My parents are awesome people. They’re loving and kind, generous and supportive. To say I owe everything to them is, well, to tell the truth.
Near as I can tell, their only deficiency—and it’s a Damn Small Thing against the priceless joys and insights they’ve given me over a lifetime—is that they know next to nothing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I honestly think they’d quite enjoy the combination of action and humor that the movies feature, and I’d love to share it with them. In particular, I want them to experience the absolute magnificence that is the culmination of Avengers: Endgame.
Trouble is, the MCU is huge. And while my parents could jump straight to Endgame—the film at least tries to catch people up—they’d miss out on the callbacks and the characterizations and … well, just look at the extraordinary films leading up to Endgame, listed here in the order in which they appear in the MCU timeline (correct me if I’m wrong):
- Captain America: The First Avenger (set in WW2)
- Captain Marvel (set in 1995)
- The Incredible Hulk (pre-Avengers)
- Iron Man (set in 2010)
- Iron Man 2 (post-Iron Man, pre-Avengers)
- Thor (post-Iron Man 2)
- The Avengers (set in 2012)
- Iron Man 3 (6 months after Avengers)
- Thor: Dark World (post-Avengers, pre-Ultron)
- Captain America: Winter Soldier (post-Avengers, pre-Ultron)
- Guardians of the Galaxy (set in 2014)
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (post-Guardians)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (set in 2015)
- Ant-Man (set in 2015)
- Captain America: Civil War (post-Ultron, pre-Infinity War)
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (post-Civil War, pre-Infinity War)
- Doctor Strange (set in 2016)
- Black Panther (set in 2017)
- Thor: Ragnarok (post-Ultron, pre-Infinity War)
- Ant-Man and The Wasp (pre-Infinity War)
- Avengers: Infinity War (set in 2017)
- Avengers: Endgame (post-Infinity War)
Amazing, right? Trouble is, as awesome as my parents are, I can’t reasonably ask them to watch all of these films to get to the end. I mean, if they get into them and love them, then great! Go for it! Otherwise, it’s just too much.
So I thought I’d take a stab at cutting the necessities in half. That is, I want to create a list of the Marvel films that are necessary not just to get to Avengers: Endgame, but to truly get it when you get there.
Since there are 20 (!) films before the dual package of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, I needed to cut things down to 10.
Call it the Marvel Minimum.
Please understand: because the MCU has had such a remarkable run of quality filmmaking (a testament to Kevin Feige’s guidance, no doubt), making a shorter list of movies inevitably means leaving some really amazing ones out—including, as you’ll see, one of my personal favorites.
So, to be clear, what follows isn’t a list of the “best” MCU movies; it’s a list of the ones that need to be seen for the Endgame arc. For each movie, I either explain why I’m suggesting it’s necessary or provide the essentials of what’s missed by skipping it.
If you think even more of the MCU can be skipped and summarized, I’d be happy to hear how and why in the comments after the article. The shorter the list I can give my folks, the better!
So here goes:
Watch: Captain America: The First Avenger
So much is in here that’s vital. We have the superb character of Steve Rogers, his relationship with Peggy Carter, the introduction of Red Skull and Hydra, and the first glimpse of the Tesseract.
Skip: Captain Marvel
And so the first axe falls. My thinking is that Iron Man and Avengers do a great job of introducing Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and S.H.I.E.L.D. So what we really need to summarize out of this is that Captain Marvel exists.
SUMMARY: Carol Danvers is an Air Force pilot who absorbed part of the power of the Tesseract. As a result she’s become a kind of Superman in space. She’s a badass, but she has a lot of universe to help protect and thus can’t be around much on Earth. As a result she gives Nick Fury a pager-on-steroids to call her if needed.
Watch: Iron Man
Tony Stark drives so much of the MCU that it would be damn hard to skip his initial entry into the mix.
Skip: Iron Man 2
Another cut. The Avengers gives us all the explanation we need for Stark and Pepper Potts getting together, as well as a sense of what Black Widow can do. That leaves Rhodey.
SUMMARY: Stark almost burns out on his ego, but he’s saved in part by having his friend James Rhodes donning a prototype Iron Man suit, thus becoming an Avenger called War Machine.
Skip: The Incredible Hulk
And another cut thanks to Avengers, which gives us all the explanation we need for Bruce Banner/Hulk.
SUMMARY: Gamma rays make Hulk. Hulk smash.
I don’t think this is a particularly strong film, but I also can’t see Avengers being the first time we meet Thor and Loki. Still, if I needed to cut another film this might be it.
