The Marvel Cinematic Universe has exploded. Marvel’s recent Disney Plus series, Loki, introduced the Sacred Timeline – that the events of the MCU (so far) have taken place on one singular timeline – and then blew that concept out of the water by having the God of Mischief literally destroy the Sacred Timeline. The result is a multiverse of possibilities, where alternate versions of beloved characters swing into random movies from different universes. In other words, Doctor Strange is going to have his hands full.
Though the multiverse opens up infinite storytelling options, fans still want to have a firm grasp of what’s happening in the "main" universe. Marvel has, after all, prided itself on everything being connected, an approach that has led to blockbuster success with Captain American and Iron Man crossing over to take down world-threatening villains. Despite the MCU introducing alternate universes, then, we still need to understand what’s technically canon and what’s not – and what’s becoming more obvious is that the pre-Disney Plus TV shows are no longer canon.
Let’s take a quick step back: following the success of the Avengers, Marvel wanted to capitalize on the movie’s success in the TV space and developed a tie-in show called Agents of SHIELD. The series would be led by Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson and explain how the character survived after being seemingly killed by Loki in Avengers (Tahiti, it’s a magical place).
Agents of SHIELD’s first few seasons are heavily tied into the ongoing movies, with Coulson and the squad dealing with the fallout of Thor: The Dark World and, more importantly, reckoning with SHIELD actually being a front for the villainous HYDRA. After that twist, introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the show took a turn and eventually went on its own journey, almost entirely separate to the movies, to the point where fitting the series into any comprehensive MCU timeline makes everything confusing.
Agents of SHIELD spreading its wings (and becoming actually very good) was a sign of things to come. Another TV show, Agent Carter (also good), set in the ‘40s, had very little effect on future events and even caused some confusion over where the (confirmed canon) Agent Carter One-Shot fits into the overall timeline. To confuse things further, Agent Carter also features the only MCU character introduced in a TV show to appear in the movies – James D'Arcy returned as the butler Jarvis in Avengers: Endgame for a brief cameo.
Other shows include Cloak & Dagger, Runaways, and Inhumans, which all have very loose connections to the main series’ events (though, rumor has it, Inhumans will be retro-fitted into an in-universe TV series in the upcoming Ms. Marvel). Also of note, the Netflix shows, which started off promising but failed to remain high quality, acknowledged the events of the Avengers but then, like Agents of SHIELD, became their own thing.
These series all have their supporters. Heck, I’m more than willing to bat for Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Agents of SHIELD post-first season. However, trying to fit them into any sort of Marvel timeline is a fool’s errand (trust me, I’ve tried on multiple occasions). They simply overcomplicate the story and lead to fans performing mental gymnastics to make everything fit into place.
At this stage, with Marvel embracing fully-fledged canon TV shows on Disney Plus, it’s time to forget about the old TV shows. Marvel has admitted as much on several occasions: we’ve seen a version of the Darkhold in WandaVision, which likely replaces the Darkhold introduced in Agents of SHIELD; a Legends episode recapping Peggy Carter’s journey completely ignored her entire TV show; and producer Kevin Feige, the master of being vague, previously described the Disney Plus shows as being “the first time” the movies and shows “will interlink” (opens in new tab) with one another.
And that brings us back to Loki and the multiverse. Feige now has a get out clause: those older TV shows are simply what happened in alternate Marvel universes. Watch them, enjoy them, love them – but they are no longer part of the Sacred Timeline. That doesn't take away from anyone's enjoyment of those stories, they simply aren't necessary viewing, and fans looking to get into the MCU for the first time should stick to the main series, going beyond only if they want to.
Whether Feige will ever say as much remains to be seen, but perhaps Marvel should finally admit as much and put the debate to end once and for all.
Fancy rewatching the MCU? Then make sure to check out our guide to how to watch the Marvel movies in order.