The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has expanded remarkably in the past few years and some may say the story of our heroes has been intense, which, in my opinion, is a wild understatement. For those who are just getting to know the MCU, it can be overwhelming to understand the story without prior knowledge about Marvel. With 27 movies out right now, and more on the way, the Marvel universe—or universes (more on that later)—can seem overwhelming to the casual superhero fan. For a full understanding of what is happening now in Marvel, we have to start from the beginning. So whether you’re a casual Marvel fan looking to learn more about the MCU, or looking for a start because you don’t know anything about superheroes, here’s a condensed and comprehensive guide to the past four phases of the MCU.
The first phase of the MCU includes six movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers. The first five movies introduce the public to our six Avengers—“Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist” Tony Stark (Iron Man), former World World War II soldier Steve Rogers (Captain America), renowned scientist Bruce Banner (the Hulk), Thor the God of Thunder, S.H.I.E.L.D agent Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow).
These initial six films introduce us to the “Avengers Initiative,” coined by Nick Fury, general of S.H.I.E.L.D, meant to maintain global and national security. In The Avengers, he describes its purpose to be to “bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to fight the battles we never could.” Loki, the God of Mischief and Thor’s younger brother, is featured as the main villain in Phase One. Phase One also introduces the “tesseract” which contains one of the infinity stones, the space stone. Infinity stones can control or modify certain aspects of life, and there are six stones in total, which appear later in the next few phases.
The second phase of the MCU contains six movies: Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man. Phase Two explores the aftermath of the Battle of New York that occurred in The Avengers and introduces some new characters, including U.S Air Force officer Sam Wilson (Falcon), Sokovian speedster Pietro Maximoff (Quicksilver), sorceress Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch), synthetic android Vision, Former criminal Scott Lang (Ant-man), and the Guardians of the Galaxy. We are also presented with three more infinity stones: the mind stone, the reality stone, and the power stone. This phase focuses on the Avengers’ character development and further explains the stones and their significance.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, we find out that H.Y.D.R.A., the terrorist group introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger, has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. In an attempt to take down H.Y.D.R.A., the Avengers employ Ultron, an artificial intelligence program created to protect Earth. To the Avengers’ surprise, Ultron turned out to be a very real threat that attempted to commit a genocide-level extinction against the planet. Phase Two also expands the MCU throughout the universe with the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which includes Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord), Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot.
Phase Three is a big one, containing eleven movies: Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and finally, Spider-Man: Far From Home. These movies mark the end of the infinity saga and feature Thanos as the ultimate villain. We are also introduced to Prince T’challa of Wakanda (Black Panther), Air Force officer Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel); Former Chairwoman of Pym Technologies Hope Van Dyne (The Wasp), and Former Valkyrie Brunnhilde (Valkyrie).
After fighting against Ultron, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have a huge conflict and the Avengers fall apart as they disagree about team management and the obligations of the Avengers and a new threat is introduced. Thanos, a member of the Royal Family of Titan, is a Mad Titan who wants to use the infinity stones to wipe out half of the universe. The Avengers try to stop Thanos as he attempts to collect all six infinity stones. Unfortunately, Thanos accomplishes his goal and believes that the universe would be “perfectly balanced”, but it doesn’t work like that as planets across the universe fell apart as half of life on Earth just vanished. The Avengers try to move on believing their initiative is over because Thanos was the first person they saw use all of the stones, but in Avengers: Endgame they come back together in an attempt to salvage the lives lost.
We are currently in Phase Four— the first to feature a television series in addition to movies. The series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If…?, and Hawkeye are currently available on Disney+, along with a few of the Phase Four movies (Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Eternals). Spider-Man: No Way Home, released on December 17, 2021, is the most recent addition to the MCU, but is only available in theaters. So far, Marvel has introduced us to Shang-Chi, a skilled martial artist, and Kate Bishop, Hawkeye’s apprentice.
Phase Four has barely begun and yet so much has happened: Wanda controlled a whole town in New Jersey to fulfill her perfect reality of having a family, Loki met his variants, discovered the TVA (Time Variance Authority), and defeated the Time Keeper, Falcon took over Captain America’s mantle, What If… ? introduced several different stories to us, Hawkeye destroyed Ronin and in Spiderman: No way Home (which was unbelievable), Aunt May died and no one remembers who Peter Parker is. This phase is promising, as we are expecting Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Marvels, Ant-Man, and the Wasp: Quantumania, Fantastic Four, Moon Knight, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Secret Invasion, Ironheart, Armor Wars, and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, as well as a series set in Wakanda. The MCU also promises to open up the multiverse for good, creating infinite possibilities.
Marvel is a huge franchise that has expanded a lot in the past thirteen years and continues to grow. Fans are extremely excited about the future of the MCU and the infinite amount of possibilities we have in store for us. The possibility of the X-Men and Fantastic Four joining the franchise is one of the things that I most look forward to seeing coming to reality. These characters were a huge part of my childhood and the possibility of them becoming a part of the current storyline of the MCU is incredibly exciting, but well we never know.