THE MIGHTY MARVEL CHRONOLOGY – A Beginner’s Guide to the Cinematic Universe (Part 1)

Once upon a time, superhero fans were lucky to get a movie or two per decade featuring characters in colorful costumes fighting crime. Even then, most of them were poorly executed – not only as a film, but as representations of everything that their source material stood for. That has changed dramatically, and while we still have the occasional dud, the mythos of superheroes has exploded in a big way – particularly in the pantheon of Marvel Comics heroes.

It’s possible that a DC list containing Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman will pop up at some point, but for now I’m going to focus on Marvel’s semi-shared universe. I say “semi”, because different Marvel properties are owned by different studios. I’ll explain why this is pertinent as we go along, but for an overview, there’s a great chart available.

There are so many films now in the MCU (that is Marvel Cinematic Universe) and its affiliates, that a newcomer wouldn’t be remiss to ask “where do I start?” If this is you – or if you simply want a refresher – or if you love continuity as much as I do and want to see how I made sense of Marvel’s disparate timelines – this series is for you!

I’ll be including each film’s year of release, Rotten Tomatoes score, trailer link, studio continuity (MCU, Fox, or Sony), and my recommendation as to whether the film is a MUST SEE, FUN ADDENDUM, or COMPLETIONISTS ONLY. I will be discussing the historical context of each film to the genre, and why I placed it chronologically where I did.

In Part 1 of the series we will be covering the following:

Let’s start at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.)

chris evans as steve rogers in captain america the first avenger
Just wait ’til you hear the song and dance number.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

(2011)

MCU

Verdict: MUST SEE

RT Score: 80%

Trailer

You may be wondering why an entry from 2011 is first in this chronology. Well, that’s because The First Avenger takes place in 1942, during the height of WWII. While it is book-ended by scenes from the “present”, (some time between The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers), the history explored in First Avenger provides context by which the rest of the MCU is colored.

Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, is the heart and soul of Marvel superheroism. He gets powers and fights super-Nazis, but ultimately he’s just “a kid from Brooklyn” who always tries to do the right thing. Despite his nationalistic branding, Cap is the closest thing Marvel has a definitive symbol of good and the prototype for all the heroes that follow.

The First Avenger isn’t a flawless film, but it’s really good. Rogers has a phenomenal origin story, and it’s fun seeing him grow into his role as Captain America. But once he gets on his feet, the film loses a bit of focus until the very end. The Red Skull, whose Hydra division is too out there for even the Nazis, is pretty much the most on-the-nose villain imaginable. But keep in mind that this film is designed as a period piece, hearkening to an era when good vs evil was a more straightforward concept.

*BONUS ENTRIES???: The Red Skull’s remark, “And the Führer digs for trinkets in the desert.” seems like a not-so-subtle nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark. While by no means official, it would be fun to imagine Indiana Jones as the precursor to the Marvel heroes. .Heck, now that Disney owns the rights to all three, I’m holding out hope for a WWII Cap/Indy/Rocketeer team-up film.

Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, and James D'arcy in Agent Carter
Howard, Peggy, and Jarvis are ready to get into some trouble.

Marvel’s AGENT CARTER – Seasons 1 & 2

(2015-2016)

MCU – ABC Television Spinoff

Verdict: FUN ADDENDUM

RT Score: 87%

Trailer

Marvel’s Agent Carter is a spin-off mini-series that follows the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. WWII has ended, and the exceptionally capable Agent Peggy Carter of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) is now being asked to pick up the coffee, rather than go on kick-ass missions. (Silly patriarchy!) Needless to say, Peggy figures out how to get into some trouble on her own.

The series lasted two seasons, with a total of 18 hour-long episodes. While these aren’t really necessary to understand the overarching narrative of the MCU, Peggy’s legacy is, and it’s given far more weight here. She’s even better represented than she was in The First Avenger, and her chemistry with Howard Stark and his butler Jarvis is constantly amusing.

