The end — or the beginning of the end, or at least the end of the beginning — is almost in sight. April 26 sees the theatrical release of Avengers: Endgame, the culminating installment of "The Infinity Saga" in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). One of the most ambitious projects ever conceived by Hollywood, this saga has spanned 45 hours of screen time, tilted against a slew of imitators and ignited a revolutionary approach to entertainment.
But say, for whatever reason, you've missed each of the preceding 21 films in the series but want to see this one so you have some idea what people are talking about when they chatter about what's destined to be the biggest movie of the year — and maybe the biggest movie ever. Or maybe you've seen some of the movies over the last 11 years but don't remember all the details that may come into play.
Check out our Marvel movies in order guide to see how to watch them in order of release and storyline chronology.
We're here to help! This rundown of the MCU's first three cinematic "phases" will get you up to speed before you settle into your multiplex seat for what could well prove the blockbuster of all blockbusters. Yes, you'll be ready for all 3 hours and 2 minutes of pulse-pounding action, dizzying special effects and soaring melodrama, regardless of whether you can tell Captain America from Captain Marvel — or even Captain Marvel from Shazam.
Phase 1 (six films, 2008 to 2012)
Yes, the beginning of "The Infinity Saga" is packed with our heroes' origin stories. Tony Stark becomes Iron Man by way of electromagnets, arc reactors and two movies. Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk by way of high blood pressure (and Edward Norton later becomes Mark Ruffalo by way of show business). Steve Rogers becomes Captain America by way of government experiments. Thor becomes annoyed by way of his power-hungry brother, Loki. But there's another beginning that's even more important.
The Tesseract initially manifests itself as merely a magical MacGuffin, but it develops universal implications as it's shown to be the glue that links together the members of the "Avenger Initiative" group being assembled by badass S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury. The glowing cube bounces around the various movies until it lands in The Avengers, where the title supers, joined by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Black Widow and Hawkeye, punt it back to the Norse heaven Asgard while beating back Loki's high-key invasion of Earth. The loss of the Tesseract doesn't exactly please a certain fellow named Thanos, and we also get our first glimpse of him at the end of this film.
Phase 2 (six films, 2013 to 2015)
It's not long before the Tesseract rears its six ugly faces again and we learn that it draws its power from a something called an Infinity Stone. (This revelation is the sole good thing to come out of Thor: The Dark World.) These stones become increasingly prominent throughout Phase 2, as we see just how sought-after and dangerous they are.
Meanwhile, Iron Man gets a third movie and Captain America a second, during which we learn that not only has S.H.I.E.L.D. been infiltrated by the evil organization Hydra, but also Cap's WWII buddy Bucky Barnes has been brainwashed by Hydra into a baddie. The Avengers reunite in Age of Ultron to fight an apocalypse-intending AI, along the way adding War Machine (now looking more like Don Cheadle than Terrence Howard), Falcon, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and an Infinity Stone-powered Vision to their burgeoning ranks. (There's no chance that will come up again later.)
But although Thanos also appears in a couple of cameos in this phase, revealing himself to be a mighty unfriendly personality — and one not to be trifled with — Phase 2's most significant flirtation is with comedy. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man temper their huge happenings with hefty laughter (buoyed by, among others, Chris Pratt and Bradley Cooper in the former and Paul Rudd and Michael Peña in the latter) and a helping of heart, showing that it's easier to take the MCU more seriously when it takes itself less seriously.
Phase 3 (10 films, 2016 to 2019)
Cap and Iron Man square off against each other! The Guardians of the Galaxy square off against Kurt Russell! Tom Holland's Spider-Man squares off against memories of Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield (and acquits himself admirably)! Plenty of conflict dots Phase 3. An internecine battle over superhero registration threatens to rip apart the Avengers, even as it sets the stage for the upcoming multiple-front confrontations and ratchets up the excitement, tension and box office receipts.
In other news, Benedict Cumberbatch debuts as the spell-slinging Doctor Strange, Bucky starts down the long road to redemption, jokes start crowding out everything except Jeff Goldblum's line readings in Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther and Captain Marvel propel the MCU into wild and wacky places it's never been before (respectively, the isolated African nation of Wakanda and the 1990s).
The climax of it all is Avengers: Infinity War, which runs 149 minutes and features almost that many characters, yet somehow manages to be equally gripping whether you're watching Thanos smack down Loki or Thor spend 30 minutes of screen time crafting a battle-ax. But then the unthinkable happens: Thanos gets his hands on all six Infinity Stones and all six Infinity Stones on his hand. With one snap, he wipes out half of all life in the universe, along with any momentum that might have energized the flaccid film bizarrely released just after this one, Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Can the Avengers conquer Thanos? Can they, uh, avenge their fallen comrades, who aren't just like dust in the wind, but are literal dust in the wind? And can audiences sustain interest in the MCU when this enormous story is over? The only way to answer these questions is to see Avengers: Endgame when it hits theaters next week.
Who's dead, who's alive after Avengers: Infinity War? (Spoilers!)
Dead: Peter Quill (Star-Lord), Doctor Strange, T'Challa (Black Panther), Peter Parker (Spider-Man), Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch), Sam Wilson (Falcon), Hope van Dyne (Wasp), Bucky Barnes, Mantis, Drax, Gamora, Groot, Shuri, Loki, Vision, Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne.
Alive: Tony Stark (Iron Man), Bruce Banner (the Hulk), Steve Rogers (Captain America), Thor, Scott Lang (Ant-Man), Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), Clint Barton (Hawkeye/Ronin), James Rhodes (War Machine), Nebula, M'Baku, Okoye, Rocket, Happy Hogan, Wong, Pepper Potts, Valkyrie and Thanos (duh).
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Matthew Murray is the head of testing for Future, coordinating and conducting product testing at Tom’s Guide and other Future publications. He has previously covered technology and performance arts for multiple publications, edited numerous books, and worked as a theatre critic for more than 16 years.