1/24/2014

The Ultimate Marvel Movie Viewing Order


(For all the films, shows, and One-Shots by order of release: Click Here

When Iron Man was released in 2008, it quickly caught on with the public in a big way, and critics liked it too. I have to admit, I was initially unimpressed by Iron Man. I found the film enjoyable, but overall shallow when compared to its comic book movie competition, The Dark Knight, released only two months later. What I didn't know then was that Iron Man would become just one piece in a much larger puzzle.

The value of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) is not in its individual installments, but rather the collective whole of its films. When viewed in sequence, Iron Man, Thor, and 
Captain America weave together an elaborate story universe, spanning time, space, and hundreds of characters. In the truest sense, the MCU is greater than the sum of its parts.

(For all the films, shows, and One-Shots in chronological order: Click Here)

In the years that followed the release of Iron Man, I’ve found an embarrassing amount of pleasure in discovering new ways to watch the films. Each repeated viewing has yielded new insights into different story threads and character arcs. And as it continues to expand, the MCU has proven ideal for crafting alternate viewing orders.

In that spirit, I’ve attempted to create the ultimate MCU viewing order, one that best tells the collective story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The order of the films has been rearranged. One film has been cut entirely (sorry, The Incredible Hulk). And I’ve even provided additional alterations you can make, if you so choose, including rearranging or cutting scenes and sequences.

The purpose of this endeavor is not to criticize Marvel Studios, but to provide fans a new way to enjoy their films. So have fun! (And I’d love to hear from those brave souls who try it out, so leave me a comment.)


#1  Captain America: The First Avenger
  

It’s World War Two, and “90-pound asthmatic” Brooklynite Steve Rogers wants more than anything to fight for his country, but the US Army will have nothing to do with him. Everything changes when brilliant scientist and German defector Dr. Erskine offers Steve a chance to become as strong on the outside as he is on the inside.

Why watch it first?
The First Avenger was originally the fifth film in the MCU, so why transplant it to first in the viewing order? The most obvious reason is that the film takes place the earliest, chronologically. But it also works perfectly as an introduction to many pillars of the MCU: Stark Industries, and Howard Stark; the Tesseract, first of the Infinity Stones and centerpiece of The Avengers; the Strategic Scientific Reserve, precursor to SHIELD; and even space travel and alien life are teased.

But the single most important factor behind TFA’s spot at the front of the line is that it establishes the MCU’s definition of a superhero. In more ways than one, Captain America really is The First Avenger, embodying a courage, empathy, selflessness, and sense of duty that sets the bar for the other heroes that follow, which provides a stark contrast to the next hero in our lineup. (See what I did there?)

What to skip? 
The post-credits scene is reused shot-for-shot in The Avengers, and doesn’t provide any information necessary to enjoy TFA. If there are large gaps between your viewings, then it wouldn’t hurt to watch it as a teaser, but in a marathon, it is wasted space.

For repeat viewers:
Skip the present-day prologue (ends at 3:40) and epilogue (begins at 1:50:30) and save them for later. They play much better as a prologue to The Avengers, plus it keeps you in suspense about the fate of Captain America after his descent into the ice.


#2  Iron Man


Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” and heir to Stark Industries, Tony Stark is forever changed when he is taken hostage by terrorists, armed with Stark Industries weapons. Tony rises “from the ashes of captivity” as Iron Man, but is he a hero or just a scared rich boy with an expensive defense mechanism?”

Why watch it second?
Originally the first film in the franchise, Iron Man is an approachable entry-point to the MCU. But when we are introduced to Captain America first, Tony’s characterization takes on greater depth. If Cap is a symbol of patriotism and selflessness, Tony is a symbol of capitalism and self-obsession. Where Cap fought the Nazi’s weapons manufacturers in (the often morally-black-and-white) WW2, Tony sells the weapons in the more morally-ambiguous War on Terror. Each is a clear product of their time. If TFA defined the superhero for the MCU, then Iron Man defines the anti-hero.

There is also added value in introducing Howard Stark before Tony, since Howard's legacy lingers prominently over Tony’s life, Stark Industries, and the entire MCU. And the primary plotline of Iron Man centers around two proverbial heirs to Howard’s throne, competing for control of Stark Industries. Overall, the film plays perfectly as a leap forward in time, picking up on many threads from TFA, while introducing us to the present-day MCU. Structurally speaking, Iron Man feels like a direct response to TFA, even sharing remarkably similar plot events at the same points in the story.

