We’ve come a long way since Iron Man. Whether you need to brush up on a Phase or two, or you just want to relive some of the finest moments from the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and more, this complete Marvel Cinematic Universe (better known as the MCU) recap is here to map out everything you need to know about the house that Marvel built.
From the humble beginnings of Robert Downey Jr. revealing his superhero secret to Spider-Man: Far From Home swinging on by to turn Peter Parker’s life upside down, there’s a lot to take in. After all, there’s 23 movies and that’s without taking into account the wave of Marvel Phase 4 entries and Disney+ streaming service TV shows on the horizon. So, an MCU recap to dip into from time to time becomes effectively essential – and we’re here to help take you through every Marvel movie step by step, as well as running down each major story beat.
So, suit up and get scrolling: it’s time to get prepared for 2020 (and beyond) with our comprehensive rundown of every Marvel movie there’s been… so far. Editors note: Important characters and objects have been put in bold when they are first mentioned, just so you know who and what to keep an eye on.
Iron Man (2008)
Tony Stark is a super suave, super rich, genius womaniser who runs weapons manufacturing company, Stark Industries, along with his Dad’s old partner Obadiah Stane. He has an invaluable PA called Pepper Potts, a chauffeur/friend called Hogan, an AI assistant called Jarvis, and a military friend called Rhodey.
While in Afghanistan, Stark is ambushed by a group of terrorists who use use Stark Industries weapons. Waking up in captivity, Stark's almost dead and a piece of shrapnel is moving towards his heart. Luckily, a fellow captive, Yinsen, has designed an electric generator called an arc reactor to stop the shard killing Stark. The terrorists ask Stark to make them weapons, but instead he designs a super suit, powered by Yinsen's creation, to burst out of captivity.
Yinsen dies during the escape while Stark returns to the US where he promises to stop selling weapons. Business partner Stane is unhappy about this and, while Stark takes some time off to recover and design a proper Iron Man suit, Stane plots to get Stark kicked off the company's board, which eventually happens. Stane then travels to Afghanistan to recover Stark's original iron man suit with the intention of designing his own version and selling them as weapons. Stark discovers Stane's underhand dealings and they face off, Stane wearing his Iron Monger suit.
With the help of Pepper and Agent Coulson from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), Stark defeats Stane. A press conference is held and Stark reveals to the world: “I am Iron Man.”
Once back at home, Stark is met by Nick Fury who tells him he’s putting a team together...
Things you need to remember:
- Tony Stark is Iron Man
- The arc reactor in his chest doesn’t just power his suit - it’s keeping him alive
- Agent Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D.
- Nick Fury and that team he was talking about
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Scientist Bruce Banner is hiding out in Brazil after a failed experiment turned him into a huge, green monster known as The Hulk. Banner, now having turned back into himself, is working on a cure - however, if his heart rate goes above 200, he'll transform into the monster again. Don't make him angry.
Banner's ex-girlfriend Betty’s Dad, General “Thunderbolt” Ross, is trying to find Banner so he can weaponize the Hulk. Soon enough, Banner slips up and Ross is made aware of his whereabouts, sending British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky to capture him. Banner, as Hulk, escapes and reunites with Betty.
Banner's attacked again and escapes again, seemingly killing Blonsky in the process. Banner and Betty then meet with Dr. Samuel Sterns, who has been working with Banner on a potential cure, and they conduct an experiment that momentarily turns the Hulk back into Banner. Sterns then reveals that he’s synthesised Banner’s blood with the intention of using it for good. Banner wishes to destroy it all, but is captured by Ross and Blonsky, who forces Stern to inject him with Banner's blood. This transforms the soldier into a terrifying Hulk-like monster.
Blonsky then rampages through Harlem. Realising Banner is the only one who can stop him, Ross releases the Hulk and a fight ensues. Betty stops the Hulk from turning on anyone else and he eventually flees. Meanwhile, Stern is left injured on the floor of his apartment with some leftover Hulk blood going into a gash in his head (an apparent setup for an as-yet non-existent sequel).
A month later and Banner is hiding out in British Columbia where he manages to transform into the Hulk in a safe and controlled way. Tony Stark approaches Ross in a bar to talk about a team which is being put together.
Things you need to remember:
- Bruce Banner only transforms into the Hulk when he’s angry
- He’s on the run/in hiding
- General Thunderbolt Ross
- That team everyone keeps mentioning...
