A Cheat Sheet For Folks Who Don’t Know Anything About The Marvel Cinematic Universe

So your friends are dragging to you to see Avengers: Infinity War and there’s like 53 million heroes in it. You can’t tell the difference between Thor and Thanos and you’re sure as hell confused as to why there’s a talking raccoon. Somehow you got roped into going to the midnight premiere despite never seeing a Marvel movie. It’s okay — breathe — we got you.

I have seen every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I’ve waited 10 years for Avengers: Infinity War. Instead of writing an essay that’s due in class tomorrow, I’m writing this, because I know what service journalism is.

Let’s suit up, guys.

What is the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

The MCU is the franchise of films created by Marvel Studios, which started off with Iron Man. The thing to know about the MCU is that it had all the supposedly “shitty, B-list” heroes. Prior to 2008, the most popular Marvel heroes were Spider-Man and the X-Men, whose film rights were owned by Sony and Fox, respectively.

What was so revolutionary about the MCU was that it foreshadowed a future of interconnected films from the very first post-credits scene. Fans went absolutely bonkers when Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (think CIA/FBI/NSA but shadier), announces his goals for Tony Stark to join the Avengers.

The thought of multiple heroes having their own movies and then crossing-over to create one Avengers film was ambitious crazy talk. Not all of these movies are fantastic, but it’s hard to deny how impressive of a feat the MCU is.

Okay, so what’s ‘Infinity War’ about and why is everyone so excited about it?

Long story short: one of the best runs in Marvel comic book history is the Infinity Gauntlet arc, where Thanos — a murderous, power-hungry Titan in love with the physical embodiment of Death (read Thanos Rising, y’all!!!!) — finds the six Infinity Stones in order to become a god and commit planet-level genocides.

The six stones are: the mind stone, the reality stone, the space stone, the time stone, the power stone and the soul stone. That’s why a lot of these movies have the same structure most of the time; they’re trying to introduce these stones so we can have this ultra-rewarding movie.

Infinity War is the first half of this specific storyline in the MCU. Thanos will be coming to Earth to get the stones he’s missing. The stakes are actually high and not all heroes will walk away unscathed. Can’t wait for my faves to be brutally murdered!!

Alright. How many movies are there? What are they about?

10 years later, we now have 18 movies, divided into three “phases,” all leading up to this big brawl over the Infinity Stones. Here are the movies and a quick summary for each:


1. Iron Man

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a self-proclaimed “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” gets taken captive by a terrorist organization in Afghanistan while showcasing weapons his company Stark Industries made. He gets wounded and discreetly builds armor underneath the noses of his captors. Stark busts out and, in his new gear, tracks down weapons that were sold illegally. At the end of the movie, he reveals to the world that he’s Iron Man. Peak Tony Stark move.

2. The Incredible Hulk

No one ever remembers this movie and honestly I’m sure the folks at Marvel would like to forget, too. It’s the same Hulk origin story as always: scientist Bruce Banner gets exposed to gamma radiation, which causes him to turn into this giant, green, uncontrollably angry monster. Naturally the military wants to weaponize him, so Banner tries to cure himself, to no avail. It’s important to note that the actor playing this Hulk, Edward Norton, was recasted and is now played by Mark Ruffalo.

3. Iron Man 2

Of course, whenever you reveal your true identity, people (cough cough the government cough) want you to fork over whatever resources you have. Same thing with Tony Stark here. While the U.S. is down his throat, a Russian scientist is trying to copy the Iron Man suit. I don’t really remember this movie other than this epic scene:

That, and this movie is when we meet S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). We also learn that Stark’s dad used to be in S.H.I.E.L.D.

4. Thor

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), with his beautiful hair and god-like strength, is the crown prince of Asgard, which is like a different realm in space. Thor gets banished to Earth for being a complete idiot. He loses the ability to wield his hammer, Mjölnir, which can only be held by someone who is “worthy.” Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), realizes he’s adopted and tries to kill everyone back on Asgard. In the meantime, Thor kinda dates Padmé Amidala from Star Wars (read: Natalie Portman’s character) and becomes best friends with Kat Dennings. S.H.I.E.L.D. is super confused as to why they can’t move a stupid hammer out of the middle of the New Mexican desert. Thor saves the day, gets his hammer back and gets the girl. Solid. (We also see the space stone, the Tesseract, in the post-credits scene!)

