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5 Things casual Marvel fans should know before “Avengers: Endgame”

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a dense tapestry of factoids. But you don’t need to watch 21 movies to wrap your head around it all.

5 Things casual Marvel fans should know before “Avengers: Endgame”
(Left to right) Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor. [Photos: courtesy of Marvel Studios]

Scientists have done extensive testing and it turns out there’s no known cure for FOMO.

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The only options for those afflicted by the desire to feel included in everything is to either wait out each ultra-event moment until it passes or crowbar your way in. If the event passing you by happens to be an intimidatingly interconnected Marvel movie, getting in is easier than you might think.

Avengers: Endgame is the culmination of 20 movies’ worth of story buildup over the course of 11 years, and it’s said to be the final chapter for the original Avengers team. It’s got a sprawling cast, a meteor-dense mythology, and an almost unconscionable three-hour runtime. And unlike other Marvel movies such as Black Panther or Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’s not a film designed for casual Marvel fans to just jump into.

Despite all those impediments, it’s still possible for people who have only seen, like, Doctor Strange and Thor 2 to get in on the ground floor of all the conversation and meme-making to come this weekend. Here are the five things you need to know to prepare for the Endgame.

1) Thanos’s whole deal

Archvillain Thanos, the don dada of the MCU saga, once largely loomed in the background, projecting purple-tinted menace, before taking center stage in Infinity War. Played by Josh Brolin, he is an oversize alien from the planet Titan who seems to have recovered from an addiction to sitting down. Thanos is obsessed with the physical embodiment of Death, and the idea of wiping out half of Earth’s population. By the end of Infinity War, he had actually succeeded in his apocalyptic goal, because he had been able to fill the knuckles of his golden glove (the Infinity Gauntlet) with the six Infinity Stones.

2) Infinity Stones and those who covet them

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 got their superhands on them at certain points, as part of the overall effort to keep them away from Thanos, who wanted them for nefarious reasons. It’s not necessarily a spoiler to mention that it will be helpful in getting through Endgame to know where each of these stones came from…

Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man [Photo: courtesy of Marvel Studios]

3) A short catch-up in all that’s come before

Below is a short recap of every MCU film, with some important details, including the provenance of each Infinity Stone. The timing of these films is meticulously plotted out years in advance and each is announced as part of a different “phase.” Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige recently described Avengers: Endgame as the penultimate film in Phase 3, meaning something will likely happen in July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home that pushes the whole franchise forward.

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PHASE 1

  • 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.
  • 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. This stone had been used to power weapons for the villainous organization Hydra, until Captain America defeats its leader, Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), and the stone is put into government custody.
  • 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. (For an entire separate rant on post-credit stinger scenes in Marvel movies, see here.)
Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. [Photo: courtesy of Marvel Studios]

PHASE 2

  • 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 Benicio del Toro’s Collector.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) One interesting thing about the MCU is that some individual films try out different genres within the broader 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. (Told you he’d become important later!)
  • 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. This lineage becomes more important in Infinity War.
  • 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 Mind stone from Loki’s scepter and an Iron Man suit. (Don’t worry about how dumb that sounds, it’s fine.) An entire building is wrecked in the final battle and there are civilian casualties–a sad outcome that has 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.
Paul Bettany as Vision. [Photo: courtesy of Marvel Studios]

PHASE 3

  • Captain America: Civil War (2016) After the damage done in Age of Ultron, the government establishes the Sokovia Accords to keep the Avengers under UN oversight. Iron Man is into the idea, while Captain America is not. Meanwhile, T’Challa aka 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 Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange ends up safely (???) locking in a magical compound.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) Not much occurs here that advances the overall plot, but it’s a wild, Kurt Russell-assisted ride and worth seeing if you enjoyed the first film.
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) A successful solo outing, largely because it’s unencumbered by any origin story baggage, and plants the young hero firmly back in high school.
  • Thor: Ragnarok (2017) The third Thor is a straight-up comedy, helmed by the hilarious New Zealand writer-director-producer-actor Taikka Waititi. Here we meet Tessa Thompson’s rambunctious warrior Valkyrie, who pops up in Infinity War, along with swaggering Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett characters, who do not. We also see the return of the Tesseract, which Loki quietly steals before his and Thor’s home planet Asgard is destroyed.
  • Black Panther (2018) Black Panther is a rare self-contained MCU story, largely set in its own world, the hidden African nation of Wakanda. This film introduces several characters who factor into Infinity War and thus Endgame, including engineering genius Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is Black Panther’s sister, and the formidable warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira). 
  • Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Thanos runs the table from the beginning, immediately snatching the Tesseract from Loki before murdering him. If you don’t like the idea of Thanos murdering your faves, this is not the movie for you. Thanos later kills his adopted daughter Gamora in order to get the Soul Stone back from Red Skull, who had been guarding it on another planet and who tells Thanos that he must sacrifice something he loves (i.e., Gamora) in order to get it. (Got it?) Thanos’s quest to get the Mind Stone leads him to crush Vision’s head, killing him. Eventually, Thanos succeeds in wiping out half of Earth with one instantly iconic snap of his fingers.
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) A fun sequel, only relevant here because a mid-credits scene reveals that, while Ant-Man survived the snap, he had just entered the Subatomic Realm at the time (don’t ask) and everyone involved in helping him get out did not survive the snap.
  • Captain Marvel (2019) An alien scientist named Mar-Vell (played by Annette Bening) is using the Tesseract to create an incredibly powerful engine when things go foul. Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) escapes with the Tesseract and brings it to a young-ish Nick Fury (this movie is set in the ’90s) before the Tesseract ends up giving her the kind of superpowers one would expect by someone eventually called Captain Marvel (superhuman strength, endurance, and some alien je ne sais quoi.) By the end of the movie, she is positioned as a top-tier superhero who will factor heavily into the future of the MCU.

The only Phase 3 film left is Spider-Man: Far From Home, set for July.

(Left to right) Danai Gurira as Okoye, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Chris Evans as Captain America, Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow, and Sebastian Stan as Winter Soldier. [Photos: courtesy of Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios]

4) Where we last left everyone

It’s easier to say who survived the end of Infinity War than it is to say who perished. Almost everyone died. Black Panther died, and we were just getting to know the guy! The core Avenger crew all survived (Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye), as did War Machine (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Nebula, Okoye, M’Baku (Winston Duke), Shuri, and, of course Ant-Man. The survivors are scattered to the ends of the galaxy, though, and deeply dispirited. Avengers: Endgame, as the trailer makes clear, does not begin on a happy note.

Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. [Photo: courtesy of Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios]

5) How Captain Marvel fits into all this

Let’s let the post-credits scenes explain. The one at the end of Infinity War finds Nick Fury disappearing as the effects of the Snap become all too visible, with his pager clattering to the gravel in the middle of dialing up Captain Marvel. Then, during the Captain Marvel credits, that very pager sits inside Avengers HQ as Snap-survivors Captain America and Black Widow attempt to figure out just whom Nick Fury had been paging before he turned into dust. It is at just this moment–speak of the devil!–that the person Fury had been paging, Captain Marvel, appears behind them.

Congratulations, you are now ready to go see a movie.

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