While the MCU officially started in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, that doesn't mean that's the first film that you should watch. In fact, now the MCU encompasses over 20 movies and more than 10 TV shows (including the ill-fated Inhumans), with even more of both still coming.
Although The First Avenger is the fifth movie in the MCU, it's the first flick that should be watched because it takes place decades before Iron Manand The Avengers. It also introduces viewers to Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), an essential character in the universe. TFA also introduces the Tesseract, aka the Space Stone.
The film that started everything comes in as the second movie to watch. Iron Man, of course, gives us our first glimpse at billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as he builds himself a suit of armor.
In the postcredits scene, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) approaches Stark to discuss the Avengers Initiative.
Because it includes footage from The Incredible Hulk and a postcredits scene featuring Thor's hammer, the second entry in the Iron Man franchise fits snugly between Incredible Hulk and Thor.
IM2 also introduces Stark to a world that knows his "superhero" identity, complicating matters. It brings in Natalie Rushman as Stark's assistant, who in reality is Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), sent by Fury to keep an eye on the eccentric billionaire.
With nearly the entire Avengers crew assembled, the only major character missing is the crown prince of Asgard. The first Thormovie introduces the god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) and other characters essential for The Avengers.
The postcredits scene, directed by Joss Whedon, helps set the stage for the 2012 ensemble superhero movie.
The Thor sequel, Dark World, is set only one year after the events of The Avengers and introduces the Aether, aka the Reality Stone. A midcredits scene introduces Taneleer Tivan, aka The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who we see again in Guardians of the Galaxy.
The Winter Soldier, a direct sequel to The First Avenger,takes place two years after The Avengers. In the film, Steve Rogers -- now working with S.H.I.E.L.D. -- teams up with Black Widow and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to stop the Winter Soldier, who was once Rogers' best friend Bucky.
A postcredits scene teases the upcoming addition of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.
Guardians of the Galaxybegins in 1988 when Peter Quill is abducted by aliens after his mother dies, but the bulk of the story takes places 26 later, according to a graphic seen in the film. (This places the story nearly directly in line with its release chronology.) GOTG also introduces the Power Stone and explains the advent of the Infinity Stones, important plot points for the following Avengers films.
GOTG Vol. 2 is set just three months after the original film, with Groot still a baby (at least until the final postcredits scene of the sequel). Despite this chronology, Vol. 2 is technically a part of Phase 3 as it was released after Avengers: Age of Ultron.
In one of the postcredits scenes, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) is seen dancing -- we'll see him again in Thor: Ragnarok.
The sequel to 2012's The Avengers is the penultimate film in Phase 2. The ensemble action film brings together the heroes once again, while introducing Vision (brought to life by Paul Bettany) and twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.
In the postcredits scene we see Thanos declare "I'll do it myself," as he grabs what we can only assume is the Infinity Gauntlet. Problem is, after Avengers: Infinity War we know how Thanos got his hands on the gauntlet, leaving many questions about this scene. (We suggest you skip it, really.)
Immediately following the events of Civil War, new King T'Challa returns to his homeland of Wakanda. He must protect his country from Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), and prevent a world war.
Homecoming is the first standalone Spider-Man film ever connected to the MCU. Starring Tom Holland, the film is set just a few months after Civil War and sees Peter Parker desperately trying to help his friends and neighbors as he struggles with his new sense of responsibility.
In the first Doctor Strange film, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the world's best neurosurgeon, until he suffers a career-ending injury in a car crash. Much of the film takes place in real time, beginning in early 2016, but we think it works best if you slot it here -- you can't master some of those spells in mere days. Plus, some of the more wild time travel theories and visuals set up, and lead directly into, the third Thor film, including the postcredits scene.
The most mystical MCU film also introduces the Time Stone, inside the Eye of Agamotto that Strange wears.
The Ant-Man sequel takes place in the aftermath of Civil War, but before Infinity War. (In fact, aside from Captain Marvel, this and the other films listed here after Civil War, probably all take place near-simultaneously in the two years following the Cap-Iron Man split.)
And yes, the postcredits scene may directly spoil Infinity War for someone who has never seen it -- but that's not you, now is it?
It's set in the 1990s, but we're pretty certain you should still watch it here, or at the very least, before Infinity War. The transformation of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) to Captain Marvel will most certainly influence how the Avengers defeat Thanos, and prove why she's often called the most powerful hero of the MCU.
Watching Danvers come into her own here instead of by watching after TFA means you get more of the inside jokes as well as the nods to other scenes and films. By saving Captain Marvel's appearance for here, you get a better sense of the world of Fury and Co. directly ahead of Infinity War, and that makes for a much more satisfying first outing with Thanos.
Ragnarok takes place immediately following the end of Doctor Strange, as the sorcerer helps the god of thunder locate his father, Odin. Later, as Thor and Loki attempt to flee the goddess of death Hela (Cate Blanchett), they're trapped on the planet of Sakaar by the Grandmaster, who we remember from the GOTG2 end scene.
Ragnarok ends with a scene leading directly into Avengers: Infinity War, which is why it's best watched directly before.
The sequel to Age of Ultron is set four years after the events of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, according to Marvel President Kevin Feige. And even though that totally contradicts what the directors have said, we're inclined to believe it.
In Infinity War, the Avengers team up with the Guardians to battle Thanos, who is trying to procure the powerful Infinity Stones, including the Soul Stone, introduced here.
Endgame will be the culmination of 10+ years of heroes and villains onscreen, and based on early theories and predictions it's likely to leave us shaken to our core -- with at least some Avengers gone forever.
The sequel to Infinity War opens internationally on April 26. The only other officially announced upcoming Marvel film is Spider-Man: Far From Home, which we believe takes place after Endgame, based on remarks from Sony.