he Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), established in 2008, contains over thirty movies and ten shows. According to Lifehacker, the total runtime of all content in this universe is approximately a whopping 130 hours. The MCU’s popularity shows in its revenue: Investopedia estimates that the films alone have earned almost $30 billion. 

Aside from the movies and shows, the universe has other incredible facets. For one, an entire Disneyland area is called “Avengers Campus.” Some of the best actors and creative visionaries of our generation have worked in or on the franchise: Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Rudd, Lupita Nyong’o, Natalie Portman, Jon Favreau, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and many more. According to Screen Rant, MCU movies have had 27 Oscar nominations and four wins. Interestingly, all wins were by the two Black Panther (2018, 2022) movies.

Promotional Image for Disney Parks' Avengers Campus
Image Credit: Disney Parks

Why Do People Love the MCU?

If you’re new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you may be wondering: Why should I care? It’s just a bunch of superhero movies; what’s the big deal? I don’t read comic books; how could I possibly be even remotely interested? And these are all fair questions! 

Clearly, it’s one of the most popular franchises in the world for a reason. Fans all around the world who have never even picked up a comic book are nevertheless obsessed with the films and shows. One reason is Marvel’s mastery of origin stories. There are several MCU films, particularly in the universe’s early days, solely dedicated to discovering a protagonist’s powers and how they became involved with a major conflict. These films mean that you don’t need to read hundreds of comic issues to know what’s happening. In other words, these origin stories make the barrier to entry very low. Some of the best examples of origin stories in the MCU include Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), and Black Panther (2018). The shows have also started to create origin stories: Ms. Marvel (2022), Moon Knight (2022), and Echo (2024) are all great examples.

Iron Man walks away from an explosion.
Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Those movies and shows make up a fraction of the whole of the MCU, though. So, where do the rest fit in if they aren’t all origin stories? Some are sequels and form their own ‘franchise within a franchise,’ while others are amalgamations of stories that led up to it. This is another factor that draws fans to the franchise: the movies and films all fit together somehow, with one event leading to the next and each clue building up to something bigger, better, and more exciting.

With so many films and shows and a wide variety of characters and stories, there’s truly something for everyone to enjoy. Do you want a more lighthearted, humorous film? Thor: Ragnarok (2017) is a great choice. Maybe you are in the mood for a mind-bending trip? Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) fits the bill. Are you looking for a smaller-scale team-up that feels epic yet breezy? The Marvels (2023) would be perfect. Maybe you want a coming-of-age show that is relatable and grounded on Earth? Ms. Marvel (2022) is a fantastic option, especially since it doubles as an origin story.

Characters from The Marvels
Image Credit: Marvel Studios

The list could go on and on, but the point is clear: no matter who you are, what your background is, what you’re in the mood for, or what kind of content you prefer, the MCU has a wide array of offerings that serve a broad audience. Hence the franchise’s massive worldwide appeal. Not only is the universe's content catalog incredibly vast, but it’s also growing constantly. There are several movies and shows currently in the works. When those eventually come out, still more will be in the pipeline. This continuous excitement only fosters further community growth.

History of the MCU

Content within the MCU traces its roots to comics, dating back to 1939, when Timely Comics was founded. It later became Atlas Comics and ultimately transformed into its present-day form of Marvel Comics in the 1960s.

Several classic characters came out of the early days of Marvel Comics. Captain America was arguably the first iconic comic book character to come from Marvel, which was still known as Timely Comics at the time. Many of the most popular superheroes were created when Marvel Comics came into being in the 60s, led most prominently by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. Famous characters from this era include Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Avengers, among others. These characters are still popular today, speaking to the staying power of their stories.

Stan Lee at a convention panel.
Image Credit: Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996 but recovered after merging with Toy Biz to create Marvel Enterprises. In 2005, the company changed its name again to Marvel Entertainment. Finally, in 2009, The Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion, thus paving the way for a major increase in content production.

Arguably, the most prominent figure in the creation of the MCU was producer Kevin Feige, who later became an influential executive of Marvel Studios. The interconnectedness of the comics inspired the idea of this shared cinematic universe.

Kevin Feige at a Marvel movie premier.
Image Credit: Mingle Media TV, CC BY 2.0 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe officially came into existence in 2008 with the movie Iron Man, which also kicked off the MCU's Phase system. Phase One began in 2008 and ended in 2012 with the record-breaking film The Avengers. Phase Two began with an Iron Man movie, just as its predecessor did: 2013’s Iron Man 3, and the Phase ended in 2015 with Ant-Man. Phase Three began in 2016 with Captain America: Civil War and ended in 2019 with Spider-Man: Far From Home.

The Sagas are another aspect of the Phase system: The Infinity Saga and The Multiverse Saga. The Infinity Saga, named for the titular Infinity Stones and the two groundbreaking films Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), spans Phases One, Two, and Three. 

