It's just a phase: Here's how you should watch Marvel's MCU Phase One through Three - Stuff

It’s just a phase: Here’s how you should watch Marvel’s MCU Phase One through Three

You know how it is — you’ve got time on your hands and a freshly-created love of binge-watching brought on by too much Netflix and Showmax. When you can burn through an entire season in less than a day, what constitutes a challenge? How about the Most Ambitious Crossover Event in History™ — Phases One through Three of Disney and Marvel’s Marvel Cinematic Universe? All three phases have been completed and we’re about to segue into Phase Four. It’s about time to make those folks who slogged through the extended cuts of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy look like amateurs.

The team at Stuff is looking to marathon the first 22 MCU films back-to-back-to-back-to… you get the idea. Since the entire runtime of the first three phases (not counting Sony’s Spider-Man: Far From Home) tops out at about 48 hours, we’re waiting for a long weekend before attempting pulling this one off. If you’re planning on joining us, this is how it should all go down. If it’s not immediately obvious, you should be hitting these films in chronological order, rather than the order released. Because, that’s why.

01 Captain America: The First Avenger

Phase One | First released: 2011
It’s not the first film released by Marvel but it feels like it could have been. The origin story of Steve Rogers as Captain America isn’t told nearly as often as Spider-Man’s roots are explored but Marvel did a great job of it here. Tying World War Two, Hydra, the Stark family, and the first faint beginnings of the Infinity Stone arc together, Captain America: The First Avenger might seem a little too apple pie for some but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great kickoff point for your Marvel binge. Runtime: 124 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 124 minutes. 

02 Captain Marvel

Phase Three | First released: 2019
You may or may not be the target audience for Captain Marvel but this film, chronologically, is second on the list. Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel serves to introduce viewers to more about the Kree/Skrull conflict that gets passing mention in Guardians of the Galaxy. Because of the presence, there and here, of Ronan the Accuser, we’d imagine. If you’re looking ahead to Marvel’s Phase Four, we suggest you watch this space. There’s more going on here than you’d expect. Because foreshadowing, we reckon. Runtime: 124 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 248 minutes. 

03 Iron Man

Phase One | First released: 2008
This is the one that started it all, in a cave, FROM A BOX OF SCRAPS! Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, the technological hero who epitomises American military might — without giving that might to the military — faces his demons, first and foremost. Though Stark technology has found its way into the hands of extremists, it’s at home that Stark faces his biggest foe: folks who want to use his tech to keep war going. Iron Man was the ideal starting point for this ambitious movie project and the success of Marvel’s initiative kinda rested on Downey’s shoulders for a time. Like, right up to the end of Endgame. It may be number three on the chart but it’s still number one in our hearts. And any release-date marathon you may attempt. Runtime: 126 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 374 minutes. 

04 Iron Man 2

Phase One | First released: 2010
Though not as well received as the first film, Downey’s second headline outing as Iron Man in Iron Man 2 gave us some idea of what to expect from Marvel’s strategy. There are callbacks to the past as the film’s villain, Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, turns up to kick Tony around a bunch because of a falling-out between their respective parents. Stark also has to deal with more trouble at home, what with Russian-Tony-Stark teaming up with competing weapons-maker Justin Hammer to steal the Iron Man technology. We’re seeing a trend. There’s a deus ex machina or two to be seen here (ahem mystical dead parent has all the answers ahem) as well but hey, it moves the story along. To someplace perhaps unexpected. Runtime: 125 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 499 minutes. 

05 The Incredible Hulk

Phase One | First released: 2008
That’s right, that one film with Edward Norton actually counts towards your MCU total. The 2008-released film might have been Norton’s only crack at the role but it’s technically canon. In common with Hulk storylines all over, Bruce Banner is being pursued by the military. One chap in particular, General Thaddeus Ross, has it in for Banner. It’s only the fact that his daughter is Arwen Evenstar Liv Tyler Betty Ross that gives the Hulk a shot at taking down the Abomination. We’re having trouble remembering this one. This is the film where the Hulk is discovered by a soda bottle and not the one where he crumples up a tank, right? Mark Ruffalo takes over the role in subsequent appearances. Runtime: 112 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 611 minutes.

