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Avengers: Infinity War - artwork featuring a collage of all the characters Marvel Studios/Disney

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The entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, recapped

There was an idea ...

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

We won’t mince words: Avengers: Infinity War is here, and a lot of things have happened in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and they happened in a lot of movies over a lot of time.

So you don’t want to watch 10 years of movies, but you do want to know what’s going on in the MCU before you see Avengers: Infinity War. Never fear: Give us a few minutes of your time, and we’ll give you the history of the entire MCU, movie by movie. Starting a long time ago, in a desert far, far away ...


Iron Man - Tony Stark holds his arms out as weapons explode behind him
Iron Man (2008)
Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

The setup

Way back in World War II, a frail young man named Steve Rogers volunteered for a risky military science program and was transformed (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011). Endowed with superhuman strength, agility and endurance, Rogers — known as Captain America — and his compatriots in the Allied Forces, including his childhood best friend, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, combated the forces of a powerful Nazi offshoot organization known as Hydra.

Rogers stymied Hydra’s plans to use the power of an ancient artifact known as the Tesseract to cause untold destruction, and sent the German scientist and military commander the Red Skull plunging into a dangerous portal created by the Tesseract. But by the end of the war, both Rogers and Barnes had gone missing in combat and were presumed dead.

Captain America: The First Avenger - soldier with stars and stripes on a shield
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

[Note: We are not going to cover the Tesseract and the rest of the Infinity Stones with great detail or specificity here. But if you’d like a quick refresher on their history and current locations, you can check our Infinity Stones explainer.]

Captain America was the only “superhero” the world had ever known — until the late 2000s, when the genius, billionaire, philanthropist and playboy Tony Stark was abducted by the terrorist group known as the Ten Rings, which held him for ransom and attempted to force him to build weapons for them (Iron Man, 2008).

Instead, Stark built himself an automated suit of battle armor and escaped his captors. In another story, he might have stopped once he gained his freedom, but after discovering the extent to which the weapons manufacturing arms of his business were inflaming global conflict, Stark built more advanced suits of armor and began waging a one-man war on terrorism. His crusade culminated in the death of his business associate, who had been collaborating with the Ten Rings all along.

At a press conference later that week, under questioning from reporters, Stark admitted that the mysterious armored figure — dubbed the Iron Man — who had seemingly been acting in his interests was, in fact, himself.

With Stark’s proclamation, “I am Iron Man,” the modern age of superheroes had begun.

Thor - close-up of Thor holding his hammer in the rain
Thor (2011)
Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

Nick Fury’s Big Week

It never rains but it pours, and it was as if Stark’s presence had torn open a thundercloud. In a single week, four major events occurred that would shape the Marvel Cinematic Universe forever.

In the Arctic, the shadowy government program known as SHIELD uncovered the resting place of Steve Rogers, who was alive, but had been locked in an ice-induced hibernation for 70 years (Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011). Rogers was revived into a world he barely recognized.

In the royal halls of Asgard — a sister dimension to Earth’s, home to the Asgardians, whose technology inspired Norse legends — there was a crisis of succession (Thor, 2011). Odin, king of Asgard, stripped his son Thor of his powers and banished him to Earth for his destructive arrogance. Then Odin fell into the interminable Odinsleep, leaving his foster son Loki on the throne.

In a scheme for Odin’s approval, Loki attempted to kill Thor and destroy the realm of Jotunheim, and the battle between the two brothers caused significant damage to the small New Mexico town in which Thor and his hammer Mjölnir had appeared. Eventually, Thor took the fight back to Asgard, where Loki seemingly committed suicide by jumping into the dimensional void.

The Hulk, visibly very angry, on a burning street in The Incredible Hulk (2008).
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Image: Marvel Studios/Universal Pictures

At roughly the same time, General Thunderbolt Ross and his men caught up with Dr. Bruce Banner, who had been hiding while he attempted to find a cure for the condition that causes him to transform into an giant, unstoppable green monster when under stress (The Incredible Hulk, 2008). An experiment using some of Banner’s blood on one of Ross’ men created an equally terrible creature who rampaged through Harlem before Banner, in his monstrous form as the Hulk, put a stop to him and, again, fled custody.