5. Captain America: The First Avenger

Set in 1942, scrawny, asthmatic Brooklyn boy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) tries to enlist in the U.S. Army to punch some Nazis, like his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Our boy Steve gets recruited for a secret military operation because of his “good heart.” He steps into this chamber, Tony Stark’s dad pumps him with chemicals and BAM! He’s hot. He’s also super strong, fast and can’t ever get drunk.

Our super-soldier eventually fights the Red Skull, the head of a Nazi science division known as Hydra. Along the way, he rescues Bucky and then shortly, uhhh, loses him again via letting him fall thousands of feet to his doom. The Red Skull has the Tesseract and plans to use it to cause mass destruction with specially designed weapons. Cap saves the day by tanking the weapons (and himself) into the ocean. I still sob every time I watch it.

We realize Rogers has only been frozen for 70-odd years. He wakes up, panics, walks into today’s Times Square. Talk about a culture shock.

6. The Avengers

Remember Thor’s insane, manipulative brother Loki? Well, he tries to enslave Earth using the Tesseract with help by the Chitauri, an alien race. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson with an eyepatch)gets the team together: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye (he’s also a super gifted S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, played by Jeremy Renner). There’s lots of banter and fun intra-superhero interactions. Loki and the Chitauri invade New York City, probably killing thousands until the Avengers handled it. This is also when we first see Thanos, aka Infinity War’s big bad (Josh Brolin).


7. Iron Man 3

Essentially, Tony Stark suffers from mad PTSD post-Avengers. Diving into a wormhole and seeing aliens really fucked him up. He keeps building Iron Man suits, which really stresses out his girlfriend and business partner Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, the GOOP lady). Tony’s decisions from 1999 come to bite him in the ass when Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a hopeful scientist, kidnaps Pepper and tries to kill the president. Pepper kills Killian due to her EXTREMIS strength (it’s like off-brand Captain America serum; highly likely to kill you). Tony destroys all his suits and removes the shrapnel from his chest, thereby rendering the arc reactor in his armor useless. We all know this is a lie and that he will still be Iron Man.

8. Thor: The Dark World

What a forgetable movie. Thor’s girlfriend and brilliant astrophysicist, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), gets infected with the Aether (reality stone in liquid form). Thor has to take her to Asgard to get cured. There’s like an elf invasion. It’s fine. The Asguardians take the Aether to the Collector, who is like an expert in keeping infinity stones safe, I guess.

Note: Kat Dennings’ character remains the only reason to watch this movie (Are you happy, John DiLillo?)

9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve Rogers, now a modern man, works with S.H.I.E.L.D. and regularly teams up with Black Widow to complete missions, but gets pretty miffed when he realizes that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t exactly being transparent with him. Nick Fury tries to justify it to him, but then they both realize that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by Hydra this entire time. Cap becomes a fugitive, teams up with Sam Wilson (the Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie), who is a ex-paramilitary guy, to weed the Nazis out of S.H.I.E.L.D. The issue is, Steve’s best friend Bucky turns out to be a brainwashed super-soldier for Hydra called, you guessed it, the Winter Soldier. Rough. Also, this movie has the best fight scene of all time and no one can convince me otherwise.

