A beginner’s guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe


The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a single continuity of feature films and other media based on characters and stories from Marvel’s sprawling comic book history, released in ‘phases’. Though each film is self-contained, their thematic threads, recurring characters and subplots create a deep interconnectedness, which invites fans to identify hidden links and speculate feverishly on how the next chapters will unfold. Accessible to a wide audience thanks to canny casting, keen humour and a willingness to push the limits of genre, MCU films have enjoyed both critical and popular success.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — explored in detail through QAGOMA’s major winter exhibition — boasts intricate, intertwined stories in 15 films to date. Delve into the MCU and its stories and characters.

Following the success of its first film, 2008’s Iron Man, the MCU expanded rapidly to become one of the most successful contemporary cinema properties, which gave the studio confidence to take risks, such as putting the lesser-known cosmic adventurers from Guardians of the Galaxy alongside top-tier heroes like Iron Man and Thor. Marvel also cleverly heightens anticipation for each adventure — fans know to sit through the closing credits for amusing interludes that sow the seeds for upcoming stories.

Production still of Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 / Director: James Gunn / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited / Screening at GOMA on 14 June, 2 and 23 July
Charlie Wen / Thanos on throne no.4 / Keyframe for Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 / Courtesy: Marvel / © 2017 MARVEL

In addition to bringing in A-list actors to play its mentors and villains (among them Sir Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Mickey Rourke and Tilda Swinton), Marvel gives directing duties to filmmakers of singular vision. Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean approach elevated the first Thor; brothers Anthony and Joe Russo were best known for episodes of comedies Arrested Development and Community before delivering the taut thrills of Captain America: The Winter Solider; and New Zealand’s Taika Waititi directed the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok on the strength of low-budget comedies, such as the multiple award-winning Hunt for the Wilderpeople 2016.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe translates the comic book experience into the cinematic realm. Currently scheduled in a series of three narrative chapters, or phases, the films distil years of storytelling into an interconnected narrative, with each film expanding to include new characters and frontiers.

Phase One begins with Iron Man introducing the brilliant but troubled arms magnate Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), whose technological talents allow him to fight terror as the titular metal-suited hero. The Incredible Hulk sees another haunted genius, the gamma-radiated Dr Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) face his demons. Iron Man 2 brings the wide-reaching, extra-governmental intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) into play, with its director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and undercover agent Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Inspired by Norse mythology, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the hammer-wielding God of Thunder, is banished to Earth where he finds himself at odds with his scheming adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). In Captain America: The First Avenger, set during World War Two, Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers — a big-hearted Brooklyn kid transformed into a super solider by the experiments of Howard Stark (Tony’s father and founder of S.H.I.E.L.D.). We are also introduced to the Infinity Stones — powerful gems that can manipulate certain domains of reality. One of them, the blue Space Stone contained within the Tesseract, is the object of the villains’ desires in Phase One’s culminating film, Marvel’s The Avengers. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) directed the first full team-up, in which Fury assembles Stark, Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo), Romanoff, Thor, a cryogenically preserved Rogers, and marksman Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner) to face off against the nefarious Loki and a swarming alien army in a climactic battle for New York.

Phase Two finds our heroes coping with the fallout of New York, and reveals the machinations of mad titan Thanos as he schemes to collect the Infinity Stones. Stark confronts his own mortality and morality in Iron Man 3, while Thor is forced to ally with Loki to save Asgard in Thor: The Dark World. Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes cues from 1970s spy thrillers, sending Rogers and Romanoff on the run to uncover a menacing conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D.

Phase Two also introduces the Guardians of the Galaxy — a pan-galactic sci-fi branch of the MCU that brings together a new motley of heroes: half-human Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), the raccoon-like Rocket (Bradley Cooper), sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel), literal-minded Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin).

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the earth-bound Avengers reunite when Tony Stark accidentally animates the malevolent artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), whom they can defeat only in a destructive confrontation, with help from psychic Wanda ‘Scarlet Witch’ Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), the benevolent Infinity Stone-powered AI. Phase Two closes with a dimensional detour, when former cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) takes on the mantle of miniaturised hero Ant-Man.

Production still of Thor: The Dark World 2013 / Director: Alan Taylor / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited / Screening at GOMA on 11 June, 26 July and 20 August
Promotional image for Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015 / Director: Joss Whedon / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited / Screening at GOMA on 18 June, 2 and 27 August
Jackson Sze / Train throw / Keyframe for Ant-Man 2015 / Courtesy: Marvel / © 2017 MARVEL

In the chaotic wake of Age of Ultron, Phase Three opens with Captain America: Civil War, which splits the heroes into two groups: a Tony Stark-led faction that supports the global push for regulation of the Avengers, and a Steve Rogers-fronted bloc that opposes them. The film introduces African king and warrior T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and friendly neighbourhood web-slinger Peter Parker (Tom Holland) — Spider-Man’s first MCU appearance. Mystical dimensions are introduced when Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a self-absorbed but brilliant surgeon, seeks supernatural healing after his hands are irreparably damaged. Under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), he finds himself on a path to a new magical mastery aided by an Infinity Stone that can manipulate time.

In 2017, Phase Three continues with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; Peter Parker’s first MCU standalone film, Spider-Man: Homecoming; and the highly anticipated Thor: Ragnarok, which was filmed in Queensland and Brisbane’s CBD. The MCU is set to expand even further in 2018: after a solo outing for Black Panther, virtually every hero seen on screen so far, as well as Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), will join the fray in the massive Avengers: Infinity War. By the time the Infinity Stones story wraps up in 2019 with a fourth Avengers film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will comprise 21 intertwined big-screen adventures.


Production still of Captain America: Civil War 2016 / Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited / Screening at GOMA on 21 June, 5 July, 6 and 30 August
Production still from Doctor Strange 2016 / Director: Scott Derrickson / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited / Screening at GOMA on 28 June, 19 July and 3 September


‘Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe’ is organised by the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in collaboration with Marvel Entertainment. The exhibition has received additional support from the Queensland Government though Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) and Arts Queensland.