This weekend sees the release of Avengers: Infinity War, and with it the culmination of a cinematic universe consisting of an unprecedented 18 films over the last ten years. Presumably, if you’re planning on seeing the latest entry you’ve already watched the previous films. But whether you have, or for some reason you haven’t and don’t have the roughly 38 hours to spare to watch them now, I thought I’d provide a quick and SPOILERY recap of each entry. Now, this won’t be a full synopsis or even a plot summary. Instead, I’ll give you what I hope is the essential information you might need before
heading to the theater. So let’s start with…
Iron Man (2008, dir. Jon Favreau) – Brilliant billionaire inventor Tony Stark is captured and forced to build a weapon for a terrorist organization. Instead, he builds the Iron Man armor and (aided by his assistant/future love interest Pepper Potts, his best friend, James Rhodes (played here by Terence Howard) and his artificial intelligence system J.A.R.V.I.S., uses it to become a high-profile superhero. After defeating the bad guy (and in the first of what would become Marvel’s patented post-credit scenes) he’s approached by a shadowy figure named Nick Fury, who wants to tell him about something called “the Avengers Initiative.”
The Incredible Hulk (2008, dir. Louis Leterrier) – Bruce Banner (played by Edward Norton before being replaced in The Avengers by Mark Ruffalo) is another brilliant scientist. After experimenting with gamma radiation (in an effort to replicate a WWII experiment called the Super Soldier program – this will come up again) Banner is transformed into a raging beast known as the Hulk. General Ross leads the effort to recapture the on-the-run Banner in order to study him and try the experiment again. Banner fights another test subject, the Abomination, and defeats him after an epic battle in Harlem. The film ends (again, after the credits) with Ross being contacted by Stark, who brings him into the Avengers Initiative.
Iron Man 2 (2010, dir. Jon Favreau) – Tony Stark returns, this time fighting off the American government (and Don Cheadle as Rhodey) who want his technology, Justin Hammer, a would-be business rival, and Ivan Vanko, the son of a former employee whose father Vanko believes was betrayed by Howard Stark, Tony’s father (got all of that?). Meanwhile, SHIELD agent Phil Coulson (oh, yeah, Fury heads an organization called SHIELD and Coulson popped up a few times in the first Iron Man) and Natasha Romanov, aka the Black Widow, are trying to corral a spiraling out of control (and dying) Stark, as well. Rhodey gets his own suit of armor and becomes War Machine, bad guy gets defeated and yada, yada yada, Thor’s hammer shows up in the middle of the New Mexico desert. So, that’s a thing.
Thor (2011, dir. Kenneth Branagh) – Yeah, so, there are mythological gods in the MCU. Thor, the god of Thunder, Loki the trickster, Odin the All-Father, and a bunch of others known as Asgardians. Dr. Jane Foster and her plucky gang stumble on (or rather, run over) Thor, who has been cast out of Asgard for lacking humility. Thor and Jane fall in love, Thor learns some humility and gets his hammer back (Hawkeye pops up – more on him later) and fights his who-would-have-guessed-it evil brother Loki, and Thor returns to Asgard, seemingly forever (but, yeah, not). Oh, and one of the plucky gang, Dr. Erik Selvig (unknowingly possessed by Loki) is brought in by Nick Fury to study a glowing object called the Tesseract (this will be important).
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, dir. Joe Johnston) – Steve Rogers is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn during World War II who is desperate to serve his country and fight Nazis. He’s picked for the Super Soldier program (ran by Howard Stark) and transformed into the peak physical specimen, Captain America. Cap faces off against the evil Naz ---wait, we’re calling them Hydra? OK…-- evil Hydra scientist the Red Skull, who is working to harness the power of the Tesseract. Along the way Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes is seemingly killed (but not really) and Cap is separated from his true love Agent Peggy Carter (she’s pretty badass) when he must sacrifice himself to destroy the Tesseract. Cap is found and wakes up 70 years later where he learns what we already know – yes, the world was saved, but, no, the Tesseract wasn’t all that destroyed.
The Avengers (2012, dir. Joss Whedon) – Five years in and we’ve reached the first “culmination” – this time most of our heroes including Iron Man, Thor, Cap, Black Widow, and Hawkeye (oh, yeah, and they have a Mark Ruffalo Hulk) are brought together by Fury to battle a returned Loki, who wields the Tesseract (it’s on a staff now) and leads a hoard of invaders from outer space. Invasion is repelled, Loki is captured and returned to Asgard by Thor, and we learn that Loki was working for a big purple space dude called Thanos. So, that’s going to be a whole thing.
Iron Man 3 (2013, dir. Shane Black) – Stark has some PTSD from almost dying in The Avengers, but that won’t stop him from facing off against the Mandarin (adapted to film with 80% less “yellow peril” racism) and his gang of Extremis soldiers. In the end Tony totally and for real retires, hanging up his armor for good (seriously, though). And Pepper gets some powers for a couple of minutes, but she gets better.
Thor: The Dark World (2013, dir. Alan Taylor) – Loki’s good and locked up and Asgard is totally safe. Oh, except for the ancient Dark Elves, led by Malekith who wants something called “the Aether” to destroy Asgard. Thor’s mom is killed, so he teams up with his brother and some of their drinking/fighting buddies from the first film – the Warriors Three, the Lady Sif, and Heimdall – to get some revenge and save the world (and Jane Foster, who returns once more with her plucky gang). Post-victory and post-credits the seemingly killed Loki is revealed to have secretly taken Odin’s place, and the Aether is given to a space weirdo called The Collector for safekeeping (this will not go poorly).
