PrimerPrimer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.  

Prerequisites: A History Lesson

Back in 2005, the idea of superheroes hanging out together on-screen was as absurd as the thought of someone making another Star Wars trilogy. While superheroes often team up on the pages of comic books, movie licensing deals limited specific characters to specific studios for specific franchises. On the big screen, Superman stayed in Metropolis, Batman in Gotham City, and the X-Men and Spider-Man lived in two separate versions of New York produced, respectively, by 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures.

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But around that time Marvel Comics was growing dissatisfied with the way its characters were being presented on-screen in critical flops like 2003’s Daredevil and 2005’s Fantastic Four. So Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige—who handled TV and film rights for the comic book company—came up with a plan: Marvel would simply start making its own films with the characters it still owned the screen rights to—a handful of relatively unknown heroes who made up a famed comic book team called The Avengers. The studio would also replicate a comic book concept introduced by Marvel creators Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee back in the 1960s: These movies would all share one continuity, now known as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” or “MCU.”

With the benefit of hindsight, the creation of a shared universe of superheroes seems like a no-brainer. But it’s hard to overemphasize what a revolutionary concept it was at the time (something Feige goes into on his excellent episode of the Nerdist podcast). Not only would Marvel Studios be reinventing the superhero film genre, it would to some extent be reinventing film franchises altogether, which had previously dealt in sequels and prequels, not “shared universes.”

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Marvel Cinematic Universe 101: The Films

The official Marvel Cinematic Universe includes only the films and TV shows produced by Marvel Studios. So although 20th Century Fox’s X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises star Marvel Comics characters, they are their own thing.

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While MCU products generally work as stand-alone adventures, the viewing experience is deepened and enriched the more fans immerse themselves into the universe.

In 2008 the MCU officially launched with a phenomenal gamble. While the character of Iron Man had some vague name recognition thanks to a cartoon series, the red and yellow hero held little weight in the larger zeitgeist. So the first Iron Man film would live and die by its quality, not its name recognition. Feige hired Jon Favreau (then known for writing the indie films Swingers and directing the family film Elf) to helm the project and together they cast Robert Downey Jr. to play a sarcastic billionaire playboy weapons dealer named Tony Stark.

Marvel’s risk paid off: Iron Man made more than $585 million worldwide and was one of the best-reviewed movies of the year thanks to its lighthearted but sardonic tone and Downey’s gregarious performance.

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Even in those early days Iron Man boldly hinted at plans for a larger universe: Samuel L. Jackson showed up in a post-credits scene (a soon-to-be Marvel tradition) as the eye-patch wearing Nick Fury, the director of a shadowy government organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D. “You’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet,” he explained to Tony. Showing Marvel Studio’s confidence, he added, “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger initiative.”

But after that successful start, the MCU stumbled a bit. The Incredible Hulk cast Edward Norton as mild-mannered scientist-turned-sometimes-green-monster Bruce Banner and was released later that year to mixed reviews. (It didn’t help that Ang Lee’s Hulk—which is not part of the MCU—had been similarly poorly received only a few years earlier.) 2010’s Iron Man 2 was a fun but forgettable film that broadened the MCU significantly, introducing Scarlett Johansson’s über-competent S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow.

2011’s Thor brought some new energy to the MCU with its totally bonkers concept: Alien prince Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lives in a Lord Of The Rings-esque realm called Asgard where he battles giant monsters with the help of his magical hammer and his meddling trickster god brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Later that year, Captain America: The First Avenger similarly broke new ground with the story of a World War II-era wimp named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who becomes the super soldier Captain America thanks to some special serum. The film ends with Cap accidentally frozen in the Arctic for decades, only to be awakened by Nick Fury in the present day, just in time to save the world with some superpowered colleagues.

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Although the threads of the MCU appear in these films—Tony Stark’s dad is the one who created Captain America back in the 1940s, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) pops up in the Iron Man and Thor films—the studio wouldn’t really know if its shared universe idea had traction until its first major team-up, 2012’s The Avengers. Would audiences who hadn’t been keeping up with this expansive universe still be interested in this joint venture? Could the film possibly balance so many superheroes without devolving into chaos?

And as it did with Favreau, the studio once again picked an unusual choice to helm the picture: Joss Whedon was best known for his TV work and he had little on his resume to prove he could helm a massive blockbuster. And once again the risk paid off.

Avengers somehow works just as well as the culmination of five movies as it does as a stand-alone film. Worried about the threat of alien forces, S.H.I.E.L.D. activates the Avengers Initiative—a plan to protect the world by bringing together Earth’s mightiest heroes. Whedon mined both comedy and drama from the way his disparate heroes struggle to come together as a team. And in a climatic final battle that remains arguably the best set piece in the entire MCU, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo replacing Norton in a rare MCU casting change), Black Widow, and her fellow agent Clint Barton, a.k.a Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), all get a moment to shine. That’s no small feat considering Whedon had to make sure a dude with a bow and arrow wasn’t overshadowed by a giant green monster and a literal god.