Agent Carter is very made-for-TV-budget, but if you enjoyed Atwell’s character in The First Avenger, and you’re in the mood for a fun, feminist hero, you should definitely give Peggy a shot.

hayley atwell as agent carter in one shot
Agent Carter, challenging the patriarchy since 1941.

AGENT CARTER

(2013)

MCU – One Shot

Verdict: MUST SEE

No, you’re not seeing double. Agent Carter was a 15-minute Marvel “One Shot” before she got her own television series. The mini-movie came with the video release of Iron Man 3, and actually has much closer to a feature film’s production value than the TV series.

Since the One-Shot worked as a proof of concept for the series, the two trip over each other a bit narratively, but this puts a bow on one of the most important elements of Peggy’s career that the show never got around to, hence its placement in the timeline.

There’s no reason not to hunt this one down as part of your Marvel movie marathon. (since Iron Man 3 is also a Must See). And if you skipped over Peggy’s TV series, maybe this will make you want to give it a shot.

Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy in First Class
The X-Men, looking chic as ever.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

(2011)

20th Century Fox

Verdict: MUST SEE

RT SCORE: 87%

Trailer

20th Century Fox’s X-Men films are not an official part of the MCU. They sometimes don’t even follow their own internal continuity. (More on that later.) It’s very possible that at some point Marvel Studios and Fox will work together to reboot the X-Men mythology into the MCU. That doesn’t seem to be on the horizon anytime soon, though. So for the purposes of this list, the existing films will be your introduction to the mutants of Marvel.

In the comics, the X-Men often kept out of crossovers that other heroes were involved in. The film heroes similarly seem like the solitary type, so it’s possible that these stories could be happening between the events of the MCU. Unlikely? Perhaps. If it helps, you can consider this an alternate universe running parallel to the MCU. Those exist in comic books (and hell, maybe in real life).

X-Men: First Class takes place in 1962 during the height of the Cold War, and features a villain and anti-hero whose origins come right out of the Holocaust of WWII. It feels like a legitimate extension to Captain America‘s story. While the Nazis were playing with the occult and making super soldiers, elsewhere humanity was evolving due to nature. X-Men similarly explores the lure of grandiosity that comes with the blessing of an ascendant nature. More specifically, it explores people who feel caught between feeling like a freak and a god. The X-Men movies only ever take a shallow dive into what could be a really deep metaphor for racism and bigotry (especially during the 60’s), but this still sets them apart from every other hero story. Worth noting: the Fox films generally come across as cheaper and sloppier than the MCU movies, but they’re always grounded by some really great performances.

wesley snipes as blade
“Snarl, muthafucka!” (Blade is rated-R)

BLADE

(1998)

New Line Cinema

Verdict: COMPLETIONISTS ONLY

RT Score: 54%

Trailer

Blade bears the distinction of leading the charge in the modern superhero film. The film works pretty well as a ridiculous 90’s action flick, but shares very few similarities with the tone or world that either Fox or Marvel created. That said, it’s not impossible to imagine that Blade might simply come from a much much darker corner of the same universe. He does in the comics.

Other than its historic significance, the reason Blade made this list is because there have been rumors that Marvel is considering relaunching the Wesley Snipes version of the character in their own continuity in a sequel that would feature his daughter. It would be an unprecedented move, which would retroactively include New Line’s Blade trilogy into the MCU. This definitely falls into the “I’ll believe it when I see it” category, but still bears mention. If Blade does exist in the timeline, it definitely takes place during the 90’s, partially because his world makes more sense with a vacancy of superheroes, and partially because his movie is just 90’s as fuck.

hugh jackman as wolverine in x-men 2000
“Snarl, bub!” (Movie Wolverine is more polite than Blade… and comics Wolverine.)

X-MEN

(2000)

20th Century Fox

Verdict: MUST SEE

RT SCORE: 81%

Trailer

When X-Men: First Class came out in 2011, it was thought to be a soft reboot of the franchise that began in 2000. Not all the details from First Class line up properly with the details from X-Men, particularly concerning the details of Professor X and Magneto’s history together. Emotionally, however, the relationship feels like it picks up right where the two left off. Mystique’s characterization feels a bit off, picking up from Jennifer Lawrence’s version. But 40+ years is a long time for a person to change, and it’s clear this version has gone to some dark places.

