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The entire MCU timeline explained

With over 20 films and a handful of TV shows spread out over more than a decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest franchise in the pop culture landscape — and despite the fact that they called the most recent movie Endgame, it doesn't seem like it's going to be stopping any time soon. That massive scope has allowed Marvel Studios to create a sprawling, interconnected universe built on a shared continuity, and much like the comics the MCU is based on, that means things can get pretty complicated.

For the most part, the events of the films happen in the same order as the movies themselves, but there are a few exceptions. If you want a good look at when everything happened in the MCU, read on as we explain the complete timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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In the beginning: cosmic genesis

If you really want to know where things started in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you have to go all the way back to the Big Bang. No, really.

As you might expect from their name and the fact that they control fundamental forces of the cosmos — like Time, Space, and Reality itself — the Infinity Stones have been around for a long time. As the Collector explains in Guardians of the Galaxy, the stones were formed from the "six singularities" that caused the universe to explode into existence. They were then scattered across the universe, popping up here and there and awaiting the eventual arrival of a giant golden oven mitt that would be used to murder half the universe.

That, of course, was billions of years ago, but it's not the only thing to happen in those long eons. "Millions of years" before we get to the present-day MCU, Ego the Living Planet comes into existence, gains cosmic awareness, and seeds "thousands of worlds" with his essence in an attempt to create another Celestial being like himself.

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A long, long time ago: the age of myth

As far as the heroes and villains of Earth are concerned, the MCU doesn't start with Tony Stark getting kidnapped in 2008, Carol Danvers being taken to Hala in the '90s, or even with Steve Rogers volunteering for the Super Soldier program in the '40s. The actual beginning happened thousands of years before that, and might even go back even further, to a cosmic cow licking a block of ice. That's the sort of thing you're going to run into when a good chunk of your universe is based around Norse Mythology.

This mythological time scale begins "millennia ago," as we find out in Thor: The Dark World, when Malekith the Accursed lays siege to Asgard and is fought off by Bor, the father of Odin. Bor "vanquishes" Malekith, which turns out to be a temporary solution.

While we don't know exactly when it happens, the next chronological event that we see from our characters is Odin's conquest of the Nine Realms alongside his first child, Hela, Goddess of Death. During this era, the magic warhammer Mjolnir is forged in the heart of a dying star, and used by Hela. Thanks to her bloodthirsty ruthlessness and ambition, Odin turns against her, and in the battle that follows, Hela slaughters the Valkyrior. The sole surviving Valkyrie flees from Asgard, spending the next few thousand years drunk and depressed. Eventually, she winds up on Sakaar, a cosmic garbage dump that an immortal being called the Grandmaster builds into an interstellar gladiatorial arena. Hela is then imprisoned in another dimension by Odin, who (literally) covers up all traces of her existence.

Sometime after that (but still far enough back that people were writing about it in the 13th century), Odin and Frigga have a son, Thor. Shortly thereafter, Odin slays the frost giant Laufey and adopts his son, Loki, as his own. Not too long after this, during their youth, Loki turns into a snake because he knows Thor loves snakes, and then tries to stab him.

Also "millions of years" before the present day, a meteorite made of the super-metal Vibranium strikes Earth in Africa, drastically affecting the surrounding area. Much, much later, this area becomes the country of Wakanda when a "warrior shaman" receives a vision from the goddess Bast and founds a dynasty of kings known as the Black Panthers. The Wakandans become secretive and isolationist, remaining unconquered throughout history and using the Vibranium to create fantastic technology, away from the eyes of the outside world.

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Life during wartime: the 1940s

Believe it or not, there's not a whole lot that happens between the unification of Wakanda and the 20th century. If you count events implied by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then sometime in here the demon Chthon writes the evil spellbook known as the Darkhold and the Spirit of Vengeance starts turning people into Ghost Riders, but since the movies never really acknowledge that show's existence, these are some pretty optional events. Instead, the first big event of the century is the arrival of, well, the First Avenger.

