Timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Photo collage by Mike LeMieux; Images via their respective films
Photo collage by Mike LeMieux; Images via their respective media

Superheroes with super complicated chronology

By Greg Waldock, Staff Writer


As Marvel glides gently into the 2017 releases for its colossally profitable Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it’s good to take a moment for a refresher on the canon order of all these stories and how they connect together. This won’t just include all 17 movies—the TV shows are almost as important to the canon. So here’s a largely spoiler-free list of the MCU as it stands now, in its near-entirety.

Agent Carter (2015–16): The story of the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency devoted to fighting Hydra and alien threats. It lasted two seasons before being cancelled, and not without reason.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): The transformation of Steve Rogers into the world’s first superhero, Captain America.

Iron Man (2008): The film that launched a franchise and restarted Robert Downey Jr.’s career. Also includes Samuel L. Jackson and introduces the idea of a larger expanded universe, though originally it was meant as fanservice, not as a real possibility.

The Incredible Hulk (2008): Starring Edward Norton instead of Avengers’ Mark Ruffalo, this wasn’t supposed to be a part of the MCU though it was made canon later as the series became a universe. The ending was filmed in Bella Coola, British Columbia, which is pretty much the only time Canada is mentioned in the series.

Thor (2011): The goofy, wacky fantasy film that started to explore the more niche genres that the MCU could tap into.

Iron Man 2 (2010): Largely forgettable, but it does introduce War Machine, Iron Man’s partner. So that’s great. A bunch of robots punch each other and it’s all a lot of fun.

The Avengers (2012): The blockbusting extravaganza uniting the heroes for the first time. The ramifications of the events here will define the MCU. The amount of money this movie made was so staggering, it kept the rest of the franchise funded. Little known fact: it was directed by Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly. Explains all the quips.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013–): S.H.I.E.L.D. contains and recruits super-powered individuals. Set after the events of Avengers, this was Marvel Studios’ first foray into television. It’s cheesy and kind of schlocky, but it has a certain comic book charm that attracts a decent audience every season. This series is heavily impacted by the movies, so the films are required viewing to get the most out of the show.

Iron Man 3 (2013): Tony Stark deals with his PTSD and alcoholism after fighting aliens and nearly dying a few dozen times a week.

Thor: The Dark World (2013): A mysterious red liquid accidentally awakens an ancient evil, which Thor has to punch in the face. Also includes something about planetary alignment and Stonehenge, as well as classic Loki shenanigans.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): A ragtag band of misfits save the galaxy. The most out-there and best rated of all the Marvel movies up to this point, Guardians of the Galaxy is a comedy above all else and shines for it. Also: Infinity Stones. They’re kind of a big deal.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): A huge moment in the franchise. Plots are twisted, friends become enemies, enemies become frenemies. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also radically changed after this.

The Defenders: The hugely-acclaimed Netflix exclusive shows, which show a darker and grittier side of New York (because it’s always New York). The timeline is kind of confused here, but they can be watched any time after the first Avengers. Here’s the chronological order: Daredevil (2015–), Jessica Jones (2015–), Daredevil Season II, and Luke Cage (2016–). Coming this year is Iron Fist, following a magical Irish kung-fu master, and later this year is the crossover series The Defenders, about which very little is known.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Involving about a million plot threads in nearly three hours, this movie is a gloriously confusing mess. But basically, Tony Stark messes everything up and an Avengers reunion ensues.

Ant-Man (2015): The lamest name for a hero, but a pretty solid movie. It’s mostly a standalone and doesn’t deal with the main series too much, and it feels a lot more like the original Iron Man than anything else.

Captain America: Civil War (2016): About as long and complicated as Age of Ultron, about as important as Winter Solider. More plots twists, more frenemies.

Doctor Strange (2016): The weirdest Marvel film to date, and the first proper introduction of magic into the MCU. Asgardians like Thor don’t count, as they’re aliens using alien technology.

That’s a ton, and it’s only the ones already listed. Most of these are getting sequels, along with two Avengers movies, an Infinity War two-parter, a Punisher Netflix series, yet another Spider-Man movie, and who knows what else. It’s a franchise that just keeps on giving.