The Multiverse Saga spans Phases Four, Five, and Six. This Saga is named for the titular Multiverse, which plays a massive role in many stories throughout these three Phases. Notably, The Multiverse Saga is the first Saga to contain television shows in addition to the movies. Phase Four is the first Phase to include television shows.

Marvel character Captain America in Avengers: Endgame
Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Phase Four began in 2021 with WandaVision and ended in 2022 with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Phase Five began in 2023 with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. As of the writing of this article, Phase Five has yet to conclude. If you want to go into even more detail, we have an in-depth guide that breaks down every movie and show in each Phase.

Why You Should Get Into the MCU

Most of the time, when you go to the movies or settle in on the couch to watch the latest streaming show, you enjoy the content you’re watching, maybe discuss it a bit with a friend, family member, or coworker, and then move on from it entirely. But what if you could treasure every movie and show you watch as a single facet of a larger story? This is precisely what the MCU allows fans to do.

The MCU has one of the world's most diverse and passionate fandoms. By becoming an MCU fan, you immediately join a community millions of people strong. Fans share a deep connection to the characters and stories within the universe, sharing in the thrill and excitement of a new entry in the greater tapestry of the MCU. Whether watching the latest movie or show, binging everything all over again, or conversing with friends in person or online, you are never alone in your love for the universe.

Fans in Marvel cosplay at a convention.
Image Credit: Comic-Con International

Regarding the content itself, the MCU has several iconic cinematic moments in its repertoire. From Iron Man walking away from an explosion to the original Avengers surveying the battle in the heart of New York City and Captain America gathering heroes throughout the universe with the iconic phrase “Avengers Assemble,” these scenes have had an impact on the history of movies forevermore, and experiencing them gives fans the ability to have a front-row seat to unique cinematic achievements.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the MCU is its ever-evolving storytelling landscape. The days of the universe solely consisting of blockbuster movies are over: now, we get the benefit of these blockbuster movies in addition to television shows, direct-to-streaming releases, and other unique formats that challenge our typical perception of how stories like this should be told. From galaxy-spanning epics to character-driven stories, the MCU has something for everyone to enjoy.

Actress Brie Larson poses for a selfie with a Captain Marvel cosplayer at a movie premiere.
Image Credit: Marvel Studios

The MCU has grown beyond just a single aspect of pop culture; it’s a mainstay. Characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow are cultural icons recognized even by people who haven’t seen a single Marvel movie. You can hear phrases from the films in daily conversation and memes from the movies and shows on social media feeds are commonplace. Familiarizing yourself with the MCU means that you can participate in various discussions and understand references encountered in person and online. Becoming a fan of this universe is more than just consuming content; it allows you to interact with impactful stories that shape our collective imagination.

Things to Watch Out For

As with anything new, there are a couple of downsides in the sea of upsides. The major problem to watch out for as a newcomer to the MCU, and the situation that tends to hold people back from diving in more than any other, is that knowing where to start or where to go next can be very confusing.

There isn’t a right or wrong way to approach your first foray into the universe, which can be overwhelming to some. With many paths to choose from, charting your own course through dozens of movies and shows can be challenging, and it can be easier just to give up entirely. But this article is here to prevent just that!

Where to Start

The Basics

What is the MCU?

To begin with, you need to have a solid idea of what the MCU is. Put simply, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an interconnected movie and television universe based on the characters and broad stories of the Marvel comics.

Collage of Marvel Cinematic Universe characters.
Image Credit: Marvel Studios

The Phase System

As the history section describes, the MCU has an organizational system based on phases. Currently, there are six Phases, broken up into two Sagas of three Phases. Phases One, Two, and Three comprise The Infinity Saga, and Phases Four, Five, and Six comprise The Multiverse Saga. The Phase system will be your best guide if you want to watch the movies and shows in chronological/release order.

Categories of Movies and Shows

There are several categories of movies and shows, none official, and all solely based on patterns. Origin stories describe movies or shows where the audience witnesses how the superhero gets their powers. Some examples of MCU origin stories are Captain Marvel (2019), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Black Panther (2018), and Ms. Marvel (2022).

Captain America: The First Avenger title card from Disney+
Image Credit: Disney+

Character trilogies or series describe three or more movies or a television series about a particular character. Some examples of MCU character trilogies/series are the Iron Man trilogy (2008, 2010, 2013), the Captain Marvel duology (2019, 2023), the Thor series (2011, 2013, 2017, 2022), and Hawkeye (2021).

Hawkeye title card from Disney+
Image Credit: Disney+

Team-up movies or series describe a movie, series of movies, or television series that focuses on a group of characters. Some examples of MCU team-up movies/series are the Avengers series (2012, 2015, 2018, 2019), the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy (2014, 2017, 2023), Eternals (2021), and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021).

