I’m crazy stoked for Marvel Studios’ The Avengers, hitting theatres next May. Usually, with big franchise movie events like this, I like to re-watch the previous movies in the series before the release of the new one. However, The Avengers is a special case, because the films weren’t released in the chronological order in which they happen. With something like Star Wars, you could start with A New Hope and finish with Revenge of the Sith (though some would argue that, chronologically, you’d want to start with The Phantom Menace then finish with Return of the Jedi, but it really doesn’t matter…shut up, nerds).
A better example would be the Harry Potter movies. They were released in the same order in which they happen. So, I guess ignore the Star Wars example above.
Anyway, the movies that Marvel Studios has produced don’t exactly fit well chronologically with their release dates. Yes, you can watch them in order of release, and they’re very easy to follow, but if you want to do it comic book-style, then I’ve put together the following list, along with a summary of how they all fit together in the lead-up to The Avengers.
1. Captain America: The First Avenger
Although this was released last (this past July, to be exact), it takes place before Marvel Studios’ first movie, Iron Man. Steve Rogers’ battle with the Red Skull is only the backdrop in which we are introduced to the Cosmic Cube, a powerful object that will later be at the center of the conflict between the Avengers and the Norse god, Loki. Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s sidekick, is also featured, and he’ll no doubt play a big part in the eventual Cap sequel.
The movie also sets up a potential foe to S.H.I.E.L.D., in the form of HYDRA. Possibility for the sequel, maybe?
2. Iron Man
Marvel Studios’ first film is still considered to be its best. It features a billionaire playboy who makes a suit and fight bad guys. But Batman this is not. Tony Stark eventually shares his alternate identity with the world, and his powerful Iron Man suit becomes the envy of militaries the world over. His genius at designing weapons and the resources at his disposal place him squarely in the sights of Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., who approaches him about a special government project, known as the Avenger Initiative. S.H.I.E.L.D., for those that don’t know, stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. Toward the end of Iron Man, we’re also introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson. Agent Coulson will play a key role in a few more Marvel Studios movies and acts as Nick Fury’s point-man on the field.
Here’s where the timeline gets a little messy. Events in The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man 2 all seem to overlap, but I’ve done my best to figure out what movie happened when.
3. Iron Man 2
In the sequel to Iron Man, Tony Stark goes up against a crazed Russian with engineering chops comparable to his own. We’re also introduced to another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Natalia Romanova – a.k.a. Black Widow. Nick Fury plays a larger role here compared to his cameos in Iron Man and Captain America. While IM2 doesn’t add too much to the Avengers mythology, it does setup a few characters that will play a role in the upcoming superhero team-up, as well as potential sequels in the future.
Tony’s business rival in this movie, Justin Hammer, could potentially be a villain in a future Avengers sequel, or possibly even in a Captain America sequel (imagine this: Hammer arming and supporting Winter Soldier who’s out to get Steve Rodgers, but that’s just my own little theory).
Agent Coulson, who is assigned by Fury to babysit Tony Stark, receives another assignment about halfway through this flick. In the post-credits scene, he travels to New Mexico where Thor’s hammer had mysteriously landed.
4. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer (Marvel One Shot short film)
This short film is a bonus extra included in the Captain America home video release.
As of this writing, this short has yet to be released, but from what I’ve heard it features Agent Coulson traveling to New Mexico before the events of Thor.
This is the first Marvel Studios superhero flick to feature beings with actual super powers. Up until now, all the other Avengers-related stories had artificially-created heroes. This one features the Norse god of thunder, Thor, being banished from Asgard by his father, Odin. Sent to live among mortals on Earth (New Mexico, to be exact), Thor runs into Agent Coulson, newly arrived from Tony Stark’s estate in California. S.H.I.E.L.D. has tracked Thor’s fallen hammer, Mjolnir, and has setup shop around the crash site. Showing up for a cameo is Clint Barton, who will eventually join the Avengers as Hawkeye.
In the post-credits scene of Thor, Dr. Erik Selvig is approached by Nick Fury to study the Cosmic Cube, which has found its way into S.H.I.E.L.D. hands. Also shown in the scene is Loki, Thor’s villainous half-brother, who now intends to use the Cosmic Cube for his own purposes.
6. The Incredible Hulk
A reboot – and in some ways, a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk - that has Dr. Bruce Banner already in hiding after gaining his monstrous powers. After a run-in with super-soldier Emil Blonksy, a.k.a. the Abomination, Banner is now being sought after by S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s not too much of a stretch to connect the super-soldier program that created Captain America to the same tech that birthed the Hulk and the Abomination. In the post-credits scene, Tony Stark approaches Banner’s adversary, General “Thunderbolt” Ross, about a ‘special team’ being assembled.
Of potential interest to owners of The Incredible Hulk on DVD or Blu-ray is the alternate opening scene. In it, Banner is in self-banishment somewhere in the Arctic when a wave of anger comes over him. He starts Hulk-smashing everything around him, causing an avalanche. Pause the scene at the right time and you’ll see a man frozen in a block of ice (hint: it’s supposed to be Captain America). Whether this is canonical to the Avengers film universe is still in question.
7. The Consultant (Marvel One Shot short film)
This is the first released short in the One Shot film series. It was released as part of the Thor Blu-ray package.
Taking place concurrently with The Incredible Hulk, Agent Coulson meets with fellow agent Jasper Sitwell to discuss the event in New York (i.e. Hulk and the Abomination tearing things up). S.H.I.E.L.D. learns that General Ross and the World Security Council intends to release Blonksy from prison. This, obviously, does not sit well with Fury, so the two agents come up with a plan to keep Blonksy in jail, under the watchful eye of S.H.I.E.L.D.
It is revealed that the ‘consultant’ they send is Tony Stark. Stark’s conversation with Ross is the post-credits scene of The Incredible Hulk.
So, anyway, that’s my little theory to the ‘what-happened-when’ of the Avengers film universe. I think it’s awesome that Marvel Studios is approaching their film titles like a comic book. Each movie can be enjoyed on its own, like an individual title could in a comic. But, they all intertwine with one another in the same universe, again, just like the comics.
Who knows, maybe Warner Bros. and D.C. Comics can do the same for the Justice League.