thor frees Loki so they can team up to stop the Dark Elves, Loki seemingly sacrifices himself to save Thor’s life (spoiler alert: Loki isn’t really dead), Thor kills the Dark Elves, secures the Aether, and turns down his birthright as king of Asgard so he can be with Jane on Earth.

Things to Remember:

  • The Aether is the third (of six) Infinity Stone we’re introduced to.  It ends the movie in the possession of The Collector, a guy who…collects weird stuff out in outer space.  
  • Not only is Loki not really dead, but he returns to Asgard to take Odin’s place as king (remember, Loki can make himself look like anyone).  We find out in Thor: Ragnarok that he stashed Odin in a retirement home on Earth.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

After the events of The Avengers, Captain America works for S.H.I.E.L.D., going on various high priority missions.  When Cap, Black Widow, and Nick Fury (head of S.H.I.E.L.D.) discover that Hydra (that Nazi division started by Red Skull in the FIRST Captain America movie) has been infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. for the past 60 years, they’re forced to go on the run as rogue S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra agents hunt them down.  Along the way, Captain America discovers that his pal from WWII, Bucky, didn’t actually die (surprise!) but that he was captured, experimented on, and was brainwashed to become an assassin for Hydra (I guess the experiments also stopped him from aging, because he doesn’t look 90 years old).  Cap, Black Widow, and Fury work together to expose Hydra, thwart their nefarious plot, and Bucky runs off into hiding, his mind a mess from the brainwashing.

Things to Remember:

  • S.H.I.E.L.D. is disbanded by the end of this movie.  Remnants of Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D. will continue to operate in secret here and there, but the organizations as a whole no longer exist.
  • Bucky will be a recurring character in this series, and will eventually become one of the Avengers.  We are also introduced to future Avenger, Falcon: a soldier with a flight suit.
  • The end credit scene introduces us to future Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver: twins who were experimented on by Hydra to gain telekinesis and super speed respectively.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Directed by James Gunn

Peter Quill is a kid who is abducted by aliens in the 80’s the same night his mom dies of cancer.  Fast forward to present day and he’s a space pirate/rogue named Star-Lord who is tasked with acquiring a mysterious orb.  A villainous space tyrant named Ronan is hired by Thanos (the big purple guy who sent Loki to invade Earth in The Avengers) to acquire the orb, which contains the fourth Infinity Stone we’ve seen so far: the Power Stone.  However, Ronan plans to betray Thanos and keep the Power Stone for himself to destroy Xandar, a planet of peace-loving aliens that Ronan hates (for some reason).  While trying to keep the Power Stone out of Ronan’s hands, Starlord teams up with the following:

  • Rocket, a smack-talking raccoon created through scientific experimentation.
  • Groot, a walking, talking tree who can only say, “I am Groot”.
  • Gamora, Thanos’ green-skinned adopted daughter who betrayed him.
  • Drax the Destroyer, a muscle-bound alien who vows vengeance on Ronan and Thanos for killing his family.

These self-proclaimed “Guardians of the Galaxy” kill Ronan, save Xandar, and set off to have more swashbuckling adventures.

Things to Remember:

  • The Power Stone ends the movie in the possession of the Xandarians.
  • Groot sacrifices himself for the team, but is reborn as “Baby Groot” for maximum cuteness.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Directed by Joss Whedon

The current Avengers team (deep breath…Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, and Hulk) raid one of the last remaining Hydra outposts and acquire Loki’s scepter.  Remember how back in The Avengers I mentioned that it contains the Mind Stone?  Well Tony Stark extracts the stone from the scepter and accidentally uses it to create an evil AI named Ultron.  Ultron decides people are jerks and sets out to trigger an extinction level event by dropping the city of Sokovia from the sky like a meteor.  Tony infuses the Mind Stone with an artificial body made of Vibranium (the same impenetrable metal Captain America’s shield is made of) to create Vision: a benevolent flying being who can phase through solid matter and shoot beams of energy from his face.  Everyone works together to save humanity and destroy Ultron (but Quicksilver dies). (Like, he actually dies, for real, and actually doesn’t come back). 

Things to Remember:

  • The Mind Stone ends the movie as a part of Vision.  Thor tells us that when combined, the six Infinity Stones are, “The greatest power in the universe, unparalleled in its destructive capabilities”.
  • Hulk is last seen flying off in a wayward jet.  We’ll find out where he ends up in Thor: Ragnarok.
  • Thor leaves Earth to research the Infinity Stones, Iron Man retires (again), and Hawkeye leaves the team to be with his wife and kids.
  • The new Avengers team established at the end is as follows:
  • Captain America
  • Black Widow
  • War Machine
  • Falcon
  • Vision
  • Scarlet Witch
Ant-Man (2015)

Directed by Peyton Reed

Hank Pym, a scientist who invented a shrinking suit, hires burglar Scott Lang to break into a corporation and steal shrinking technology that has fallen into dangerous hands.  Scott uses the shrinking suit to become Ant-Man, takes down a dude in a bigger(?), badder shrinking suit, and ultimately cleans up his act, reconciled with his estranged ex-wife and daughter.

