Warning: The following story freely references major events from “Avengers: Endgame.” It is intended to be read after you’ve seen the film. In other words: massive spoilers ahead.
“Avengers: Endgame” is more than just Marvel’s latest record-breaking blockbuster. It’s the culmination of 11 years and 21 previous films — all of which are integral to fully understanding and appreciating its epic plot.
But some of its predecessors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are more important than others. So — after much discussion, and some friendly debate — we’ve ranked each MCU film in order of its significance to "Endgame."
(Before you file any official complaints, remember: This is not a ranking of each film’s individual quality. And yes, that means: "Thor: The Dark World" is very important. But “Black Panther”? Not so much.)
Last chance to stop reading: “Avengers: Endgame” spoilers ahead.
21. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008)
If you wanted to skip just one movie before seeing “Endgame” and not feel like you’ve missed something, this is it. But even with Oscar nominee Edward Norton in a one-shot turn as Bruce Banner (which Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo would inherit for the rest of his MCU appearances), there’s still some relevance to fully appreciating the long arc toward “Endgame.” For one, this is where we meet Gen. Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), who briefly turns up in “Endgame.” And in a post-credits scene, Tony Stark himself approaches the General, cryptically proposing the assemblage of a “team.”
20. “Iron Man 2” (2010)
Far from the best Marvel sequel, the return of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) still marks the first appearance of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, who uses the alias Natalie Rushman and replaces newly named Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as Stark’s personal assistant. There’s also some crucial relationship development between Potts and Stark. And it’s during this film that Rhodey (now played by Don Cheadle) first dons Iron Man armor to become War Machine.
19. “Thor” (2011)
Not a whole lot to see here, but Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the god of thunder, is introduced along with his mystical hammer Mjolnir, Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) — who all factor into “Endgame.”
Note: The post-credits scene involving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a Loki-controlled Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and the Tesseract is a direct setup to the first “Avengers” film.
18. “Black Panther” (2018)
Unquestionably one of Marvel’s best — and crucial to the events of “Infinity War” — director Ryan Coogler’s mega-hit reintroduces King T’Challa (Black Panther) after the events of “Captain America: Civil War.” He returns to the technologically superior Wakanda and we meet his genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), loyal soldier Okoye (Danai Gurira), friendly rival M’Baku (Winston Duke) and mother the Queen Regent (Angela Bassett) — who all appear, ever so briefly, in “Endgame.”
17. “Ant-Man” (2015)
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) becomes Ant-Man, an ex-con who steals shrinking technology invented by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) but later teams up with Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to protect it. This is the first time Lang enters and survives the Quantum Realm, and Pym particles are crucial to the plot of “Endgame,” but “Ant-Man” still isn’t as essential as its follow-up.
16. “Iron Man” (2008)
Billionaire, playboy, philanthropist and arms dealer Tony Stark becomes Iron Man after being captured and realizing the destruction his weapons have caused. This film introduces Robert Downey Jr. as the hero who launched the MCU as well as Pepper Potts (Paltrow), his soul mate and sparring partner, and James Rhodes (also known as Rhodey), his best friend (played, at the time, by Terrence Howard).
Note: Nick Fury is introduced in a post-credits scene: “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” he asks. “Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don't know it yet.” (Did anyone — even Marvel’s movie mastermind Kevin Feige himself — realize how big that universe would be 11 years later?)
15. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)
Peter Parker (Tom Holland) waits anxiously for another Avengers mission in the wake of the epic “Civil War” battle in the German airport. Stark becomes something of a mentor to Parker in this film, which raises the stakes when the teen disintegrates in “Infinity War” — and the emotions during every one of the too-brief scenes the duo share in “Endgame.”
14. “Iron Man 3” (2013)
Following an encounter with the Mandarin, Iron Man enlists the help of a 10-year-old boy, Harley (Ty Simpkins), to repair his Iron Man suit. He also undergoes surgery to finally remove the remaining shrapnel near his heart and discards his chest arc reactor. Pepper suits up in the Mark 42 armor, the only time — prior to “Endgame” — she donned an Iron suit on-screen.
