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Read this before you see Avengers: Endgame

Avengers: Endgame is the culmination of a decade-plus of effort, the conclusion of many characters' storylines, and the magnum opus of Marvel Studios' herculean project that forms the first three phases of their cinematic universe. Those phases make up, in the words of studio chief Kevin Feige, "The Infinity Saga," with Endgame positioned to "bring some finality to the storyline." It isn't the end for Marvel movies — not by a long shot — but it marks a turning point.

As we buckle in for the MCU Phase 3 finale, there are a lot of moving parts to keep track of — after all, we're talking about 21 movies including Captain Marvel, which celebrated a terrific debut at the box office mere weeks before Endgame's arrival. It's the perfect time to look back over the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and go over everything fans should have in mind before scanning that ticket, ordering some popcorn, and settling in for Marvel's cinematic event of the year on April 26th. A quick word of warning: spoilers for Captain Marvel below!

Decimation

While the MCU has gone all over the place with its storylines, one consistent thread has been the impending approach of Thanos. We saw elements of the Mad Titan all the way back in Avengers when we caught a shot of his grinning face in the mid-credits scene. He played a role in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise as well, and reappeared at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron when he donned an Infinity Gauntlet and prepared to "do it myself."

Infinity War brought Thanos crashing into the primary narrative, as the gauntleted Titan traipsed around the galaxy, gathering up the Infinity Stones. He already had the Power Stone when the film began after having taken it from the Xandarians, and his encounter with Thor and the surviving Asgardians in Infinity War's opening moments left him with the Tesseract. He proceeded from there to get the Reality Stone on Knowhere, the Soul Stone on Vormir after sacrificing Gamora, and the Time Stone after Doctor Strange surrendered it to him on Titan. Last but not least, he headed to Wakanda, where he plucked the last gem out of Vision's forehead, completed his gauntlet, and snapped his fingers, wiping out half of the life in the universe in what has been dubbed "the Decimation."

The Big Six

Over time, the Avengers lineup has come to include characters like War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, and Spider-Man — but it all started with the Big Six. As The Avengers played out, a nucleus of heroes slowly came together, including Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye, and the Hulk. Captain America: Civil War saw the group split, with Cap and his crew heading off into exile in the aftermath.

While almost everyone was involved in Infinity War, they weren't fully unified throughout the film. As savvy fans quickly realized, though, as the dust from the Decimation settled, not one of the original Avengers was gone. Sure, Tony was who knows how far away on Titan, but distances aside, everyone was still alive and kicking. With so many of the original actors coming off long MCU careers and new characters like Black Panther and Captain Marvel fresh on the scene, one wonders what directors Anthony and Joe Russo have in store for the Big Six in Endgame.

What time is it?

It seems natural that Endgame would pick up the storyline where Infinity War left off, just after Thanos' Decimation swept half of the life in the universe into the dust bin. That actually might not be the case, however. For quite a while now the timing of Endgame within the MCU's greater timeline has been mysteriously impossible to pin down, with some rumors suggesting it'll take as much as a five-year jump into the future. As we've gotten more and more tidbits of info, it seems the answer may not be either immediate or a jump but both.

The key to it all: the hair. The mid-credits scene for Captain Marvel, when Carol Danvers shows up in answer to Nick Fury's pager, presumably took place in Endgame — or at least between that and Infinity War. In the first Endgame teaser, Natasha Romanoff is seen with the blonde, short hair that she sported throughout Infinity War. In the Endgame trailer, though, she's shown repeatedly with red hair past her shoulders, with wisps of blonde on the end, indicating that she's been growing it out for some time. However it all pieces together, it's pretty certain that we're in for a time jump (or time jumps) either before or throughout the film.

Where on Earth... or off it?

Endgame promises to be a heck of a long movie and the kind of watching experience that's better off not interrupted by sudden attempts to remember why a character is or isn't in a certain location. So let's recap where some of our beloved heroes — at least those who weren't snapped — were when Infinity War wrapped up.