Watch: The Avengers
So very essential, as it brings the team together and shows how the big picture pay-offs work in the MCU.
Skip: Iron Man 3
Easy to skip this one, I think. I can’t even think that there’s a lot that needs to be explained.
SUMMARY: Marvel is good at making money.
Skip: Thor: Dark World
Another easy one to skip.
SUMMARY: Thor’s girlfriend accidentally awakens one of the Infinity Stones, resulting in a calamitous fight with Dark Elves. Thor’s mother is killed, and Loki appears to sacrifice himself to help save the day. In the end, the Infinity Stone is given to a being called the Collector.
Watch: Captain America: Winter Soldier
One of my favorites, but I nevertheless considered skipping it. In the end, though, I think we really need the full-film introductions to Falcon and Bucky, as well as the elevator scene that pays off so well later on.
Watch: Guardians of the Galaxy
There’s really no way to introduce this gang other than watching the movie. Plus, we get introduced to the Power Stone and the ominously looming Thanos.
Skip: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Fun film, but all we really need to do is explain who Mantis is, that Peter Quill and Gamora got together, and that Gamora and her sister got to be friends.
SUMMARY: Quill learns that his father is a god-like creature called a Celestial, who tempts him with great powers. Nevertheless, with the help of his Guardian friends and his father’s empathic servant named Mantis, Quill abandons these great powers in order to remain human.
Watch: Avengers: Age of Ultron
I initially figured this for a skip, but I don’t think we can short-hand Scarlet Witch, the creation of Vision, the scene with Thor’s hammer, Sokovia, and all the rest.
Civil War gives us all the explanation we need for Ant-man.
SUMMARY: Scott Lang is a thief who ends up being hired by Hank Pym, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist who figured out how to use Pym Particles to change the size of people. Lang takes up Pym’s role as the size-shifting Ant-Man.
Watch: Captain America: Civil War
Great introductions to Ant-Man and Spider-Man, Black Panther, and everything else that follows from the Sokovia Accords.
Skip: Spider-Man: Homecoming
I adore this movie, and not just because I was once on the New Mexico State Champion Academic Decathlon team. That said, in terms of the main MCU arc, all we really need to know is that Stark is Peter’s mentor and hooks him up with some cool Spidey gadgetry.
SUMMARY: Tony Stark recruits high school student Peter Parker, the Spider-Man, to become an Avenger-in-training. He gives Peter advanced technology for his suit and mentors him, ultimately becoming the father figure Peter never had.
Watch: Doctor Strange
A lot of folks seem not to like this film, but I’m quite fond of it. Regardless, I think trying to pithily explain Strange, the Ancient One, and the Time Stone would be a nightmare.
Skip: Black Panther
If there’s one film I’m skipping that I desperately want to push back in, it’s this one. I love love love this movie. That said, I’m trying to get as short a list as I can. And Avengers: Infinity War does a pretty great job of explaining Wakanda and the magnificent T’Challa (RIP, Chadwick Boseman).
SUMMARY: T’Challa, the Black Panther, overcomes the sins of his family’s past and saves Wakanda: a futuristic African city and society, built on Vibranium, that has kept its existence secret from the rest of the world.
Watch: Thor: Ragnarok
This is my favorite MCU movie, but I still almost cut it. That said, it introduces Korg, Valkyrie, Miek, a new Thor/Loki dynamic, and Asgard’s erasure. That’s a tough lot to summarize.
Skip: Ant-Man and The Wasp
Really just need to explain the existence of the Wasp and then watch the post-credits scene.
SUMMARY: Scott Lang is joined in his efforts by Pym’s daughter, Hope. Her suit has similar powers to Lang’s, except adding the ability to fly. She is called the Wasp. At the end, Scott shrinks into the strange Quantum Realm using a machine that Pym has hidden in an old van; while he’s there, the rest of the team disappears, leaving Lang trapped.
Watch: Avengers: Infinity War
Getting to this point has been the point!
Watch: Avengers: Endgame
Because that’s America’s ass.
So that’s the plan I’ve got for my folks: The Marvel Minimum. Is there anything I missed? Something more or less that should be cut? Might we manage a more minimal Marvel Minimum while maximizing the movie-makers’ magnificence?
Let me know in the comments!
Michael Livingston is a professor of medieval culture at The Citadel and a two-time winner of the prestigious Distinguished Book Award from the international Society for Military History (in 2017 and 2020). He’s the author of the recent fantasy novel Seaborn (Audible 2020) and a forthcoming popular history of the Valhalla period, Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England (Osprey 2021).