Where to begin with the Marvel Cinematic Universe

A beginner’s path through the galaxy’s hugest superhero franchise

15 April 2019

By Paul O’Callaghan

Avengers Assemble (2012)

Why this might not seem so easy

Avengers: Endgame will inevitably become one of the highest grossing films of all time shortly after it’s released later this month. But for anyone who hasn’t kept up to speed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s likely to prove utterly narratively incomprehensible. Indeed, to be fully invested in the various plights of its vast ensemble of costumed characters, there are 21 films you should ideally watch before heading into this latest superhero team-up – surely the highest barrier to entry there’s ever been for a family-friendly, CGI-laden action blockbuster.

Rather like HBO’s Game of Thrones, the other pre-eminent pop culture phenomenon of recent years, a central facet of the MCU’s appeal is the way in which its disparate narrative threads are twisted together and edged forward over the course of multiple, increasingly grandiose instalments. But even hardcore fans would concede that the franchise took several years to find its feet, and that the quality of films across the board is variable, to say the least. As such, the prospect of diving into the MCU now, over a decade since it began its march towards global box office domination, may seem daunting or downright unappealing.

Here then is some suggested viewing for those tentatively contemplating a pre-Endgame catch-up and who want to sample the best of the franchise without getting bogged down in its convoluted metanarrative.

The best place to start – Iron Man

Most would agree that Joss Whedon’s kinetic, witty The Avengers (2012; aka Avengers Assemble) is where the MCU really took flight. But without checking out at least a couple of the ‘Phase One’ hero origin stories that precede it, you may find it a slightly confounding or uninvolving experience.

Iron Man (2008)

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), the film that kicked off the entire sprawling saga, is unquestionably the strongest of these early instalments. Its secret weapon is Robert Downey Jr’s swaggering, career-resuscitating performance as debauched billionaire playboy Tony Stark, who harnesses his technical genius to build a turbo-charged exoskeleton after being taken hostage in war-torn Afghanistan. The character feels fully-formed and compellingly complex from the outset, his quick wit and performative bravado palpably masking a deep-seated world-weariness.

Beyond this, the first half-hour or so is a masterclass in blockbuster exposition – sharply written, breathlessly paced and intelligently grounded in real-world geopolitics. On the flipside, the film also establishes a couple of less enticing MCU hallmarks, namely underwritten antagonists (here it’s Jeff Bridges as Stark’s jilted mentor Obadiah Stane) and generic climactic battle sequences. But Favreau nevertheless builds an impressively solid foundation for the shared universe.

Alternatively, you could adhere to the MCU’s fictional chronology and begin with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Set during the Second World War, Joe Johnston’s retro action-romp charts the rise of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) from scrawny military reject to chemically enhanced super soldier, and his quest to thwart the world-conquering scheme of maniacal rogue Nazi agent Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving).

The film intelligently riffs on the character’s origins as an American propaganda tool, while Johnston carefully lays the groundwork to ensure that its time-jumping final scene packs surprising emotional heft. Moreover, while this instalment is aesthetically a little drab, it kicks off arguably the franchise’s strongest standalone trilogy, with 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War both firm fan favourites. If you’re willing to invest in the backstory of just one core Avenger, Cap is a safe pick.

What to watch next

The Marvel formula has been impressively honed over the past decade, and recent instalments tend to be slicker and more visually exciting than the early efforts. So if your first taste of Tony Stark gets you hooked, you’ll likely have a grand time diligently working your way through the remaining 20 MCU films. If, however,  you’re still on the fence, The Avengers will likely prove a valuable litmus test. If you’re not charmed by its particular blend of MacGuffin-driven storytelling, comedic interpersonal squabbling and overwrought sci-fi spectacle, this may not be the series for you.

But before you swear off the MCU entirely, there are three further titles worth sampling. Each is perfectly coherent as a standalone experience, and each offers a refreshing twist on standard superhero fare.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is a goofy, planet-hopping swashbuckler, with a garish B-movie aesthetic, a soundtrack stacked with 70s pop classics and a roster of heroes that includes a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. It also saw Chris Pratt make a surprisingly effective leap from schlubby TV comic to hunky A-list action star.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) breathes fresh life into one of Marvel’s most enduring characters, despite this being the second series reboot since Sam Raimi’s trilogy drew to an underwhelming close in 2007. Eschewing millennial angst for Gen Z exuberance, Homecoming sees Tom Holland portray the iconic web-slinger as an endearingly awkward teen, cheerfully struggling to cope with both the physical demands of his role as New York’s masked saviour and the emotional turmoil of everyday high school life. Sharply written and sweet-natured, it boasts a captivating villain in Michael Keaton’s menacing Adrian Toomes, and a simple but supremely satisfying final-act twist.

Black Panther (2018)

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) is the first comic book adaptation to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars, and the first MCU movie to become a genuine cultural milestone. Set largely in the technologically advanced fictional kingdom of Wakanda, and hitting all the story beats you’d expect from a superhero origin story, it nevertheless offers a nuanced rumination on both the African and the African-American experience, and thoughtfully considers how the two intersect. Throw into the mix eye-popping Afrofuturist visuals, stellar supporting turns from actors of the moment like Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o, and a pulse-pounding Busan-set car chase that ranks among the MCU’s most memorable set pieces, and you’ve got one of the most potent popcorn flicks in recent memory.

Where not to start

Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008) is the MCU’s most conspicuous outlier, owing largely to the fact that the role of angry shapeshifting scientist Bruce Banner, played here by Edward Norton, was taken over by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers; fans overwhelmingly preferred the latter’s more light-hearted approach. Offering a more conventional take on the material than Ang Lee’s introspective, visually experimental Hulk (2003), it’s a perfectly serviceable action adventure, but narratively it has minimal bearing on subsequent films. It can thus be safely skipped by all but the most committed Marvel completists.

Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) delivers a novel riff on Norse mythology, recasting the hammer-wielding prince of Asgard as an extraterrestrial adonis adrift in modern day New Mexico. It also introduces viewers to Tom Hiddleston as scheming prankster Loki, paving the way for his show-stealing turn as an outright villain in The Avengers. But director Branagh refuses to fully embrace the inherent ludicrousness of the premise, and the film winds up occupying a frustrating middle ground between self-aware fish-out-of-water comedy and earnest fantasy epic. Happily, Taika Waititi did a fine spot of course correction with Thor: Ragnarok (2017), approaching his trilogy-capper as an absurdist comedy.

And while it’s unlikely that anyone would contemplate beginning a Marvel marathon with a direct sequel, it’s worth bearing in mind that almost every self-contained series within the larger cycle suffers from a second-entry slump. Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) are all widely regarded as franchise low-points. Mercifully, only the last of these is essential viewing for those aiming to keep on top of the MCU’s overarching narrative.

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