MCU Phase 1 Guide

Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.
— Fury, Nicholas J.

Those words, spoken by Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man, were the first hints that the story of Tony Stark was not the only tale to tell in what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Consisting of six movies and a handful of short films, Phase One of the MCU introduced viewers to the first live action version of The Avengers, Marvel's premier superhero team. More importantly, this first phase demonstrated how a series of film franchises could exist in the same world, reference each other, and crossover at key moments, much like the Marvel Comics they are based on.

Characters like Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye each appeared at least once in the five films leading up to the The Avengers. This unprecedented crossover event was a culmination of several character arcs and storylines that had been developing for years, but it was still only the beginning. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; the following is your viewing guide to the first chapter of the MCU. 

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Film: Iron Man 

Official Synopsis: Iron Man tells the story of Tony Stark, a billionaire industrialist and genius inventor who is kidnapped and forced to build a devastating weapon. Instead, using his intelligence and ingenuity, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armor and escapes captivity. When he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, he dons his powerful armor and vows to protect the world as Iron Man. 

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film: The incredible hulk

Official Synopsis: Scientist Bruce Banner desperately hunts for a cure to the gamma radiation that poisoned his cells and unleashes the unbridled force of rage within him: The Hulk.

Living in the shadows--cut off from a life he knew and the woman he loves, Betty Ross--Banner struggles to avoid the obsessive pursuit of his nemesis, General Thunderbolt Ross and the military machinery that seeks to capture him and brutally exploit his power.

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film: iron man 2

Official Synopsis: With the world now aware that he is Iron Man, billionaire inventor Tony Stark faces pressure from all sides to share his technology with the military. He is reluctant to divulge the secrets of his armored suit, fearing the information will fall into the wrong hands.

With Pepper Potts and "Rhodey" Rhodes by his side, Tony must forge new alliances and confront a powerful new enemy.

one-shot: A funny thing happened on the way to thor's hammer

Synopsis: S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson finds himself in a precarious situation on the way to his next assignment.

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Film: Thor

Official Synopsis: As the son of Odin, king of the Norse gods, Thor will soon inherit the throne of Asgard from his aging father. However, on the day that he is to be crowned, Thor reacts with brutality when the gods' enemies, the Frost Giants, enter the palace in violation of their treaty. As punishment, Odin banishes Thor to Earth. While Loki, Thor's brother, plots mischief in Asgard, Thor, now stripped of his powers, faces his greatest threat.

one-shot: The Consultant

Synopsis: Agent's Coulson and Sitwell come up with a unique approach to get General Thunderbolt Ross on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s side.

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Film: Captain America: The First Avenger

Official Synopsis: It is 1941 and the world is in the throes of war. Steve Rogers wants to do his part and join America's armed forces, but the military rejects him because of his small stature. Finally, Steve gets his chance when he is accepted into an experimental program that turns him into a supersoldier called Captain America.

Joining forces with Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter, Captain America leads the fight against the Nazi-backed HYDRA organization.

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Film: The Avengers

Official Synopsis: When Thor's evil brother, Loki, gains access to the unlimited power of the energy cube called the Tesseract, Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., initiates a superhero recruitment effort to defeat the unprecedented threat to Earth.

Joining Fury's "dream team" are Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye. 

one-shot: Item 47

Synopsis: When an alien weapon from the Battle of New York is used in a bank robbery, Agent Sitwell and S.H.I.E.L.D. intervene.

Expanded Guide: Iron Man

Viewing Order Placement

While other entries in the MCU chronologically take place either partially or completely before this movie, everything started with Iron Man. This is the first film produced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in ways both small and large everything that comes after builds off the foundation laid in this story.

MCU Connections and Easter Eggs

  • Throughout the film Agent Phil Coulson from the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics division attempts to contact Tony Stark. S.H.I.E.L.D., as it’s better known, is a connecting force in both the movies and shows that are often involved in matters relating to supernatural powers, extraterrestrial activity, or advanced technology.
  • In the film’s post-credit scene (a staple of the MCU), the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, tells Stark he isn’t the only superhero in the world. Furthermore, he invites Tony to discuss something called the Avengers Initiative.

Expanded Guide: The Incredible Hulk

Viewing Order Placement

The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor all take place roughly during the same week, a surprising fact to most viewers who aren't paying close attention, especially because it is never explicitly said in the films themselves.

So, out of these three movies, why does The Incredible Hulk come first? A few reasons. It was released in theaters long before the others. Also, a majority of the film does take place before both Iron Man 2 and Thor with one notable exception: the final scene before the credits takes place after Iron Man 2, but we'll get to that later.

MCU Connections and Easter Eggs

  • The opening credits sequence features several easter eggs, including a reference to Nick Fury and Stark Industries.
  • The serum used on Emil Blonsky to give him enhanced strength and agility is based on the super soldier serum that created Captain America during World War II.
  • The S.H.I.E.L.D. logo can be seen on a computer used by Bruce Banner.
  • Tony Stark appears at the end of the film to speak with General Ross about a team that's being put together, a reference to the Avengers Initiative. The scene is revisited and further explained in the short film, The Consultant.

