Warning: This post contains spoilers for all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
The April 26 release of Avengers: Endgame took us on a trip down memory lane of the eleven years since Iron Man set the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in motion. But time travel—between Endgame’s mechanisms, Ant-Man’s use of the Quantum Realm and the powers of the Infinity Stones—makes the chronology of the 22 films in the MCU more than a bit complicated.
Dozens of Marvel superheroes have tried to keep powerful the powerful stones out of the hands of the bad guys. But these Infinity Stones are more than just MacGuffins in the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline. When combined, these six powerful gems—the Space Stone, the Mind Stone, the Reality Stone, the Power Stone and the Soul Stone—can be wielded to destroy half the universe. That’s exactly what Thanos, the big bad villain of the MCU, did at the end of last summer’s Avengers: Infinity War.
If you’re a little fuzzy on where our heroes encountered these gems, who those heroes were and where their biggest battles fell in the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline, we’ve got you covered. We’ve recapped every movie, dated every important event and highlighted all the Infinity Stones. (Marvel hasn’t always been super specific about the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline, so we did our best to estimate when everything took place.)
For the sake of brevity, we’ve left a lot of minor characters who don’t factor into the Avengers: Infinity War plot. (Unfortunately, a lot of those minor characters happen to be female love interests with almost nothing to do—like Peggy, Jane and Pepper. Needless to say, we’re thankful for the release of Captain Marvel last month, and Black Widow’s solo movie can’t come soon enough.) We’ve also skipped over movie plot points that don’t affect the Infinity War and Endgame stories. But perhaps this recap will inspire you to dedicate an entire week of your life (literally) to re-watching the films.
MCU Timeline: 1940s
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline officially beings in the 1940s when scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans if he were 5’4″ and didn’t have a gym membership) gets rejected by the army. So he volunteers for a dangerous military experiment that turns him into a tall, ridiculously muscular soldier (actual Chris Evans). Scientist Howard Stark (Iron Man’s dad) gives Cap a shield made of a powerful metal called Vibranium—which Stark probably stole from Wakanda. Pretty messed up.
Cap and his childhood friend Bucky Barnes fight HYDRA, a science-focused wing of the Nazi Party. Bucky dies—or does he?—and Cap crash-lands a plane into the snow with the powerful blue orb that HYDRA uses to power its weapons onboard. (Spoiler alert: This is the Tesseract with the Space Stone inside. The Space Stone can transport people across space.)
In 2012, scientists discover Captain America frozen but still alive because…science.
Important Post-Credits Scene: Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of a covert American military operation called S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) recruits Steve to join a team of superheroes called the Avengers Initiative.
MCU Timeline: 1990s
Captain Marvel (2019)
Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is a human with supernatural powers who has forgotten all the details of her life on Earth. She lives among an alien race called the Kree and fights for their elite military force against a shape-shifting group of aliens called the Skrulls. Carol is captured by the Skrulls, who tap into her memories and reveal to her that she once had a life on Earth as a fighter pilot.
Carol escapes the Skrulls and crash-lands on earth where she meets Nick Fury. Together, they discover that Carol’s old mentor, a Kree alien named Mar-Vell (Annette Bening) masquerading as a human scientist, discovered that the Kree were murdering innocent Skrulls. She attempted to harness the power of the Tesseract at a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility to create an engine that could propel a ship at light speed. She planned to fly to Skrulls to a new home far away from the Kree.
Carol retrieves the Tesseract for S.H.I.E.L.D., fights off her former Kree allies and protects earth from a Kree attack. She gives Fury a tricked-out pager to call her if there’s an emergency on earth. She then promises to help the Skrulls find a new home.
Important Post-Credits Scenes: If you haven’t been watching these movies in the order they were released, this is where things get complicated. Though Captain Marvel takes place in the 1990s, the post-credits scene is set in 2018 when Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place. As you will see later, a big bad named Thanos makes half of all life disappear in the year 2018. Fury activated the pager that Carol gave him before he died during Thanos’ attack. The Avengers find it and discuss who might be on the other side in the post-credits scene for Captain Marvel. Then Captain Marvel arrives in the Avengers headquarters.