06 Thor

Phase One | First released: 2011
The first appearance of Thor is a bit of a classic one. The hot-headed young Asgardian prince mucks up (by starting a war, fair enough), is stripped of his power and sent to Earth. To learn his lesson, we’re told. Once there, Natalie Portman runs over him several times before the royal person is redeemed, said redemption apparently coming via concussion. We’re introduced to the concept of the Nine Realms, get hints as to future threats, and also learn a whole lot more about Mjølnir’s functions as they pertain to worth. This will become important later — perhaps later than you think. We’re also introduced to the trickster, Loki, as he learns about his origins. That sets off events that have far-reaching effects — even if they were supposed to be localised to Point Break/Thor’s own person. Brothers. What more can we say? Runtime: 114 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 725 minutes. 

07 The Avengers

Phase One | First released: 2012
This film was the first taste we had of what was to come from the MCU. The Avengers had all been introduced (though we would have liked more time with Hawkeye and Black Widow first, Kevin Feige) in prior films, as had many of the villains. The prime bad guy, obviously, is the charismatic Loki and the object is the Tesseract — an object that is to take on rather a lot of significance. As if its appearance in the prior films wasn’t significant enough. The threat to the world (by way of New York) is severe enough that S.H.I.E.L.D and Nick Fury put together a team of the strongest beings they can find to counter it. The Avengers is huge and ambitious (for its time) but is also just a taste of what was to come. Also, you’ve been watching for over 14 hours at this point. Runtime: 143 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 868 minutes.

08 Iron Man 3

Phase Two | First released: 2013
The mental health Iron Man, Iron Man 3 often takes a lot of flack from fans because… well, it’s weird. Tony Stark’s gone a little nuts and is having panic attacks. He’s building suits for everything, because… well, you’ll see in a few films’ time. Assuming you don’t already know what’s going on in Stark’s head (even now, we’re spoiler-shy). There are a couple of villains here, Mandarin and Extremis, but the biggest threat seems to be Tony Stark’s own mental state. That… doesn’t really translate well on-screen, even if the internal turmoil here was done quite well. Give it another chance — especially since you’re only eight films down. Runtime: 130 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 998 minutes.

09 Thor: The Dark World

Phase Two | First released: 2013
If we had to pick a single Marvel film to disappear out of existence it would be this one. But that might be being too hasty, as it may have its place in Marvel’s Phase Four (You’ll see). But on first watching Thor: The Dark World‘s tale of dark elves, romance, that weird red stuff (Aether) hidden on Earth, and a kinda poorly-handled Aether-hiding Jane Foster don’t really gel together. All of the bits are there and there are some noteable moments but the main reason to watch is the introduction of the Reality Stone. Runtime: 112 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 1,110 minutes. 

10 Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Phase Two | First released: 2014
A direct sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier has all of the hallmarks of an MCU film. It calls back to past events from several films, gives some lesser-known characters some extra face-time (Black Widow, for one), and introduces us to a few new folks. The Falcon is one, as is the titular Winter Soldier — the chap we last saw (officially) falling off a train. Long story. We also see Hydra reappearing, having infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D, we get to see Captain America destroy a set of Helicarriers pretty much solo, and the door is opened to the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron as well. But before we get there… Runtime: 136 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 1,246 minutes. 

11 Guardians of the Galaxy

Phase Two | First released: 2014
And now for something… completely different. Guardians of the Galaxy is (technically) the origin story of Peter Quill, sometimes known as Star-Lord. It’s also the origin story (of sorts) of the rest of the Guardians, and it signalled the widening of scope for the MCU. We went from being mostly Earth-locked, with mostly Thor and friends travelling to all manner of ‘realm’, to jaunting out in space with a motley crew of scoundrels who often steal things but also try to do the right thing a whole bunch. Odd combination. This film brought a lesser-known comic series, against all expectations, to prominence. Guardians could have gone very badly. We’re mighty pleased it didn’t. Also: Meet the Power Stone. Runtime: 122 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 1,368 minutes.

