The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most in-depth and successful franchises of all time. While it began with Iron Man in 2008, for fans following the narrative, that’s not where the story actually begins.
There are currently 27 movies in the MCU⏤soon to be 28⏤released in four phases. While each movie has its own storyline, Phases One through Three collectively bring viewers closer to the arrival of Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War and its epic follow-up, Avengers: Endgame. Phase Four began in 2021 with the releases of Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings shortly followed by Eternals and the mega-hit Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Phase Four continues in 2022 with three major franchise sequels: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Additionally, following the success of Disney Plus’ streaming hits including WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye, fresh entries like Moon Knight and the upcoming Ms. Marvel aim to continue the budding tradition of bringing focused character studies to the small screen. These shows of course tie into the large universe that Marvel is creating, which is actually now more of a multiverse.
There are numerous ways to enjoy the Marvel films, including the order in which they were released. In this article, we’ll be breaking down the chronological timeline of all films in the MCU so you can watch them in the correct narrative order. See the lineup for Phases One through Three below:
Here’s a breakdown of every MCU film in narrative timeline order, most of which are available to stream now on Disney Plus. (Note: Disney Plus has conveniently assembled all of the MCU films, shows, and specials in a “timeline order” category on its platform and also has the films grouped by phase. For the purposes of this list, we’ll be examining the timeline order of MCU films only.)
Captain America: The First Avenger
Taking place first in the timeline, Captain America: The First Avenger provides the origin story for one of Marvel’s most popular heroes, Steve Rogers, played by the dynamite Chris Evans. This film mostly takes place in 1942 and showcases Rogers’ journey from a scrawny infantry soldier to full-blown Captain America and facing off against Red Skull.
Next up is Captain Marvel, which is set in 1995, much closer to modern times. This movie is the first in the timeline to explore space travel and intergalactic threats. As we are introduced to both Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and soon-to-be S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the pair gets involved in the conflict between the Kree and the Skrulls with surprising results.
The third film in the timeline was the very first Marvel film to be released: Iron Man. The billionaire philanthropist-turned-superhero Tony Stark has his origin story told in this fan-favorite film. Thanks to its box office success and fans’ adoration of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, the film ultimately kicked off the entire MCU franchise.
Iron Man 2
Picking up shortly after the events of the first Iron Man, Iron Man 2 continues the story of the suited superhero now with his identity known to the public. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of a scientist who previously worked at Stark Industries, is back with a grudge and creates his own weaponry with the goal of taking revenge for his fallen father. The film also introduces a soon-to-be Avenger in Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson).
The Incredible Hulk
While many fans may choose to forego 2008’s The Incredible Hulk in their MCU binge given that it features Ed Norton in the role instead of Mark Ruffalo (who later became the official Banner), it’s still technically a part of the MCU timeline. This movie gives fans a unique take on the Hulk’s origin story and hints at more things to come in the closing credits.
Thor’s initial big-screen debut took place in 2011 and gave fans their first look at Asgard and other realms via the Bifrost. This one finds the title god traveling to Earth to defend the world from Loki and a Frost Giant threat. For many moviegoers, this was their introduction to the beloved character, played by Chris Hemsworth, and for many it solidly delivered.
The first crossover film in the timeline came with The Avengers, which was set at the conclusion of Marvel’s Phase One. The Avengers brought together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, the Hulk, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to protect the earth from Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the Chitauri invasion. The movie also played a key role in introducing the Tesseract as the first of the Infinity Stones. These stones were ultimately the key to all future plans in the MCU.
Thor: The Dark World
The second Thor film in the MCU, Thor: The Dark World, gives us a closer look at Asgard, its inner workings, and the relationship between Thor, his brother Loki, and their father, Odin. The film also gives us insight into the second Infinity Stone, the Aether, which was wielded by the movie’s antagonists, the Dark Elves. Though it’s largely considered one of the less-impressive Marvel films, it serves its purpose and thankfully paves the way for a wonderful Thor threequel.
Iron Man 3
In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark deals with anxiety after experiencing the intergalactic invasion of the Chitauri. After diving into full damage control mode and assembling an army of suits, he’s forced to choose between being Iron Man and protecting those he loves. Meanwhile, he must also deal with the looming threat of “The Mandarin.”
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Hailed as one of the best films in the entire MCU franchise, Captain America: The Winter Soldier introduces viewers to more of Captain America’s past and throws Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, back into the fray. The movie also reveals the hidden HYDRA threat still present among the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D that ultimately leads to its demise.
Guardians of the Galaxy
When it was announced that Disney was going to bring the Guardians of the Galaxy to the big screen, many were skeptical, but Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be one of the best space films ever, let alone one in the MCU. It introduced us to Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel), an unlikely team that attempts to stop the plot of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) from using the Power Stone to destroy Xandar.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Taking place shortly after the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gives us a closer look at Peter Quill’s backstory and heritage while also introducing a new member to the squad in the form of Mantis (Pom Klementieff). The story also dives deeper into the sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan) and shines a light on their relationship with their father, Thanos, which would pay off in just a few short films.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Crossing over once again, the cast of the original Avengers film joins forces to defend the earth from the threat of Ultron (James Spader), a supercomputer developed to be a peacekeeping program by Tony Stark, which overrides its programming and now seeks to eliminate all mankind. In the latter half of the film, the Avengers get a few new additions in the form of Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Maximov twins Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Ant-Man tells the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a thief who is recruited by Dr. Hank Pym to assist him with stopping the plot of his former protege, who cast him away from his own company. During the film, Lang becomes Ant-Man after being gifted a suit and being trained to use Pym Particles so he can shrink his size, giving him superhuman strength and the ability to talk to ants.