MCU Timeline: 2005-2011
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The U.S. military tries to revive the Super Soldier program that produced Captain America in the 1940s. Scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, for now) agrees to the series of experiments, probably assuming he’d end up looking like Chris Evans. Instead, he turns into a big, green monster every time he gets angry. Tough break.
MCU Timeline: 2010
Iron Man (2008)
Howard Stark’s cocky son Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has made billions building high-tech weapons. He has no moral qualms about this until terrorists kidnap him using said weapons. Tony builds a gigantic metal suit to escape captivity.
Tony returns home a sort-of changed man. He realizes he’s in love with his personal assistant who he treats sort of terribly, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). And he swears he won’t build weapons anymore, except for the Iron Man suit, which only he can control. A billionaire playboy with abandonment issues is definitely more qualified than the U.S. government to decide who to kill.
Post-Credits Scene: Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Tony about the Avengers.
MCU Timeline: 2011
Iron Man 2 (2010)
This movie is mostly just Mickey Rourke mumbling in an inscrutable accent while a white bird perches on his shoulder. (Seriously.) But the sequel does introduce Don Cheadle as Iron Man’s sidekick War Machine and Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow.
Important Post-Credits Scene: S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) drives up to a crater in New Mexico and sees Thor’s hammer in the center.
MCU Timeline: 2011
Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the king of Asgard, banishes his son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to Earth because he thinks Thor is arrogant. Iron Man already occupies the haughty hero slot on the Avengers team so Thor is going to have to undergo a personality transplant before he can join the team.
Thor meets Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who only uses arrows because everyone has to have a gimmick. Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) tries to have Thor killed but fails. Loki commits suicide—or does he?
Important Post-Credits Scene: Nick Fury explains to a scientist that S.H.I.E.L.D. has recovered the Tesseract from Captain America’s plane.
MCU Timeline: 2012 (Shortly after Captain America wakes up.)
The Avengers (2012)
Loki survived falling through a wormhole for unexplained reasons. An evil, faceless alien named Thanos lends Loki a staff that contains the Mind Stone. The stone allows Loki to control others’ minds. It’s strange that Thanos would lend Loki this extremely valuable stone considering Loki’s short resume includes “failed to murder brother,” but oh well.
Loki steals the Tesseract (with the Space Stone inside) and kills Agent Coulson—or does he? Agent Coulson will later be resurrected in the spin-off TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but for now he’s dead so the superheroes have someone to avenge.
Loki uses the Tesseract to open a portal between Earth and space and conjures an alien army and a giant space snake to attack New York City in is now known as the Battle of New York. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo) join forces to fight Loki. But the government doesn’t have a ton of confidence in the Avengers and decide to nuke New York. (A bit extreme, yes, but governments in the Marvel universe can never be trusted.)
The Avengers win by redirecting the nuke at the alien ship. Once the alien ship blows up all the aliens on earth die because…space science. Thor takes Loki and the Tesseract back to Asgard.
Important Post-Credits Scene: We see Thanos for the first time. Dun dun dun.
MCU Timeline: 2012 (Shortly after the Battle of New York.)
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Villain Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) kidnaps the president. Iron Man stops him. Killian then kidnaps Pepper and injects her with a serum that may kill her—or may give her super powers. This plan turns out to be as dumb as it sounds: Pepper gets superpowers and then kills Killian. Iron Man is there, too.
MCU Timeline: 2013
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Some aliens try to use Aether, a floaty red substance, to turn all matter into dark matter because they’re evil and therefore must to evil things. We learn Aether is actually a manifestation of the Reality Stone. Loki decides he’s a good guy now and helps Thor defeat the bad guys. Loki dies, again—or does he?