Elsewhere, Tony Stark struggled with several problems (Iron Man 2, 2010). An irreplaceable metal in the magnetic energy source that kept shrapnel from impaling his heart — an injury sustained in his abduction by the Ten Rings — was also poisoning him. His attempts to keep his armor technology out of the hands of the U.S. government failed when his best friend, Air Force Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, stole one of his prototypes, becoming the hero known as War Machine.

Col. Nicholas Fury of SHIELD approached Stark, giving him information about his father’s work that enabled him to find a replacement substance for his arc reactor, saving his life. In exchange, Fury said that he might call upon Stark as a consultant in the future.

The Avengers (2012) - the Avengers looking up from a Manhattan street
The Avengers (2012)
Marvel Studios/Disney

The Avengers

That future was not long off, and it arrived when the Asgardian Loki appeared in a high-security SHIELD facility and absconded with the Tesseract, recovered from the same Arctic location as Steve Rogers (The Avengers, 2012). With the power of the Tesseract — and an army of alien Chitauri — Loki hoped to conquer Earth and deliver it to his new master, a being known as the Other, and the Other’s master, a being known as Thanos.

Nick Fury activated his Avengers Initiative, calling together several of the world’s known metahumans and geniuses. Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner formed the core of the group, and were aided by SHIELD agents Natasha Romanoff — the Black Widow — and Clint Barton — Hawkeye — as well as the Asgardian prince, Thor, who came to Earth looking for his foster brother.

Together, the six heroes defeated a massive Chitauri army in the heart of midtown Manhattan and captured Loki. Thor returned to Asgard with Loki and the Tesseract, but a bond was formed.

Earth had its Avengers.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - Captain America holds up his shield to block a punch from the Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Marvel Studios/Disney

After the Battle of New York

Loki was not in prison long, as Thor freed him in order to gain his help in defeating the Dark Elf Malekith (Thor: The Dark World, 2013), but Loki seemingly died in the course of their quest. Nevertheless, the Asgardians were able to wrest the powerful artifact known as the Aether from Malekith’s clutches before he destroyed the Nine Realms, and they delivered it into the hands of an alien being known as the Collector, because it was too dangerous to keep it near the Tesseract.

Unbeknownst to anyone else, Loki had actually survived, and had usurped Odin’s place on Asgard’s throne.

Meanwhile, on Earth, it was Tony Stark who felt the greatest fallout from the Battle of New York, as the experience — particularly of nearly dying in the cold depths of space — drove him to post-traumatic panic attacks (Iron Man 3, 2013). After nearly losing his close friend and confidant Happy Hogan, and after putting down a fake terrorist organization (led by a figure called the Mandarin) that was merely a cover for a secret takeover of the executive branch of the United States, Stark appeared to have left his life as Iron Man behind for good.

But the bigger crisis for the government came when Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff discovered that the SHIELD agency had, since its very inception, been filled with sleeper agents for the fascistic Hydra organization (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014). Moreover, Rogers discovered that one of Hydra’s most deadly agents was his fallen friend, Bucky Barnes, brainwashed and medically enhanced into a murderous super-assassin.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - the Hydra logo
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Marvel Studios/Disney

Air Force pararescueman Sam Wilson, equipped with a cutting-edge mechanical wingsuit, joined Rogers as the hero known as the Falcon. Rogers, Wilson, Romanoff, Fury and SHIELD agent Maria Hill overthrew Hydra and defeated a plan to preemptively assassinate thousands of scientists, metahumans, and presumed-metahumans that Hydra perceived as a threat to its rule.

In the end, Rogers even managed to free Barnes from his brainwashing, though his friend fled, disappearing without a trace. Remnants of Hydra’s organization remained, however, and had stolen many of SHIELD’s most powerful weapons.

