The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been going strong for 18 films now, so it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it is in scope. Starting with Robert Downey Jr.’s first AC/DC-fueled turn as Iron Man back in 2008, the MCU has expertly translated the crossover-happy tapestry of its many comic books into an interconnected hit parade of successful solo and group franchises. Characters pop in and out of each other’s movies for cameos or full-fledged team-ups (think Hulk hijacking scenes in Thor: Ragnarok), all in service of pushing forward one grand, overarching narrative. That narrative has finally coalesced into Infinity War, the first of two climactic Avengers films spread across this year and 2019, wrapping up the third phase of the MCU.
At 160 minutes and with 76 main characters, Infinity War is a whole lot of movie. It also marks the end of this current era. Because a lot of the original actors are either aging out of their roles or eager to move on—looking squarely in your direction, Chris Evans—their fate is more uncertain than ever. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has further stoked speculation of high-ranking casualties by calling the still-untitled 2019 Avengers movie a “finale” of sorts, with a very different MCU to be born out of it.
While this ambitious endgame event will definitely draw out every ink-stained comics lover this weekend, there’s no reason to be intimidated just because you haven’t seen all the previous movies in the series. Here’s everything casual fans need to know before attempting to wrap their heads around Avengers: Infinity War.
1) Thanos’s Whole Deal
Archvillain Thanos, the don dada of the MCU saga, has largely loomed in the background for most of the previous films, projecting purple-tinted menace. Played by Josh Brolin, he is an oversize, genetically engineered superhuman who seems addicted to sitting down. Thanos is obsessed with the physical embodiment of Death, which will factor into the plot of Infinity War, and he has several backup villains who form a crew called the Black Order. As powerful as Thanos is already, he will become unstoppable and god-like if he comes to fill his golden glove (the Infinity Gauntlet) with the six Infinity Stones.
2) Infinity Stones, and Those Who Love Them
These weird rocks will probably be the dealbreaker for some fans looking to learn just enough to enough to enjoy a movie, so buckle up. The Infinity Stones are six indescribably powerful objects of dubious geological origin, each named after various elements in the universe. There’s the Space stone, the Mind pebble, the Reality rock, the Power one, Soul boulder, and Time feldspar. They come in many forms–including red goo and a blue box–and are scattered throughout the universe. Several Avenger-adjacent folks have got their superhands on them at certain points, as part of the overall effort to keep them away from Thanos, who wants them for nefarious reasons. The only stone that has not been glimpsed thus far in the MCU is the Soul stone.
3) A Short Catch-Up in All That’s Come Before
Below is a short list of every MCU film, with some important details from each.
- Iron Man (2008) The start of it all. Imagine how different your life would be if it hadn’t been a hit.
- The Incredible Hulk (2008) A one-off, starring Edward Norton who would later be replaced by Mark Ruffalo, probably because Norton was too chill to work with. This one is notable for Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark aka Iron Man briefly showing up and hinting at forming a team.
- Iron Man 2 (2010) A disappointing sequel, notable for introducing Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow.
- Thor (2011) Here is where we first meet Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the trickster brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and a guy who bounces from good to bad with head-spinning frequency. Heimdall (Idris Elba), a fellow traveler of Thor’s, is introduced here as well and pops up in several movies, including Infinity War.
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) Laying the last bit of groundwork to ramp up to The Avengers, this film introduces Cap’s (Chris Evans) pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who dies in combat but becomes important later. This film is also where we see our first Infinity Stone, the Space one, in the form of a glowing blue cube called the Tesseract.
- The Avengers (2012) In addition to the Tesseract, which serves as the world-ender weapon of the film, here we meet the Mind stone, which is lodged in Loki’s scepter. This movie also marks the first appearance by Thanos, in a post-credits stinger scene.
- Iron Man 3 (2013) An enjoyable sequel that won back fans jaded by the lackluster Iron Man 2.
