When you’ve missed every Marvel movie over the past decade and finally decided to understand all the references, you don’t need to watch all 22 movies to catch up.
I think you can do it with seven. It was hard paring down the list, and I’ve dropped some of my favorites in favor of films that introduce major players and reveal the overarching plot.
As the culmination of Marvel’s “Phase One”, this film does a wonderful job juggling – and characterizing – multiple major characters. Bonus: It’s a pretty good film to introduce kids to the MCU. It’s PG-13 but it’s a fairly gentle PG-13.
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Together with Avengers, Winter Soldier shows the rise and fall of SHIELD. More importantly, you get Bucky, Cap, more Black Widow, and Falcon. Civil War is such an important film in this abridged MCU, and you need this movie to help understand that one.
Guardians of the Galaxy
While Volume 2 features Nebula’s face turn and shapes the Guardians into the form you’ll see in Infinity War, the first movie is the first film to really talk about Thanos, even as an indirect threat. Gamora’s character arc here is vital to the Soul Stone and Endgame’s plot.
Captain America: Civil War
This is the big one. You get Black Panther, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man. The Earthbound heroes are set up for Infinity War by the end. Although Civil War references Age of Ultron, the Battle of New York and the bombing in the Bond-style opening scene reiterate the same points. Collateral damage is A Thing in the MCU, and now people are gonna punch each other about it.
Why weren’t Thor and Hulk around for Civil War?
Ragnarok sums up The Dark World in the best way possible, has a Doctor Strange appearance, is hilarious, and leads to the opening scenes of Infinity War.
Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame
Now you’re all caught up.
My girls’ favorite MCU film is Ant-Man and the Wasp by a landslide. It’s the most PG of PG-13s, doesn’t require any other viewing homework, has an awesome heroine, involves saving parents, and culminates in mercy and understanding rather than a fight to the death with the villain.