The Marvel Cinematic Universe is ten years old, but in that span it’s already given us an astounding 18 films. (For comparison’s sake, the James Bond series needed 35 years to approach a similar number.) The 19th, Avengers: Infinity War, arrives this Friday as the grand culmination of years of creative planning. But how many of the Marvel movies do you have to have seen to get a basic idea of what’s going on in this one? Luckily, it’s not all of them; if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that happened in Ant-Man, it’ll be wasted here. Below, find our guide to the Marvel movies to watch before Infinity War.
The Avengers (2012)
There’s no need to have to go back and rewatch all the origin stories from the MCU’s Phase I. The Avengers has our favorite heroes meeting each other for the first time, which gives you all the introductions you need. The post-credits scene also features the first appearance of Thanos, the big purple guy who was behind Loki’s attempted invasion of Earth. (This would not be the last time Thanos send a gofer to fetch him one of the Infinity Stones, and frankly it’s a wonder it took him this long to just go get them himself.)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Besides explaining why a big gray guy, a green woman, a raccoon, a tree, and a Yacht Rock enthusiast are all traveling through space together, Guardians of the Galaxy also gives Thanos a proper introduction. We learn about his fraught relationship with his adoptive daughters Gamora and Nebula, as well as his ’90s-kid obsession with catching ’em all — in this case the Infinity Stones, one of which, the Power Stone, serves as the film’s MacGuffin. It’s also a good introduction to the MCU’s version of space — super-saturated, overstuffed, kind of goofy — where much of Infinity War takes place.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The second Avengers film is more tolerated than beloved, but amid the unconvincing Eastern European accents and levitating Eastern European cities, Ultron marks the introduction of the two Avengers who get the most screen time in Infinity War’s Earthbound plotline: Scarlet Witch and Vision. She’s a survivor of HYDRA experiments that gave her vaguely defined (but incredibly powerful) powers; he’s an android superhero whose operating system runs on one of the Infinity Stones. They are in love.
Doctor Strange (2016)
I know, I was surprised, too. I haven’t broken out the stopwatch yet, but I’d estimate that the Sorcerer Supreme has the third-most screen time of the 27 characters in the Infinity War credits, which is one of the reasons the studio hasn’t announced any plans for Doctor Strange 2 yet. So it’s worth checking out his solo installment, which despite grossing $200 million domestically didn’t quite have the buzz of some of its predecessors. Watch it to get a sense of Strange’s mind-bending psychedelic abilities, as well as the powers of the Time Stone, which plays a pivotal role in Infinity War.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
This AMIABN (Avengers Movie In All But Name) will fill you in on exactly why the super-team is scattered to the winds at the start of Infinity War, even if they patch up their differences fairly quickly. (The presence of a genocidal alien will do that.) It also marks the introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther, and gives you a little more of the Vision–Scarlet Witch romance.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Why are Thor and the Hulk traveling together on a spaceship? What happened to Thor’s eye? And most importantly, when did he get a haircut? Last year’s Ragnarok will answer all this, and more.
Black Panther (2018)
Let’s be honest — you probably don’t need me to tell you to see Black Panther. But I feel like I should warn you: There is not a ton of Wakanda in Infinity War. And most of what you need to know going in you could probably pick up from the Black Panther hype cycle alone: T’Challa is a superhero who is also the king of an African nation called Wakanda, which is super technologically advanced and hidden from the rest of the world. But seeing Black Panther will give you a sense of why exactly the Avengers choose to make a stand there, plus it’ll give you more time with Shuri, the best character in the MCU.
For Those Who Want To Be Thorough
Captain America (2011)
At one point in Infinity War, a mysterious figure pulls off their hood, and the audience gasps! If you want to gasp along with them, you’ll need to have seen the first Captain America.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Like other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Infinity War occasionally mentions that Tony Stark is still suffering from post-traumatic stress from the climactic battle in The Avengers. Iron Man 3 doesn’t have much to do with the Infinity Stones plot, but it does dive deeper into Tony’s PTSD than the other installments do.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The Reality Stone does its thing at a few pivotal moments of Infinity War, and its powers will make a lot more sense if you’ve seen the Thor sequel, where it makes its first appearance.
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017)
If you want to know who exactly the lady with the big eyes and antennae is, or how Nebula and Gamora patched things up, Guardians 2 is the movie for you.