After Blade, X-Men was the film that proved modern comic book movies had legs (while Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man proved it could soar in 2002). Consequently, X-Men’s action, visual effects, style, and grand endgame feel incredibly dated. But the film has heart. Patrick Stewart (Professor X) and Ian McKellen (Magneto) turn in amazing performances, and Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) delivers the lovable tough-guy performance that put him on the map.

Despite its flaws, (including the poor use of pretty much all the other X-Men), the film feels right as a part of the Marvel mythos. And considering its style, it also feels right at home at this point in the timeline. Yellow spandex would have been more timeless. These X-Men were clearly dressed to illustrate their excitement for the upcoming Matrix sequels.

wesley snipes in blade 2
Blade isn’t done taking names yet.

BLADE II

(2002)

New Line Cinema

Verdict: COMPLETIONISTS ONLY

RT SCORE: 57%

Trailer

Blade II benefits from an increased budget and a solid inject of fun, courtesy of director Guillermo Del Toro. This actually makes it feel a lot more like a modern Marvel entry. It suffers a bit from sequelitis, bringing back characters who were clearly meant to stay dead. But the film’s pretty much a textbook example of how to do more of the same, but bigger.

If you watched the first Blade and enjoyed it, give the sequel a shot. Otherwise, you can move on. There was a third film in the series, Blade: Trinity. But despite Jessica Biel being nice to look at and Ryan Reynolds being nice to look at and funny, the movie was godawful. (Don’t worry… Ryan Reynolds recovers much later in this series.)

ian mckellen as magneto hugh jackman as wolverine and halle berry as storm in x2
Together again / Gee, it’s good to be together again

X2: X-MEN UNITED

(2003)

20th Century Fox

Verdict: MUST SEE

RT SCORE: 86%

Trailer

X2 took everything that was good about the first X-Men film and ran with it. More than just a bigger and more explosive sequel, the film uses the character dynamics that worked in the first and doubles down on them. Nightcrawler is a great addition to the entourage, and the villain’s endgame is less cartoonish.

Between X2 in 2003 and Spider-Man 2 in 2004, comic fans thought that they were entering a golden age of superhero films. But both of those films had immensely disappointing sequels. X-Men: The Last Stand (the followup to X2) is such a disaster that it was almost completely disregarded by all further entries in the series, with its only noteworthy additions being Kelsey Grammar as Beast and Ellen Page as Shadowcat. Hugh Jackman also starred in an X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie that was both continuity-breaking and altogether unnecessary. It’s also since been retconned out of existence.

On the DC side of things, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins was the first sign that things were getting better, but things wouldn’t improve for Marvel fans until 2008.

robert downey jr in iron man
“I am Iron Man.”

IRON MAN

(2008)

MCU

Verdict: MUST SEE

RT SCORE: 94%

Trailer

Marvel literally bet the farm when they staked their livelihood on building their own studio. Casting then-recovering Robert Downey Jr. as a B-lister hero was seen as an incredibly risky move, but it paid off big time! RDJ became an overnight superstar, defining a hero who was now on name recognition level with Batman.

Marvel started small and personal with this one. Like Captain America, which followed a few years later, their focus was less on spectacle and more on the adventurous tone and characters that people would love. They also created the definitive after-credit-stinger scene that defined the concept of a shared universe and the mixed continuity that we’re discussing now.

And whaddaya know? Tony Stark a.k.a Iron Man is the son of Howard Stark, the guy who gave Cap his shield, and hung out with Peggy. If Captain America is the heart of the Marvel Universe, Iron Man is the brains. As you know, the heart and the brain don’t always get along. So if this is your first rodeo, you’re in for a hell of a ride moving forward. The legacies of these heroes have only just begun!


THE MIGHTY MARVEL CHRONOLOGY continues in Part 2!