12 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Phase Three | First released: 2017
And since we’ve just finished the first time, we might as well drop into the second. There’s very little to advance the MCU’s aims (so far) here, which suggests we should be mining it for clues as to Phase Four onwards. The only events of note towards the greater story are: Quill’s origins (since Ego was his father — not his daddy. That’s a different thing — Mary Poppins, y’all) and Thanos’ daughter Nebula making nice with her sister Gamora — this becomes important later. But hey, there’s some good music, a bunch of explosions, and a little scattered foreshadowing. What’s not to like? Runtime: 136 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 1,504 minutes. 

13 Avengers: Age of Ultron

Phase Two | First released: 2015
It’s all been leading up to this. So far. Avengers: Age of Ultron  was the subject of more than a few jokes (AI goes on the internet, learns to hate people — must’ve started on Twitter. Yuck, yuck, yuck, yeah?) but it also pulled all of the preceding threads together, while introducing yet another Infinity Stone into the mix. Plus there was a payoff for Tony Stark, whose own tech finally tried to kill him. Hydra turns up, because of course they do. Also introed? Wakanda, the basis for Captain America: Civil War (the Sokovia Accords), Hawkeye’s family, the Hulkbuster Iron Man armour, and Thanos as a major threat. We remember the Ultron timeline a little differently but this one was fine too. Hour check — we’re past the 27 hour mark, folks. Runtime: 141 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 1,645 minutes.

14 Ant-Man

Phase Two | First released: 2015
The last film in Marvel’s MCU Phase Two, Ant-Man took another shot at making a relatively obscure comic book hero and turning him into a phenomenon. In that, the movie succeeded. Even better, it gave us all Luis and his awesome story recap skills. Plus his ability to lay out pretty much any human with a single punch. The quantum realm turns up as a plot point, right at the beginning of the film and towards the end. Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a former thief who just wants to see his daughter, really works in the role and there’s a lot of groundwork laid for points in the last few Phase Three films. Plus, this one’s… pretty lightweight and amusing. Runtime: 117 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 1,762 minutes.

15 Captain America: Civil War

Phase Three | First released: 2016
This isn’t quite the Civil War from the comics but it’s a great film nonetheless. It’s Captain America versus Iron Man as one fights for the freedom to help humanity while the other fights to have government restrictions in place… while also helping humanity. Mostly, though, it’s an excuse to have Marvel’s heroes-to-date engage in all-out battle against one another. There are only so many ways to engineer those bouts in regular movies, after all. Case in point: The film’s mainvillain isn’t much of a super-villain at all — just a very, very pissed off man who manages to turn the cast of heroes against one another. Also: Hydra. And young Spider-Man turns up. So there’s that. Runtime: 147 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 1,909.

16 Spider-Man: Homecoming

Phase Three | First released: 2017
If you really think about it, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a little weird. Technically it’s a crossover inside a crossover, since Sony Pictures owns the rights to Spider-Man in motion pictures. This film represents a partnership to get the wall-crawler into the larger picture, without having to renegotiate too much or hand over too much cash. In any event, we’re looking at a film that explores the after-effects of the first Avengers film, sees young Peter Parker learn about what it means to be a hero, and brings the web-head back into the fold. All without needing to retell the story of how Spidey got his powers. That is acceptable. Runtime: 133 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 2,042 minutes. 

17 Doctor Strange

Phase Three | First released: 2016
It may seem a little late in the day for new characters but Doctor Stephen Strange is worth the wait. It may take a little effort to wrap your head around Benedict Cumberbatch as an American but it’s worth it in the end. The arrogant doctor learns how to control the mystic arts, mostly by implementing the skills he’d learned while learning to be a world-class surgeon. There are multiverses to explore, a Dormammu to confound, and a Wong to mess with — all while Hannibal and his cohorts hop around the shifting geometry like they know what all this reality-bending is about. We also get some time in with the Time Stone, which is the focus of Doctor Strange. That, and jokes about Beyonce. Runtime: 115 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 2,157 minutes. 

