So, you’re a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are giddy with anticipation over the imminent release of Avengers: Endgame – the promised culmination of the 11-year, 22-film “Infinity Saga” epic storyline – and, in preparation for the new film, want to plan the most epic viewing marathon ever, because you and your friends and family have that kind of time (mine don’t, but let’s assume yours do). How do you pull it off, maximizing your party’s enjoyment factor while preserving your health and sanity? Rest easy, weary traveler, for the HeroMonster sanctum of wisdom will both enlighten and care for you in this noble and admittedly insane venture.
First things first: You are not going to watch all these movies straight through in one sitting, so just get that out of your mind right now. No normal adult wants to endure such a thing. Like plants, we require sunlight and fresh air, maybe not to survive, but at the very least, to feel functionally human. Plus, subjecting yourself and your friends to such a grueling exercise (anti-exercise, really) could have the unintended consequence of you hating the MCU and never wanting to know of it ever again (and the same might also wind up being true of you and your friends).
To that end, you will want to plan for this marathon to last five days. You’ll want to plan some days off from work. Monday through Friday will be the most straightforward schedule, since Avengers: Endgame opens on a Friday night. However, most of us have lives we want to live outside of the MCU – vacations with the family and such – and so you may want to hold on to as many of your paid-leave hours as you can. In that case, and if you and your friends have the will and discipline to wait on seeing Endgame for a few days after its release, then you can plan to wrap your marathon around a weekend, starting on Thursday and finishing on Monday, using three vacation days instead of five. And although I am suggesting five days, you might want to shoot for four instead, if you think your retinas will forgive you for watching that much more stuff in a single day. Your mileage may vary.
A final note about scheduling: Captain Marvel will still be in theaters by the time Endgame comes out, and if you are a true-blue MCU fan, I am assuming you will want that film to be part of your marathon. In that case, plan one of the days of your marathon around catching a matinee of Carol Danvers’ film debut, before you rush back home to resume the use of your DVD player or streaming service.
For parents or anyone with kids in their life, a tip about responsibility: even though the MCU is largely a family-friendly franchise, do not involve the kids in this madness, at least not all of it. For most, school will still be in session. Involve your little ones in just one movie for each day, preferably at a time that fits into their normal schedule. For a lot of us, that will mean supper time. More importantly, though, children are still growing and very impressionable, and encouraging a sedentary, couch potato lifestyle is definitely not in their best interest. Plus, I’m pretty sure Child Protective Services would come knocking on your door if they learned you pulled Junior from school for a whole week so he could watch the Hulk toss Loki around like a rag doll.
And speaking of health, yours is important as well. Stock up on lots of bottled water. Hydration will be key, especially if you plan on having alcohol handy. Don’t punish your body with five straight days of pizza and hot wings. Have light healthy snacks handy and plan on preparing at least two balanced meals each day. And don’t be ashamed to give your eyes and body a break from this insane schedule. Plan to take a power walk between movies. Go down to the park and play a quick game of HORSE or toss a football around. For those extremely averse to athletics and physical fitness, or those who are unable to get around easily, break out the cards and play a game of Gin Rummy or Bullshit. Or just, I don’t know, chat with each other. Socialize between flicks. Your mental health is every bit as important as your physical health. It’s a marathon, but make the time to live. Don’t become a literal Marvel Zombie (if you’re a true Marvel fan, you got that reference).
But now you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, HeroMonsterMatt! 22 movies in five days is still a lot. That’s five or six films a day! Who’s gonna have time to do anything else?” Well, prepare to have your mind blown, True Believer.
You’re not going to watch all of them.
At present 21 MCU movies exist, and Avengers: Endgame will be Number 22. The arrival of Endgame is the entire reason for this shin-dig, as it concludes a very long story, so presumably you will want to watch that as the capper to your marathon.
Therefore, your marathon should involve only the films which either lend themselves directly to the overarching “Infinity Saga” storyline, introduce characters important to that storyline, or include interactions between characters from various films which help fill out this main story arc in one way or another. That being the case, you need only watch 15 movies, not 21, prior to seeing the Big Finish. And if you are an actual, dyed-in-the-wool MCU fan, you’ll want to watch these films in their proper chronological order (as opposed to the order in which they got released). I’ll list all the essential 15 films, in the right viewing order, and briefly explain their contribution to the overall MCU. I’ll also explain why the other six can be left out of your marathon.
