So the worst has happened. You’ve been able to avoid the biggest movie franchise in history so far. You ignored the Avengers hype, you were able to dodge the Captain America movies, you even passed on Black Panther. But now, finally, a friend or loved one has lowered the boom and is dragging you to see Avengers: Endgame over your loud and frequent protestations.
The problem is, with almost two dozen movies already lodged into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, walking into Endgame cold is like starting watching, say, Breaking Bad from the middle of season 4. You’d have no idea who these people are, where they are coming from, or whose power is punching really hard and whose power is meth. Endgame won’t just expect you to have seen Infinity War (Endgame was originally named “Infinity War Part 2”). It will draw from most or all movies from the MCU, from Iron Man 1 on.
On the other hand, you don’t want to torture yourself with 48 hours (or whatever we’re up to) worth of superhero movies, so here’s a quick how-to on getting caught up and without resorting to plot synopses from Wikipedia. These are not only the most important movies in the MCU’s world-building; they are also among its best, so don’t worry: you won’t be steered into stinkers like Thor: Dark World.
Crash course: 3 movies. What to cram for the final exam as fast as possible, in this order.
The Avengers 1: This was the grand project that brought the Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America characters together, along with Hawkeye and Black Widow, to truly form what we now call the MCU. Every movie in the franchise since has called back to this one, meaning this really is the foundation of the rest of the movies to come and the preceding ones were just prologue. It also does a good job of introducing the characters, as director Joss Whedon worked with the assumption that much of his audience will have seen few or none of the preceding “phase 1” flicks. If I had to pick one single movie for someone to watch before Endgame, it would be this one and not Infinity War. Where to stream for free: Nowhere, sadly. Hopefully your MCU-junkie friend has a copy on their iTunes or Amazon account; if not, you can always rent it for 4 bucks.
Captain America: Civil War: Despite the name, this one is often considered “The Avengers 2.5” by fans as all the heroes except Thor and Hulk show up, and it introduces a few new characters such as Black Panther and of course the biggest name in Marvel comics, Spider-Man. Its winding plot will leave you guessing as who the “real” villain will be, at first headfaking you into thinking it will be another government-conspiracy plot with William Hurt as the baddie. Anyway, I won’t spoil the rest: give this one a go and prepare yourself for the famous the airport sequence. Where to stream: Again, same answer as where The Collector lives. (Don’t worry; you’ll get this reference soon enough.) It’s either another four bones or else another dip into your frenemy’s digital library.
Avengers: Infinity War: As mentioned, this is the first half of Endgame’s story and you’ll have a tough time understanding what’s going on if you don’t check out this spectacle first. Thanos and his quest for the Infinity Stones were always lurking in the background of the MCU; here, the big guy finally decides to get off his throne and round them up for nefarious purpose. Almost all of the heroes and even some of their supporting cast make an appearance to try and thwart the Mad Titan’s ambitions. This includes the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, the talking racoon; yeah, those guys) and, just as importantly for Endgame, their ship. Don’t worry; the film does a serviceable job in getting you caught up to speed with people you haven’t met yet. Where to stream: Hooray! Netflix has this one in its library for now.
Comprehensive tour: 6-7 movies. For when you don’t actually hate these types of movies and want to delve further into these bananas franchise that’s always all over social media.
Captain America: Winter Soldier: The reason why Civil War could misdirect viewers into thinking it might be a government-conspiracy movie was because Winter Soldier was a government-conspiracy movie (well, sort of at least). It (re)introduces us to the guy with the metal arm, and also answers why a by-the-book soldier like Steven Rogers has developed a distrust of authority by the time he’s presented with the Sokovia Accords. Robert Redford shows up as one of the most acclaimed actors to ever grace the MCU. Where to stream: Look, I’m honestly not trying to steer you to movies that aren’t on Netflix or Hulu. Otherwise, I’d tell you to watch The Incredible Hulk on DirecTV and you would never forgive me again.
Guardians of the Galaxy 1: Space in Marvel comics is even more bonkers than Earth is, and GotG was the movies’ first grand tour of interstellar heroes, as well as baddies like the Kree’s Ronan. Whiplash-smart dialogue and humor helps distract from the fact that you’re now expected to take a walking tree and a talking raccoon seriously. Space, and the characters who fly around in it will matter a lot in Endgame (Rocket and Nebula in particular), so you may as well get caught up beforehand. It also shows us Thanos’ more passive-aggressive methods of trying to get the Stones before Endgame. Where to stream: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
Thor: Ragnarok: Say, where did Thor and Hulk go during the events of Civil War, anyway? Why did Thor get a haircut? Why does he have a sense of humor instead of his trademark hammer now? Why did an evil prick like Loki selflessly sacrifice himself in Infinity War? Why were Loki and Thor on a spaceship with the Hulk of all people at the start of Infinity War? And who is this Valkyrie chick, anyway? A lot of character development happens in Ragnarok, and as a bonus, you get to enjoy Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett chew the scenery as two of the most memorable villains in the MCU to date. Where to stream: Once again, Netflix has saved the day and/or your four bucks.
Captain Marvel: It’s still in theaters as of this posting, so we can go ahead and mark this one down as optional. But it does introduce us to the titular Carol Danvers. Marvel isn’t really obsessed with character “power levels” the way the DC universe is, but nevertheless, the movie and its promotional materials went out of their ways to let us know that Captain Marvel is the most powerful of the MCU heroes, more so than even Thor — maybe she’ll be the one who can go toe-to-toe with Thanos and come out on top. It also grants us a bit of an origin story for the enigmatic Nick Fury. Oh, and ’90s girl rock. Lots of ’90s girl rock.
And finally, if you can, check out Black Panther sometime. It and Avengers 1 battle for the top spot in most fans’ MCU rankings, and, of course, was Oscar-nominated. BP is really a self-contained story so is non-essential purely in a prep-for-Endgame sense; Civil War was a sufficient introduction to the character if you’re short on time. But still, its tackling of the real-world King vs. Stokely issue resonated with a lot of people, as did its masterful take on Afrofuturism.