In 1942, a Nazi officer known as the Red Skull takes charge of a splinter group called Hydra. With the discovery of one of the Infinity Stones (in the form of the Tesseract), he creates a technologically advanced army of his own. That same year, Steve Rogers volunteers for the Strategic Scientific Reserve's attempt at creating a "super soldier" using a technique created by Dr. Abraham Erskine. The project works, giving Steve the body of a hunky Chris. After the experiment, Erskine is assassinated, and his research is lost. Rather than risking their only super-soldier by sending him to fight in the war, the SSR gives Steve the codename "Captain America" and uses him primarily as a spokesman to sell war bonds in USO shows set to an extremely catchy song.

Eventually, Steve goes AWOL to rescue his best friend Bucky Barnes, and becomes an active soldier in the war, leading a strike team called the Howling Commandos. On one of their missions, Bucky loses an arm and falls from a train. Steve believes him to be dead, but he's actually taken into custody by the Soviet Army and brainwashed into becoming a super-assassin, codenamed Winter Soldier.

After attempting to use the Tesseract, the Red Skull is sucked into a wormhole, becoming the second person in Captain America: The First Avenger to survive an apparent death. In reality, he winds up on the distant planet Vormir, serving as a sort of spectral guardian for the Soul Stone. As for Steve, he crashes a bomber jet into the arctic to keep Hydra from destroying New York. He is also presumed dead, but survives, frozen in suspended animation for the next 66 years. Jeez, doesn't anyone who dies in this movie actually die?

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The Silver Age: the mid 20th century

While things are pretty quiet for the MCU between 1945 and 1995, there are a few notable exceptions. Peggy Carter continues to work for the SSR, first in New York in 1946, and then in Los Angeles alongside Howard Stark in 1947. Around this same time, the Soviet Union produces the first graduates of its brutal Red Room facility, where orphaned girls are trained as spies and assassins in a program codenamed Black Widow.

Sometime after this — presumably around '48 or '49 — Steve Rogers travels back in time from 2023 to reunite with Peggy. She continues to work in military intelligence for the next few decades with Stark, whose defense contracts turn Stark Industries into the world's leading arms manufacturer. By 1970, both of them are working out of SSR Headquarters at Camp Lehigh, along with a few other notable figures. Arnim Zola, who worked with the Red Skull back in the '40s, is stationed here, and although his body dies in the '70s, his brain is transferred into a computer databank that continues Hydra's infiltration of the government. Also, Hank Pym is working here, assisted by Bill Foster in his experiments with the size-changing "Pym Particles" that will allow him and his wife Janet Van Dyne to become the original Ant-Man and Wasp.

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Recent history: the late 20th century

Between the '70s and the '90s, several small but key events happen throughout the MCU. In 1974, Howard Stark launches the Stark Expo, displaying the "City of the Future," powered by a clean-energy "ARC reactor" that's about the size of a house. For some reason, he also hides the structure of a "new element" in the arrangement of the buildings, which is the kind of science it pays to not think too hard about.

In 1980, Ego comes to Earth, winning the heart of Meredith Quill. Nine months later, their son Peter Quill is born. In '87, Janet Van Dyne is lost in the Quantum Realm after she and Hank Pym — as the original Ant-Man and Wasp — attempt to stop a rogue Soviet missile targeting the United States. In 1988, Meredith Quill dies from brain cancer (intentionally caused by Ego), leaving her son a mixtape of classic rock favorites. Peter is then abducted by a band of outer-space outlaws called the Ravagers. Their leader, Yondu, then raises Quill as a son, albeit very abusively. In 1989, Pym resigns from the SSR (now renamed as the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) after finding out that they intended to use his Pym Particles to create weapons.  