Tony Stark and Nebula are the only survivors of the snap still stranded on Titan. However, the first Endgame trailer reminded us that the pair have access to the Guardians of the Galaxy's ship, the Benatar. While their trip home may be fraught with peril, it does seem that a reunion is in order for Stark, Nebula, and the gang on Earth. Cap, Romanoff, Banner, Thor, Okoye, Rocket, and Rhodey were all present at the fight in Wakanda as the dust of their allies settled around them. Once again, the trailers seem to hint that at least some of them will have headed back to the Avengers HQ in the interim. Scott Lang was literally trapped in the Quantum Realm by the snap, with the trailers showing that he will, somehow, make his way out alive. Finally, Carol Danvers was away when the snap occurred. But her own film's mid-credits scene shows that she'll respond to Nick Fury's pager by showing up on Earth again.

The linchpin

While Marvel's universe has revolved around literally dozens of key characters at this point, the man who most clearly defines their cinematic success can be summed up in three letters: RDJ. Robert Downey Jr.'s embodiment of Tony Stark was one of the earliest defining components of the MCU. Since Iron Man flew into theaters, the Marvel fever has just kept on growing.

Stark has clearly not been a critical factor — or even been around — for many of Marvel's films, but his own movies, as well as his commanding presence and influence throughout the Avengers franchise, has in many ways been the glue that's held the MCU together. Stark's swagger, combined with his willingness to learn from his mistakes, not to mention the vibrant story thread of his awareness of Thanos' impending arrival, have brought incredible momentum to the entire superhero universe.

Heck, even Thanos respected the guy, which is saying something. In fact, the Mad Titan's awareness of Tony's name, along with his veiled reference of not being "the only one cursed with knowledge," has created that much more of a Stark-centric element to Endgame, begging the question of how Iron Man will fare as Phase 3 wraps up.

Rescue to the rescue?

One sleeper character in all of this is Tony's fiancee and Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts. While she did play a brief role in Infinity War, Potts' presence was chiefly marked by her repeated insistence that Stark should hang up his suit for good, followed by a brief, alarming phone call as Tony sped away into space on the flying donut. But while Pep may have dropped off the radar at that point, it hardly means she's done for the Infinity Saga.

Potts has played a quietly pivotal role in Tony Stark's life, providing stability, direction, and wisdom, and giving him a reason to fight. Heck, she even replaced his arc reactor. There's a good chance she'll actually play a bigger role than anyone might anticipate. Gwyneth Paltrow has announced that Endgame will be her last MCU performance, at least for the time being, which makes this film an ideal spot to drop Potts into the thick of things, maybe even in the form of her own comic book superhero persona, Rescue. The sight of Potts saving Stark for a second time after that whole Extremis scenario in Iron Man 3 would be about as sweet as it gets.

A Cap with a cause

Of course, if we're going to cover Stark and Potts, it's important to go into Endgame with one other character in the forefront of our thoughts: Steve Rogers. Captain America has been an integral presence throughout the MCU since he first donned that shield and ran out into the battlefields of World War II. Along with Stark, the second Endgame trailer focuses heavily on Cap, showing multiple scenes of his past films and featuring his call to do "whatever it takes."

The mantra isn't surprising, coming from the man that has served as the Avengers' moral compass for years. Rogers' story arc has been dramatic, to say the least. He started out desperate to prove himself, ended up saving the world from the threat of Red Skull, and then survived an icy nap for decades. Since then, he's unofficially co-led the Avengers with Stark, with his storyline feeling like it's been building towards something big for quite a while. Cap actor Chris Evans even caused a stir in late 2018 when he tweeted what appeared to be an emotional farewell to the MCU. While the tweet was excused away, the uncomfortable feeling that Cap could be in for a rather tragic story arc in Endgame has never been shaken. It's something worth preparing for, at least.

A tête-à-tête

Ever since the rough ending of Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have failed to come face to face. The early minutes of Infinity War nearly pushed Tony to make the call on the flip phone that Cap gave him, but they were interrupted by the arrival of the Black Order, leaving Banner to make the call after the fact. The rest of the movie played out with the two lead Avengers literally operating worlds apart, leaving most fans frustrated by to the lack of a reunion that they'd thought was a certainty.

Writer Stephen McFeely explained that they had originally tried to include a scene with the two burying the hatchet, but it didn't fit the Thanos-centric focus of the story. Of course, all that did was kick the can down the road, leaving the highly anticipated reconciliation to finally take place in Endgame. Thanks to the new trailer, we now know that the two will finally be in the same room together. The only question at this point is when and how it'll happen.