Things to Remember:

  • Hank lost his wife years before when she shrank to a microscopic size and couldn’t come back.  She’s stuck in a sub-atomic dimension called the Quantum Realm.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

We are introduced to two new heroes: T’Challa, king of the African nation Wakanda who wears a Vibranium suit to become Black Panther, and Spider-Man who…is Spider-Man.

The Avengers are broken up into two factions: those who agree to UN oversight and those who oppose it.  A survivor of Ultron’s attack on Sokovia (in Avengers: Age of Ultron) named Zemo finds Bucky (Cap’s brainwashed assassin friend last seen going into hiding in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and reveals that Bucky, while brainwashed, is the one who assassinated Tony Stark’s parents back in 1991.  Filled with rage, Tony tries to kill Bucky in revenge while Cap protects his friend. Tony and Cap split ways and the Avengers are scattered at the end of the movie.

Things to Remember (AKA, “Where Everyone Is, Going into Avengers: Infinity War”):

The following characters go into hiding in Wakanda:

  • Captain America
  • Bucky (who is put on ice until the Wakandans can figure out how to permanently undo his brainwashing)
  • Black Panther

The following characters are imprisoned at the end of the movie, but are freed by Cap shortly after:

  • Hawkeye (who returns to his family)
  • Ant-Man (who accepts house arrest)
  • Falcon (who joins Cap in Wakanda)
  • Scarlet Witch (who goes into hiding)

The following characters stay to work for the government:

  • Iron Man
  • War Machine
  • Vision (who will shortly after join Scarlet Witch in hiding)
  • Black Widow goes into hiding.
  • Spider-Man returns home to keep being Spider-Man.
Doctor Strange (2016)

Directed by Scott Derrickson

Magic has come to the MCU!  On a quest to cure his broken hands after a brutal car accident (don’t text and drive, kids!), brilliant surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange finds himself in the middle of a war between sorcerers and interdimensional monsters.  He gives up his medical profession and trains to become a master of magic, eventually defeating a world-devouring being headed for Earth.

Things to Remember:

  • Doctor Strange masters and wields the Eye of Agamotto, otherwise known as the Time Stone, the fifth Infinity Stone we’re introduced to.  It allows him to distort time in pretty much any way the plot demands him to, from looping it to straight up reversing time.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017)

Directed by James Gunn

Among their interstellar adventures, our intrepid team (Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, and Baby Groot) stumbles upon Star-Lord’s dad: an evil, matter-creating, sentient planet.  They hang out, evade a militaristic nation they ticked off, and Star-Lord plays catch with pops before blowing him up for attempting to absorb all life in the galaxy.

Things to Remember:

  • We are introduced to Mantis, an alien who can sense feelings and put people to sleep by just touching them.
  • Baby Groot matures into Teen Groot during the end credits.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Directed by Jon Watts

After being recruited by Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man (Peter Parker) returns home to New York to combat small time crime.  He crosses paths with an opportunistic dealer in alien weaponry, puts the criminal behind bars, and misses out on the homecoming dance.

Things to Remember:

  • Iron Man offers Spider-Man a permanent place on the Avengers team (which at this point still includes himself, War Machine, and Vision), but Peter turns him down, thinking he isn’t ready yet for such a big responsibility.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Directed by Taika Waititi

A couple years after he left Earth to research the Infinity Stones, Thor returns to Asgard to find Loki sitting on the throne.  They return to Earth just in time to see their father Odin die of old age (he looks great for being several thousands years old!) and their exiled sister Hela return to seize the throne of Asgard.  Banished by Hela, Thor and Loki have wacky adventures on the colorful fascistic planet Sakaar, where they find the Hulk living as a gladiator (remember he was last seen flying off in a quinjet at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron).  All three escape Sakaar, evacuate Asgard, then summon a space demon to destroy Asgard (and Hela in the process).

Things to Remember:

  • Thor, Loki, Hulk, and all the inhabitants of Asgard are last seen flying towards Earth in a spaceship.
  • Before leaving, Loki steals the Tesseract from the vaults of Asgard.
  • And end credit scene shows them being intercepted by Thanos’ massive ship.
  • Hela destroyed Thor’s magical hammer Mjolnir.
Black Panther (2018)

Directed by Ryan Coogler

The reclusive African nation of Wakanda poses as a third world nation, but secretly it’s a technologically advanced futuristic society thanks to its abundance of vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth (and the stuff Captain America’s shield is made of, remember?).  King T’Challa (AKA the Black Panther) finds himself defending the throne of Wakanda after his father dies (which happened in Captain America: Civil War) when he’s challenged by a long lost cousin who wants to rage war on…pretty much the rest of the world.  Once T’Challa defeats his cousin, he opens Wakanda up to commerce with (you guessed it) the rest of the world.