What to skip?
Nothing. Iron Man is one of the most concisely edited films in the MCU. Sit back and enjoy.

(For our Iron Man-centric viewing order of the Marvel Universe: Click Here)


#3  Agent Carter (One-Shot)


The war is over, but Agent Peggy Carter’s victory is tinged with melancholy. It was all too easy for those who weren’t on the frontlines to marginalize her as “Captain America’s flame,” suited only for a woman’s work. But when the world refuses her opportunity, Agent Carter creates it herself.

Why is it included?
With the meatiest plot of any Marvel One-Shot so far, Agent Carter is the only must-see of Marvel’s current short film catalogue. It was originally included as a bonus feature with The Avengers' home release, but feels much more like an epilogue to TFA, since it features three of the films supporting characters. Agent Carter also provides some resolution to TFA (much-needed resolution if you followed the recommendation for repeat viewers).

But more importantly, the short provides a major revelation about the origins of SHIELD, an agency Tony Stark became acquainted with in Iron Man, and plays better after viewing that film. Watching Agent Carter at this time also helps to break up what would otherwise be an Iron Man-heavy section of the MCU.

What to skip?
At just over 10 minutes, the story is too lean to require any trimming. It’s over too soon.


OPTIONAL:  The Incredible Hulk


Gamma radiation specialist Bruce Banner is hunted by the U.S. Army after unintentionally using their shared research to transform himself into an "enormous, green, rage monster." 

Why include it?
It is Bruce Banner and The Hulk's only standalone film to date. And it is a significant improvement on Ang Lee's 2003 attempt at the character. You'll have to work overtime on suspending your disbelief to make this one fit, but many fans say it is worth the effort.

Why not include it?
It has by far the least in common with the other films of the MCU. It shares no supporting characters, plotlines, plot devices, or organizations (SHIELD) with the other films. On top of that, the recasting of Bruce Banner and redesign of the Hulk for The Avengers, while a practical necessity, only serve to make the The Incredible Hulk feel even more removed from the MCU continuity. This is compounded further by the fact that all other characters established in the film (Betty Ross, Gen. Ross, The Abomination, The Leader) have all been completely abandoned by the MCU.


#4  Iron Man 2


After his public proclamation that “[he] is Iron Man,” Tony Stark becomes “part of a bigger universe,” full of allies, enemies, and opportunists, all of whom are eager to get their hands on his suit.

Why watch it next?
The most traditional sequel in the MCUIron Man 2 directly follows the events of Iron Man and the snowballing ramifications of Tony’s metamorphosis. We begin to gain a greater understanding of the larger MCU, learning more about SHIELD, Nick Fury, and Howard Stark, while also being introduced to another Avenger (our third so far).

Overall, the film feels less like an Iron Man story and more like a platform for introducing supporting characters and expounding upon those we’ve already met. Iron Man’s sidekicks (Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Happy Hogan) really take center stage.

What to skip?
Much like in The First Avenger, the post-credits scene is reused shot-for-shot in a later film (in this case, Thor), and doesn’t provide any information necessary to enjoy Iron Man 2, unless you were really wondering where Agent Coulson went. Again, if there are large gaps between your MCU viewings, then it wouldn’t hurt to watch it as a teaser, but in a marathon, it is just more wasted space.

For repeat viewers:
Ivan Vanko’s introduction at the beginning of the film is absolutely necessary to the story and his characterization. And the film’s opening credit sequence, which is based around Vanko working in his lab, is watchable, despite its heavy exposition. But every appearance by Vanko between the credits and his arrival at the race is completely unnecessary. These scenes were likely only included to keep the villain in the viewer’s thoughts during a section of the story where he has little to contribute to the plot.

Hit fast forward anytime you see Vanko after the opening credits, stopping only when he’s shown at the race, dressed in an orange jumpsuit. This makes his surprise appearance as much of a shock to the viewer as it is to Tony. It also makes his character more mysterious and seemingly more powerful when we don’t have the details of his plan articulated for us one by one.


OPTIONAL:  A Funny Thing Happened... (One-Shot)


Agent Phil Coulson runs into some trouble on his way to New Mexico and reveals a different side of himself.

Why include it?
Don’t expect the level of plot or production value seen in Agent CarterA Funny Thing Happened is just a fun scene that provides some valuable characterization for the rigid, straight-laced SHIELD agent. It plays better as a post-credits scene for Iron Man 2 than the actual post-credits scene for Iron Man 2, so I would recommend watching only one or the other.