Also that year, Air Force Captain Carol Danvers, who uses the callsign "Avenger" during her flights, volunteers for a test flight of a lightspeed engine created by scientist Wendy Lawson. Lawson turns out to be one of the Kree, a militaristic alien race constantly at war with the shapeshifting Skrulls, and her engine is powered by the Tesseract. When they're shot down, Carol's body is overloaded with the Tesseract's energy, giving her incredible powers and also wiping her memory. A Kree soldier named Yon-Rogg abducts her and takes her back to the Kree homeworld of Hala, where she is made to believe that she's actually a Kree named Vers, fighting alongside them as a member of the Kree Starforce.

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Meanwhile…

While all of this is happening on Earth, things continue to develop in space. Thanos, an incredibly powerful alien from the planet Titan who's obsessed with balance, begins to seek out the Infinity Stones. Along the way, he lays waste to half of the population of entire planets, occasionally taking young survivors and training them as soldiers.

Assuming that most of the more humanoid characters are the same age as the people portraying them, then his two most notable "adoptions" happen in the late '80s or early '90s. Gamora is taken in as a young girl after Thanos kills half of the population of her home planet. Throughout her childhood, Thanos pits her against her adopted "sister," Nebula. Every time they spar, Gamora wins, and Thanos systematically replaces pieces of Nebula's body with cybernetic parts in order to make her a more efficient killer.

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Only '90s kids will remember the Kree-Skrull War: 1990s

In 1991, the Soviet government sends the Winter Soldier to assassinate Howard and Maria Stark. This will have massive ramifications later on, but the immediate effect is that their brilliant slacker son, Tony Stark, is left in charge of Stark Industries, along with Obadiah Stane as CEO. They continue to manufacture weapons using Tony's increasingly deadly designs, selling them to all sides of virtually every global conflict, with Obadiah in particular making a profit from secret arms deals with terrorist groups.

In 1992, King T'Chaka of Wakanda goes to Oakland, California, to investigate arms deals involving stolen Vibranium. The culprit is his brother, N'Jobu, who is killed in the altercation. N'Jobu's son, Erik, is a witness to the whole thing and grows up craving revenge.

In 1995, Carol Danvers — still without her memories of Earth — returns to her home planet after escaping from the Skrulls. She teams up with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson to stop the Skrulls from invading Earth, only to learn that they're not actually the bad guys. Instead, it's the Kree that are the problem, with Yon-Rogg and Ronan the Accuser en route in search of the Infinity Stones that will end their war of conquest once and for all. 

Carol, taking the name Captain Marvel, fights them off and saves a bunch of Skrull refugees. In the process, an alien cat scratches Nick Fury's left eye, blinding it and causing him to sport a fashionable eyepatch for the rest of the franchise. Before she journeys back into space to aid the Skrulls, Carol gives Fury a pager that can summon her in case of a dire emergency. Inspired by Carol and her original callsign, Fury lays the groundwork for the Avengers Initiative, a program designed to create a team of super-powered heroes to deal with large-scale threats like alien invasions.

In 1999, Tony Stark meets bio-engineers Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian at a conference in Bern, Switzerland. He's very rude to Aldrich, who remembers that as a sore point for about 14 years.

Throughout all this, Hydra continues its secret infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. and all levels of the United States government.

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The Marvel Age of Cinema: 2008

All that brings us to 2008 and Iron Man, the movie that launched the MCU. Almost everything from here on plays out in chronological order, in the years that the movies were actually released. Almost.

In 2008, Tony Stark is demonstrating his newest weapons in the Middle East when he's kidnapped by a terrorist organization called the Ten Rings, in what will eventually be revealed as a plot by Stane to get Tony out of the picture. While he's imprisoned, the terrorists force him and another captive, Dr. Ho Yinsen (who was also at that fateful 1999 convention in Bern, not that Tony noticed), to make weapons for them. Instead, Tony is able to recreate a miniaturized version of his father's ARC reactor, using it to stabilize a piece of shrapnel that's lodged near his heart. The reactor also powers the Iron Man, a suit of weaponized armor built from scrap, which allows Tony to escape after Yinsen's death.

