The Marvel Cinematic Universe is only 13 years old and it’s already the biggest, most-expansive franchise in movie history! Starting in 2008 with “Iron Man”, the series is still going strong in 2021 with the recent releases of “Wandavision”, “Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, “Black Widow”, and of course the mind-bending season finale of “Loki” (now streaming on Disney+), not to mention a couple more titles hitting theaters this year (“Eternals”, “Spider-man: No Way Home”, etc)!
Most of these titles are intrinsically tied to the overarching narrative of the MCU as a whole, so where does everything fit in? If you’re not already a hardcore fan (like us), it can probably feel like A LOT to catch up on, so if you want to dive in and follow along in (mostly?) chronological order, the following is a *quick* guide to the official MCU Timeline, from Captain America: The First Avenger to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings!
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
This ‘Avengers’ prequel takes place during World War II (1941 to be exact) and follows Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny kid from Brooklyn, who wants to fight for his country, but doesn’t qualify for duty – that is until a scientist decides to give him a chance as a test subject in a top secret government program which ultimately turns him into a super soldier! After being paraded around on USO tours as “Captain America”, Rogers decides he can do more and joins the fight with the help of Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), his old pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and billionaire industrialist, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Howard arms Steve with a shield made of a rare and nearly indestructible metal called vibranium.
Meanwhile, a secret Nazi organization called Hydra, led by ‘The Red Skull’ (Hugo Weaving), gets its’ hands on a secret weapon called ‘The Tesseract’ – a cosmic cube with unlimited power. Long story short, the Howling Commandos take on Hydra, Bucky tragically falls to his “death”, the Red Skull gets warped away to another realm, and Cap stops Hydra’s secret weapon by sacrificing himself – crashing a massive German plane into the arctic – both Steve and the Tesseract were seemingly lost in the incident.
The movie ends however with Steve Rogers (unfrozen from the ice) wakes up decades later in modern day (2011) New York City and meets a mysterious man with a trench coat and eye patch, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson)…
AGENT CARTER (2015-2016)
“Agent Carter” was a live-action series that lasted two seasons, starring Hayley Atwell, reprising her role as Agent Peggy Carter (Cap’s love interest) – and picks up in 1946, after the events of “Captain America: The First Avenger”. During the series, Agent Carter takes on renegade Hydra agents and a group of Soviet ‘Black Widows’, teaming up with Howard Stark and his butler, Jarvis along the way. Although the series was cancelled, it’s later revealed that Peggy Carter and Howard Stark later become founding members of S.H.I.E.L.D. (The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division)
*TIMELINE NOTE: The opening of “Guardians of the Galaxy” flashbacks to 1988, when a young Peter Quill is first abducted by Yondu after his mother’s death, the opening of “Ant-Man” takes place in 1989, showing Hank Pym at a SHIELD meeting with Howard Stark and Peggy Carter at the Triskelion, where he resigns, the opening of “Captain America: Civil War” takes place in 1991, and the opening of “Iron Man 3” takes place at a New Years Eve party in 1999.
CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)
Set in 1995, “Captain Marvel” is the origin story of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) – a US Air Force pilot who gains incredible cosmic powers from the Tesseract. After suffering from amnesia, she was inducted into an elite alien peace-keeping force, where she took part in a war against the Skrull, a species of shape-shifters. She eventually crash lands on Earth where she discovers her past and with the help of SHIELD Agent, Nick Fury, and her old friend, Maria Rambeau, they uncover a sinister plot by the Kree Empire to wipe out a group of Skrull refugees hiding on Earth. As Captain Marvel, Danvers is able to tap into the full extent of her newfound powers and saves the planet from Ronan the Accuser. Danvers inspires Nick Fury to form “the Avengers Initiative” to prepare for other potential dangers…
IRON MAN (2008)
“Iron Man” was technically the first MCU movie released in 2008, way before Disney bought Marvel Studios and built it into the franchise that it is today. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), billionaire, playboy, philanthropist and inventor, like his father before him. Tony is captured by a terrorist organization known as ‘The Ten Rings’ (more about them later) while demonstrating a Stark Industries weapons test in the Middle East. They hold him hostage and force him to build them a weapon – instead, he builds a high-tech suit of armor that he then uses to escape. The suit is powered by a miniaturized ‘arc reactor’, a fusion engine designed by his father – that is also helping to keep him alive.