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Those who had been keeping up with the MCU got to see their investment pay off: Coulson and Fury play bigger roles, Loki returns as a major villain (roping Thor into this Earth-bound battle), and supporting characters from the various films pop up all over the place. MCU fans and newbies alike went to see the film in droves. Avengers became the highest grossing film of 2012 and remains the third highest grossing film of all time.

The success of Avengers solidified Marvel Studios as a major Hollywood player. These first six films—from Iron Man to Avengers—became known as “Phase One.” The studio then moved on to “Phase Two” (under its new Disney corporate ownership), the films that take place in a post-Avengers world and are created by a studio even more confident in its abilities. They include Iron Man 3, where Tony struggles with PTSD from his near-death experience in the battle of New York; Thor: The Dark World, where Thor must reluctantly re-team with Loki to stop a threat; and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which Steve finally confronts the reality of being a man out of time.

Next came Guardians Of The Galaxy, a comic space opera that, on its surface, was a departure from the MCU, although eagle-eyed viewers know there’s a connection (see Advanced Studies). It’s an overtly goofy film that stars, among others, a talking raccoon and a sentient tree. Many predicted it would be Marvel’s first flop. Instead it became the third-highest grossing MCU film.

This summer, the studio released the divisive Avengers: Age Of Ultron, in which the Avengers once again regroup, and Ant-Man, which introduces Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang to the MCU and rounds out Phase Two.

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Despite their wildly different tones, these 12 movies have a lot in common, especially when it comes to their weaknesses. Marvel has rightfully gotten a lot of flack for centering seven movies on white guys named Chris while making only minimal efforts to diversify their expansive universe either on-screen or behind the scenes. Outside of Loki, the studio doesn’t have a great track record with creating memorable villains. And most of the films suffer from repetitive third acts that usually involve big things falling into other big things.

But although there are certainly highs and lows in the MCU (and people love arguing about them), so far the studio has yet to produce a truly unwatchable film. The projects all have a certain joyful enthusiasm that stands is stark contrast to the darker world of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the po-faced Man Of Steel. And if Marvel doesn’t quite get its villains right, it makes up for it with memorable heroes who are played by insanely charismatic actors. The best scene in Age Of Ultron features the Avengers just sitting around drinking beer and playing a party game.

Intermediate Studies: The Other Stuff

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has tried to conquer TV as well, to less celebrated results. ABC’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. follows the smaller scale duties of a team of secret agents led by Coulson and it too is part of this linked universe.

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The unspoken rule is that Marvel movies can influence Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., but not really vice versa. So while the TV cast doesn’t pop up in the final battle in Thor: The Dark World, they are shown cleaning up after it in the episode that aired following the film’s release.

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Agent Carter is a period drama centered on Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the former flame of Captain America, as she deals with post-World War II gender politics in the male-driven office of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (a precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D.). Although it’s not without its flaws, it’s still enormously fun and notable for being the first (and so far only) female-fronted project in the MCU.

Marvel also teamed up with Netflix for an ambitious multi-show project. Much as its initial superhero films built to The Avengers, these four shows about street-level heroes will eventually culminate in a fifth series called The Defenders. The first of these was the much-praised Daredevil, which cast Charlie Cox as blind lawyer/vigilant crime fighter Matt Murdock.

Next up Krysten Ritter will play superpowered private investigator Jessica Jones, Mike Colter will star as the super strong Luke Cage, and finally a yet-to-be-cast actor will step into the role of mystical martial artist Iron Fist. Ostensibly these shows all fit within the MCU continuity—for instance Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen is a desolate community because the battle in Avengers wrecked havoc there. But even more than most things in the MCU, they inhabit their own sphere.

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For those who really want to delve into minutiae: Marvel also produces short films called “One-Shots” that are released as special features on each MCU Blu-ray. They’re not crucial, but they deepen the world a bit, often to comedic effect. And there are tie-in comic books published alongside most MCU releases as well, although not all of those are considered canon.

Advanced Studies: The Future

Even more so than enjoying the films, a big part of being a Marvel enthusiast is looking forward to the future. Plenty of fans were lukewarm about Age Of Ultron, but still can’t wait for the launch of “Phase Three” in 2016 with Captain America: Civil War, a film where Cap faces off against Tony Stark and nearly all of their superhero friends take a side.