He returns to America, eats a cheeseburger, refines his design, and wipes out the Ten Rings in a brutally effective display of the Iron Man's weapons. He also defeats Stane, who attempts to kill Tony and create his own massive suit of powered armor. Tony then publicly reveals his identity as Iron Man, causing Nick Fury to approach him about the Avengers initiative.  

Around the same time as Tony's capture, Dr. Bruce Banner — whose seven PhDs apparently include physics and biological engineering — is working on recreating the Super Soldier program. Instead of Erskine's "Vita Rays," he uses Gamma radiation, testing it on himself and turning himself into a rampaging, green, monstrous Hulk whenever he gets angry… which is always. After the Hulk inadvertently injures Banner's girlfriend, Betty Ross, he attempts to go underground, but returns to America in search of a cure for his condition. He winds up dealing with a scientist named Samuel Sterns, who wants to recreate the Hulk, and a soldier called Emil Blonsky, who turns himself into a similarly hulking monster called the Abomination.

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Phase One: 2009 - 2011

Six months after revealing his identity publicly, Tony Stark is called to testify before Congress, because they are justifiably concerned about a private citizen building a suit of armor that can vaporize a tank. To create their own version, they turn to rival weapons manufacturer JustIn Hammer. After Tony's friend, Colonel James Rhodes, delivers a prototype Iron Man suit, Hammer and Russian scientist Ivan Vanko reverse-engineer them into an army (and navy, and air force, and marine corps) of drones. Stark also gets a new personal assistant, who is revealed to be S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Red Room defector Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow. Stark and Rhodes, in a militarized armor codenamed War Machine, defeat Vanko and Hammer.

Speaking of hammers, while all this is happening on Earth, there's other stuff going on in the Golden Realm of Asgard. Loki tricks Thor into antagonizing the Frost Giants of Jotunheim against Odin's orders. As a consequence, Odin exiles Thor to Earth and enchants his hammer, Mjolnir, so that only someone worthy of Thor's power can lift it. It lands in New Mexico, where Agent Coulson discovers it, and after a bunch of hicks try to yank it out of the ground with pickup trucks, S.H.I.E.L.D. constructs a temporary facility around it. Thor eventually proves himself worthy, regains his hammer, and stops Loki from staging a coup in Asgard.

In 2011, a team of Russian oil drillers discovers the crashed Hydra plane in the arctic and alerts S.H.I.E.L.D. Captain America is thawed out and revived, and after realizing that he's in the 21st century, he joins up with Nick Fury's Avengers Initiative. It turns out he was just in time!

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Assembly: 2012 - 2013

In 2012, Loki, last seen adrift in space after his failed coup in Asgard, is enlisted by Thanos to recover the Tesseract from Earth (his recent brief visit being seen by the Mad Titan as relevant employment experience). In exchange, Thanos gives him control of the Chitauri, a massive army of hive-minded destroyers, which would allow Loki to lay waste to the planet. Loki, apparently being in One Of His Moods that day, agrees.

The result is the Battle of New York, in which the Avengers — Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye — are gathered for the first time as a team. The good guys win after Loki is smashed against the ground five or six times, but the battle is not without its consequences. Unlike in the real world, where it's pretty nice these days, the MCU's version of Hell's Kitchen takes a lot of damage and winds up being a center of corruption and graft as it's rebuilt. This injustice leads blind lawyer Matt Murdock to take on the identity of Daredevil to fight against criminal kingpin Wilson Fisk, and eventually team up with other super-powered "street-level" crimefighters — Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and kinda-sorta the Punisher — on Netflix. The reconstruction is mostly handled by the newly formed Department of Damage Control, who take over the lucrative contract and leave construction foreman Adrian Toomes embittered… and in possession of advanced alien technology.