Important Post-Credit Scene: Thor can’t keep the Reality Stone in Asgard because The Space Stone (Tesseract) is already there. You might as well be asking Thanos to come destroy your planet. Thor’s friends bring the Reality Stone to the Collector (Benicio del Toro). Thor’s friends seem really hesitant to leave such a powerful object with the Collector, which is reasonable because the guy has Howard the Duck trapped in a cage in his office.
MCU Timeline: 2014
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
This one has a lot of twists, so prepare yourself. Nick Fury tells Captain America that S.H.I.E.L.D. is building a worldwide surveillance system that can kill anybody. Cap rightly points out that this sounds kind of fascist. Their political argument is rudely interrupted by HYDRA agents who have infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. (Gasp! Seriously, you cannot trust the government.) A HYDRA assassin called the Winter Soldier kills Nick Fury—or does he?
Cap and Black Widow go on the run, but they can’t stay hidden for long because Captain America is very handsome and very recognizable. They track down the Winter Soldier only to discover that he is Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes, but brainwashed. (Gasp!)
Cap and Black Widow team up with a war vet named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who conveniently knows how to fly an army-grade winged jetpack. They find out Nick Fury faked his own death. (Gasp!) Together they publish all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets on the internet. Bucky saves Cap during the ensuing fight proving himself to be good again. The bromance lives, but S.H.I.E.L.D. disbands.
Important Post-Credits Scenes: A HYDRA scientist reveals that he has created two new mutants using the Mind Stone. We meet Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver—the only X-Men Disney could get the rights to at the time.
MCU Timeline: 2014
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Marvel elevates Chris Pratt—the schlubby dude from Parks and Recreation—to sex symbol status. He plays Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star Lord, an orphaned thief obsessed with 70s music. Peter steals a not-very-well-guarded Infinity Stone called the Power Stone. Bad guy Thanos sends one of his adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana in green body paint) to take the stone from Peter. Thanos is extremely lazy and never gets up from his throne for the entire movie.
Peter and Gamora eventually join forces with other lovable misfits—trisyllabic tree Groot (Vin Diesel), machine-gun wielding raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and muscular blue alien Drax (Dave Bautista)—to prove that Marvel can make money on even the weirdest and most obscure comic book characters. They protect the stone from Thanos and his minions, including Gamora’s half sister Nebula. Groot sacrifices himself to save the others and dies—or does he?
Important Post-Credits Scene: Groot doesn’t die. He’s reborn as a cute baby tree. The Guardians hand over the stone to Nova Corps, the Space Police.
MCU Timeline: 2014
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Peter finds out that his father is a planet named Ego (Kurt Russell), which seems cool for awhile until Ego reveals he killed Peter’s mom. The Guardians and an empath named Mantis (Pom Klementieff) defeat Ego. At one point, Peter turns into a giant Pac-Man because he’s kooky like that. Disney sells a lot of Baby Groot toys.
MCU Timeline: 2015
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The Avengers did not assemble when a terrorist kidnapped the president. They did not assemble when a sleeper Nazi organization infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. But they do assemble to go on a road trip to the ludicrously named country of Sokovia, where Loki’s scepter might be. Sure.
Tony Stark and Bruce Banner use the Mind Stone to create an artificially intelligent being called Ultron and task him with keeping peace on earth. Ultron predictably turns homicidal. Ultron recruits Quicksilver—who is super fast—and Scarlett Witch—who has vague, ever-changing mind control and levitating powers. But the mutants later abandon Ultron and join the Avengers.
The Avengers, undeterred by how badly the Ultron experiment went, create a new superhero using the Mind Stone and Tony’s A.I. assistant Jarvis. They name him Vision, and he has even vaguer powers than Scarlett Witch. He’s maybe invincible? And also a ghost?
Ultron develops an extremely convoluted plan to turn Sokovia into a meteor that will crash into earth. Together the Avengers destroy Ultron but also kill almost everyone in Sokovia. Quicksilver actually dies. Oh, also Hulk and Black Widow are in love now, which is outrageous. Cap and Black Widow forever.
