On April 28, Captain America: Civil War was released in Australia. It's the thirteenth movie in the nearly ten billion US dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's also the culmination of a story between Iron Man and Captain America that's spanned nearly a decade of storytelling. Here's the lay of the land up until now.
The Road to Civil War In Film
The Marvel Cinematic Universe -- or MCU for short -- is a sprawling interconnected universe where each new movie impacts the others. The beauty of this format is that we get to see longer, more complex storytelling than we normally get to see from superhero movies. Civil War isn't just the third Captain America film. It's the climax of a feud between billionaire industrialist Tony Stark and World War II-era super soldier Steve Rogers that spans seven films so far. The roots of that conflict go back all the way to the first MCU film, 2008's Iron Man. You can even see shades of their rivalry in 2012's The Avengers.
Much like it does with the comics, Marvel builds its cinematic universe on a series of standalone franchises that occasionally come together for larger events. In terms of continuity, the stories take place in roughly the same order they were released. So, for example, the first Avengers film, which came out in 2012, comes between Iron Man 2 (2010) and Iron Man 3 (2013). The notable exception to this rule is Captain America: The First Avenger, which took place almost entirely in a flashback, though it catches up to the main continuity of the larger franchise by the end of the film. If you're ever confused about what order to watch Marvel movies, check their release date.
Marvel also loosely divides the MCU into sections it calls Phases. You can think of them like seasons of a TV show, with each Avengers film being kind of like a "finale" of a Phase (though Ant-Man was treated as an epilogue for Phase 2). Here are all twelve movies in the MCU in release order and, by extension, their suggested viewing order. If you're just interested in catching up for Civil War, we've bolded the movies that are most relevant:
- Iron Man (2008)
- The Incredible Hulk (2008)
- Iron Man 2 (2010)
- Thor (2011)
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
- The Avengers (2012)
- Iron Man 3 (2013)
- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
- Ant-Man (2015)
As you can see, you don't necessarily have to watch the entire MCU to catch up for Civil War. Thor, Hulk and the Guardians of the Galaxy won't even appear in the film. While Ant-Man will make an appearance, he's not super critical to the plot. This also highlights the biggest advantage of the MCU's method of storytelling. You can follow the characters you like, ignore the ones you don't and they all get to exist in a world bigger than any one character could sustain by themselves.
There's one other major character in Civil War that you might've noticed isn't on this list: Spider-Man! Technically, Sony owns all of the Spider-Man films made so far, in the same way Fox owns the X-Men and Fantastic Four, none of which are part of the MCU proper. The good news is you don't have to watch the five previous Spider-Man films (from two separate continuities) to catch up for Civil War. The Spider-Man we'll see in this movie is brand new. Sony and Marvel have agreed on a deal to share the character. After he's introduced in Cap's film this week, he'll also feature in his own solo outing, Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017. Even better, now that this Spidey is part of the MCU, he can hang out with the other MCU characters, like Tony Stark, who will be appearing in Homecoming next year.
The ABC and Netflix TV Shows
In the downtime between big movies, Marvel keeps our appetites sated with an almost-overwhelming flood of TV shows. Wanna know what happened to SHIELD after it collapsed in Winter Soldier? Agents of SHIELD has you covered. Want to know how the citizens of New York fared after an alien army wrecked up the place? Daredevil and Jessica Jones dive into the chaos of Hell's Kitchen. The shows aren't necessary to watch to understand the films, but they're awesome for hardcore fans who want more of this world. By order of their initial release date, here are the shows you can watch right now:
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013): The first and longest-running Marvel show, Agents of SHIELD follows Agent Coulson and his team after the events of The Avengers. Of all the shows, this one has the most crossover with the films, though that's not saying much. Most notably, it showed how SHIELD collapsed following the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It also explores areas the movies have yet to touch on like the mutant-like society of the Inhumans. The show airs on America's ABC, the television network that Marvel's parent company Disney also owns. You can check out the first two seasons on Netflix, and the latest episodes on Yahoo 7. While this show has its ups and downs (it's still an ABC show after all) it's gotten better over time and it's a gold mine of lore for dedicated fans.
- Agent Carter (January 2015): Each year, Agents of SHIELD takes a brief hiatus for a couple of months around the holidays. Agent Carter fills in that gap. For two seasons, the show has followed Captain America's fellow soldier and almost-love interest Agent Peggy Carter after the events of World War II. The show takes place entirely in the 1940s, so you can safely watch it out of order without missing anything from the movies. Agents of SHIELD does occasionally borrow plot elements from the show, however, so if you like hunting down Easter eggs and connections, these two go well together.