Note: That’s Harley (played once again by Simpkins) standing by himself near the back of the crowd as the camera weaves its way through the mourners at Tony Stark’s funeral in “Endgame.”
13. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014)
The first MCU film directed by “Endgame” helmers Joe and Anthony Russo takes place two years after the “Avengers” battle of New York. Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), learns the identity of the Winter Soldier — a compromised Bucky Barnes, Rogers’ best friend from the past — as well as Hydra's secret operations within S.H.I.E.L.D.'s ranks. This film introduces former Air Force para-rescue man Sam Wilson, or Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and the corrupt Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Also central to “Endgame”: that nifty elevator battle.
Note: A post-credits scene reveals Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and her brother Pietr (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), twins who've been experimented on with Loki's scepter.
12. “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017)
Thor triggers the prophesied Ragnarok, the destruction of Asgard, after his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death, returns from a prison to which Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banished her. This film introduces the characters of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg (Taika Waititi) and Miek and sees Thor reunited with Hulk for the first time since the battle of Sokovia. Bruce Banner has been trapped as the Hulk in the intervening two years, but with Thor's help reverts back to Banner.
Note: Hela destroys Thor's hammer Mjolnir and his right eye which, paired with the loss of Odin and later Heimdall, Loki and half of the surviving Asgardians in “Infinity War,” causes him to fall into a rut. It’s the final straw before Thor really lets himself go.
11. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015)
Maximoff is established as Scarlet Witch, and Vision (Paul Bettany) is introduced — both beings who are enhanced by the yellow Mind Stone housed in Loki's scepter. Maximoff develops telepathic and telekinetic abilities as a result of the stone, while Vision is brought to life after the Stone commingles with the consciousnesses of Stark's J.A.R.V.I.S. and Ultron, along with coding from both Stark and Banner. This is also where we find out about the secret family Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) keeps hidden on a secluded farm out of harm's way.
Note: Following a party at the Avengers tower, the team takes turns trying to lift Thor's hammer Mjolnir. It gives just slightly when Captain America makes his attempt. Ultron ultimately destroys the Avengers headquarters in New York City so Stark relocates the team to a new Avengers compound in upstate New York. Thanos (Josh Brolin) resolves to find the Infinity Stones himself.
10. “Captain Marvel” (2019)
In the ’90s, Carol Danvers, a former Air Force pilot turned Kree “noble warrior hero,” helps Nick Fury track down the Tesseract and inspires the “Protectors Initiative,” later amended to the Avengers Initiative. Her character is first teased in the end credits of “Infinity War” when a modified pager flashes her sigil.
Note: In addition to learning Marvel can fly through space, we are introduced to her warship-destroying abilities. We also learn how Fury lost an eye. The post-credits scene jumps Danvers’ story to the present in the wake of Thanos’ snap, where she meets the surviving Avengers for the first time.
9. “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
A rift is formed between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark following the proposal of the Sokovia Accords, which would establish a United Nations panel to oversee and control the Avengers. The rift grows as Stark learns that the Winter Soldier was responsible for killing his parents while under Hydra control.
During a battle in a German airport, War Machine is paralyzed from the waist down after a blast from Vision destroys his suit. By the end of the film, Stark fashions a set of exoskeletal leg braces that allow him to walk again. This film introduces Black Panther and Spider-Man, plus Ant-Man joins the team and, for the first time, grows in size to become Giant-Man.
8. “Doctor Strange” (2016)
Arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange severely injures his hands in a car accident and travels to Kamar-Taj for a mystical physical therapy session with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). After the Ancient One is mortally wounded, Strange replaces her as the Sorcerer Supreme, taking up residence in New York's Sanctum and guards the Eye of Agamotto, a relic housing the green Time Stone, around his neck.
Note: This is the first time we see the green Time Stone.
7. "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" (2017)
The reunion of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) with his megalomaniac father Ego (Kurt Russell) has almost nothing to do with “Endgame,” but the blossoming friendship between sisters and erstwhile rivals Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is essential. Plus, the burgeoning relationship between Quill and Gamora is explored and we're introduced to Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the newest member of the team.
6. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
Steve Rogers becomes a super-soldier and synonymous with patriotism thanks to his red, white and blue costume and vibranium shield. He falls in love with British agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) but wakes up 70 years in the future after crashing a plane carrying the Tesseract into the Arctic. Basically, the final scene of “Avengers: Endgame” wouldn’t even exist without this movie.
Note: Romance aside, this is the first time we see the blue Space Stone housed in the Tesseract apart from a flashback scene in “Thor.”
5. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013)
Thor's former paramour Dr. Jane Foster is infected by the Aether, also known in the MCU as the red Reality Stone. Thor takes her to Asgard, where Loki is imprisoned, for help extracting it. A surprising amount of the film’s action is revisited in “Endgame” (including Jane and Loki cameos) but perhaps most importantly, this is the film in which Thor loses his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) — whose extended return appearance is key to “Endgame.”
Note: This is the first time the Reality Stone appears, and during the film’s mid-credits scene it’s delivered to the Collector (Benicio del Toro) for safekeeping.
4. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)
Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel) band together to keep the purple Power Stone from Thanos, Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and Nebula, Thanos' second adopted daughter and Gamora's sister. The action here also gets significant callbacks in “Endgame,” particularly the opening on the planet Morag, where the stone (which Star-Lord steals) is housed. It also establishes the contentious dynamic between Gamora and Nebula, as well as Nebula's desperation to impress her father.
Note: This is the first time the Power Stone appears (it’s left on Xandar with the Nova Corps, and the first appearance of Brolin as Thanos.
3. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (2018)
With only days left in his two-year-long house arrest sentence for violating the Sokovia Accords (established in "Captain America: Civil War"), Scott Lang (Ant-Man) is enlisted to help Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne rescue Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm, a place where the rules of time and space are suspended.
Note: It's our last sighting of young actress Abby Ryder Fortson as Cassie, Scott's 10-year-old daughter. During the film’s mid-credits scene, Scott gets trapped in the quantum realm while Hank, Hope and Janet all turn to dust. Cassie, Hank, Hope and Janet all have roles to play in “Endgame,” but — even more importantly — so do the quantum realm and Pym particles.
2. “Marvel’s The Avengers” (2012)
Original Avengers Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye fight together for the first time against Loki, who has brought an army of aliens (called the Chitauri) to Earth to retrieve the Tesseract (also known as the blue Space Stone) and to subjugate the planet. This film introduces S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Barton as Hawkeye, his close friendship with Natasha Romanoff (Widow) and depicts the Battle of New York — which we revisit for extended periods of “Endgame” — where the Avengers face off against the Chitauri.
Note: We get our first glimpse of Thanos (not yet played by Brolin) in a post-credits scene and our first look at the yellow Mind Stone, which is housed in Loki’s scepter.
1. “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018)
Good luck making any sense of “Endgame” whatsoever without “Infinity War,” which ends with Iron Man and Nebula trapped on the destroyed planet Titan after Spider-Man and galaxy guardians Drax, Mantis and Star-Lord are reduced to dust. After Thanos collects all the infinity stones to don the gauntlet glove, his snap decimates half the universe — wiping out Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Nick Fury and more fan favorites. Fortunately, all of the original Avengers are left behind, while Thanos retreats to the Garden, where he's content to just watch “the sun set on a grateful universe.”
Note: In the beginning of the film, Stark tells Pepper Potts he'd dreamed that they were expecting a child “named after your eccentric uncle Morgan.” At the end, after Thor pierces Thanos' chest with his newly forged hammer Stormbreaker, the mad Titan tells him he should’ve gone for the head.
Plus, there’s a high body count beyond the snap: Vision is destroyed by Thanos when he captures the Mind Stone, leaving behind a very ticked off Scarlet Witch (who is dusted by the snap). Most of the surviving Asgardians from “Thor: Ragnarok” are blown up, and both Loki and Heimdall (Idris Elba) are killed. Also, the planet Vormir and the orange Soul Stone are seen for the first time after Thanos sacrifices his adopted daughter Gamora in exchange for it.
And in a post-credits scene, Fury summons Captain Marvel. The “Endgame” is on.
(Tracy Brown and Geoff Berkshire contributed to this report.)