- Thor: The Dark World (2013) Largely considered inessential, this film reveals the Reality stone in the form of red goo, which is eventually given to Benecio del Toro’s Collector, who presumably still has it.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) One interesting thing about the MCU is that some individual films try out different genres within the overall genre of Superhero Movie. This one’s a spy thriller. It introduces the character Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and marks the return of Bucky, resurrected as a super assassin known as Winter Soldier.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) In addition to properly introducing Thanos and the Power stone, this film proved that even the lesser known characters in the Marvel world–ahoy, Groot!–could be huge crowd-pleasers in the right hands. Also, other characters reveal their connections to Thanos: Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) were adopted by him as kids before going their separate ways, while Thanos destroyed Drax’s (Dave Bautista) family.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) A critical let-down, this film was nonetheless eventful, introducing Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), the latter of whom is created by the Infinity stone from Loki’s scepter and an Iron Man suit. An entire building gets wrecked in the chaos at the end of the movie, with civilian casualties, which will have an impact on the future of the Avengers.
- Ant-Man (2015) MCU’s heist movie, a fun and breezy diversion away from the main story.
- Captain America: Civil War (2016) After the damage done in Age of Ultron, the government establishes the Sokovia Accords to keep the Avengers under U.N. oversight. Iron Man is into the idea, while Captain America is not. Meanwhile, T’Challa a/k/a Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is introduced when his father is killed by the Winter Soldier, who is under mind control. This movie also rescues Spider-Man (Tom Holland) from the un-amazing Andrew Garfield movies and inserts him into the MCU.
- Doctor Strange (2016) A visually trippy side plot, this origin story introduces the Time stone, which ends up safely (???) locked in a magical compound.
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) Not much occurs here that advances the plot, but it’s a wild, Kurt Russell-assisted ride.
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) A successful solo outing, largely because it was unencumbered by any origin story baggage and planted the young hero firmly back in high school.
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017) The third Thor is practically a straight-up comedy, helmed as it was by the hilarious New Zealand writer-director-producer-actor Taikka Waititi. Here we meet Tessa Thompson’s rambunctious warrior Valkyrie, who will pop up in Infinity War, along with swaggering Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett characters, who will not.
- Black Panther (2018) The year’s biggest hit by a mile, a remarkable achievement in filmmaking–for the superhero realm or otherwise. Black Panther is unique in the MCU in that it’s a self-contained story largely set in its own world, the hidden African nation of Wakanda. This film introduces several characters who will factor into Infinity War, including engineering genius Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is Black Panther’s sister, and the formidable warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira).
- Here are the as-yet-unreleased Phase 3 films: Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), Captain Marvel (2019), and Untitled Avengers Film (2019)
4) Where Last We Left Everyone
At the end of Civil War, Captain America and Bucky beat Iron Man, meaning the Avengers team will start the new film still divided. Cap went on the run, while Tony stayed behind. It will be interesting to see which of the other Avengers is loyal to whom.
Scarlet Witch and Vision seemed headed toward some kind of mystic romance, which makes sense because they are both linked by the Mind stone, which is stuck inside Vision’s head and also gave Scarlet Witch her powers.
Peter Parker, a/k/a Spider-Man, always wanted to be an Avenger, but ended his solo debut declining Tony Stark’s invitation to join the group. The chances that he will remain focused on his own non-Avengers business throughout Infinity War are slim.
The Guardians of the Galaxy are looking for their next space adventure, while mourning the death of Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) father, Yondu (Michael Rooker).
Thor (minus an eye), Hulk, Heindall, and Loki are all on a ship together with the remaining population of Thor’s home-planet Asgaard, and in a post-credits scene, it was revealed that their spacecraft was surrounded by Thanos’s ship.
5) How Black Panther and Wakanda Fits into All This
Reportedly, one of the Infinity Stones is hidden in Wakanda, a perfect excuse for Thanos and his Black Order to come through and have some kind of super battle with the Wakandan warriors. Also, Black Panther has been harboring Bucky since the end of Civil War, which was revealed when Bucky woke up during a post-credits scene in Black Panther.
So now you’re pretty much all caught up! If even half of this refresher course makes sense, then following Infinity War should be a breeze.