In particular, Hydra began to use an alien scepter — which Loki had used to bend mortal minds to his will — to awaken strange powers in twin siblings Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Pietro developed the ability to move at superhuman speed, while Wanda learned to move objects to manipulate the minds of others using only her own thoughts.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) - Scarlet Witch using her powers on Tony Stark
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Marvel Studios/Disney

The Age of Ultron

It was the Avengers’ recovery of that very scepter that sparked the next major phase in their evolution (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015). While raiding the Hydra base containing the scepter and the Maximoffs, Wanda — the Scarlet Witch — used her abilities to give Tony Stark a harrowing vision of a dark future in which the Avengers died and the Earth was left defenseless, all because he didn’t “do more.”

After the mission, Tony enlisted Bruce Banner to help him use the scepter’s seemingly highly advanced alien technology to craft an artificial intelligence capable of controlling a global army of Iron Man suits. Instead, Tony and Bruce accidentally created Ultron, a hostile machine intelligence that immediately sought to destroy the human race.

Dogging Ultron’s electronic steps, the Avengers stopped him from using the scepter’s secret source of power — the yellow gem hidden inside it — to create his own synthetic body. Still wedded to his idea of peace through artificial intelligence, Tony secretly uploaded his personal AI, JARVIS, into the synthetic body, just as Thor returned from a quest of his own.

Avengers: Age of Ultron - Steve Rogers and the Vision
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Marvel Studios/Disney

The thunder god had been seeking confirmation of his own vision, and discovered that the scepter’s yellow gem was one of the six fabled Infinity Stones, which confer their bearers with powers over the building blocks of reality. Fulfilling his prophetic dream, Thor used his hammer and the power of the Mind Stone to awaken the synthetic body and its artificial mind, creating the android hero the Vision.

Together with the Maximoffs, who defected from Ultron’s cause once they realized the enormity of it, the Avengers thwarted Ultron’s attempts to cause a global extinction event and destroyed his army of robotic physical forms. They saved the world, but were unable to safeguard the capital of the Eastern European country of Sokovia; many of its citizens, and Wanda’s own brother, Pietro — Quicksilver — were killed in the battle.

Overwhelmed by the feeling that his barely controlled rampages would someday harm his friends, Bruce Banner used the Sokovia confusion to steal an Avengers quinjet and disappear. Thor, in the meantime, left Earth entirely to learn more about the Infinity Stones before they could do more harm.

Captain America: Civil War (2016) - Captain America and Iron Man
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Marvel Studios/Disney

Civil War

The fallout from the events in Sokovia would have much farther-reaching consequences, when, following the massive destruction in that country, the governments of the world proposed an international agreement to place the autonomy of the Avengers under bureaucratic control (Captain America: Civil War, 2016).

The Avengers themselves became bitterly divided on whether to accept or oppose the proposal, splitting into two camps: that of Steve Rogers — who feared being restricted or used — and Tony Stark, who feared that he would once again have no one standing between his optimistic ambitions and creating a horror like Ultron. Still, the group might have reached a peaceful agreement, had things not been muddied by the resurfacing of Rogers’ close friend, James “Bucky” Barnes, now infamously known as the assassin the Winter Soldier.

Captain America: Civil War (2016) - Black Panther
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Marvel Studios/Disney

Barnes was framed for the death of the king of Wakanda, earning him the ire of the king’s son, Prince T’Challa, who served the Wakandan throne as the protector and enforcer known as the Black Panther. Rogers’ attempts to protect his friend drove a further divide between him and Stark, and the Avengers came to blows among themselves at an airport in Germany.

Rogers and Barnes sought to apprehend the Sokovian national Helmut Zemo — who wanted to destroy the Avengers as vengeance for his family’s death — and enlisted several heroes to their aid, including Ant-Man, a Cold War-era spy identity revitalized by corporate whistleblower and cat burglar Scott Lang. Stark had brought his own team of allies loyal to his cause to apprehend Rogers and Barnes on governmental orders, including Spider-Man, a teenager named Peter Parker who had developed superhuman strength and agility after being bitten by a strange spider.

But the relationship between Rogers and Stark wasn’t completely shattered until Zemo succeeded in his ultimate goal: uncovering evidence that the tragic deaths of Stark’s parents was not an accident. Rather, the Starks had been assassinated by Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, under Hydra brainwashing.