Iron Man 2 (2010)
In Russia, Ivan Vanko, whose father Anton worked on the original arc reactor with Tony’s father, Howard Stark, makes his own reactor, which he uses to power a pair of electrofied whips. Meanwhile in America, Tony - who is being poisoned by his arc reactor - makes Pepper CEO of Stark Industries and hires Natalie Rushman to replace her as his PA.
Stark competes in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix and is attacked mid-race by Vanko. Stark defeats Vanko, who is believed dead. However, the American people now know that other people can make Iron Man suits. Stark’s rival Justin Hammer captures Vanko, who's very much alive, with making Iron Man-like suits for Hammer Industries. Vanko says he can makes a fleet of drones, not suits.
Stark has a huge birthday blowout, gets drunk, and fights with Rhodey - who’s changed a bit since the last movie (wink, wink). Rhodey, who wears an Iron Man suit for the first time during the battle, delivers his suit to the US army.
Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., reveals to Stark that Rushman is actually an undercover agent named Natasha Romanoff and that Howard Stark was actually a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury gives Tony some of his father's old materials and the younger Stark finds that Howard had been working on a new element that could revolutionise the arc reactor. J.A.R.V.I.S. helps him synthesize the new element, slots it into his chest, and heads out to fight Vanko.
At the Stark Expo, Hammer unveils the drones Vanko has made, led by Rhodey (now War Machine) in the suit he took from Stark. Stark arrives and tries to warn Rhodey that they've been double crossed by Hammer, but Vanko takes remote control of War Machine and Hammer's army of machines. Hammer and Vanko are cornered by Romanoff, Pepper, and Happy Hogan. Vanko gets away but Romanoff returns control of War Machine to Rhodey. They then defeat the army of robots and Vanko.
In the aftermath, Fury tells Stark that he’s not suitable for the Avengers initiative, but S.H.I.E.L.D. would like to keep him on as a consultant. In the post-credits scene, Agent Coulson reports the discovery of a large hammer in New Mexico.
Things you need to remember:
- Rhodey is now played by Don Cheadle and is War Machine
- Tony's arc reactor is no longer killing him
- Natalie Rushman is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Nick Fury is her boss
- That hammer belongs to someone important
Way back in 965AD, two armies collide, one led by the king of Asgard, Odin, and the other headed by Laufey, king of the Frost Giants. Odin's successful (sigh of relief here), and seizes their weapon - the Casket of Ancient Winters.
Back in modern times, Thor, being full of righteousness, hears that a Frost Giant has somehow made its way to Asgard to steal the Casket. To settle matters, Thor, his brother Loki, and Thor's friends Sif, Volstagg, Fandral, and Hogun, voyage to the home of the Frost Giants. They are defeated and Odin comes and saves. He then exiles Thor to Earth and enchants Thor's hammer Mjolnir with a spell that only allows the worthy to wield it.
Thor gets hit by Dr. Jane Foster's car in New Mexico. She's an astrophysicist who's accompanied by an intern Darcy and Dr Erik Selvig. Mjolnir is also found in New Mexico and is found by S.H.I.E.L.D. Thor goes to Mjolnir but cannot lift it.
Back in Asgard, Loki finds out he's a Frost Giant and was adopted by Odin. Loki confronts Odin then saps Odin's energy, sending him into a deep sleep. Loki takes ascends to Asgard's throne. The two-faced trickster then goes to Laufey and proposes that he kill Odin and steal back the Casket of Ancient Winters.
Sif and the rest of Thor's friends use the Bifrost, controlled by Heimdall, to four voyage to Earth to tell Thor that Loki has taken over Asgard. Loki sends a Destroyer after them, Thor hurts himself saving the gang, becomes worthy, and defeats the destroyer. They return home and go after Loki.
Loki, meanwhile, betrays Laufey and attempts to destroy the home of the Frost Giants using the unbridled power of the Bifrost. All he seeks is Odin's approval. Thor stops Loki and Loki appears to commit suicide by jumping off the Bifrost. Thor decides he's not ready to be king.
An after-credits scene shows Selvig meeting Nick Fury. Showing him a mysterious object in a briefcase, Fury mentions it has untapped power - and in the mirror we see Loki instructing Selvig to agree. Uh oh.