Guardians of the Galaxy title card from Disney+
Image Credit: Disney+

By understanding the patterns and categories of content in the MCU, your next watch will be easier to determine.

The Timeline

One of the major commonalities between the MCU and Star Wars is that the order in which content comes out doesn't necessarily reflect the order of events in the universe. The MCU timeline is complex due to the sheer amount of content within the universe. However, there are some great online resources to help you if you’re interested in timeline order. The best and most official resource is the MCU timeline within the Disney+ interface.

The Multiverse

An aspect of the MCU that puts a slight complication on determining the timeline placement of certain movies and shows is the introduction of the Multiverse. There is no simple way to describe the Multiverse, but put as simply as possible: the Multiverse is the collection of all existing realities; different realities, residing on their own timeline, exist for every possible outcome of an event.

Depiction of the Multiverse.
Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Some more casual fans complain that the Multiverse adds insurmountable complexity to the stories, especially around Phase Four and beyond. But, as complex as this concept is, it doesn’t impact the practicalities of watching the movies and shows. Timeline order is constructed with these considerations but will, of course, never be perfect. 

However, if you go into these movies and shows expecting some wacky reality changes or multiversal travel, you can have fun with the quirks of the Multiverse. In fact, its existence actually opens up a lot of fun possibilities in terms of stories and character development.

Practical Considerations

It’s daunting as a new fan initially to see all the action figures and collectibles that exist based around the MCU. But it’s important to note that the only monetary requirement to be a fan is the purchase of movies and shows. The most cost-effective way to do this is to get a Disney+ subscription and watch all the Marvel content that way. Then, you can go to a movie theater for a brand new movie to watch it for the first time with a crowd!

Collection of Marvel Cinematic Universe characters.
Image Credit: Marvel Studios

Optional expenses include collectibles, memorabilia, and fan conventions. This article won’t go into depth on this subject. Still, the critical point about these expenses is that they are optional. You aren’t any less of a fan just because you don’t own hundreds of Funko Pops or even a single tangible Marvel item. Do what works for you and your budget; true fandom comes from your love of the universe, not how much you spend on collectibles for your shelves.

What to Watch First?

With the plethora of content to choose from in the MCU catalog, the question likely on your mind right now is: what should I start with? There are a few strategies to choose from. The two most popular strategies are release order and timeline order. Neither is better than the other; it’s simply a matter of personal preference. This is very much like the timeless debate of release order vs. timeline order in Star Wars: people will have strong opinions about it. You’ll likely hear good arguments from both sides, but it’s up to you to choose which works best for you.

Two other methods are slightly less common than the two strategies mentioned above. The first is by Phase. This is similar to release order, but you can choose which Phase to start with in this method. You may want to start with Phase Four, then backtrack to Phase Two. It’s entirely up to you!

Disney+ Marvel menu organized into phases
Image Credit: Disney+

The second less common method is by interest. If you don’t like being strictly regimented with your content consumption, this strategy might be best for you. Choosing what to watch by interest can be as simple or complex as you make it: you could choose to watch all of the Captain America movies because you like the actor Chris Evans. Maybe you read Avengers comics as a kid, so you decide to start with just the Avengers series of movies. There are endless possibilities with this incredibly flexible and fun option.

The most important thing is to pick a strategy and stick with it. Be confident in your choice, make a plan, and sit back and enjoy the journey.

Additional Resources

This article will serve you well as you dip your toes into the vast waters of MCU content as a newcomer to the franchise. But you may want to take a full, deep dive into the topic, and that’s wonderful! Here are some recommendations for places to start:

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve probably heard of Wookieepedia, the Star Wars wiki full of knowledge ranging from beginner to obscure to downright bizarre. Luckily for fans, the MCU has its own equivalent of this lovely tome of information! It’s just as good as the Wook, minus the fun name: the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki is your best bet for all questions relating to movies, shows, timelines, characters, factions, superpowers, and so on.

Marvel Website
Image Credit: Marvel

Marvel’s website also has handy resources for fans. You can find official news and release schedules on the site, which has one page dedicated to movies and another to television. As mentioned earlier, Disney+ has a fantastic official MCU timeline within the streaming service. You can access it by entering the Marvel section and then scrolling until you find a subsection called “MCU Complete Timeline.”

Lastly, if you’re looking for a community of passionate fans just like you to take this journey with, be sure to join Youtini’s Discord server. There, you can find lively discussions about all kinds of topics, including the MCU. And if you’d like to participate in a community dedicated to mindful exploration of Star Wars, nerd culture, and sports, consider joining The Younited to join in on the fun.