When Tony returns stateside, he has a change of heart and decides that his company is no longer going to contribute to the military industrial complex, and instead pours his energies into perfecting the Arc Reactor and his ‘Iron Man’ suit. He develops the Mark 2 prototype to test out aerial capabilities, before perfecting the design with the Mark 3. When Tony realizes that the terrorists are using his company’s weapons against civilians, he decides to suit up and clean up the problem himself.
In an insane twist, it’s revealed that Tony’s long-time friend and business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), hired the terrorists to get Tony out of the picture! Obadiah steals Stark’s designs and develops the Iron Monger suit. With the help of his secretary, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), Colonel Rhodes, and SHIELD Agent, Phil Coulson, Stark manages to defeat Stane before revealing himself to the world as Iron Man!
We then get a surprise end credits scene where Nick Fury approaches Stark about ‘The Avengers Initiative’…
*TIMELINE NOTE: Technically, Iron Man 2, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk all overlap to an extant – all taking place primarily in the same week.
IRON MAN 2 (2010)
Tony Stark must contend with the ramifications of revealing himself to the world as Iron Man, while battling both inner demons and the combined forces of a greedy industrialist, Justin Hammer, and a vengeful Russian mercenary, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). Tony is forced to seek help from Nick Fury, Natasha Romanov aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), his trusty A.I. – J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany), and his old friend, Rhodey (Don Cheadle) – who suits up in a customized version of the Mark II suit as ‘War Machine’! Tony manages to create a new element to cure his palladium poisoning with clues left behind from his father, he puts Pepper Potts in charge of his company, and ultimately teams up with War Machine and Black Widow to stop an Vanko’s army of drones from destroying the Stark Expo in New York!
The movie also debuts Tony’s Mark 5 – ‘Suitcase Suit’ during his fight with ‘Whiplash’.
Marvel One Shot: “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer”
SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) stops a Roxxon gas station robbery in New Mexico – during the events of Iron Man 2 and Thor.
Centuries ago on Earth (aka Midgard) in what is now Norway, the Asgardians led by Odin (Anthony Hopkins) waged a war against Laufey and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, to stop them from conquering the Nine Realms. During the battle, Odin, the King of Asgard, rescued Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the son of Laufey and secretly took him in and raised him as his own, alongside his ‘brother’, Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
The two Princes of Asgard grew up to become polar opposites, with Thor being ‘The God of Thunder’ – a fierce warrior wielding Mjolnir, a powerful hammer forged from the remnants of a dying star – while Loki became ‘the God of Mischief’, a master of illusions and deception. During a ceremony, a couple of Frost Giants break into Odin’s treasure room and attempt to steal back an ancient weapon. Thor brashly decides to lead an attack on Jotunheim in retribution, against Odin’s direct orders, with Loki, Sif, and the Warriors Three (Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun) tagging along. As a result of his arrogance in breaking the peace treaty, Odin banishes Thor to Midgard (Earth), stripping him of his powers – and can only reclaim Mjolnir if he proves his worth.
Soon after crash-landing in the desert of New Mexico, Thor has a series of humorous run ins with astrophysicist, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), along with her intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), and mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). While Thor is acclimating to life on Earth as a mortal and developing feelings for Jane, SHIELD discovers and quarantines Mjolnir. Meanwhile, back on Asgard, Loki seizes the throne, while Odin is unwell. Sif and the warriors three decide to head to Earth and bring Thor back out of exile to put things right, with the help of Heimdall (Edris Elba), the gatekeeper. Loki unleashes the Destroyer on Earth which easily defeats the warriors. Despite not having powers, Thor stands defiantly against the Destroyer and is nearly killed protecting his friends. His sacrifice breaks Odin’s spell and after regaining his strength and abilities, manages to overcome the Destroyer before confronting his brother Loki, back on Asgard for his treachery and manipulation.
Thor and Loki battle it out on the Bifrost Bridge and Thor is forced to destroy the portal in order to save Jotunheim even though it will keep him from returning to Earth. During the confrontation, Loki falls into the abyss, disappearing into a black hole…
THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
Years earlier, Scientist, Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) became a powerful creature of pure rage when a gamma experiment goes awry. Ever since, Banner has been on the run from the government while trying to find a cure for his ‘condition’ – whenever he gets angry, he becomes ‘The Hulk’!