18 Thor Ragnarok

Phase Three | First released: 2017
Ah, the fun one. Arguably the best Marvel film to date and definitely the one that made up for Thor: The Dark World. Thor and Loki team up with the Hulk to escape a weird dimension created and owned by a zazzy Jeff Goldblum? Sure, that sounds like something we can get into. Ragnarok is the most light-hearted of the Marvel films but it’s also perhaps one of the most important. There’s a serious amount of character development all-round, an appearance by Doctor Strange (who is now firmly in the role of Earth’s magical defender), and guest spots by all sorts of magical artifacts. Also: Cate Blanchett looks surprisingly good all gothed up. Runtime: 130 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 2,287 minutes. 

19 Black Panther

Phase Three | First released: 2018
The one that blew everyone away and spawned a few Tolkien jokes, Black Panther expands on the Wakandan ruler introduced in earlier films — particularly Civil War. It’s also our best look at the reclusive society and its customs, information that proves very handy if you’re watching either of the two closing films in this monster binge. Black Panther marked a representation milestone for the film industry as well but you don’t have to watch because of that. You do have to watch because the Black Panther kicks all amounts of ass, no matter where he happens to be. Plus, you know, the film won three Oscars, if you care about that sort of thing. Runtime: 134 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 2,421 minutes.

20 Ant-Man and the Wasp

Phase Three | First released: 2018
This one could be watched after Infinity War but since its positioning mostly depends on the post-credits scene we’d rather stick is here. Ant-Man is back (after his house arrest) and this time Evangeline Lily is standing alongside him as the Wasp. At stake is quantum technology (this will be important shortly) as well as the fate of one Michelle Pfeiffer. We also get to see Paul Rudd be a woman for a while, which is a little disconcerting, and we get to see Michael Douglas be a grumpy old bugger. Which seems normal to us. Also: More Luis. You can never have enough Luis. Runtime: 125 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 2,546 minutes. 

21 Avengers: Infinity War

Phase Three | First released: 2018
Unless you’ve been living under a Hulk for the past decade, you have to be aware of Avengers: Infinity War. The start of all manner of threads being tied up, this two-part film (even if that’s not official) has one of the most downer endings in the MCU. Which makes a sort of sense. Otherwise Infinity War would have had to be six hours, and it still wouldn’t have been long enough. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s messy, it’s got Thanos being a dick, but if you’ve stuck with it this long, it’s almost time to finish things off. Runtime: 149 minutes. Total runtime (so far): 2,695 minutes. 

22 Avengers: Endgame

Phase Three | First released: 2019
And this is where our journey ends. The last few threads are tied together, the remaining Earth and other realm forces band together to take out the main villain and then they open the door to a far more varied set of circumstances for Marvel’s MCU Phase Four and onwards. Suddenly we’ve got time-travel, tangible alternate timelines, and a whole lot of new stuff on the horizon. We’re also looking at a few fewer heroes, though there’s space for an alternate timeline Captain America (Steve Rogers) who ‘works’ for Hydra — assuming Marvel goes that route. Endgame is a long one, clocking in at over three hours, which seems a fitting end for this journey. Congratulations. Go get some sleep. Runtime: 181 minutes. Total runtime: 2,876 minutes/47.9 hours. 

Bonus: Spider-Man: Far From Home

Phase Three/Four | First released: 2019
Not tired? Sounds to us like you could use just one more movie before you go. Sony’s Spider-Man: Far From Home acts as a sort of bridge between the MCU’s Phase Three and Phase Four — which should be kicking off shortly. Taking place after the events of the first 22 films, we’re following Peter Parker once again. Nick Fury is about, being as secretive as only he can, and Mysterio is roaming around London. Are there any major hints about the shape of things to come? That’s something we’ll only be able to answer as the MCU takes flight once more. The only thing we do know is that we’re not likely to repeat this binge. Once… once is enough. Bonus runtime: 129 minutes. 

Stuff South Africa's editor. He's not too sure about this whole 'referring to himself in the third person' thing but hey, all the cool kids are doing it. Brett likes words. Like, more than a friend.

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