Film and TV

How to Watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe “Right”

Keeping track of so many heroes requires a map.
Keeping track of so many heroes requires a map. Screencap from Avengers: Endgame
The Marvel Cinematic Universe might honestly be the greatest shared film and television creation of all time. Whether you like superhero films or not, it’s hard to argue that producer Kevin Feige has managed to weave a tapestry of interconnected stories like no other. What defines it the most from other attempts is the tightness of the narrative. To watch the MCU is to get a very coherent whole.

Mostly.

The series has recently introduced the multiverse concept, which is one of very few things that DC was doing better than them. That means that a whole lot of things which were not really part of the MCU now sort of are, and it has increased the weight of the canon universe significantly. Also increased, is the level of confusion about what counts as the main narrative, and what order everything has to be watched in if you’re actually trying to understand everything.

Let’s try to figure that out.

Up to Avengers

The MCU is very easy to watch up to the first Avengers film, especially now that the Marvel-One Shot short films have all been made easily available on Disney +. It goes:

*Iron Man
*The Incredible Hulk
*Iron Man 2
*Marvel One-Shot: The Consultant
*Captain America: The First Avenger
*Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter
*Marvel One-Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer
*Thor
*Avengers.

Then, things get messy without a detailed map.

Agents of S.H.I.E.LD. and the Infinity Saga

In the wake of the monumental success of Avengers, Marvel started several different narrative trains, all of which are at least partially canon to the main timeline.

The first and most confusing revolves around Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was the flagship show of the new Marvel Television and meant to directly reference the ongoing movie series, which often happened mid-season. Multiple actors from the films crossover, and Agents spun off five more properties. However, by Season 6 Agents had gotten a little fuzzy on whether it was still taking place alongside the Infinity Saga in the films. Thanos’ snap, which erased half of all life in the Marvel Universe, was curiously absent. It makes the show feel weird, but the explicitly relationship to events happening in the movies clearly indicate it is part of the universe at least up until the snap. At that point, it may be considered to have split into a variant universe.

Tackling the enormous (over 200 episodes) amount of content on this track isn’t necessary to fully understand the movies, but it will add some context to a few films and Disney + shows. To be a completionist and get the most out of plot twists, here is our suggested order.

*Marvel One-Shot: Item 47
*Iron Man 3
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 up to Episode 6 (“FZZT”)
*Thor: The Dark World
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 up to Episode 16 (“The End of the Beginning”)
*Captain America: The Winter Soldier
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 to the end
*Guardians of the Galaxy
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 up to Episode 10 (“What They Become”)
*Agent Carter Season 1
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 up to Episode 19 (“The Dirty Half Dozen”)
*Avengers: Age of Ultron
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2 up to the end
*Ant-Man
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 3 up to Episode 9 (“Closure”)
*Agent Carter Season 2
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 3 up to Episode 19 (“Failed Experiments”)
*Captain America: Civil War
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 3 up to the end
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 up to Episode 4 (“Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire”)
*Doctor Strange
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 up episode 8 (“The Laws of Inferno Dynamics”)
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 up the end
*Helstrom
*Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
*Inhumans
*Spider-Man: Homecoming
*Thor: Ragnarok
*Runaways Season 1
*Black Panther
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 5
*Avengers: Infinity War
*Cloak and Dagger Season 1
*Ant-Man and the Wasp
*Runaways Season 2
*Captain Marvel
*Cloak and Dagger Season 2
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 6
*Runaways Season 3
*Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 7
*Avengers: Endgame
*Spider-Man: Far From Home

As stated, things get a little wobbly around Infinity War. Presumably, the ending of Runaways (and because of a crossover, Cloak and Dagger) take place before the snap, but narratively they fit in around the sense of finality present in Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel. The only piece that’s moved completely out of place from the release schedule is Helstrom, which directly references aspects of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 despite coming out a few years later. Considering that it’s the least connected (as of this writing) of the Marvel Television shows, it could also be skipped entirely if someone wanted to.

The Defenderverse and the Spider-Verse

Without spoiling too much, recent shows and films have canonized the Netflix Marvel Television shows by having characters show up in big ways. While technically all the shows take place in the same time period as the previous list, it’s actually better to watch them separately. They are completely non-reliant on the films after Avengers (and in a small way, Captain America: Civil War) and binge better within their own separate continuity. For that reason, it’s good to use the Defenderverse as a kind of palate cleanser following the end of the Infinity Saga. In order, they go:

*Daredevil Season 1
*Jessica Jones Season 1
*Daredevil Season 2
*Luke Cage Season 1
*Iron Fist Season 1
*Defenders
*The Punisher Season 1
*Jessica Jones Season 2
*Luke Cage Season 2
*Iron Fist Season 2
*Daredevil Season 3
*The Punisher Season 2
*Jessica Jones Season 3

But wait! The weird and very broken timelines of the Sony Spider-Man films have also been recently canonized. The good news is that there are only a few movies that need to be watched to catch a viewer up, and they are almost all good. They can also be watched pretty much in any order within their respective settings.

*Spider-Man 1,2, and 3
*The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2
*Venom, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and the upcoming Morbius
*Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse and the upcoming Across the Spider-verse Vol. 1

It’s best to get these out of the way sometime before you start…

Phase 4

Here we are finally in the current canon universe just as it begins to encompass everything that has come before. The proper order for the shows and films (so far) is:

*WandaVision
*The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
*Black Widow
*Loki Season 1
*What If…? Season 1
*Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King
*Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
*Eternals
*Hawkeye
*Spider-Man: No Way Home

All Hail the King was released with Iron Man 3, but it fits better right before Shang-Chi as a reminder of the character of Trevor and a direct lead-in to the plot. With that, you’re now all caught up until the next wave of releases, but there are three things that should also be addressed.

The X-menverse

The major question on everyone’s mind is how Disney will work in the X-Men after buying the rights back from Fox. My personal view is that they will use the major comic event Secret Wars to meld everything back into one major timeline. Regardless, it is a near-certainty that some of the twenty-year history of X-Men films will make it into the MCU eventually. Plus, Disney has already announced they will be reviving the X-Men Animated Series, meaning all bets are off. It’s impossible to tell which films will get introduced to the canon, but I would put my money on the version of Wolverine from Logan (Hugh Jackman), fan favorite Deadpool, and possibly Dan Stevens as Legion from the FX series.

The Maybe Canon

Two films fall into the strange category of probably not canon, but also perfectly able to fit in the canon if desired. Those are Howard the Duck and Man-Thing, and they are sadly both very bad. Howard has cameoed in multiple MCU films and shows now without explanation, and none of the appearances rule out his 1986 movie.

Man-Thing is directly referenced in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and seen as a statue in Ragnarok, meaning we at least know he exists. His 2005 horror film serves as an origin story if someone wanted to place him fully into the timeline, but hopefully he’ll get a better introduction in the future.

The Rest

The multiverse means that every Marvel property ever made is fully canon, if not directly related to the main MCU timeline. That means Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk, Wesley Snipes’ Blade, and Nicholas Cage’s Ghost Rider are all out there somewhere. I wouldn’t rule out some of them showing up for a few seconds when worlds finally collide at the end of the current saga, but none of them are likely essential viewing to be caught up. Frankly, managing to watch just the main timeline alone is already a massive undertaking.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner