So, you decided to watch some Marvel Cinematic Universe movies leading up to Avengers: Endgame, but you know it’s too late to watch them all without subjecting yourself to some ungodly marathon. You screwed up. You know what you did was wrong. The question is, how are you gonna make things right?
Endgame is essentially the finale of a 22-deep film series that began with 2008’s Iron Man, but not every entry in that run is essential to understanding the basic stakes and character arcs that will be concluding on April 26th.
The first wave of the MCU consisted of six films that culminated with Marvel’s The Avengers, a team-up movie whose success proved the viability of Marvel’s approach to longform cinematic storytelling. Only half of the films end up being essential. Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk and Kenneth Branagh’s Thor don’t tell you anything about the characters that won’t be explained better later on, while Iron Man 2 has so much world-building to do, it makes no forward progress.
Iron Man (2008)
To appreciate the end of something, it’s good to have a familiarity with the beginning. More importantly, Iron Man starts Tony Stark on a character arc that carries through the MCU films despite being shaped by multiple writers and directors. In the first film, Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. present a character who is made vulnerable by his own weapons of mass destruction and then dedicates his life to protecting the world.
Keep in mind: The relationship between Tony and Pepper Potts is just as important to the Iron Man character as his relationship to Steve Rogers, as evidenced by all the Endgame trailer voice-over we’ve heard thus far.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The original Marvel superhero, chronologically, gets a Joe Johnston-directed origin story that pulls skinny Steve Rogers into World War II as Captain America thanks to a super-soldier serum administered to him by the U.S. Government (and Tony Stark’s father). Steve also meets and falls in love with Peggy Carter, one of the founding agents of SHIELD. The First Avenger also features the first and most prominent MCU Infinity Store, the Space Stone. Here they just call it “The Tesseract.”
Keep in mind: The Steve Rogers story arc begins with him having enough faith in a cause bigger than a single person to sacrifice himself. The middle part sees him trade that faith off for his old friend Bucky. Will Steve Rogers ever find an uncompromised greater good worth the ultimate sacrifice?
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
If you skipped Thor and The Incredible Hulk, the slow-start first act of The Avengers will catch you up on all the basics before the team comes together to battle a Tesseract-wielding Loki. The film also explores the relationship between Black Widow and Hawkeye, a they were previously introduced as cameo characters. The finale’s “Battle of New York” is the key event that the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wraps around. For our core team of Avengers, it’s the moment they finally realize their potential as a group. Then, at the end, we get to see a very ugly but exciting glimpse at Thanos.
Keep in mind: Leaked set photos from the set of Endgame suggest the ins and outs of the Battle of New York could play an important role in how our heroes defeat Thanos. Also, since the film’s release the official Marvel history of events has Loki being influenced by the Scepter into serving Thanos, since the Mind Stone is in the Scepter, technically making Loki the first being we see to wield two Infinity Stones (and making the Ebony Maw a liar!)
Phase two also has three films that can be skipped if your catch-up is crunched for time. Iron Man 3 is a great follow up to The Avengers as a solo Tony Stark movie, but doesn’t provide any character motivation that Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t make glaringly obvious. Thor: The Dark World has no meaningful contribution besides The Aether (the Reality Stone) coming into the possession of The Collector in a post-credits scene. Finally, Ant-Man is a fun origin story, but his appearance in Captain America: Civil War feels like a re-introduction on par with Black Panther and Spider-Man.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Captain America’s transition from a SHIELD soldier to a vigilante combating HYDRA, which slowly took over the organization throughout the 20th century, is a version of Iron Man 2 that actually works. Both movies are bogged down by a ton of world building that include second act info-dumps to explain themselves, but Captain America’s sequel makes good on the Winter Soldier by reviving Bucky and ramps up the urgency.
Keep in mind: Cap pledging allegiance to his friend over the government will eventually tear The Avengers apart, plus the friendship between Steve and Natasha becomes a cornerstone for both of them.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The MCU jumps off planet for the first time to introduce the Guardians of the Galaxy. We meet Gamora and Nebula, the daughters of Thanos, plus get to see the big guy himself (voiced by Josh Brolin) in a floaty chair. The main object of the film is the Orb, a container for the Power Stone. As a bonus, The Collector gives a history of the Infinity Stones and we get our first look at the set of six.