- Daredevil (April 2015): After the events of The Avengers when aliens invaded, New York City was half destroyed, leaving a lot of chaos in its wake. Marvel used this as a stage for its street-level heroes in Hell's Kitchen. This Netflix show chronicles blind lawyer Matt Murdock's rise as Daredevil, a crime-fighting vigilante who's trying to help rebuild his town and fight the corruption that's capitalised on the city's misfortune. Since it's on Netflix, the show takes on a much more adult-oriented theme than the movies or the ABC shows, featuring more extreme violence and sexual content and topics. So far, there are two seasons of the show, both available in their entirety on Netflix.
- Jessica Jones (November 2015): Like Daredevil, this Netflix show features street-level superhuman and private investigator Jessica Jones as she tries to uncover and stop a mind-controlling threat from her past. While it hasn't yet crossed over with any other Marvel property -- in fact, it might be one of the most isolated stories in the MCU so far -- both Jessica Jones and Daredevil are leading towards an Avengers-style crossover event called The Defenders. This will also incorporate upcoming Netflix shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, both of which are due out this year.
While the movies are pretty easy to keep up with, the television shows in the MCU can get overwhelming very quickly. In addition to the shows listed here, Marvel is also considering an Agents of SHIELD spin-off called Marvel's Most Wanted; a show featuring Cloak and Dagger, from Freeform (formerly ABC Family); and the company ordered a Punisher spin-off from Daredevil, which may or may not play into the big Netflix Defenders crossover.
If all of that sounds like way too much to keep up with just to watch a movie, don't worry. The movies almost never reference the TV shows. If you skipped every single show, you'll still understand the movies just fine.
You can also enjoy each individual show on their own -- for example, you don't need to watch Daredevil to understand Jessica Jones -- but any shows that share a network like ABC or Netflix will probably have some crossover that's fun to dive into if you go all-in.
The Future of the MCU
Everything we've mentioned up until this point is stuff that's already come out, but half the fun of the MCU is anticipating what's coming. Marvel does a pretty great job of foreshadowing future events. You can already watch a teasers for this spring's Doctor Strange and Luke Cage, and see set photos for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (potential spoilers) and Iron Fist. If you want to get in on the hype, it helps to have a bit of a roadmap for where the Marvel world is heading.
Captain America: Civil War kicks off Marvel's Phase 3, but we already know which movies are coming out over the next few years, including but not limited to:
- Captain America: Civil War (May 2016)
- Doctor Strange (November 2016)
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 2017)
- Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 2017)
- Thor: Ragnarok (November 2017)
- Black Panther (February 2018)
- Avengers: Infinity War Part I (May 2018)
- Ant-Man and The Wasp (July 2018)
- Captain Marvel (March 2018)
- Avengers: Infinity War Part II (May 2019)
In addition to these movies, there will also be new seasons of existing TV shows like Agents of SHIELD, and new Netflix series like Luke Cage and Iron Fist, plus a bunch of tie-in comics. The rabbit hole goes as deep as you want it to. If all you care about is the movies, you can wait for a trailer and tune in when it comes out. But if you want to obsess over the minutiae every day between the films, Marvel will enable your addiction. Just be sure to stay after the credits.
The Marvel One Shots and Tie-In Comics
If you're a casual fan who just cares about the movies and maybe a little TV, go ahead and stop here. We're about to get into the deep lore that you really don't need to care about. For everyone else, Marvel loves to create more little treats for fans. The Marvel One Shots are short films -- usually no more than ten minutes or so -- that come as bonus features for DVD releases of the movies. These usually either fill in minor gaps or explore another corner of the MCU for fun. Currently, there are five Marvel One Shots:
- The Consultant (2011)
- A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Thor's Hammer (2011)
- Item 47 (2012)
- Agent Carter (2013)
- All Hail the King (2014)
The One Shots have tapered off over the years, but they're fun little things for fans to check out. Marvel also also releases tie-in comics for each movie before they come out. These exist separate from the regular comics universe and are technically canon in the MCU. There are two categories of tie-in comics: prologues and adaptations. Prologues fill in some of the minor story gaps or set the stage for the films, while adaptations depict the exact same story in the movies, except in comic form. Neither are strictly necessary to understand the plot, but they often spell out some things that are only implied by the films.
For example, the comic Captain America: Civil War Prelude adapts both Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier into a condensed form. It's a handy shortcut if you haven't seen the movies and want to catch up before a film, or if you're a fan of the comic format. You can also read Marvel's Captain America: Civil War Prelude Infinite Comic which, aside from having a really long and confusing name, fills in a few details of what the cast have been up to in between Age of Ultron and Civil War.