Thing to Remember:

  • Remember how Bucky was sent to Wakanda after Captain America: Civil War so they could undo his brainwashing?  Well they succeeded! Hooray for technology!
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

Whoo boy, here we go…

Big purple space baddie Thanos wants to collect all six Infinity Stones onto a shiny golden gauntlet he has so he can snap his fingers and obliterate half of all life in the universe (because galactic overpopulation is a problem, apparently).

When Thanos raids Thor’s ship (from the end of Thor: Ragnarok), Hulk is teleported to Earth by Heimdal (Asgard’s gatekeeper, who is killed by Thanos immediately after), where he warns the remnants of the Avengers there about the impending invasion.  All of the Avengers in hiding come out to face Thanos, while Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America, and (most of) the Guardians of the Galaxy go to Thanos’ homeworld Titan to face him there.  Thor, Rocket, and Groot go to an Asgardian space forge to make a new ax for Thor that will help them defeat Thanos.

Over the course of the movie, Thanos…

  • Decimates Xandar to get the Power Stone (last seen in Guardians of the Galaxy)
  • Kills Loki for the Space Stone (last seen in Thor: Ragnarok)
  • Destroys the Collector’s collection for the Reality Stone (last seen in Thor: The Dark World)
  • Sacrifices his daughter Gamora for the Soul Stone.  It is being guarded by Red Skull, who was banished there after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger.
  • Bargains with Doctor Strange for the Time Stone by agreeing not to kill Iron Man.
  • Rips the Mind Stone out of Vision’s head.

When he finally collects all of the stone, he snaps his fingers and turns half the population of the universe to dust.

Got all that?  Good. You’re almost ready for Avengers: Endgame!

Things to Remember:

The following characters are turned to dust with the Snap:

  • Bucky
  • Black Panther
  • Groot
  • Scarlet Witch
  • Falcon
  • Mantis
  • Drax
  • Star-Lord
  • Doctor Strange
  • Spider-Man
  • Nick Fury

This leaves the following characters alive to take on Thanos in Avengers: Endgame:

  • Captain America (in Wakanda)
  • Thor (in Wakanda)
  • Okoye (a warrior of Wakanda)
  • Rocket (in Wakanda)
  • War Machine (in Wakanda)
  • Bruce Banner (in Wakanda)
  • Black Widow (in Wakanda)
  • Iron Man (on Titan)
  • Nebula (Gamora’s sister, also on Titan)
  • An end credits scene shows Fury calling Captain Marvel on a pager before he’s dusted.  We’ll find out more about her shortly.
  • Ant-Man and Hawkeye sit out this movie entirely, both staying with their families under house arrest after their involvement in the events of Captain America: Civil War.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Directed by Peyton Reed

Days from being released from house arrest, Scott Lang is kidnapped/recruited by Hank Pym to help him find his wife, who you might remember lost decades ago in the Quantum Realm, a subatomic place you go when you shrink too small. Scott teams up with Hank’s daughter, Hope, who gets a suit upgraded with lasers and wings making her the Wasp. They use a fancy quantum tunnel machine to bring Hope’s mom back, help a supervillain find redemption, and Scott returns home in time to be released from house arrest without the authorities realizing he was ever gone.

Things to Remember

  • The end credits scene shows Scott once again going subatomic to collect quantum energy when Hank, Hope, and Hope’s mom (Janet) are turned to dust as a consequence of Thanos’ Snap, leaving Scott stranded in the Quantum Realm.
  • Just before Scott goes subatomic, Janet tells him not to ”get sucked into a time vortex”. Maybe a hint at what’s to come in Avengers: Endgame?
Captain Marvel (2019)

Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

In 1989, US Air Force pilot Carol Danvers crash landed and was exposed to the mysterious energy source powering the experimental fighter jet she was flying. She was then kidnapped by the Kree nation (the race of aliens Ronin from Guardians of the Galaxy is part of), who wiped her memory and trained her to be a soldier over the next six years. She discovers the origin of her past and fights back against the Kree soldiers, realizing that she becomes an unstoppable force of glowing plasma energy when she unleashes the full potential of the energy within her. After dealing a devastating blow to the Kree, she returns to space to help subjugated nations in the galaxy find peace from their oppressors.

Things to Remember

  • She meets and befriends Nick Fury in 1995, and gives him a special pager that he can use to contact her if Earth is in trouble. This is the pager Fury uses to call her at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.
  • An end credits scene shows Danvers arriving on Earth to answer Fury’s pager call post-Infinity War. She comes face to face with Captain America, Bruce Banner, Black Widow, and War Machine.
  • The origin of the energy source flowing through Danvers is revealed to be the Tesseract (in the 90’s it was in the possession of S.H.I.E.L.D.), meaning that she has the power of an Infinity Stone inside her.

Now you’re all caught up and ready for Avengers: Endgame! Don’t forget to print this out and bring it to the theater for reference so you can point out fun facts to your friend while she’s trying to watch the movie!

About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

Click here for more articles by Joe.

All Image Credits: Marvel Studios