In 2013, Tony Stark in particular is overwhelmed by his concept of the universe suddenly expanding to include gods, aliens, and other unknowable cosmic forces. He deals with post-traumatic stress, which unfortunately coincides with the return of Aldrich Killian. Killian has been experimenting with Maya Hansen's regenerative "Extremis" treatment, which has the unfortunate tendency to cause its subjects to explode. To cover his operations, Killian creates a fictional terrorist called the Mandarin, hiring an actor named Trevor Slattery to play him in threatening videos. The plot is uncovered and stopped by Tony and Rhodey, and it all happens around Christmas because Iron Man 3 was directed by Shane Black.

Oh, also, Malekith comes back and Thor fights him, and Loki becomes the latest in a long line of presumed deaths that actually aren't. He stashes Odin in a retirement home in New York and then takes his identity, ruling over Asgard and putting on critically acclaimed plays.

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Phase Two and aftermath: 2014 - 2016

In 2014, Hydra's decades-long plot to infiltrate and take over America is finally discovered by Captain America and Black Widow, who also learn that the Winter Soldier is a brainwashed Bucky Barnes. While Cap fights to restore his best friend's memories, the Hydra plot is exposed, and in the aftermath, S.H.I.E.L.D. collapses, leaving the Avengers without the oversight and support of the larger organization.

That power vacuum leads directly to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner attempting to create an artificial intelligence that would help protect the world. Unfortunately, they goof that plan up big time, instead creating a genocidal robot named Ultron who winds up destroying an entire country, Sokovia. In the process, the Hulk hijacks a Quinjet and blasts off to space, landing on Sakaar, but not before Tony and Banner use the Mind Stone to transform Tony's onboard AI, J.A.R.V.I.S., into a much more heroic AI called the Vision. Also, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, two definitely-not-mutants, join the team. Quicksilver immediately dies, partly from bullets but mostly because Disney and Fox were having a problem sussing out film rights. The destruction of Sokovia also kills the family of Helmut Zemo, who then dedicates his life to revenge.

While all that's going on, Peter Quill is out in space on a job to steal a valuable orb, which — unbeknownst to him — contains an Infinity Stone. That puts him in the sights of both Ronan the Accuser, who's been looking for another Infinity Stone since 1995, and Thanos, who sends Gamora after him. Quill and Gamora wind up running across Drax (a very literal warrior whose family was killed by Thanos), Rocket (a space raccoon who was painfully experimented on and given cybernetic enhancements), and Groot (a tree). After being imprisoned together, the five of them stage a jailbreak, defeat Ronan in a dance-off, recover the Power Stone with the help of the real power (friendship), and turn it over to the Nova Corps, a bunch of space cops on the planet Xandar. Shortly thereafter, Thanos attacks Xandar and recovers it for himself.

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Disassembled: 2015 - 2017

In 2015, an electrical engineer named Scott Lang gets out of prison and stumbles onto Hank Pym's old size-changing equipment. Under the guidance of Pym and his daughter Hope, Lang becomes the second Ant-Man, and helps to keep the Pym Particles from falling in the hands of an evil arms dealer. More importantly, it's likely somewhere around this time that a kid named Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, tries to capitalize on his powers by becoming famous as Spider-Man, and fails to stop a robber that later murders his Uncle Ben. None of this is covered in the MCU, but you might've seen five other movies about it.

The following year sees Helmut Zemo's plan to destroy the Avengers reach its fruition. As the world responds to the destruction of Sokovia by trying to install new governmental oversight over the Avengers, Zemo furthers the a wedge between Captain America and Iron Man by revealing that Bucky was the one who killed Tony Stark's parents. He also frames Bucky for the assassination of King T'Chaka of Wakanda, leading the king's son T'Challa to take over leadership of the country — not to mention the identity (and powers) of the Black Panther. The end result of all of this is that the Avengers break up, the ones loyal to Cap go underground, and T'Challa refuses to give Zemo the death he desires.