Stark, Rogers and Barnes limped away from that final conflict, the bond between the Avengers fully broken. Rogers and Barnes were taken in by Prince T’Challa, who vowed to find a cure for Bucky’s brainwashing, and Rogers sent Stark a cellphone with a single number in its address book, so that in a time of great need he could still reach out to Captain America. Rogers and his allies were now wanted criminals.

[Note: For a more specific look at where all of the Avengers are when Avengers: Infinity War begins, check out our explainer.]

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) - Gamora, Star-Lord, Drax, Rocket
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Marvel Studios/Disney

Meanwhile, in space and time

Peter Quill, who calls himself Star-Lord, was born on Earth but was abducted shortly after the death of his mother, and was swept up into a strange world of alien bounty hunters, thieves and scavengers. As an adult, his attempt to recover and sell a mysterious and ancient artifact swept him up in something quite bigger: a conflict with the will of the interstellar warlord called Thanos.

Quill found allies in a ragtag group of outlaws and assassins: Groot, a sentient plant; Rocket, seemingly a talking raccoon; Drax, a warrior seeking revenge on Thanos for the deaths of his family; Gamora, Thanos’ rebellious and deadly daughter; and, even later, Gamora’s foster sister, Nebula, and the strange psychic being Mantis. Together, they kept the purple Power Stone from Thanos’ grasp, leaving it in the charge of the Nova Corps on the planet Xandar (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014). Later, they encountered and defeated Quill’s long-lost father: the maniacal Celestial known as Ego the Living Planet (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 2017).

Closer to our home, a human surgeon turned to the mystic arts in desperation after losing the dexterity of his hands. Doctor Stephen Strange overcame his hubris to become Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme, wielding the green Time Stone against any magical dangers that would threaten the planet (Doctor Strange, 2016). It was in this faculty that he met Thor and Loki, who had arrived on Earth to look for their father, Odin (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017).

Thor had returned home to Asgard after seeking information about the Infinity Stones and the mysterious Thanos across the Nine Realms, and had swiftly uncovered Loki’s takeover of the throne. Doctor Strange led the brothers to their father, who almost immediately died of whatever passes for natural causes among gods, but not before delivering a dire warning: Thor and Loki had a secret older sister, of immense power and malice, who would be released upon Asgard at the moment of Odin’s death.

Hela, the goddess of death, stranded Thor and Loki on the planet of Sakaar and conquered Asgard. Luckily, Thor found an ally where he least expected him: After fleeing from the Avengers in the aftermath of Sokovia, Bruce Banner’s quinjet had been enveloped by a wormhole and deposited him on Sakaar, where time passed differently than in other places in the universe. Banner had been the Hulk for two years, and in that time the green rage monster had developed a bit of a personality.

Thor: Ragnarok - Hulk, Thor, Valkyrie, Loki
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Image: Marvel Studios

Banner, Thor and Loki found allies in an eclectic group of gladiators and bounty hunters, escaping Sakaar’s gladiatorial arenas. Unfortunately, the only way to defeat Hela and free the Asgardians was to destroy Asgard itself. Thor and his allies escaped the ruin of his home world, and he accepted his role as their new king. But even as they looked ahead to forging a new life for Asgard’s refugees, their ship was confronted by a mysterious, massive cruiser.

And finally — deep in the heart of the African continent, the nation of Wakanda had been keeping its highly advanced vibranium-based technology secret for thousands of years. But when King T’Challa’s rule was nearly ended by his secret, long-lost, American-raised cousin, the Black Panther made the controversial decision to end his people’s isolation (Black Panther, 2018). Wakanda announced it would join the world stage to aid other countries and elevate humanity with its knowledge. In the meantime, T’Challa’s sister Shuri, a technological genius, cured Bucky Barnes of his brainwashing — he is recuperating among the people of Wakanda, who have given him the nickname of “White Wolf.”

Avengers: Infinity War - Black Panther, Captain America, Black Widow and Bucky Barnes leading the Dora Milaje
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

And that’s the story of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, so far

Now go watch Avengers: Infinity War.


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