Expanded Guide: Iron Man 2

Viewing Order Placement

Picking up 6 months after the events of the first movie, the events of Iron Man 2 happen roughly during the same week as The Incredible Hulk and Thor. Most of The Incredible Hulk happens before this movie, and the post-credits scene leads directly into Thor.

MCU Connections and Easter Eggs

  • Nick Fury reveals that Tony’s father Howard Stark not only worked for S.H.I.E.L.D., but helped found the organization.
  • While constructing a replacement for the arc reactor that’s keeping him alive, Tony goes through some of his father’s old belongings. Among his possessions include not only old Captain America comic books sold during the war, but a prototype for Cap’s legendary shield.
  • During Tony’s discussion with Nick Fury at the end of the movie, a screen is displaying news footage from the battle between the Hulk and the U.S. army at Culver University.
  • During the same scene, a map is shown with several spots highlighted around the globe. One of these locations is Wakanda, the secretive nation ruled by the Black Panther that won’t be shown on screen until 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
  • The post-credits scene shows Agent Coulson arriving at a crater in New Mexico. In the center of the crater is Mjolnir, the hammer which belongs to the mythical Thor.

Expanded Guide: Thor

Viewing Order Placement

Thor picks up roughly the night before the post-credits scene teased at the end of Iron Man 2. Of course, there are some flashbacks that take us back in time several hundreds years, revealing some of the earliest events in the MCU.

MCU Connections and Easter Eggs

  • The film opens with a scene in Tonsberg, Norway, a town which will be seen again in the next film, Captain America: The First Avenger.
  • In Odin’s treasure room a number of important artifacts can be seen, including the Infinity Gauntlet (later to be revealed a fake), and The Eternal Flame, which plays an important role in Thor: Ragnarok.
  • Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, makes a brief appearance as a S.H.I.E.L.D. special agent tasked with taking down Thor. Hawkeye will next be seen as a member of The Avengers.
  • In the post-credits scene, Nick Fury shows Dr. Selvig the Tesseract, an artifact of unknown power and origin that will play a central role in the next two movies.
  • After the post-credits scene, the text “Thor will return in The Avengers” appears, in the first instance of what will become the norm for most MCU movies going forward.

Expanded Guide: Captain America: The First Avenger

Viewing Order Placement

Some will argue that Captain America: The First Avenger should be the first movie in this guide. That’s because the majority of the film takes place during World War II. But, watching it first doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

There are framing sequences that take place in the present day after the events of the previous films, and the post-credits scene is actually a teaser trailer for The Avengers, the next movie on the list.

MCU Connections and Easter Eggs

  • The opening scene in this movie takes place in Tonsberg, Norway, which was also featured in the beginning of Thor.
  • Johann Schmidt talks about Odin and aspects of Norse mythology depicted in Thor. Also, Yggdrasil, the World Tree that is said to connect all Nine Realms is depicted on a wall in this scene.
  • The Red Skull’s plan involves harnessing the power of the Tesseract, a powerful energy cube that was shown to be in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody at the end of Thor.
  • Steve and Bucky visit the World Exposition of Tomorrow, an early version of the Stark Expo.
  • Howard Stark, Tony’s father, shows off a prototype of a red flying car. Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. will later have a modern day version of this vehicle nicknamed Lola.
  • We see someone selling a stack of Captain America comic books. Not only do these comics have the same cover as the real world issue Captain America #1, but one of these is shown among Howard’s belongings in Iron Man 2.
  • Howard explains that Cap’s shield is made out of Vibranium, the strongest metal on earth. This fictional material that hails from the African nation of Wakanda is later central to the plot in both Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Panther.
  • While Captain America is fighting the Red Skull at the end of the film, a portal appears above the Tesseract that seems to suck the Red Skull into space, a plot point that will be important in later films.

Expanded Guide: The Avengers

Viewing Order Placement

This one’s simple. Every other movie in Phase 1 was building towards The Avengers in ways both big and small, and it lays the ground work for everything still to come in Phase 2 and beyond.

Additionally, Banner reveals he hasn't turned into the Hulk in more than a year, and Fury notes that the events of Thor happened "last year," placing this movie at least a year later than Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor.

MCU Connections and Easter Eggs

  • Tony Stark jokes to Coulson that he's actually a Life Model Decoy. More commonly referred to as LMDs, this type of synthetic being will become a problem for S.H.I.E.L.D. years later.
  • Coulson mentions he is dating a Cellist, a character who will eventually appear in an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • When Stark opens the files on The Avengers, footage from previous films can briefly be seen on display.
  • In Norse mythology and the MCU, Odin is known for having two all-seeing ravens that serve as his eyes and ears away from Asgard's throne. These ravens can be seen when Thor first appears to speak with Loki.
  • Steve Rogers discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been experimenting with Hydra weapons, foreshadowing the events to come in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
  • Tony dubs notes that the Avengers are "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," as they are commonly referred to in the comics.
  • The first post-credits scene reveals that the events of the movie were orchestrated by an alien named Thanos who will go on to serve as the primary antagonist of the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy for years to come.