General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) – hires a special ops soldier, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to track down Banner. While hiding out in Brazil, Banner is cornered by Blonsky’s squad and an ensuing altercation triggers him into transforming before ripping through the entire squad with ease, leaving Blonsky as the sole survivor of the incident. Ross offers him a chance at revenge and gives him a knock off super soldier formula. Banner eventually makes his way back to the states and secretly reunites with his girlfriend, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), General Ross’s daughter, at Culver University in Virginia. The military moves in to take out Banner, but the Hulk makes quick work of them, including Blonsky. During the confrontation, Hulk saves Betty and the two make their escape.
Bruce and Betty head to New York where they meet with Samuel Sterns, who offers them a potential antidote, but before they can test whether the serum worked or not, they’re captured and taken into custody. Blonsky confronts Sterns and forces him to use Banner’s blood to enhance him, turning him into – The Abomination! The Abomination rampages through the city and Ross realizes that Banner is the only one who can stop him – Bruce unleashes the Hulk and the two monsters duke it out in Harlem. Hulk stops the Abomination, saving Betty and her father before fleeing the scene. Banner goes back to living on the run, reappearing in Canada where he’s seen meditating, attempting to control the beast within.
The movie ends with Tony Stark approaching General Ross.
THE AVENGERS (2012)
Nick Fury arrives at a secret SHIELD facility where Dr. Erik Selvig is studying the Tesseract, right as Loki suddenly appears through a wormhole, armed with a mysterious scepter that he then uses to mind control Dr. Selvig and Agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) aka Hawkeye into helping him escape with the Tesseract. The incident prompts Fury to initiate ‘The Avengers Initiative’. Agent Romanoff aka Black Widow is sent to recruit Dr. Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in India to help him trace the tesseract with his knowledge of gamma radiation. Meanwhile, Agent Phil Coulson meets with Tony Stark and Pepper Potts at Stark Tower in New York City and Nick Fury recruits Steve Rogers to help them retrieve the Tesseract.
Captain America and Iron Man team up to stop Loki in Germany. As they’re escorting him to a SHIELD Helicarrier (a high-tech, flying aircraft carrier), Thor shows up out of nowhere and nabs Loki in an attempt to reason with his adopted brother – leading to an epic three-way brawl between himself, Stark and Cap – ending with Thor brining his hammer down on Cap’s shield! Loki is transported to the Helicarrier, where he’s held captive in a high-tech prison cell. Black Widow tricks Loki into unveiling his plan, while Cap, Stark, Thor, Fury, and Dr. Banner all argue about what to do, after it’s revealed that SHIELD was secretly planning on making weapons with the Tesseract. Suddenly, Loki’s possessed agents attack the Helicarrier, led by Hawkeye. During the chaos, Banner Hulks out, almost killing Black Widow and nearly destroying the ship, Black Widow knocks out Hawkeye, breaking the mind control spell, Tony and Rogers work together to fix the Helicarrier, Thor helps to divert the Hulk’s rampage, and Loki escapes, killing Agent Coulson in the process.
Nick Fury uses Coulson’s death to reunite ‘The Avengers’, convincing them to work as a team to stop Loki once and for all. With Selvig’s help, Loki uses the Tesseract to open a portal above Stark Tower, allowing a massive force of Chitauri warriors to invade Earth! The Avengers (Cap, Stark, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye) engage the Chitauri in a massive battle across New York City with Dr. Banner showing up at the last second with their secret weapon: The Hulk! Tony manages to outsmart Loki, while Cap leads the team to victory and Black Widow figures out how to stop the portal with Loki’s scepter. At one point, a nuke is launched at New York and Iron Man manages to fly it through the portal into space where it destroys the Chitauri fleet before falling back to Earth where The Hulk catches him.
Loki is once again captured, SHIELD takes possession of the scepter, everyone eats shawarma, and Thor uses the Tesseract to bring Loki back to Asgard to stand trial for his crimes. We also get a clever Easter Egg of the big bad behind it all: Thanos!
TO BE CONTINUED…
Upcoming MCU Movies and Shows: What If…?, Eternals, Hawkeye, Spider-man: No Way Home, Ms. Marvel, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, She Hulk, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Marvels, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Blade, Moon Knight, Secret Invasion, Armor Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, and Fantastic Four!