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, dir. The Russo Brothers) – Remember how Bucky was seemingly, but not really, killed in the first film? Yeah, so he’s a mind-controlled assassin called the Winter Soldier now, and he’s gunning for Cap. Cap learns that SHIELD, his 21st century home, has been secretly run by Hydra all this time, and so he teams up with the Black Widow and Falcon to take them down and save his friend. Which, you know, he does.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, dir. James Gunn) – And then things get REALLY weird. See, there’s this Earth kid named Peter Quill who is abducted by aliens after his mom dies of cancer. Years later he’s a space pirate who tries to get everyone to call him “Star-Lord” because he’s got a cool mask, blaster, and jetpack. He winds up teaming up with Gamora, daughter of Thanos (yeah, THAT guy), Drax, a wisecracking space racoon called Rocket, and a giant talking tree whose every word comes out as “I am Groot” (so he’s called Groot). Oh, and they’re battling Ronan the Accuser, a space-psycho with a hammer, who is trying to get hold of an orb that will give him the power to destroy the galaxy. Gamora’s sister – and Thanos’ other daughter – Nebula is helping him. There’s a Footloose-inspired dance-off, we learn that Quill’s dad was some cosmic-y dude, and the galaxy is, well, guarded.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, dir. Joss Whedon) – Tony Stark and Bruce Banner want to protect the world from all of the space-craziness (most of which they don’t even really know about) so they build Ultron, an artificial intelligence that immediately builds itself an indestructible body and wants to destroy the planet. We meet Quicksilver (don’t get too attached) and the Scarlet Witch, and a less-genocidal robot called the Vision is built to help fight Ultron. Vision’s got a nifty little gem on his forehead that’s likely to be important later, since we know that Thanos is a bit of an amateur gemologist because Thor has a trippy vision (no pun intended) about it. Oh, and Natasha and Bruce are totally hooking up now.
Ant-Man (2015, dir. Peyton Reed) – An attempting-to-reform thief named Scott Lang is trying to do right after being released from prison. Instead, he immediately attempts to rob a rich senior citizen, who unbeknownst to him was once a shrinking superhero known as the Ant-Man (seriously, you’ve bought into talking space racoons and talking space trees at this point, so just go with it). Lang becomes the new Ant-Man, fights a shrinking bad guy, and will later be joined by Pym's daughter in the forthcoming sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. The Russo Brothers) – Yeah, so Tony totally screwed up in A:AoU, and he feels pretty guilty (plus, there’s still some bad blood between him and his teammates). Look, he gets it, which is why he goes along with the plan by the world’s governments to force all the superheroes to sign up and work for them now. Captain America, after the whole revelation that, guess what, giant governmental organizations can’t really be trusted, isn’t on board with that plan. Two teams form, including Tony’s ringer – Spider-Man (!) – and the Black Panther (!!) and face-off against each other. Once the cast is pared down to a far more reasonable size, the battle winds up being between Cap and Iron Man over Bucky (with the good hair) who killed Tony’s parents back in the day (when he was a mind-controlled assassin). Meanwhile, Black Panther keeps his eye on the ball and catches the bad guy. In the end, Cap and friends are on the run and Cap stashes Bucky in a secret kingdom in the heart of Africa called Wakanda.
Doctor Strange (2016, dir. Scott Derrickson) – Okay, so there are gods, and space things, but that’s it, right? Nope, there’s also magic! Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. He’s kind of a dick, but he’s also super good at learning magic, as is discovered by the Ancient One, who takes him in and trains him. There’s a weird inter-dimensional fiery demon that Strange fights off using a bunch of magic things, including a glowing stone that seems to control time. Yeah, if you haven’t figured it out by now, if there’s a weird glowing thing in a Marvel movie, it’s probably going to be important.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, dir. James Gunn) – Star-Lord and the gang return for more musical space hijinks, this time facing off against Peter’s dad (he’s a planet). Oh, and Groot’s an adorable toddler tree this time.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, dir. Jon Watts) – Post-Civil War Peter is anxious to continue being mentored by Tony Stark and being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He fights a guy dressed like a bird while engaging in John Hughesian high school hijinks.
Thor: Ragnorak (2017, dir. Taika Waititi) – After that whole “Dark World” thing Thor lightens up and has some fun with his brother Loki on a gladiator planet called Sakaar. While he’s there (where he wound up after having his hammer destroyed and escaping from his homicidal sister, Hela, who is busy taking over Asgard) he’s reunited with a much chattier Hulk, meets the Grandmaster – a space wierdo (hint hint), and meets Valkyrie, who’s badass. They head back to Asgard, team up with Heimdall, presumably grieve for Thor’s now-dead father and best friends offscreen, Thor loses an eye, Loki notices the Tesseract sitting unguarded, and they defeat Hela, though Asgard is destroyed in the process. Hence, Ragnarok. In the end the survivors crowd onto a space ship and shortly afterward encounter a foreboding and imposing looking space ship.
Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler) – Remember T’Challa? He’s the Black Panther from Civil War (the guy who pretty much kept his head about him and didn’t get caught up in all the Avengers drama). Well, it turns out he’s the newly-crowned king of Wakanda, and has some family drama of his own to deal with. He’s aided in this by his tech-genius sister Shuri, his beloved Nakia (who is a pretty cool spy), and the Dora Milaje led by Okoye and Ayo. Oh, and Everett K. Ross, a government lackey from Civil War, and M’Baku, a charming and roguish rival ruler.
And, that’s it! Oh, sure, there are some odds-and-ends in the films (all of which are worth checking out) along with about five seasons of Agents of SHIELD (starring the once dead Phil Coulson – did I mention he died?), two seasons of Agent Carter, as well as two seasons of Daredevil, two seasons of Jessica Jones, one season each of Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and The Punisher, and a handful of Blu-Ray exclusive shorts, but none of those are ever referenced in the films, so you’ll be fine getting to them later.