Important Post-Credits Scene: Thanos is finally fed up with his minions failing to attain the Infinity Stones. He puts on a golden glove called the Infinity Gauntlet that can hold each powerful gem and says “Fine, I’ll do it.” This line doesn’t totally make sense since Ultron was neither a minion of Thanos nor trying to get an Infinity Stone, but don’t overthink it.
MCU Timeline: 2015
Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) are scared that their old colleague Darren Cross is going to sell shrinking technology to bad guys. For sentimental but somewhat sexist reasons, Hank won’t let Hope fight this bad guy. So they recruit a random thief they don’t know named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to wear the Ant-Man suit and fight Cross.
Important Post-Credits Scene: Hank offers Hope her own superhero suit (finally!). She will don the suit for Ant-Man 2.
MCU Timeline: 2016
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Iron Man tries to get the rest of the Avengers to agree to U.N. oversight because they’ve accidentally killed hundreds (thousands?) of civilians in the last two Avengers movies. Captain America says no because he’s watched the other Avengers films and knows you can’t trust the government. Everyone takes sides except Thor and Hulk who are off on a space road trip (more on that later).
A terrorist murders the King of Wakanda, T’Chaka, and frames Bucky. T’Chaka’s son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther) goes after Bucky, but Cap tries to protect his old friend. Iron Man recruits Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to his side and hits on Peter’s Aunt May, who is hot now. All the superheroes fight in an evacuated airport and nobody dies because that would make these heroes anti-heroes.
Iron Man realizes Bucky was set up. He and Cap are about to reconcile when Iron Man finds out brainwashed Bucky killed his parents. Cap, Bucky and Iron Man fight each other and let the bad guy get away. Black Panther, the only competent superhero left, arrests the terrorist. The Avengers disband.
Important Post-Credits Scene: Black Panther brings Bucky to Wakanda. Wakandan scientists freeze Bucky until they can figure out how to fix his brain.
MCU Timeline: 2016 (One week after the death of T’Chaka.)
Black Panther (2018)
After the death of his father, T’Challa becomes the King of Wakanda, a secretive and technologically advanced African nation. T’Challa’s long-lost cousin Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) challenges T’Challa for the throne and throws him off the side of a waterfall. T’Challa dies—or does he?
Killmonger becomes the Black Panther after he drinks a special plant that also allows him to visit his ancestors in another realm. (Fans theorize this plant could be the Soul Stone.) He plans to share Wakanda’s technology and weapons with oppressed people, which is actually a legitimate and surprisingly nuanced political stance for a Marvel villain.
T’Challa survives the fall. His genius sister Shuri (Letita Wright), stealth ex-girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and badass head of his armed forces Okoye (Danai Gurira) help him defeat Killmonger. T’Challa, the only person in the modern era to be swayed by another’s political opinions, decides to open up Wakanda to the rest of the world—and, based on the Infinity War trailer, a possible attack by Thanos.
Important post-credits scene: Shuri greets a seemingly recovered Bucky Barnes in Wakanda.
MCU Timeline: 2016 (Two months after Civil War. But also maybe 2020. It’s confusing.)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
After the events of Civil War, Peter Parker really wants to become an official member of the Avengers. In hopes of winning a spot on the super squad, he fights a villain called the Vulture (Michael Keaton) who is selling weapons made out of alien debris to bad guys.
Iron Man scolds Peter for recklessly fighting the Vulture, but then later rewards him for fighting Vulture by offering him a spot on the Avengers. (Iron Man need to work on his disciplinary skills before he becomes a dad.) Peter turns him down to concentrate on high school because he’s 15 years old and probably shouldn’t be fighting supervillains. (Except obviously he’s going to fight Thanos, a supervillain.)