An absentee Hulk

It's impossible to talk about Infinity War without addressing the conspicuous absence of the Hulk. As the film opened, Hulk was coming off a galaxy-wide romp that saw him as a gladiator hero on Sakaar, followed by a battle on Asgard that saw him recklessly tackle Fenris and smack Surtur in the face. The guy was on a roll, but it only took Thanos a few seconds and a handful of well-placed punches to get the Green Machine to go down like a sack of potatoes. Heimdall literally gave his life to save the Emerald Giant, yet the rest of the film hardly showcased a Hulk that was thankful in the least.

In the battle with Ebony Maw in New York followed by the conflict on the war-torn fields of Wakanda, Hulk refused to come out to help, leaving the mild-mannered Banner to do his best with a Hulkbuster suit. While Hulk may have appeared scared, co-director Joe Russo explained that he's simply "tired of playing hero to Bruce Banner." Banner actor Mark Ruffalo has also gone on record claiming that the two characters are "headed for a showdown," adding in another interview that the Hulk has been going through a three-movie story of his own that will end with Endgame. However it plays out, we should expect to see some green fireworks at some point.

The key to it all

If you haven't seen Ant-Man and the Wasp yet, you really ought to before you see Endgame — if not just for the fun of it all, then for the Quantum Realm. While it was discussed in the first Ant-Man, the sequel dove headlong into exploring that other-worldly dimension as the team tried their hardest to get Janet van Dyne out after decades trapped there.

Hank and Hope created a Quantum device that, by the end of the movie, facilitated Quantum Realm travel quite easily. This led to the end-credits scene, when Janet points out to Lang that he needs to watch out for time vortexes, a possible hint of the ability to travel through time in Endgame. Of course, the scene also showed Lang trapped in the Quantum Realm. We don't know how he'll make his way out, but it certainly appears that the Quantum Realm is going to feature fairly heavily in Endgame, and Hank Pym actor Michael Douglas even went so far as to say it's "the key" to Phase 4.

Thor-mbreaker

Thor has been an MCU staple for a long time now, and boy has the character been put through the wringer. While he started out as a jolly exile, smashing coffee cups and asking to ride around on pets, Thor has slowly been shaped, largely through grief, into a personality that truly deserves the title of the God of Thunder. He's lost his entire family, as well as his home and most of his people. And to top it all off, he also lost his mighty hammer when his sister crushed it to bits.

To sum it up, Thor has gone through a lot. He put that grief and anger to good use, spending the greater part of Infinity War off making his new weapon, Stormbreaker, and when he arrived in Wakanda he was swift to put it to use — in fact, he ended up being the only Avenger who dealt what looked to be a truly deadly blow to the Mad Titan. (Of course, he should have gone for the head instead.) That attack worked mainly because Thor had the element of surprise — when he and Thanos meet again, things could go very differently.

Ronin, we presume?

Another character glaringly absent from Infinity War was Clint Barton: Everyone's favorite arrow-slinging sharpshooter missed the action because his allegiance to Team Cap during the battle over the Sokovia Accords left him under house arrest. But while Hawkeye may not have the same effect in battle as Hulk or Thor, his presence was seriously missed as the gang tried to pull together an army to protect Vision long enough to safely remove the Mind Stone and destroy it before Thanos could get it in his gauntlet.

The trailers for Endgame strongly suggest that Barton will make a return in the Infinity War sequel under the new persona of Ronin. The shift in aliases could herald a more vengeance-focused version of this Avenger, fueled by the potential loss of all or at least part of his family in the Decimation.

The strongest Avenger

Another character to remember heading into Endgame is Carol Danvers. Marvel's first female lead electrified audiences when she made her box office debut in early March 2019. Up until then, Captain Marvel's only moment of note in the Avengers storyline was the end credits scene from Infinity War, with Nick Fury's special pager sparking intense fan speculation over how her eventual arrival could have anything to do with undoing the snap.

Since then, Captain Marvel has arrived, showing just how incredibly powerful this super-warrior is — at one point she literally caught a Kree nuclear warhead mid-flight and threw it back into space. Her own film's end credits scene revealed that Captain Marvel will find her way back to Earth to answer Fury's pager signal, so now the major question going into Endgame is how she'll help bring down Thanos and reverse the effects of the Decimation. She is, after all, now the strongest hero in the MCU.

