Since the big bang of Iron Man in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded in all directions . It includes a wide breadth of films, TV shows, and even screen-inspired comic books, which all combine to tell the ongoing story of Earth-199999. Captain America: Civil War, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, kicks off the third phase of the MCU’s historical record, and the stakes have never been higher. Iron Man and Captain America will lead factions of the newly divided Avengers in a massive brawl that will definitely prove to be a genuine game-changer to the universe’s status quo. The fates of Earth’s mightiest heroes will never be the same.
But to truly enjoy Civil War requires a lot of information about what came before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; this is not a film that plays well for newbies. All 11 previous MCU films are available for marathoning before Civil War hits theaters on Friday, but to save you some time and money, here’s a guide to what you really need to know.
Iron Man (2008)
“I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability.” - Tony Stark, Iron Man
In the MCU’s opener, billionaire Tony Stark morphs from beneficiary of the military industrial complex to radical rebel and truth-teller in a sweet metal costume. It requires being taken hostage by the Taliban to do it, which gives him a serious case of PTSD, that he still hasn’t quite shaken.
While Stark will continue to thumb the federal government’s nose in Iron Man 2, he later proves his willingness to work with the feds when necessary.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
“Banner’s work was very early-phase. It wasn’t even weapons application, he thought he was working on radiation resistance. I would never have told him what it was really for, but he was so sure about what he was doing he tested it on himself. And something went very wrong… or it went very right.” - General Ross
Released in the shadow of Favreu’s successful Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, which starred the since-replaced Edward Norton as Bruce Banner is still vital to the MCU. William Hurt’s General “Thunderbolt” Ross will present the Avengers with the Sokovia Initiative in Civil War, and in his first film he survives an encounter with a rageful Hulk.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
“I’ve successfully privatized world peace.” - Tony Stark
The journey to The Avengers begins here, with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury having his first real sustained presence. But more important is Tony Stark’s continued character growth, which includes fights with the government and confrontations with his own mortality. It’s this urgency that fuels the drastic measures Stark will soon take in The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
“I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.” - Steve Rogers
Joe Johnston’s 2011 flick is more than just a great superhero fantasy. Though it’s an implausible journey in a hyper-stylized World War II, Captain America: The First Avenger is a genuinely human story that firmly sets up the star-spangled Captain America for the rest of the franchise.
In The First Avenger, we really get to know Steve Rogers — an idealistic soldier who believes in a better tomorrow — who will later try to keep his traditional values in a very different and less black-and-white 21st century. As we’ll know in Civil War, Captain America will not waver. He will plant his feet like a tree and tell them, “No, you move.”
The Avengers (2012)
“The idea was to bring together a group of of remarkable people to see if they could become something more. To see if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles that we never could … Well, it’s a good old-fashioned notion.” - Nick Fury
One day, we woke up in a world where it seemed impossible there weren’t already movies like The Avengers. Though Civil War bears the name “Captain America”, it is more like the third movie in a trilogy that began with Joss Whedon’s mega-blockbuster, which ended Marvel’s so-called Phase One. The Chitauri invasion will shock billionaire Tony Stark, who will then try to be the world’s sole protector in Whedon’s second Marvel film, Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s his actions that, once again, force him to question his place as a superhero and support the Sokovia Initiative.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
“You experience things and then they’re over, and you still can’t explain them. Gods, aliens, other dimensions. I’m just a man in a can. The only reason I haven’t cracked up is probably because you moved in. Which is great. I love you. I’m lucky. But honey, I can’t sleep.” - Tony Stark
After the wild party that was the world-changing Battle of New York in The Avengers, Iron Man 3 is Stark’s nasty hangover. Shane Black, who took over for Favreau, presents a more a paranoid Tony Stark, who attempts to create the ultimate solution to save the world. Iron Man 3 is his first attempt to create what will ultimately become the ultimate weapon: Ultron.
Captain America: The Winter Solider (2014)
“This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” - Steve Rogers
Part espionage thriller and part superhero action flick, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was Joe and Anthony Russo’s first outing as Marvel directors — and they absolutely blew it out of the water.
Just as Steve Rogers, a soldier of yesterday, struggles to adapt to the modern world, his past life comes back to haunt him when he learns that his best friend Bucky has been turned into the Winter Soldier. He’s a puppet for HYDRA, the evil organization of particularly crazy Nazis, who have infiltrated the seemingly impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. The film evokes the timely headlines of NSA spying and post-9/11 P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act paranoia, and gives us a hero we really need, as Captain America stays resilient even as the foundations he put his faith in crumble all around him. The Winter Soldier is arguably the most important film to watch before Civil War.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
“I see a suit of armour around the world.” - Tony Stark
This is when the world loses faith in its superheroes. Fearing yet another invasion after The Avengers, Tony Stark — without oversight, supervision, permission — builds the world’s “bouncer,” Ultron, a shield around the world. The shield backfires. Ultron becomes sentient and his programming decides the Avengers are more of a threat than any alien invasion.
By the end of Age of Ultron that left Sokovia in ruins, the world has had enough. And thus, begins Civil War.
“Is it too late to change the name?” - Scott Lang
Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is great and funny. Just watch it. You’ll be glad you did when Scott Lang shows up in Civil War.