MCU Timeline: 2016-2017
Doctor Strange (2016)
Surgeon Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) hurts his hands in a car accident and ventures to the mystical city of Kamar-Taj to find a cure. He trains under the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Wong (Benedict Wong) to jump through holes in space. Doctor Strange saves the world using the Eye of Agomoto, which contains the Time Stone and can turn time backward or forward. The Ancient One dies, but she was an extremely problematic character so nobody is that sad about it.
MCU Timeline: 2017
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Thor, the bleak god who shouts his lines in faux-Shakespearean dialect, is funny now.
Odin tells Thor and Loki that their evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) is en route to Asgard to unleash the apocalypse and then immediately dies. Hela destroys Thor’s hammer, which is the space-god equivalent of setting fire to your little brother’s security blanket.
Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a former Asgardian, captures Thor and sells him into slavery as a space gladiator. Luckily, Thor’s first opponent is his old coworker Hulk. Valkyrie, Hulk, Loki and Thor team up to evacuate and destroy Asgard before Hela can unleash the apocalypse. Thor loses an eye, and Loki steals the Tesseract (containing the Space Stone) from the Asgardian treasure room because that guy can never decide whether he’s good or bad.
Important post-credits scene: A big ship overtakes Thor’s getaway ship. Presumably Thanos located the Tesseract on Thor and Loki’s ship and is going to raid it.
MCU Timeline: 2018
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Scott Lang (a.k.a. Ant-Man) is under house arrest after the events of Civil War but escapes in order to help Hope Pym (now operating as superhero The Wasp) rescue her mother Janet from the Quantum Realm, a scary subatomic place where she’s been stuck for literal decades. Hope’s father Hank travels to the Quantum Realm where he finds Janet, who inexplicably has conjured up clothes, food, makeup, possibly a toilet while living in a void for literal years. Luckily she hasn’t gone insane.
In a post-credits scene Scott enters the Quantum Realm for research purposes, but while he is there, Hope, Hank and Janet all disintegrate in Thanos’ culling (more on that below). Hopefully one of the Avengers remembers that Ant-Man exists in the next film and saves him.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Thanos wants to murder half of all people in the universe because of overpopulation. What an environmentally conscious baddie! To do so, he needs to acquire all six Infinity Stones, which, when wielded together, will allow him to control all life in the universe. Considering that he’s been eyeing these stones for almost a decade and acquired none, he is able to snag all six surprisingly quickly, though at a runtime of 2 hours and 40 minutes, it may not feel that way for the audience.
Thanos’ basic strategy is threaten to kill one superhero so another superhero will give in an hand him an Infinity Stone with mostly positive results. He successfully gains the Space Stone from Loki by threatening his brother, Thor. He messes with Star-Lord by forcing him to shoot Gamora to save the Soul Stone—though he uses the Reality Stone to show Star-Lord that was all an illusion. And he forces Wanda to destroy the Mind Stone powering Vision, but then turns back time and takes it anyway.
The Avengers are too noble to kill each other in order to save the universe—which is too bad because Thanos destroys half of all life in the universe once he has all six stones. So ends the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just kidding: They have another decade of movies planned.
MCU Timeline: 2018-2023
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Avengers: Endgame opens at the same moment Infinity War ends, as Hawkeye, living with his wife, children and blissfully retired from the Avengers squad, realizes that his family has disappeared (because of Thanos). But early on in the film, Thor kills Thanos, who has revealed the Infinity Stones are all gone.
The movie picks up five years later in 2023, and the surviving heroes are spread across the world and galaxies. Captain Marvel has a new haircut, Captain America is running group therapy in New York, Black Widow is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Things have changed. But then Scott Lang wakes up and sets a new plan in motion, and the heroes finally come back together to travel through space and time in the hopes of saving the 50 percent of life that they’ve lost.
Throughout the mission, members of the squad travel to different moments in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones, bring them back to the present (2023) and use them to snap everyone back into existence.
Of course, they encounter some serious problems along the way. But Endgame isn’t the end for the MCU, and we have a number of upcoming movies to still look forward to.