Hide and seek

The end of Infinity War showed us a clip of Thanos in what appeared to be an agriculturally focused retirement. The Mad Titan is seen in a small hut, watching the sun rise on what he no doubt imagined to be a grateful universe. Of course, we all know Endgame will show that the universe really isn't that grateful after all, but just because they want vengeance doesn't mean our intrepid heroes will be able to just pop over and pay the Mad Titan a visit… right? Where is Thanos at the end of Infinity War, anyway?

While speculation has ranged from suggestions that he's in the Soul Stone to theories that he's in Wakanda, it seems that the Titan has chosen a location that the Russo brothers have dubbed "Titan II." The trailers have shown more of his retirement, with scenes of Thanos walking his fields and a shot of his armor hung up like a scarecrow. In addition, a leak revealed that Nebula is aware of an undisclosed location that her father was preparing for after his work was done. Whatever the exact coordinates for Titan II, we can safely assume that Thanos won't be spending his retirement in peaceful solitude for very long.

The Guardians

One special element of Infinity War was the crossover not just of characters, but of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers franchises. The scene when Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange bump into Star-Lord and the gang on Titan was intensely amusing, right down to Drax's "Why is Gamora?" 

The Guardians ended up playing fairly pivotal roles throughout the film, too. Rocket helped Thor get the forge at Nidavellir up and running, while teenage Groot literally lent a hand in order to give Stormbreaker a handle. Gamora tried her best to stop her adopted father but ultimately ended up leading him to the Soul Stone on Vormir. On Titan, Mantis played a critical role in keeping Thanos asleep as they tried to remove the gauntlet.

But if you're going to highlight the heroics, then you've also got to balance it out with one of the most boneheaded moves of the whole film: Star-Lord's doomed assault on Thanos just when his teammates were about to get the gauntlet. From there, things went south pretty quickly, with the Decimation leaving everyone on the team except Rocket and Nebula a pile of ashes. While Rocket will be a likely Endgame candidate to help the Earthbound heroes try to reach Thanos, Nebula's role might be even more interesting, as she was a key player in defeating Thanos in the comics.

Strange business

It's hard to talk about Infinity War without bringing up Doctor Strange. Since his entrance into the MCU in 2016, Strange has played a major role in the greater storyline. In Thor: Ragnarok, he helped Thor and Loki find Odin before he passed away; in Infinity War, he pushed the plot forward in a variety of ways.

For one thing, the Master of the Mystic Arts was also the keeper of the Time Stone. This made him a prime target on Thanos' hit list, with Ebony Maw coming to New York specifically to retrieve it. It was Strange who used his powers to peer ahead at 14,000,605 future scenarios, only one of which ended in Thanos' defeat. He played a courageous role in the physical fight against Thanos, too, but his real strategy appeared when he surrendered the stone for Tony Stark's life. While Strange may have faded away in the snap like so many others, he was pretty clearly setting things up for the "endgame" in order to make sure that they ended up on the single timeline that gave them any hope for victory.

It's also been noted that Tilda Swinton will be returning as the Ancient One, Strange's deceased mentor, for Endgame. How she'll fit into the picture remains a mystery, but it speaks to the good Doctor's importance to the storyline.

To the Infinity Stones and beyond

There's no doubt that Endgame will be an epic capstone to the first three phases of the MCU — and Marvel seems to be just getting ramped up at this point. After Endgame closes out the story arc for the Infinity Stones Saga, a whole new chapter begins, and it's loaded with potential.

Captain Marvel's arrival bodes well for the Avengers, as Brie Larson is reportedly signed on for seven features and seems poised to be the face of the MCU for quite a while. In addition, the Disney/Fox merger promises to add characters like the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, X-Men, and Deadpool to the MCU while also opening the doors for villains like Magneto, Doctor Doom, and Kang the Conqueror.

Sequels for the Black Panther and Doctor Strange franchises are in the works as well, while Disney's rehiring of James Gunn has put the Guardians of the Galaxy series back on the front burner. Endgame is likely to feel like an ending for many characters and storylines that we've come to cherish, but the truth is, it's just one of many such endings in a universe that's getting bigger all the time.