Things you need to remember:
- Nick Fury has something cube-shaped and powerful in his possession
- S.H.I.E.L.D. know about Thor and the Asgardians
- Dr Selvig is working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and is controlled by Loki
- Don't trust Loki...
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
In 1942, Johann Schmidt, a Nazi officer, seizes a powerful ancient relic called the Tesseract. Schmidt and his scientist Dr Arnim Zola want to use the powers of the Tesseract to create devastating weaponised technology.
In New York, Steve Rogers wants to serve his country, but fails every health test when trying to enrol in the army along with his friend Sgt. James "Bucky" Barnes. Rodgers is eventually signed up for a secret super-soldier programme. Dr Erskine, Agent Peggy Carter and a colonel agree to do tests on Rogers after he selflessly dives on a live grenade to save his fellow soldiers. Rogers is transformed into Captain America, but Dr Erskine is killed by an assassin who says "Hail Hydra".
Rodgers finds out that Bucky and his squad are missing in action. With Agent Carter's help, he rescues Bucky and his team from a Hydra base being used by Schmidt. There, Schmidt rips off his face to reveal it was a mask, hiding his true appearance as a fiend with a red skull underneath.
Rodgers and Bucky go on to attack a series of Hydra bases. They target a train carrying Dr Zola and capture him, but Bucky falls to his death from the train tracks. After interrogating Zola, they discover the location of the last Hydra base and Steve finds out that Schmidt is going to use the weapons stored there to attack American cities. Steve and Schmidt clash on an aircraft and, during the struggle, Schmidt touches the Tesseract with his bear hands and dissapears. Burning with a bright light, the Tesseract dissolves through the plane's floor and ends up in the ocean.
Landing the plane would detonate its weapons, so Steve crashes it into the Arctic. Months later, Howard Stark finds the Tesseract, but is unable to hunt down Rodgers who is presumed killed in action. However, the super soldier wakes up in a room made to look like it comes from 1940. Escaping its confines, he discovers he's in modern-day New York. Enter Nick Fury, who has a special mission for him…
Things you need to remember:
- Bucky is dead... for now
- Howard Stark had the Tesseract back in the 1940s
- The Red Skull touched the Tesseract
- Captain America is now living in the present day
The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers kicks off with Loki being promised dominion of Earth if he can bring the Tesseract to the Chitauri.
S.H.I.E.L.D.'s main facility is evacuated after the Tesseract (being studied by Dr Selvig) starts to act strange. Loki steals the blue cube and brainwashes Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Dr Selvig. Fury needs the Tesseract back and triggers the Avengers Initiative, sending Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, to Calcutta to get Bruce Banner. Tony Stark, Thor (seeking revenge against Loki), and Steve Rogers also join the team.
Hawkeye and Loki are caught by The Avengers. Thor tries to takes Loki back to Asgard, but in the end everyone agrees Loki will be most secure in the vault meant for the Hulk on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Helicarrier. However, the trickster has brainwashed a couple of soldiers, who attack the Helicarrier.
Bruce then turns into the Hulk and eventually plummets into a ruined building. Thor gets tricked into going into Loki's cell, and is ejected from the Helicarrier in the super-prison. Loki kills Agent Coulson. One of the helicarrier's engines fails (and is kicked back into gear by Steve, Tony, and teamwork. Clint gets hit really hard by Natasha, which puts a stop to his brainwashing.
In New York, Loki combines the machine Dr Selvig's been building with the Tesseract to open a wormhole that lets the Chitauri army through. Mayhem ensues as all the Avengers arrive in to fight the alien menace. Loki is smashed into the floor by the Hulk, breaking his mind control spell over Dr Selvig. Natasha finds Dr Selvig, and the two figure out that Loki's staff can shut the machine keeping the wormhole open.
During this battle, the powers that be send a nuclear bomb into New York to stop the alien invasion. Tony flies the rocket through the wormhole and puts it on a collision course with the Chitauri mothership, which explodes into a big ball of fire.
Loki is taken back to Asgard by Thor, and the Avengers disperse. The Chitauri leader tells his master that things haven't quite gone to plan... and reveals that the mind behind the attack is none other than Thanos, the Mad Titan.
Things you need to remember:
- Thanos is behind the attack on New York
- Thanos wants the Tesseract
- There was a lot of damage to New York thanks to the superheroes' antics
- The Avengers have been assembled