The Best MCU Viewing Order: How to watch the Infinity Saga
MCU Viewing Order: How to watch the Infinity Saga?
23 movies over 11 years—that’s a lot of story. Now that it’s all told, and Kevin Feige rechristened the “Phases” as “The Infinity Saga,” how do you watch it without constantly going “Oh, that explains X in Y movie.” Or “Oh wait, I thought the Tesseract was with Z but it’s been with A?” There is a narrative flow to these movies, and one that works beautifully (aside from some post-credit scenes). Right now, the film order is a bit like Pulp Fiction. But what does an MCU viewing order look like as a linear story?
(Quick note: I like the idea of the “phases,” so I kept that idea for this MCU viewing order too, but calling them “Acts” instead. You’ll notice that the movies in them are a bit different at times, and the title of each Act reflects a major theme.)
ACT I: Age of Heroes
1. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Start here—where the age of superheroes has always started in the MCU. Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s not as simple as starting here because it takes place earliest, but because of the tone it sets for the entire franchise. This is adventure, it’s love, and most of all, it’s loss. We lose Bucky at the end of the second act. The world loses Captain America at the end of the war, even though we get him back quickly. The Infinity Saga is a story of loss and sacrifice, and to properly foreshadow this, First Avenger is the best place to start.
2. Captain Marvel (2019)
Following Cap, we go to the other Cap—Captain Marvel. Yes, like First Avenger, it takes place further back in time, but it also has significant payoff plot-wise to put it earlier. First, we see the continuation of the tesseract, establishing that first stone as kind of a character (who will make a dramatic return). One complaint that fanboys make is “how did Mar-Vel get the tesseract in the first place? It was with SHIELD last we saw! Howard Stark got it!” Mar-Vel was posing as a military scientist in the Air Force. The US Military works with SHIELD (as seen in The Incredible Hulk). SHIELD gives Mar-Vel the tesseract. Not that big of a plot hole after all.
We also get young Fury and Coulson, and see the beginning of the Avengers Initiative. And we get an immensely powerful hero…that we won’t see again for 20 films. But that makes it even better. When she returns, it’s far more dramatic. She comes back after 25 years in space to save Tony Stark. When she appeared in Endgame, we saw her in theaters just a month before, it was just kind of cool to see her again so quickly. With this MCU viewing order, it’s “SHE’S BACK!!!!” Much more of a dramatic payoff.
3. Iron Man (2008)
Okay. Now we’re here. The film that actually started it all. Iron Man. The first Iron Man now has a strong nostalgic element, and placing it here helps capture that. In First Avenger, we meet Howard Stark. Now we meet his son. It’s also in Iron Man that superheroes go public in a big way. Captain America “died” before he could really be a superhero. Captain Marvel went off to space to fight bigger battles. We learn that Ant-Man and the Wasp (Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne) worked covertly. Hawkeye and Black Widow are spies at this point…not really a public job. Iron Man changes the dynamic. He doesn’t hide, he doesn’t play dumb. He owns it. From here out, the plot of the Infinity Saga doesn’t jump by decades, but by months, sometimes even days between each movie.
4. Iron Man 2 (2010)
For the fourth movie, we go right to Iron Man 2, six months later, and Tony is not handling being Iron Man well. There’s a good reason for this—he’s alone. He’s it. Tony calls himself a “nuclear deterrent” as a joke, but he’s not wrong. And with that comes a responsibility he can’t handle. Thankfully, he’s not alone for long. Most fans hate how much SHIELD is a part of Iron Man 2, because it was more world-building. But in this narrative, it’s different. We already met SHIELD in Captain Marvel. We’ve seen Fury at work and met Coulson as a young agent. It’s now the return of SHIELD instead of our introduction to them, and should feel more organic. And we get our next superhero: Black Widow.
But not just Black Widow. By the end of the film—and more importantly for Tony—his best friend, James Rhodes, is also a superhero: War Machine. Rhodey might not appear in The Avengers, but Tony’s comfort with being Iron Man is much stronger. We learn much later in Age of Ultron that Rhodey is going around the world, fighting as War Machine, a role that Iron Man was doing alone for 6 months.
5. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
This is probably the weakest link of Marvel’s filmography, not just for the movie itself, but for how little it adds to the Infinity Saga. Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo play Hulk so differently, it’ll feel like different characters altogether. There’s a good case to just leave this one out of the MCU viewing order, but it does have its value. We see more of how SHIELD is connected to the Military, and we meet Thunderbolt Ross. His first meeting with Tony Stark is enough to have some payoff by the time we get to Civil War. If you’re a completist, it’s worth it. Also, the Abomination/Hulk fight at the end is still pretty epic. Maybe just watch the last 20 minutes.
