MCU Phase 1 in Order Chronologically and by Release Date
The Marvel Cinematic Universe will celebrate 15 years in 2023. It has been a wonder to see how the franchise has grown, from a small independent operation into one of the biggest blockbuster franchises of all time (in part due to the early acquisition by the Walt Disney Company). With a big sprawling universe filled with various heroes, villains, and plot threads spanning the vast cosmos to alternate realities and fourth wall breaks it is hard to believe this franchise was ever just a couple of movies and an idea.
Before the big sprawling events of The Infinity Saga united the various MCU Phases, there was only the road to The Avengers, which is now dubbed Phase 1. The plan was simple — create solo movies for various heroes and finally unite them in one massive team-up film. It was not a guaranteed hit, but it was a gamble that paid off.
While it has been so culturally omnipresent, it might still be hard to imagine how the various films fit together. Some might be coming into the franchise new, either now deciding to see what the hype is about or being born after the initial film’s release. Here is Phase 1 of the MCU in chronological order, or if you prefer to watch by order of release, just click here.
Captain America: The First Avenger was the last solo film released before The Avengers, although the original plan was for it to be the MCU’s first release. While the film is bookended by an opening prologue and epilogue that takes place in the modern day, the majority of the film takes place during World War 2. It is the MCU film primarily set the furthest in the past (although other films would establish key events taking place before World War 2).
Captain America, Peggy Carter, Bucky Barnes, Red Skull, and Arnim Zola are all introduced in this film and will become significant players in the MCU moving forward, on both the big and small screen. The movie also picks up on a single line from Iron Man about how Tony Stark’s father worked on the Manhattan Project, and incorporated Howard Stark into the movie.
The film that started it all, Iron Man sees Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark suit up as the armored Avenger after being taken captive in Afghanistan (an update from his comic book origin where he was injured in Vietnam). Iron Man was originally set in the then present day of its release in 2008 but later MCU film entries moved Iron Man up to taking place during 2010.
Iron Man sets the tone and style for the MCU moving forward. Breezy, clever, and an all-around crowd-pleaser, it also is the first indication of a larger universe, with the appearance of Phil Coulson, who will be the glue that connects many of the Phase 1 movies. It also is the first reference to S.H.I.E.L.D. and contains a moment which changed Hollywood movies forever — the film’s final moment of Nick Fury meeting Tony Stark and letting him know he is part of a larger universe.
While The Incredible Hulk was released between Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Iron Man 2 immediately follows its predecessor, taking place just six months later. In the time since revealing himself as Iron Man, the world has stabilized for a period of peace, but that will not last as more superpowered individuals enter the picture. The movie further establishes more about Nick Fury, Tony Stark’s father Howard, and his connection to S.H.I.E.L.D., allows Rhodey to suit up as War Machine and most importantly introduces Black Widow into the MCU.
Iron Man 2 also takes place in a time period called “Nick Fury’s Big Week” which has the events of Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk all happening at the same time. Iron Man 2 takes place first, as Coulson leaves in the middle of Iron Man 2 to deal with events during Thor while the campus attack during The Incredible Hulk is on the news at the end of the movie.
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Thor was a big shift for the MCU, introducing cosmic aliens and teasing magical elements that will become more fleshed out in later phases. Thor not only introduces the title hero but also Loki, who will become one of the key villains of the MCU and unite the various heroes in The Avengers. It also introduces important supporting players like Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, and Darcy Lewis who will pop up throughout the franchise. It also features a quick cameo by Hawkeye.
Regarding Thor‘s specific place in the timeline, the animated series What If…? established that Thor attempting to retrieve his hammer from the S.H.I.E.L.D. base happened before The Hulk’s fight on a college campus. At the time many thought the Hulk reacting to a thing of thunder in his movie was a hint at Thor, yet that seems more like a coincidence.
The last entry in “Fury’s Big Week,” The Incredible Hulk actually starts earlier than Thor but encompasses so much time that the majority of its action takes place at the end of the week in the universe. The movie establishes that Bruce Banner’s origin as the Hulk in the MCU took place five years before the events of this film or Iron Man. The Hulk was a result of trying to recreate the super soldier that made Captain America, making the film a great bookend before The Avengers. The college campus battle and the fight with Abomination in New York are close together and happen following Iron Man 2 and Thor. While the films after the credit scene were retconned later, Tony Stark’s arrival was the first major indication to audiences that these movies were connected.
While at first, The Incredible Hulk was often the overlooked film in the franchise given that Edward Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk in the MCU, in recent years the film has become foundational in setting up many new projects. William Hurt reprised his role as Thunderbolt Ross in Captain America: Civil War and Black Widow before his passing, and now Harrison Ford will take over the role. Tim Roth returned as Abomination first as a cameo in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and then a full supporting player in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Finally, Samuel Sterns teased that transformation into The Leader will finally get paid off in Captain America: New World Order.
The Avengers was the film that Phase 1 of the MCU was building to. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury were all featured in previous films and are now brought together to fight Loki and an invading alien army, and little do they know that Thanos is the real mastermind behind this whole attack.
The Avengers is the moment where the MCU truly changes. By this point, it has been a fairly recognizable version of the audience’s everyday world, but The Avengers marks a turning point where a new age of heroes has begun. While the world knew about Iron Man, following the Battle of New York heroes like Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and even the Hulk become major celebrities in the universe. Phase 1 ended with the experiment working, connecting these various heroes and franchises together into one cohesive whole. The next phase would deal with the fallout of that.
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