#5  Thor


Heir to the throne of Asgard, Thor is exiled by King Odin as a result of his hubris. On Earth, Thor meets ambitious and plucky astrophysicist Jane Foster, who helps humble the God of Thunder, and aids him on his path to redemption.

Why watch it next?
Thor is as essential to the MCU as The First Avenger or Iron Man, and its position in the viewing order is essentially unchanged. It definitely has its flaws, both in structure and plot (see below), but the film has an unmistakable charm, largely due to its exceptional casting. And there is a grandiosity and scope to its story that exceeds anything we’ve seen so far in the MCU.

What to skip?
The Asgardian history lesson prologue (which follows the Thor’s arrival on Earth prologue) provides only unneeded exposition, while simultaneously bringing more attention to the MCU’s most bizarre plot hole. (The glowing blue cube the Ice Giants use against the Asgardians in Tonsberg, Norway is NOT the same glowing blue cube that Red Skull finds in Tonsberg, Norway in The First Avenger?). Skip from Jane’s line, “Where did he come from?" at 3:20 to Thor holding up his hammer at 7:43 (pictured above).

For repeat viewers:
This is a tough one, but regardless of your preferred viewing order, Thor would fit much more neatly into the MCU if it didn’t have a parallel editing structure. As is, the film is frontloaded with too much new information. We go from having no confirmation that space travel or alien races exist within the MCU, to having the history of multiple alien worlds explained to us via voice over in the first few minutes of the film.

The story would benefit greatly from showing Thor’s exile on Earth first, then jumping back in time to introduce Asgard and Loki. Changing the structure in this way is a huge improvement, but requires a tedious amount of fast-forwarding and rewinding. (For this reason, I’ll be profiling Thor in the first installment of Redo Theatre later this weekend). For now, you’re welcome to try to piece the alternate structure together on your own, but I would only recommend this task for the truly dedicated.


OPTIONAL:  Captain America: The First Avenger (Epilogue)


Captain America awakes in a New York City he no longer recognizes.

What is this now? 
If you followed the recommendation for repeat viewers during The First Avenger, this is where you would reinsert the present-day prologue and epilogue you didn’t watch the first time around. Presenting these cut scenes in this fashion makes it play more like a Marvel One-Shot, meant to bring Cap back into the fold and introduce him to the modern MCU.


#6  The Avengers


When the world faces an alien threat unlike anything it has seen before, Nick Fury and SHIELD are forced to bring together their rogue’s gallery of heroes to form The Avengers. “Because if [they] can’t protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure [they’ll] avenge it!”

Why watch it next?
The Avengers’ position within the viewing order is essentially unchanged. The Avengers is the climax of our viewing order, and of Marvel’s Phase One, bringing together numerous characters and plotlines from each of the films we’ve watched thus far. This is really the film that binds the MCU together and is a definite must-see. The biggest revision you’ll notice is that the film now serves as our introduction to Bruce Banner and the Hulk, since we cut out his solo endeavor.

What to skip?
As usual, the most unnecessary scenes in the film are its prologue and post-credits scene. You’ll probably want to keep the post-credits scene, since it’s really just for comic effect. But the prologue, much like Thor's, only provides exposition an attentive viewer wouldn’t need. Keep it in if it’s been awhile since you watched The First Avenger.


#7  Iron Man 3


Tony Stark struggles to recover from the traumatic events of The Avengers, seeking refuge behind his ever-increasing collection of Iron Man suits. But in a world of aliens and monsters, how can a man in a metal suit compete?

Why watch it last?
Despite being billed as the first film of Phase Two, Iron Man 3 feels much more like a conclusion or epilogue to Phase One. It deals directly with the aftermath of The Avengers, in the form of Tony’s post-traumatic stress. And it puts a pin on the arc of Phase One’s most prominent character, so much so that the film’s closing credits feature a montage of appearances by Tony and his supporting cast from all of their previous appearances.

What to skip?
Nothing. It’s the last movie in this marathon. Savor every minute of it. It'll be a few years before you can have a Phase Two movie marathon.


Conclusion

Well, that's all folks! If you watched this viewing order in its entirety, I commend your diligence and commitment. Hopefully, it wasn't all in one sitting (but no judgement if it was). I should say there is technically no wrong order in which to view the films of the MCU. And I'd encourage any fan to try their hand at their own custom order. Extra points go to anyone who can incorporate The Incredible Hulk. Again, if you tried the viewing order (or even if you didn't), I'd love to hear from you, so leave me a comment. Thanks!