Avengers: Infinity War has been hyped as "an unprecedented cinematic journey ten years in the making." And it is, both in that it arrives in theaters nearly 10 years to the day after Iron Man, the very first installment in the now-sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, opened in 2008 and that it is a huge @&!%ing deal anyone was able to pull this off at all.
Because Infinity War isn't so much a proper sequel to Age of Ultron (or any Marvel movie) as it is the first part in a two-part season finale, a culmination of the 18 "episodes" that came before it, with a story that will pick up yarns first spun in any number of previous movies and a crossover cast that brings together, seemingly, anyone who has ever appeared in a Marvel movie. Theoretically, you should be able to sit down in the theater without having ever seen a previous Marvel offering and still enjoy the movie -- but it might be good to refresh yourself on the canon.
Seeing as the movie opens on Friday, the prospect of bingeing the Marvel oeuvre in its entirety will likely prove daunting. Instead, might we suggest something more manageable: The five MCU movies you must (re-)watch ahead of Infinity War. (Spoiler alert: You can skip The Incredible Hulk.)
1. Iron Man (2008)
This is where it all began. Before there was a cinematic universe, before there were Infinity Stones and before the Avengers ever assembled -- the "Avengers Initiative" wasn't mentioned till the final seconds of this film -- there was Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) and his Iron Man suit. "Mr. Stark, you've become part of a bigger universe," Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury tells Tony in the first-ever post-credits scene. "You just don't know it yet." Not only did Iron Man plant seeds for everything to come, it set the tone for what we would come to expect from a Marvel movie.
2. The Avengers (2012)
Though a grinning, blue-eyed Thanos does not appear until the mid-credits scene of Avengers -- when he is warned that "to challenge [humans] is to court death" -- he's ultimately the one pulling the strings. It's Thanos who sends Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to Earth to snatch the Tesseract (aka The Space Stone, the first of the Infinity Stones previously introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger), a thread picked up in Thor: Ragnarok, as Loki finally got his hands on the Tesseract, stole it from Odin's vault and, all these years later, is seemingly now prepared to follow through on his end of Thanos' bargain.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The first Guardians did a lot of legwork in establishing the mythology around Thanos. (As well as marking Brolin's first time playing the character in all his purple CGI glory.) We're given a crash course on Infinity Stones from Benicio del Toro's Collector as there's one in play here, too: The Power Stone, which Thanos wants Ronan (Lee Pace) to bring him, though it ends up with the Nova Corps. More importantly, the movie establishes the family dynamic between Thanos and his daughters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), as well as Drax's (Dave Bautista) thirst for revenge.
4. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Civil War was the second MCU movie directed by future Infinity War filmmakers Anthony and Joe Russo and will have the biggest impact on the group dynamics as they stand now: Having taken the side of the government, Tony Stark created a schism with Captain America (Chris Evans), which resulted in Cap and a select group of fugitive Avengers (Anthony Mackie's Falcon, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow) going off the grid to continue their vigilantism. You also learn more about Vision (Paul Bettany) and the Mind Stone implanted in his forehead, following his origin story in Age of Ultron. Of the Stone, Vision admits, "It's true nature is a mystery...One day, who knows? I may even control it." Amid the titular war, the movie also makes time to explore Vision's burgeoning relationship with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
5. Black Panther (2018)
If you somehow missed Black Panther earlier this year -- though the box office indicates everyone made it to the theater and then back again for a second viewing -- you must. There's a reason that it's the lead-in to Infinity War. Not only would it be a shame for this Avengers, which must find screen time for some 60 characters, to be your first introduction to Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Shuri (Letitia Wright), but we already know that Wakanda will play a significant role in this movie, as the Avengers turn to the no-longer secret nation for help facing Thanos. Not to mention the fact that the post-credits stinger reinstates Sebastian Stan's Winter Soldier -- er, White Wolf -- into the mix, now with a new and improved vibranium arm.