Captain America: Civil War
While not an Avengers film by name, Captain America: Civil War brings most of the superhero cast together for a face-off over a disagreement on the Sokovia Accords following the events of Age of Ultron. Civil War was also used to introduce a few new characters to the Avengers’ roster, including Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
Finally getting her own origin film after being a part of the MCU for over a decade, Natasha Romanoff heads back to her roots in Black Widow, which launched earlier this year. The film introduced us to Natasha’s sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who fans got to see again in Hawkeye and who will undoubtedly be appearing again, possibly in a villainous team-up compliments of a certain character who appears in the post-credits scene.
Taking place right after the events of Civil War, Spider-Man’s MCU debut chose not to retell the hero’s origin story, instead giving us a coming-of-age film that finds Peter Parker juggling his duties as Spider-Man with the demands of high school. There are plenty of comic book Spidey villains teased throughout the film, but his biggest threat is the Vulture, menacingly played by Micheal Keaton.
Instead of an origin story, when we pick up in Black Panther, T’Challa has already taken on the mantle as the title hero after the passing of his father in Civil War. This film gives viewers their first look at the inner workings of the afrofuturistic Wakanda as well as an epic tale of personal and ideological rivalry between T’Challa and Killmonger (Michael B Jordan).
The first time we are treated to Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the MCU is in his self-titled film. The story explores the origins of Steven Strange’s character and teases the ideas of multiple dimensions, cosmic beings, and time-traveling threats. As you’d expect, the Time Stone is also a crucial element of the film and only becomes more important from here on out. Other stand-out characters in the film include Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Wong (Benedict Wong), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
Directed by Taika Waititi and taking on a different style and tone than the previous Thor films, Ragnarok has a more comical personality while maintaining high-quality action sequences. The film addresses many of the loose ends following Age of Ultron and follows Thor and Loki as they attempt to stop their half-sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett) from taking over Asgard. The ending of this film offers a jaw-dropping lead-in to what quickly becomes the beginning of the end of the Infinity Saga.
Avengers: Infinity War
The first part of the epic culmination of all the previous MCU films, Avengers: Infinity War finally gives us our first major introduction to Thanos (Josh Brolin), who has been working behind the scenes to gather the Infinity Stones with the goal of wiping out half of humanity with a snap of his fingers. Ultimately, this film leaves fans with a stunning cliffhanger that leads directly into Avengers: Endgame.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
The sequel to Ant-Man, this film takes place at the same time as the events of Infinity War and does a great job of telling its own story within the Ant-Man comic book canon. This one digs deeper into Hope Van Dyne’s (Evangeline Lilly) relationship with her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) and also introduces a mysterious new villain, Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen). Just like Infinity War, the final moments of this film leave viewers breathless for answers in anticipation of the impending Endgame.
The epic conclusion to over a decade of storytelling, Avengers: Endgame has everything fans could ever want in a Marvel film. Picking up five years after the events of Infinity War, the remaining Avengers must regain their hope of defeating Thanos and restoring what was lost with his infamous Snap. In the closing act, Endgame boasts one of the most epic action sequences in all of cinema, blasting expectations wide open and forever changing the MCU as we know it.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Picking up right after the events of Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home addresses the events that took place during the previous film while also introducing some new faces and returning characters from the past. This film is the perfect bridging point to close out Phase Three and enter Phase Four of the MCU.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Shang-Chi is one of the latest heroes to join the MCU, and in this first film exploring his character’s origin, we learn more about his role amidst the greater events playing out within the franchise. Alongside his friend Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi is drawn back into the life he used to know and must face the father (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) he thought he left behind. Rounding out the refreshingly female-forward cast are Meng’er Zhang as Xialing and Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan. As we’re told in the film, this is the first of what is expected to be many adventures featuring Shang-Chi and Katy.
With its many flashbacks telling the story not only of the Eternals themselves but also the history of the universe, it can be difficult to give this film a true place in the MCU timeline. That said, its present-day moments take place around the same time as Far From Home, likely just afterward given that the events of the film were not mentioned in the Spider-Man sequel. Fans and critics were largely split on the film, except in regards to that colorful cameo by Harry Styles in the post-credits scene, which immediately made us yearn for a sequel.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Spider-Man: No Way Home takes place directly after its predecessor Far From Home and brings Peter Parker on the most mind-blowing adventure of his life ⏤ which, unfortunately, no one but him will remember. The film saw him grapple with everything from losing his Aunt May and facing off against villains from completely different universes to finding an unexpected brotherhood with alternate versions of himself, brought to perfect life by Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire in tear-inducing cameos that will stand the test of time. Doctor Strange, who inadvertently blasts the multiverse wide open in the film, is likely to face further ramifications in Multiverse of Madness, the latest film in the Phase Four lineup.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Benedict Cumberbatch returns as the title character in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the latest entry in the MCU’s Phase Four. The movie picks up after the events of No Way Home and sees Strange dealing with the implications of multiversal travel while facing new friends and foes, some of whom could create real trouble for him. Fans of WandaVision are as thrilled that Wanda Maximoff ⏤ aka the newly-minted Scarlet Witch ⏤ is returning as they are torn about whether she’ll remain an ally or become Strange’s foe in the film. With fresh faces like Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez and familiar ones like Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo in the mix ⏤ not to mention a version of Strange himself that can only be described as sinister ⏤ the events of Multiverse of Madness could very well change everything in the MCU more than the events of No Way Home and Loki already have. We’ll know for sure when the film drops in theaters May 6.
For an additional peek into coming attractions, be sure to check out the recently-released Thor: Love and Thunder teaser trailer.