Keep in mind: The movie sets up Star Lord’s ability to hold an Infinity Stone as part of his Celestial lineage, though that hasn’t paid off in an Avengers film yet. The Power Stone is kept for safekeeping on Xandar, which is destroyed off screen before Thanos attacks the Asgardians.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
In the most boring of the MCU movies you have to watch in order to understand Endgame, Tony Stark’s obsession with protecting everyone goes too far when he creates an Earth-protecting artificial intelligence that turns out to be an evil robot with the voice of James Spader. Steve Rogers starts to distrust Tony’s intentions. Created by the power of the Mind Stone in Loki’s scepter, the Scarlet Witch and her brother … What was his name? Fast Guy?... get the Mind Stone to Ultron, who creates Vision (though Thor actually brings the automaton to life after he has a vision about the Infinity Gauntlet in a cave). To defeat Ultron, the Avengers have to destroy an entire fictional city without the permission of any government, which is bad!
Keep in mind: This is the beginning of Thor’s story arc as it pertains to the Avengers movies, which is weird, because Thor’s side quest is one of the worst parts of the movie. Hulk and Thor both leave Earth by the end and we haven’t seen all the original Avengers team-up since. The Vision has an Infinity Stone in his head, the same one used to create Scarlet Witch.
Phase three saw Marvel Studios get much better at interweaving story arcs to build to a conclusion, possibly because there was an ending in sight for the first time. You can skip Doctor Strange, which isn’t a bad film as much as it is unimportant to Endgame beyond introducing the Time Stone. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is essential to understanding the heart of those characters, but doesn’t give us any pertinent new information on the final battle. Black Panther might be the best MCU film after The Avengers, but outside of introducing Wakanda as a location, doesn’t contribute anything to Endgame that Civil War and Infinity War don’t also provide. Finally, Captain Marvel, though fun and important for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mostly just introduces the new idea that Carol Danvers got her powers from the Space Stone (Tesseract).
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Captain America: Civil War is the explosion of every bit of the Avengers team’s inner strife. Both Tony and Steve’s previously established worries and concerns come to a head because of Bucky and people’s growing unease with a group of superheroes running around destroying cities because of problems they created in the first place. Plus we get introductions for Black Panther and Spider-Man.
Keep in mind: At the end of this movie, Cap and Iron Man fight, Cap drops his shield, and we haven’t seen Steve and Tony, nor Steve and his shield, in the same place since.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
This one is almost skippable, save for the relationship between Tony and Peter Parker as the latter attempts to be a responsible superhero. Since Tony was unable to avenge his parents, he retreats to protecting those he cares about, and, surprisingly, this extends to Peter just as much as Pepper.
Keep in mind: Before this movie, we’d only seen Peter Parker dedicate himself on screen to Aunt May, a dead Uncle Ben, or his romantic interest. Replacing Uncle Ben’s absent approval with Tony Stark’s makes Infinity War’s end devastating.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
All Thor movies have a similar theme in which Thor is depowered or attacked and, in re-gaining that power, he learns some hidden truth about the history of his people or his responsibilities as a god. The only key installment is Ragnarok, aka the fun one. Thor’s hammer gets smashed, Doctor Strange shows up and explains himself nicely, Loki gets his hands back on the Tesseract, and Asgard is destroyed only for the refugees to run into Thanos at the end. Oh, right, and we found Hulk. Welcome back, Hulk (spoiler alert: don’t get used to having Hulk around)
Keep in mind: When Infinity War starts, the fates of Valkyrie, Korg, and Meek are still unknown. Although Thor does some cool things in Ragnarok and Infinity War, neither of his big battles end in anything close to a victory.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Although Ant-Man and the Wasp came out after Infinity War and the post-credit scenes for the movie take place after Thanos’ snap, most of Ant-Man and the Wasp deals with the consequences of Civil War (so many Wars!). All the important characters from the first movie are back, but this time we get to learn more about the original Wasp and the Quantum Realm. Ant-Man and its sequel are both equally fun, but this is the essential one to understanding Endgame.
Keep in mind: Scott gets trapped in the Quantum Realm where the “time vortices” mentioned by Janet Van Dyne in the mid-credits scene may or may not be the key to undoing the devastating events of Endgame, but the van with Hank Pym’s Quantum Portal will certainly play a part.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Avengers: Endgame was originally announced as just “Infinity War Part 2.” So, yeah, watch the first part of the movie before you watch the second part of the movie.
Keep in mind: Infinity War and Endgame were written and shot simultaneously, so any questions you have after Infinity War are left hanging there on purpose: Where was Hawkeye? Why does Tony have to be alive for “the Endgame?” Does baby Gamora meeting Thanos in the orange world post-snap mean she’s somehow saveable? What’s Captain Marvel going to do? We’ll find out this April.
Dave Gonzales is an entertainment writer and podcaster. Find him on Twitter @Da7e.