In the middle of the last decade an independent studio presented their first movie project to the world. That movie? Iron Man. That studio? Marvel Studios. Starring an actor considered by some a ‘has been’ in the lead role of Tony Stark/Iron Man: Robert Downey, Jr. After the announcement, Marvel Studios was met with headlines like ‘Marvel Rolls Out The B Team’, hinting at the fact that Marvel sold away the live action movie rights of any character Hollywood studios wanted, when they were in dire financial trouble in the 1990s, leaving only the lesser known characters. It would be the start of a franchise, which is today the highest grossing ever: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For more about the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel itself, you could watch the Marvel produced 2014 documentaries Marvel Studios: Assembling A Universe And Marvel 75 Years: From Pulp To Pop!. Or, even better, read our article How Marvel Went From Bankruptcy To Billions.
Most of you will know the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU for short. It has become a well-known entity in cinemas and on television. However, where it was at first easy to follow the continuity of the MCU when there were only movies to consider, the problem that plagues the comics soon arose when TV shows where added. How do you watch it all in the right order? Well, do we have the answer for you! In just a moment.
Unlike Warner Bros. and DC Comics, Marvel Studios’ output is generally set in the same universe. Marvel comic adaptations that are exceptions to this are movies and TV shows produced by other studios. These include the Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man and Ghost Rider movies (Sony), the Blade trilogy of movies and the 2006 TV show (New Line Cinema; interestingly a subsidiary of Warner Bros., but independently operating at the time), the various Punisher movies (Lionsgate), the X-Men movie series, including the TV show Legion and the untitled TV show by Matt Nix (20th Century Fox), Hulk (Universal), and finally all those other adaptations ranging from cartoons and games (even the MCU movie inspired tie-in games) to that TV movie starring David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury, and the 1970s Japanese Spider-Man TV show, in which he has a giant robot. That last one is not made up, and is very real and returned in Marvel’s Spider-Verse comic event.
The following is an unofficial and optional watch order (and if you will, also reading order) for the Marvel Cinematic Universe up to the date of publishing, and is intended for first time and repeat viewers. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum. It is not in chronological order, so while Captain America: The First Avenger happens first chronologically, it is not the first instalment of the MCU. Decisions in this regard are made for a better story flow and viewing experience. Now let’s get to it! Excelsior!
1. Iron Man
The movie that started it all in 2008. It introduces us to Tony Stark and the origin of his Iron Man suit, Stark Industries, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (or S.H.I.E.L.D. for short), S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, and the idea of the Avengers Initiative. It also starts the tradition of having an after credits scene, so fast forward the credits. This is also the first Marvel Studios movie in which Marvel Studios partnered with Paramount Pictures for distribution, a partnership that would go on until Avengers Assemble.
2. The Incredible Hulk
Released in the same summer as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk introduces us to Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk, portrayed for the first and last time by Edward Norton. The story goes for the same fugitive vibe as the TV show from late 70s. The origin of the Hulk is told in the opening credits, and it’s straight to the action afterwards.
This movie made it clear that Marvel Studios indeed had the intent of tying everything together, with cameos of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Industries. Universal Pictures distributed the movie rather than Paramount, as they held and still hold the solo live action movie rights to the Hulk.
Note: The ‘Arctic suicide attempt’ deleted scene enjoys a bit of a semi-canon existence, as it is mentioned later in Avengers Assemble.
3. Iron Man 2
With Iron Man 2 being released in 2010, 2009 has been the only year to date without a Marvel Studios movie, since the MCU started. We are introduced to a new Rhodey, as Terrence Howard was replaced with Don Cheadle, and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. It lays the groundwork for events to come. A bit too much, if some are to be believed. Note: This movie has two canon prelude tie-in comics: Iron Man 2: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Iron Man 2: Public Identity.
4. Marvel One-Shot: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer
In an effort to expand the MCU and give the fans an extra reason to buy the home media release, Marvel started to make short movies, called One-Shots, after the one off comics. This one focuses on S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, and, well, the title says it all.
Note: You will find it as an extra on the home media release of Captain America: The First Avenger.
The MCU’s first foray into more fantastic and cosmic elements, and introducing us to another Avenger, the Norse God of Thunder, Thor. But we also meet Tom Hiddleston as the Norse God of Mischief, Loki.
Note: An deleted alternative ending would have introduced the (in the comics) extra-terrestrial-focused counterpart of S.H.I.E.L.D.: S.W.O.R.D. (which in the comics stands for Sentient World Observation and Response Department).
6. Marvel One-Shot: The Consultant
Remember that credits scene in The Incredible Hulk? According to Marvel there was more to it.
Note: You will find it as an extra on the Blu-Ray of Thor.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger
Steve Rogers is introduced in a flashback movie, transporting us back to World War II, and introducing us to a McGuffin of note with a Thor connection and to major antagonist organisation HYDRA. Some would place this movie at the beginning of a watch list. However, the movie expects you to know who Nick Fury is, and, to lesser extent, who Howard Stark is. It was also released as the fifth movie in the MCU, and has an Avengers Assemble teaser trailer instaid of an after-credits scene.