6. Thor (2011)
This definitely needs to be the last film before the first Avengers movie. Not only do we get Thor himself, but we also get Loki and the incident that triggers everything to come after: Thor’s battle with the destroyer. As Fury notes in The Avengers, that battle is what made him want to study and experiment with the tesseract again, after nearly 15 years of (supposedly) keeping it a secret. It’s the first time he’s freaked out for the safety of the Earth since he fought the Krees and Skrulls in Captain Marvel. And how did they defeat the Kree? With a woman powered by the tesseract. Thor and Loki “leveled a small town” and reminded Fury that Earth is not alone.
Also…Odin is the worst father. In the beginning of the movie, he tells his two young children, Thor and Loki, that they were both born to be kings, but only one could actually be king. WHAT? How is that good parenting? He pits Loki and Thor against each other from when they were boys. Good job, Allfather.
Thor sets Loki’s actions in motion. He learns about his true heritage, loses the throne and his right to it. And who does he blame for all of his problems: Earth. And he somehow learns that the tesseract is on Earth. Yes, Thor is important in his own movie, but plot-wise, other characters are more affected by what happens.
7. The Avengers (2012)
In retrospect, we only had to wait four years between Iron Man and The Avengers, but at the time, it felt like it would be forever. What we didn’t know was that Marvel was about to plant seeds that wouldn’t have payoff for another seven years. As odd as it seems, we still didn’t know the tesseract, which makes its big return, was an Infinity Stone—or Loki’s scepter for that matter. But the big thing here is that Thanos—whom we see for the first time in the mid-credit scene—learns about the Avengers. And he won’t forget them.
ACT II: Fall of the Avengers
8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The Thor movies might be the most important for the progression of the Infinity Saga. Just as the first movie was essential to see right before The Avengers, it’s best to watch this one right after, as we see Loki brought before Odin for his sentencing. We get the third Infinity Stone, the Aether. Loki sets in motion the destruction of Asgard, which we won’t see for five years. Thor decides he’d rather be on Earth, unknowingly leaving Asgard to Loki’s whim. And in another crucial end-credit scene, we finally know what these movies are all leading towards. The Infinity Gauntlet. Who would have thought that Volstagg would deliver the most important reveal in the Infinity Saga?
9. Iron Man 3 (2013)
The first Avenger team has two spies who have been to war, a god who has been to war, a World War II veteran, a military scientist-turned-green rage monster…and a tech billionaire who has only seen a little action. Now he’s seen war too, and if just being Iron Man made Tony Stark unhinged by Iron Man 2, the battle for New York nearly breaks him. He stays up for days making new suits to hide in and nearly loses Pepper because of it.
By the end, he has to fight without the suit, as plain Tony Stark, and the entire time, he’s having flashbacks and panic attacks. Sure, there are weird plot twists here, but there’s something else too—Tony’s addiction. Not alcoholism, but the suits themselves. He says he’s done being Iron Man at the end of this movie…and it won’t be the first time he says this. He turns his heroism into something unstable and dangerous, and we’ll soon see the effects of that.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The Guardians movie do present a bit of a challenge in placing for the MCU viewing order. We know they both have to happen several years before Infinity War and that they are after Avengers since Thanos’s henchman the Other is directing Loki in Avengers, and has his neck snapped in Guardians Vol 1. While the mid-credit scene in The Dark World revealed that we’re dealing with the Infinity Stones, as viewers, we actually learn about them thanks to Taneleer Tivan. We see that Ronan has abandoned his quest to destroy the Skrulls and now focuses on Xandar (maybe Captain Marvel didn’t have time to help them too?) And we meet the Guardians themselves—most importantly, Gamora. We also see the beginning or a love story that will cause death and ruin on a universal scale. Not to mention, our first time hearing Thanos speak.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017)
This takes place shortly after Vol 1. Groot is a baby here and the next time we see him he’s a teenager (however that happens in Groot years), so there are a few years at least before they return in Infinity War. But also, that doomed romance? Yeah, it turns from unspoken to spoken here. Yet it’s also where Nebula and Gamora bury the hatchet and become true sisters, which contributes to how everyone is saved.
12. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Argued as one of the best superhero films of all time, Winter Soldier is where things start getting really complicated for our heroes. Captain America, who still wanted to believe that there was a clear distinction between good and evil, has that thrown in his face. And by the end, SHIELD, the organization he found purpose in, is gone. Destroyed. This sets in motion the next film, and Tony Stark putting the armor back on.
13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
For a moment, Tony seemed to have been handling his PTSD. Then he creates a “suit of armor around the world” that was supposed to protect the Earth from alien invaders. Instead, it turns into a “murderbot.” By the end, Thor leaves, looking for the Infinity Stones, and Tony once again “retires” as Vision and Scarlett Witch join the team (another doomed romance). But more importantly? The world no longer trusts the Avengers.
14. Ant-Man (2015)
Pym Particles, Scott Lang, and our first mention of the Quantum Realm. These will become much more important later in the series. And we see here in more definite terms, from Hank Pym, that people are skeptical of the Avengers. Think of it as a light break in the MCU viewing order between the double whammy of Winter Soldier/Age of Ultron and Civil War.
15. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Things fall apart. The destruction in Age of Ultron comes back to haunt the Avengers in the “Sokovia Accords.” Tony breaks his promise to Pepper again. But this is it for the Avengers and all the promises they made of fighting together, side-by-side, against whatever the universe throws at them. We also meet…
ACT III: We Are Marvel
16. Black Panther (2018)
Taking place just a week after the events of Civil War, Black Panther—the first superhero movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars—introduces us to the most powerful country on Earth: Wakanda, as well as the smartest person in the world: Shuri. T’Challa becomes a true king, leader of the forces of Wakanda and even grows his army by ending a multi-millennia old grudge with M’Baku’s clan. And they’re going to need every person for what’s to come.
17. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
We’ve had doomed romances form in other movies. Now’s time for a doomed…mentorship? Peter Parker, having fought Captain America in Civil War, learns what it means to be a superhero under the guidance of Tony Stark. Tony, meanwhile, seems to have also learned this lesson, and he’s FINALLY, truly comfortable being Iron Man. Even Pepper is okay with this now.
18. Doctor Strange (2016)
Our introduction to time travel and the Time Stone—and to one of the key players in Infinity War and Endgame. We also meet the Ancient One, who comes up again in Endgame. Oh, and there just so happens to be an army of wizards. Not like they’re going to appear to help save the universe or anything. Doctor Strange also takes the sacrifice theme to the extreme. Strange dies. And comes back. Then dies and comes back again. He’s killed Heimdall-only-knows how many times, and his sacrifice(s) end up saving the world. Like Guardians, it’s hard to figure out just where this fits in the MCU viewing order, but in Endgame, during the Battle of New York in the Time Heist, The Ancient One tells Hulk that he’s about five years too early, so that would place Strange around 2017/2018. Just a few years before Infinity War.
19. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
While Ant-Man was only vaguely important, Ant-Man and the Wasp is incredibly important. We’re not just told about the Quantum Realm, we see it. We see how people can travel in it, navigate it, and even use its energy. But, like Captain Marvel, the end credit scene is a little problematic. It’s incredibly important, showing Scott getting stuck in the quantum realm and the Pyms turning into ash…but the movie itself takes place before Infinity War. So, do we skip it? Watch it? Up to you. Of course, if you are reading this, it’s not like it’s a spoiler.
20. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Once again in the, it falls on Thor to set the stage for an Avengers movie. Thor is humbled, beaten. His hammer is destroyed, setting up his quest in Infinity War. Asgard is turned into space debris. Hela kills scores of Asgardians, who become refugees. And the mid-credit scene happens maybe minutes before the next film. But if Thor thought this was as low as he could fall, he’s still got a lot to learn.
21. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
All plot threads (well, except for the Quantum Realm from Ant-Man) tie together here. The breaking up of the Avengers? Well, as Tony says in Endgame, they were supposed to face the threat together—but they didn’t. All the Infinity Stones we’ve been knowingly chasing for 13 films are brought together. The Asgardians, already severely reduced, are halved again. Loki, who set all of this in motion, dies. Thor has a chance to kill Thanos but fails because he wants a moment to gloat. And when Thanos kills his own daughter, Gamora, her significant other, Star-Lord, loses his temper and causes the Avenger team on Titan to lose control over the gauntlet, and eventually lose the time stone, and to Thanos killing Vision and taking the last stone he needed. It’s all Quill’s fault…or is it?
22. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Tony, the Guardians, and Peter Parker all trusted one man: Dr. Strange, who said that there was only one way to save the universe. He just didn’t give the entire plan, which included losing. So, he must have known that Quill was going to overreact, and he let him. He’s a time-traveling wizard who saw over 14 million scenarios, and made sure that this was the one to go forward. So, should Quill be blamed? Maybe not. We also have Nebula working with a team—something she would have never done if not for Gamora. And even though this leads to Thanos attacking again, it’s everything that had to happen. The last big plot thread is also fulfilled—the Quantum Realm. And Captain Marvel returns, not just to save Tony, but when she fights Thanos, she’s the only person who actually strikes fear in him.
But this is also the conclusion of Tony Stark’s story. He’s figured out how to be both Iron Man and Tony Stark. He had 5 semi-wonderful years with Pepper and his daughter. When Tony looks to Strange at the end, he knows he’s going to die, and Strange silently confirms this to him by reminding him there is only one way they win. After 15 years, Tony is at peace with this. And remember how we started with Captain America: First Avenger? Well, now we have an emotional payoff of Endgame ending with Captain America at peace too, in his own way. And that’s how it ends. Peace.
23. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Oh, did I say that was the end? Not quite. There are a few things left to wrap up that it Far From Home will focus on. According to Kevin Feige, this is the epilogue to the Infinity Saga. It will probably bridge to whatever the next “Saga” will be (but if they don’t do Kang as the next Avenger villain, they’ll waste a great follow up to the Time Heist in Endgame.)
So, next time you binge the MCU movies (probably right before Far From Home), try this order. It makes for one epic narrative. Do you have your own special order? Tell us about it in the comments!
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.