Nick Fury lives. S.H.I.E.L.D. crumbles to the ground. Natasha releases all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s documents to the public like the Edward Snowden that she is. The post-credits scene gives us a sneak peek of Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, aka Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), both of whom were created by Hydra and trapped in a cell. Spooky.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy changed the game for movies in the MCU. This one is funny, self-aware and had a baller soundtrack. Also, none of the “heroes” were good guys — they’re all criminals. Peter Quill (Hot Chris Pratt) was kidnapped from Earth while his mom died of cancer and was forced to become a scavenger. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is the green half-robot daughter of Thanos out to get the orb (the power stone!) from Quill. Rocket the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a giant adorable tree, team up with Quill, Gamora and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a man out to kill Thanos for murdering his family, to escape from prison and keep the orb out of the hands of Ronan the Accuser, who was retrieving the stone for Thanos. Groot sacrifices himself for everyone and you will cry. (Don’t worry, we get Baby Groot, though). The Guardians of the Galaxy turn in the orb to the Nova Corps on planet Xandar. It seems safe there for now.

Guardians of the Galaxy also has one of the best trailers ever. Period.

11. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Despite all the sci-fi movies that exist in the world, like Will Smith’s I, Robot, Tony Stark still thinks AI is the way to protect to world and is completely shocked when his creation is a murderous, insane robot out to destroy humanity.

This one is a tougher one to explain. While Ultron is out here trying to steal an insane amount of vibranium — the world’s strongest metal in the MCU (normally found in Wakanda, a fictional country; more on that later) — Wanda Maximoff uses her mind powers to bring out each Avengers’ worst trauma. Those visions range from awful to somewhat insightful. The Hulk destroys half a city, but Thor sees the destruction of his people and Thanos’ larger plot to get all the Infinity Stones.

Ultron tries to create a stronger, more human-like body, which they all stop from happening, but Thor sticks the mind gem in the half-made robot and calls him Vision (Paul Bettany), since he saw this creation in a vision. Very creative. Everyone is lowkey mad and confused, until Vision picks up Thor’s hammer, proving his worth.

The Avengers team up with the Maximoff twins to stop Ultron from pummeling an unfathomable amount of vibranium in to Sokovia, an Eastern European country in the MCU. It’s a half success. The Avengers are able to evacuate most of the city, but Pietro dies despite Hawkeye’s best attempts to protect the twins (what a dad!) and the city is destroyed, but not to the extent that it would have been. No one feels good about this.

12. Ant-Man

Scott Lang, a thief played by the immortal Paul Rudd, is released from prison, but has a hard time making enough money to get his own place so he can see his cute kid, Cassie. He becomes desperate and tries to steal from this rich old man. Scott breaks in, only to find the Ant-Man suit. Turns out, the rich old man is Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an old competitor of Tony’s dad, Howard Stark’s, and ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Pym wants Scott to use the Ant-Man technology to plot a heist and save the world from Pym’s protege, who is determined to use and sell the Ant-Man technology for evil. Yikes.

This movie is one of the few that you don’t really need much prior knowledge of the MCU to enjoy. It’s super local and fun. Maybe one of the best Marvel movies, in my opinion.


13. Captain America: Civil War

Out of the ashes of what happened in Sokovia and an accident killing hundreds in Nigeria, the Avengers are divided in how to proceed. Feeling guilty as hell, Tony Stark wants to hand the Avengers over to the United Nations and sign the Sokovia Accords, an act regulating superhuman activity meant to hold such people accountable for their actions. Captain America, on the other hand, is nervous about giving the government oversight since he’s still paranoid about what happened with S.H.I.E.L.D. Two camps form and half the team goes to Vienna to sign the accords.

We’re introduced to King T’Chaka (John Kani)and Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) of Wakanda. T’Challa notices something fishy about the behavior outside, but is too late: a bomb goes off and his father is murdered. It’s really sad.

The Winter Soldier is framed for this, despite it being caused by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a Sokovian man out for revenge who wants to cause discord between the Avengers. T’Challa dons on the Black Panther suit and tries to kill Bucky. Cap and Falcon stop him, but not before all of them are apprehended by authorities. Zemo manages to fake being a psychiatrist and brainwashes Bucky so that he is now the Winter Soldier again.

Everything leads up to this iconic airport battle scene. We even have Spider-Man!

Bucky and Cap escape, but the rest are arrested by Tony and tossed into the Raft, a hella high-level prison in the middle of the ocean. Things are not looking great for Scott, Hawkeye, Wanda, or Falcon.