The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and the present day parts of Captain America: The First Avenger are all set in one week. For more on this, check the Avengers Assemble tie-in comic Nick Fury’s Big Week.
Note: This movie has one canon tie-in comic: Captain America: First Vengeance.
7a. Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter
This One-Shot is no longer canon, as the Agent Carter TV series overwrites it. You can watch it here, or as an epilogue to the Agent Carter series. Try to catch the S.W.O.R.D. easter egg.
Note: You will find it as an extra on the home media release of Iron Man 3.
8. Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers)
And there came a movie, a movie unlike any other, where all the MCU heroes found themselves united against a common threat. On that day Avengers Assemble premiered. To show them fighting a foe no single superhero could withstand!
This movie takes elements from the comic The Ultimates, has both a mid-credits as well as an after credits scene, and is the first step towards Infinity War.
Mark Ruffalo takes over from Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/The Hulk from this point onwards.
Note: This movie has two canon prelude tie-in comics: the previously mentioned Nick Fury’s Big Week, and Black Widow Strikes.
9. Marvel One-Shot: Item 47
Focusing on a young couple who taking the criminal opportunity the Chitauri technology presents, as they are hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Jasper Sitwell. It also introduces S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Felix Blake, who shall return in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Note: You will find it as an extra on the home media release of Avengers Assemble.
10. Iron Man 3
The first movie in Phase 2, after Phase 1 was concluded with Avengers Assemble. The movie takes elements from the Extremis story arc from The Invincible Iron Man comic, deals with Tony Stark’s personal aftermath of the events in Avengers Assemble, and introduces us to his greatest enemy. Sort of.
This movie is the first to drop the Paramount Pictures logo at the beginning, as the movie distribution is now fully in the hands of Walt Disney Studios, whose parent The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel in 2009.
Note: This movie has a canon tie-in comic: Iron Man 3 Prelude.
11. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1: episodes 1 to 7
The first TV series set in the MCU, produced by Marvel Television and ABC Studios. Premiered with amazing ratings on American broadcast network ABC. The series means the return of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, with the how of his return as one of the main story arcs of this first season. It is placed after Iron Man 3, because the first episode makes mention of Extremis.
Note: The show inspired two comics called S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. set in the Marvel comic universe, in 2015 and 2016 respectively. The comics have the same characters as the TV series.
12. Thor: The Dark World
This Thor sequel also deals with the aftermath of the events in Avengers Assemble, but finds a new antagonist in Malekith and his Dark Elves. It has a direct connection with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok.
Note: This movie has a canon tie-in comic: Thor: The Dark World Prelude.
13. Marvel One-Shot: All Hail The King
While an epilogue to Iron Man 3, this final One-Shot is placed after Thor: The Dark World. This is done because it is strongly hinted that the main character has been at this place for some time now. This, plus the time it should take before the main character ends up there. It further gives a whole different swing to Iron Man 3’s antagonist.
Note: You will find it as an extra on the home media release of Thor: The Dark World.
14. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1: episodes 8 to 16
Episode 8 and 9 are the first tie-in episodes to an MCU movie. Having the team deal with Asgardian artefacts and worlds. These episodes also reveal how Agent Coulson returned. Meanwhile, the late Bill Paxton is introduced as an recurring character. Episode 15 also has a very nice Thor connection.
Note: There is one canon tie-in comic set between episodes 12 and 13: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Chase.
Episode 16 really ups the stakes for this show, as it directly leads into…
15. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Steve Rogers/Captain America now works together with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow for S.H.I.E.L.D. in their counter-terrorist Special Mission Unit S.T.R.I.K.E. (Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies, and in the comics actually the UK’s counterpart to S.H.I.E.L.D.). The twist in this movie really shakes up the MCU. Not only for future movies and TV shows, but also the previous entries in retrospect.
Note: This movie has a canon tie-in comic: Captain America: The Winter Soldier Prelude. This is an Infinite Comic, a comic specially made for mobile devices.
16. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1: episodes 17 to 22
The team deals with the massive fallout of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
17. Guardians Of The Galaxy
Marvel Studios introduces us to the full-on cosmic side of Marvel, via Guardians Of The Galaxy. The chair loving purple alien from the mid-credits scene in The Avengers is finally named. We also indirectly find out what that blue alien in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is. The movie’s story is pretty much standalone, but apparently Thor knows about it in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Because of that and the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. connection, it is placed here.
Note: On the Blu-ray the 3D version of this movie has IMAX scenes, removing the black bars on the top and bottom of your screen.
Note: This movie has a canon tie-in comic: Guardians Of The Galaxy Prelude.
18. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2: episodes 1 to 10
Since we left, the team has formed a Nick Fury backed S.H.I.E.L.D. faction and takes on a long believed defeated enemy. We are also introduced to Bobbi Morse/Mockingbird, in the comics a full-on Avenger.