While all this is going on, Dr. Stephen Strange, who lost the fine motor control in hands after a car accident, seeks out the Ancient One and, after her death, becomes a Master of the Mystic Arts. He stops an invasion by Dormammu, a demonic force from the Dark Dimension, by using the Time Stone to die over and over again until the cosmic villain gets annoyed enough to leave the Earth alone. Meanwhile, the Guardians of the Galaxy encounter and subsequently kill Ego before he can manipulate Peter Quill into aiding his conquest of the entire galaxy.

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Three very different homecomings: 2017 - 2018

In the absence of the Avengers, Tony Stark begins to mentor Peter Parker. As Spider-Man, Peter tries to deal with the — wait for it — evil arms dealer known as the Vulture, who turns out to be his homecoming date's dad. The Vulture is defeated, arrested, and sent to prison, but not before he and several of Peter's classmates figure out Spider-Man's real identity. Also, Tony Stark finally proposes to Pepper Potts.

In Asgard, Thor returns from two years of looking for Infinity Stones in various realms to discover Loki's deception. When they find the real Odin, he's at the end of his life, and his death allows Hela to escape her millennia of imprisonment. She destroys Mjolnir, blasts the two brothers into space, and takes over Asgard. Thor winds up on Sakaar, where he recruits Hulk and Valkyrie for a mission to overthrow Hela, which goes about as well as it can for a plan that ends with the complete destruction of Asgard via fire giant.

In Wakanda, T'Challa's rule is challenged by his cousin Erik, who teams up with evil arms dealer Ulysses Klaue — there are a lot of evil arms dealers in these movies — and then betrays him in order to gain favor with Wakandans who know Klaue as a Vibranium smuggler. After being presumed dead, T'Challa returns and, aided by Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri, regains control of his country.

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The Infinity War(s): 2018 - 2023

After six years of waiting around, Thanos decides to personally seek out the Infinity Stones, and the results are devastating. He kills Loki and nearly obliterates the last surviving Asgardians, and an attack on Earth leads to things getting so desperate that the whole Avengers crew (except Hawkeye and Ant-Man, who are under house arrest for violating the Sokovia Accords) need to get back together to sort it out. They don't do so well. Despite fighting on two fronts, with one small team in space and a massive force on Earth, Thanos gathers the stones, snaps his fingers, and kills half the life forms in the universe, dissolving them into dust. Before he dissolves, Nick Fury uses the space-pager to alert Captain Marvel that Earth needs her help.

A month later, Captain Marvel and the surviving Avengers track Thanos down in space, only to find out that he's destroyed the stones and, with them, any chance of bringing back the dead half of the universe. Thor beheads Thanos, and the Avengers return home.

Weirdly enough, all of this happens while Ant-Man is involved in a relatively low-stakes heist movie. When the snap happens, though, he's left stranded in the Quantum Realm. While he's there, five years go by, during which the heroes deal with the horrific trauma in various, mostly unhealthy ways. Notably, Tony Stark and Pepper Potts have a daughter named Morgan, and Thor and Valkyrie found New Asgard in Norway.

After Ant-Man returns from the Quantum Realm (where, for him, only a few hours passed), the heroes realize that the solution to the problem is, of course, time travel. With the help of Iron Man and the now-smart Hulk, the heroes travel back to various key points in the timeline (including 1970, 2012, and 2014) to gather up the Infinity Stones of those eras, along with Mjolnir, circa 2013. They also inadvertently bring the Thanos of 2014 forward to 2023, along with all of his minions. Fortunately, the Hulk uses a rebuilt Infinity Gauntlet to wish everyone back to life, and virtually every hero in the entire MCU takes Thanos on at once. The final blows are dealt both by and to Iron Man, who dies on the battlefield.

After gathering for a funeral, Steve Rogers hops into the timestream to return everything to where it should be, returning after living a full life with Peggy Carter in an alternate past to bequeath his shield to Sam Wilson, naming him the new Captain America.