Captain America: The First Avenger
These tales introduce four of the biggest players in this story – Steve Rogers, Nick Fury, Carol Danvers, and Tony Stark – and establish the existence of SHIELD (formerly the SSR) and its arch-enemy Hydra, as well as the Super Soldier serum, Stark Industries, the revolutionary arc reactor technology, and that most troublesome of MacGuffins, the Tesseract. Though we have only met her very recently, Carol is expected to play a crucial part in Endgame, and the MCU going forward.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
We discover Asgard and are introduced to the balance of the initial roster of Avengers – Thor Odinson, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner. The team has their first major battle, against Loki and the Chitauri. We learn about what became of Steve’s best bud Bucky Barnes, as well as a shocking secret about SHIELD. And we get our first glimpse of Thanos.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Though the Guardians are largely removed from the rest of the action up to this point, their story lays the groundwork for some of the more emotional moments in Avengers: Infinity War. And in battling Ultron, the Avengers’ extreme actions will have long-term, global repercussions, while their roster changes significantly.
Captain America: Civil War
Both Ant-Man and Doctor Strange may have tenuous connections to the “Infinity Saga,” but they each delve into the idea of alternative realms of existence, and both the Quantum Realm and Strange’s mystical skills will come into play in the third and (presumably) fourth Avengers films. Meanwhile, long-simmering tensions between Steve and Tony come to a head, and the Avengers disband, leaving them vulnerable for the coming tragedy.
Avengers: Infinity War
Ant-Man and the Wasp
We learn the whereabouts of Thor and the Hulk, who have been missing since Age Of Ultron, and Ragnarok ends literally moments before the start of Infinity War. Thanos succeeds in his quest, to far-reaching, devastating results. Scott Lang is now stranded in the Quantum Realm, and Nick Fury has sent a distress signal to Carol Danvers.
You do not need to see:
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Why? Because the story beats and major elements of the “Infinity Saga” are not touched upon in any of these films.
You could argue that both Thor: The Dark World And Doctor Strange introduce one of the Infinity Stones, which is correct. But the distinction I draw between the two is that Strange and Wong are entrusted protectors of both the Time Stone and this entire realm of existence, a fact which comes into play in Avengers: Infinity War. Meanwhile, The Dark World’s obligatory MacGuffin, the Aether, is only identified as an Infinity Stone – the Reality Stone – during the post-credits scene, and elaborated upon in later films; during the movie itself, the Aether is poorly defined, known only as something that the villain wants to use in order to plunge the universe into darkness – a purpose far different from how Thanos wields it during Infinity War. Besides which, The Dark World is a slog to watch.
Bypassing The Incredible Hulk is recommended not simply because it is the red headed stepchild of the MCU, or because its Bruce Banner is played by someone other than the incomparable Mark Ruffalo (though both are valid reasons). If you have lived under a rock your whole life and never heard of the Hulk, The Avengers’ introduction to nice guy Banner and its slow parceling out of information about his mysterious condition – ominously referred to as “the other guy” – builds with a quiet kind of dramatic tension (“Wait, what does he mean by, ‘I kind of broke Harlem?’”) that pays off in spectacular fashion with his first “Hulk out.” Meeting him through Natasha Romanoff, and experiencing his first “episode” through her as well, has the added benefit of giving us a proper introduction to the formidable spy. In fact, where Bruce and Natasha are concerned, Joss Whedon’s nimble script renders both The Incredible Hulk and the narrative black hole known as Iron Man 2 all but obsolete as viewing experiences.
You might think me mad for asking you to skip a modern classic like Black Panther in favor of something so insubstantial as Ant-Man and the Wasp. Well, if you have seen both, and have seen that first trailer for Endgame, you know that Scott Lang’s quantum predicament has something to do with whatever happens in the new film; Panther is a completely standalone affair. In fact, both Black Panther and Spider-Man made their theatrical debut in Captain America: Civil War, and their return appearances in Infinity War do not necessitate watching their respective solo films.
As for Iron Man 3, that film ends with Tony Stark trashing all his high-tech suits and supposedly finding some peace in his life; it feels very much like the end of his story. But once again, Joss Whedon renders that notion irrelevant, and Age Of Ultron, for better or worse, has Tony back in the hero business again, as though literally nothing had happened to him since the previous Avengers movie. As a result, IM3 now plays like an issue of Marvel’s revisionist-history comic, What If?
But hey, it’s your marathon, run it how you wanna run it. Include Black Panther and Homecoming, if you like. Leave out all the Captain America movies, if you like (although, are you insane?!). These are simply suggestions. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its deft storytelling, memorable protagonists and insane levels of interconnectedness, is a one-of-a-kind filmgoing experience, and we are not likely to see something this gargantuan, done this well, again for a long while. So if you are a fan, commemorate the fun in whatever way has meaning for you.
To quote the late, great Mr. Lee, Excelsior!