25 September 2020

A watch order for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

A friend who is an astute watcher of popculture recently confessed to me that they have been intrigued by the phenomenon of the Marvel Studios films, but had not yet sat down to see them. I am plotting to create a series of posts inspired by this friend, to give them the best possible introduction and guidance in getting the most out of the Marvel movies.

This guide is the first installment in that project: a viewing order for the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe fun for fans but designed for someone coming in cold — only glancingly familiar with either the movies or the comics they are based on — who is ready to commit to watching most or all of the films. Inspired by the “Machete Order” for watching the two Lucas trilogies of Star Wars — which treats Episode II & III as an extended flashback between V and VI, omitting Episode I entirely — this viewing order is different both from the order in which the films were released and from the chronological order of the events in the world of the films.

Marvel Studios and the fictive Marvel Cinematic Universe are interesting and unique for a number of reasons. There have been movies with numerous sequels before, and superhero movies before, but the MCU is the first to capture the distinctly entangled series quality of superhero comics which fans love. Alan Moore, in his introduction to a collection of comics published in 1987, describes it better than I could:

There are great economic advantages in being able to prop up an ailing, poor-selling comic book with an appearance by a successful guest star. Consequently, all th ecomic book stories produced by any given publisher are likely to take place in the same imaginary universe. This includes the brightly colored costumed adventurers populating their super-hero title,s the shambling monstrosities that dominate tehir horror titles, and the odd girzzled cowpoke who's wandered in from a western title through a convenient time warp. For those more familiar with conventional literature, try to imagine Dr. Frankenstein kidnapping one of the protagonists of Little Women for his medical experiments, only to find himself to the scrutiny of a team-up between Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I'm sure that the both the charms and the overwhelming absurdities of this approach will become immediately apparent, and so it is in comic books
The continuity-expert's nightmare of a thousand different super-powered characters co-existing in the same continuum can, with the application of a sensitive and sympathetic eye, become a rich and fertile mythic background with fascinating archetypal characters hanging around, waiting to be picked like grapes on the vine. Yes, of course, the whole idea is utterly inane, but to let its predictable inanities blind you to its truly fabulous and breathtaking aspects is to do both oneself and the genre a disservice.

This viewing order is intended to highlight this quality of superhero stories, the sense that different stories about different characters made by different creators are part of a grand story about a sprawling world of wonders and adventure. In practice this requires squinting a bit to pretend to see it. Though Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige tries to create a coherent world and narrative from the efforts of different creators working on different projects, just as a comics publisher's editor-in-chief does, such a project is inherently doomed. (Indeed, superhero stories have a tradition of Brechtian jokes about how things do not actually hang together.)

One other bit of craft for the viewer: Marvel Studios' movies include one or two post-credits “easter egg” bonus scenes, and you will want to make sure to catch those, with a few exceptions where it is best to skip them. I will mark the exceptions with an asterisk.

I — Welcome to the Marvel Universe

Start with these movies, in this order
  1. Iron Man
  2. Captain Marvel
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy vol 1
  4. Thor *

A — Bonus stories

These are two of the weakest entries in the movie series. They have their charms but don't quite land, so I invite the viewer to skip them. If you do watch them, you can pick them up at any point before part IV of this watch order.
  • Iron Man 2 *
  • Thor: The Dark World — I hope to write a skip guide for watching an abridged version of this one, since it sets up some great callbacks in later films

B — More bonus issues

More optional entries in the series, better than set A, to watch at any point before part VI
  • The Incredible Hulk — a flawed mess with some interesting Mad Science
  • Doctor Strange — a tepid story but it shows off magic as a part of the Marvel Universe, sets up the single best callback in the later films, and has some spectacular visuals
  • Ant-Man * — a fun trifle with a terrific final setpiece that makes a big cameo in a later film a lot more fun

II — Getting the band together

  • The Avengers
With this film, the kitchen-sink pleasures of the Marvel Universe unfold. If, at this point, watching these films feels more like a chore than fun, you can quit here and feel like you Got The Thing. But if you are on the bubble, I promise that the best films in the series are yet to come ....

III — The Steve Rogers Story

I imagine that the viewer could be binge-ing this series or picking through it at a leisurely pace, but these two movies are a matched set, playing off of each other in a way that demonstrates the range of things superhero stories can do with a character. I recommend watching them in this order as a double feature, or at least within a week or two of each other.
  1. Captain America: The First Avenger
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

IV — Whither the Avengers

Watch these in order
  1. Iron Man 3
  2. Avengers: Age of Ultron — this movie is frankly a broken mess, but it is very thematically interesting, and plays a meaningful role in the over-arching narrative
  3. Captain America: Civil War

V — Plots thicken

Watch this set in any order; some of the best of the series here; if you lose interest in the whole series, try skipping ahead to here before you nope out
  • Black Panther
  • Thor: Ragnarok
  • Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming

C — Parallel worlds

Extra credit: a few good movies about MCU characters not made by Marvel Studios, which are both worth seeing for their own sake and as a reflection on different approaches to adapting these characters to film. Watch any or all at any point after this. Note that none of them have easter eggs in the credits.
  • Spider-Man & Spider-Man 2 — the first one is terrific, and the second one is even better ... while only serious superhero nerds have cause to care about the third film in this series or the Amazing Spider-Man reboot films
  • Into The Spider-Verse — breathtaking, just see it
  • Hulk — a bonkers mess made by one of the greatest living film directors

D — Parallel world: The X-Men

Before Marvel Studios began their series, 20th Century Fox started a series of films about this team of superheroes and their antagonists. Half of the dozen-plus entries in the series are weak or even bad, which is frustrating because the X-Men are one of the best and most beloved things in Marvel's comics, but there are a few that are good, one that is very good, and one is a true classic. Disney's acquisiton of Fox means that these characters will get rebooted in Marvel Studios films to come.
  1. X-Men: First Class — the second-best X-Men film, made late in the series, flashing back to the origins of the team in the 1960s
  2. X-Men — the first film made in the series, at the time one of the best superhero movies ever, and the movie which made Hugh Jackman a star; though pretty good, its weaknesses make an interesting contrast with Marvel Studios’ later approach
  3. X-2: X-Men United — the stronger follow-up to X-Men
  4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past — a flawed, fun mess which ties together the casts of the flashback and “present day” versions of the team (and after you see it, search YouTube for “quicksilver sweet dreams” to enjoy a sequel to the most memorable setpiece, snipped out from the bad movie in which it appears)
  5. Deadpool & Deadpool 2 — a pair of gonzo, vulgar, refuge-in-audacity action comedies technically belonging to this series that somehow work much better than they have any right to; worth seeing as a taste of superhero comics in their Brechtian self-parody mode
  6. Logan — the last, and by far the best, film in this series, reframing the X-Men as a John Ford Western

VI — The Gauntlet

Watch these in order
  1. Avengers: Infinity War — fully leveraging the big canvas
  2. Ant-Man & The Wasp — a fun break; the post-credits bit sets up the next film
  3. Avengers: Endgame — the whole series becomes wood behind the spear of this climactic story

D — Coda

One last story in the cycle. A bit of a weak trifle you can skip, but it does nicely close the door on the series.
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home

Those are all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films for now. There are more coming, but they will represent the start of a new story cycle ....

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