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And Marvel Studio loves to play with this sense of fan anticipation: The studio has previously arranged shooting schedules specifically to make sure impressive action sequences are ready to be shown at Comic-Con (although not this year). Once an underdog, Marvel Studios is now a major cultural force that makes headlines with every press announcement. And the studio embraces the hype, as when it held a massive celebrity-filled event to announce its line-up all the way through 2019.

Those highly anticipated upcoming films include Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange in 2016, and both Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok in 2017. In 2018 the studio will release its first film starring a person of color with Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther (we already got a glimpse of his home country Wakanda and his major adversary Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue in Age Of Ultron). Later that year, the studio will also release its first film starring a woman with Captain Marvel.

In 2019, Inhumans will serve as the MCU’s answer to the X-Men by following a uniquely powered group of people. To give a sense of just how intricately planned this stuff is: It looks like Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is already setting up that Inhumans arc right now.

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Of particular interest is Avengers: Infinity War, a two-film story that will debut in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and could be the last hurrah for our current crop of Avengers stars. These films will feature the Avengers facing off against Thanos, Josh Brolin’s blue baddie who popped up as a mastermind villain in Guardians Of The Galaxy, thereby linking the two worlds.

If there’s one area in which the MCU’s universe-building threatens to overwhelm its storytelling, it’s with Thanos’ master plan: He wants to hunt down six “Infinity Stones” to place into his “Infinity Gauntlet” in order to gain the power to take over the universe (MCU films love a good MacGuffin or six). These stones have popped up in various places in the MCU so far, including in Loki’s scepter and the Tesseract from Avengers, the Aether from Thor: The Dark World, and the purple orb in Guardians (which means there are more to be found). So far, these details haven’t had a huge impact on any of the films, but they can be confusing to casual fans (like when Thor heads off to a cave for some franchise building in the middle of Age Of Ultron). And as this parody Twitter account proves, Thanos isn’t exactly a threat in the eyes of fans yet.

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But infinity minutia aside, the MCU has already had a big impact on the future of movie making. The term “shared universe” is now almost as familiar as the idea of sequels. Warner Bros. is creating its own linked set of superhero films based on DC Comic’s Justice League (although these won’t be tied to the DC TV shows, meaning soon there will be two Flashes running around). And even franchises like Transformers and Star Wars are using the term to describe their spin-off plans.

Whether the superhero bubble will eventually burst or continue to grow in unexpected ways remains to be seen. But big changes are already happening: In hopes of making their webslinger relevant again, Sony signed a new contract with Marvel that lets Spider-Man pop up in the MCU as well as in solo films co-released by Sony and Marvel. Newly-cast Tom Holland will team up with the crew in Civil War before getting his own movie in 2017. Perhaps one day we’ll reach a point where all of the movie studios decide to play nice and let their characters interact on-screen. After all, with great power comes great profitability.

The Essentials

1. The Avengers: Still the most fun, satisfying blockbuster the studio has ever produced. Plus it shows off the team-up nature that makes the MCU so unique.

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2. Iron Man: The film that established the tone that all other MCU movies would follow.

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier: A surprisingly smart superhero flick in the vein of a 1970s political thriller that gives big roles to Black Widow and Nick Fury and highlights Chris Evans as one of the most talented players in the MCU.

4. Guardians Of The Galaxy: With so many hits under its belt, Marvel took a risk with a daring space opera comedy that proved the studio isn’t content to just stick with a familiar formula.

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5. Daredevil (Netflix): The best thing the TV side of Marvel has produced, and one that will pave the way for a whole new set of intersecting Netflix shows. Be warned, however, this incredibly violent series is decidedly not for kids.

Post Credits Sting: The Full Canon

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Here’s the official list of what is considered part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

Phase One

  • Iron Man (2008)
  • The Incredible Hulk (2008)
  • Iron Man 2 (2010)
  • Thor (2010)
  • One-shot: The Consultant (2011)
  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
  • One-shot: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer (2011)
  • The Avengers (2012)
  • One-shot: Item 47 (2012)

Phase Two

  • Iron Man 3 (2013)
  • One-shot: Agent Carter (2013)
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013)
  • One-shot: All Hail The King (2014)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
  • Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)
  • Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)
  • Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three

  • Captain America: Civil War (2016)
  • Doctor Strange (2016)
  • Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
  • Spider-Man Project (2017)
  • Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
  • Avengers: Infinity War—Part 1 (2018)
  • Black Panther (2018)
  • Captain Marvel (2018)
  • Avengers: Infinity War—Part 2 (2019)
  • Inhumans (2019)

TV Projects

  • ABC’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-present)
  • ABC’s Agent Carter (2015-present)
  • Netflix’s Daredevil (2015-present)
  • Netflix’s Jessica Jones (2015)
  • Netflix’s Luke Cage (TBD)
  • Netflix’s Iron Fist (TBD)
  • Netflix’s The Defenders (TBD)

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