Zemo informs Tony that Bucky was the one who kills his parents and chaos ensues; Tony, Bucky and Steve have a full-on, ugly brawl. Black Panther realizes that Zemo has been manipulating both Steve and Tony, and turns him in. Captain America breaks everyone out of prison and writes a letter to Tony (typical middle school move, if you ask me). T’Challa agrees to take Bucky into Wakanda and help cure him. Things will probably never be the same between any of the Avengers.

14. Doctor Strange

Neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets into a car accident that destroys his hands because he’s a cocky asshole. (Who goes like 100 miles per hour when driving on a cliff? An idiot). He tries like a million different treatments and none of them work. That is, until he turns to the Mystic Arts. He is trained in Nepal by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton…sigh)to manipulate space and matter. He regains usage of his hands.

We learn there’s this whole other aspect to the MCU. Forget space. There’s the astral plane and the Mirror Dimension. Wild. Doctor Strange also introduces the Eye of Agamotto, aka the Time Stone.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Peter Quill learns that his dad is a planet called Ego (Kurt Russell). This goes exactly how you think it will. (Read: his dad is a murderous psychopath and Peter gets short-lived powers).

16. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Third time’s the charm, right? This iteration of Spider-Man is played by youngin’ Tom Holland. Peter Parker is just a boy from Queens trying to not fail his classes, keep New York safe with the help of Tony Stark, AND ask a pretty girl to homecoming (Laura Harrier). There’s a lot on his plate. It gets worse when he realizes his date’s dad (Michael Keaton) is the bad guy who has been trying to kill him for most of the movie. This is actually my worst nightmare. [Editor’s Note: Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man. Don’t even try to fight me.]

17. Thor: Ragnarok

Best Thor movie hands down. We get space Hulk. We get Thor with a nice haircut. We get peak Jeff Goldblum. We get Tessa Thompson.

Thor must escape Jeff Goldblum’s weird Hunger Games planet and defeat his biological maniac sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), without his trusty hammer. Hela reveals that Asgard used to dominate and rule other realms and that Thor’s dad wasn’t all that great.

Anyway, Hela essentially destroys Asgard and Thor evacuates everyone just in time. Loki is somewhat helpful, but it’s hinted that he stole an Infinity Stone during the evacuation. Typical.

18. Black Panther

I’d be genuinely shocked if you didn’t see the best movie of all time, Black Panther, but whatever here goes:

T’Challa comes home to Wakanda after the events of Captain America: Civil War. He is crowned king and the Black Panther officially. T’Challa struggles with the role of Wakanda in the international arena: should Wakanda stop its isolationism and help other countries, especially since it is the world’s richest and most technologically advanced country?

Things are going well until Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) arrives and reveals that he is the son of Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who was murdered by T’Chaka (younger version played by Atandwa Kani, the older T’Chaka’s real-life son!) for treason. Killmonger challenges T’Challa for the throne, tosses him over a waterfall and attempts to send Vibranium over to Wakanda’s war dogs (spies) so all oppressed black people can liberate themselves. In theory it sounds alright, but practically not so much.

T’Challa comes back from near-death with the help of his baller mother (Angela Bassett), his spy ex-girlfriend (Lupita Nyong’o), and his genius sister (Letitia Wright). T’Challa defeats Killmonger, opens up Wakanda to the rest of the world, and swears to share the knowledge Wakanda possesses.

That, and Bucky is now tan and healed. Nice!

If I wanted to do a condensed marathon, what should I watch?

Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Avengers, Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Age of Ultron (unfortunately), Civil War (also unfortunately), Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther.

Where are all the Infinity Stones now?

Space Stone: With Loki, who stole it from Odin’s vault.
Time Stone: With Stephen Strange, in the Eye of Agamotto.
Mind Stone: Currently residing in Vision’s forehead.
Reality Stone: In the possession of the Collector.
Power Stone: With the Nova Corps on Xandar.
Soul Stone: TBD. My guess is in Wakanda.

Well, there you have it. You’re now an expert on all things MCU. Congrats.