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Marvel Cinematic Universe Recap — Phase One

Perhaps you heard that there’s a movie coming out on April 27th called Avengers: Infinity War.  The Avengers became an overnight sensation in 2008 with the surprise success of Iron Man, and indelibly ingrained themselves into the annals of American pop culture.  Over the last couple of weeks, I went on a tear through the Marvel Cinematic Universe and watched all 18 MCU movies in anticipation of Infinity War’s release.  What I have for you today is the condensed-est* of all condensed recaps in 3 parts.  This is an exercise in short-form storytelling. You get six recaps in 3-5 sentences and major plot points to keep in order; my editor gets the luxury of not having to pare my usual 20,000 words down to 750.  It’s a win-win.  This article only covers the Phase One MCU movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Marvel’s The Avengers. Click here for Phase Two and here for Phase Three!

*No, condensed-est isn’t a word, but this is my article, so there.)

Oh yeah, spoilers.  Duh.

Iron Man

An Afghani terrorist cell called The Ten Rings ambush and abduct American weapons manufacturer Tony Stark.  He learns that terrorists use his weapons, and invents an armored suit to escape his 3-month imprisonment. Upon returning to the United States, he halts weapons manufacturing and refines the suit of armor to become Iron Man.  Stark battles the vice president of Stark Industries Obadiah Stane for control of the company and the Iron Man technology.

Major plot points

    • Stark invents the miniaturized arc reactor and installs one in his chest to prevent shrapnel from entering his heart and lungs, setting up subplots in both Iron Man sequels
    • Stark becomes the first modern superhero and publicly reveals his identity.
    • First appearances of Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Agent Phil Coulson, SHIELD, Jarvis, and SHIELD Director Nick Fury.
    • The first mention of Howard Stark, Tony’s father, who will become an important supporting character in future movies
    • The first mention of “The Avenger Initiative”
    • The first allusion to The Mandarin, who won’t appear until Iron Man 3
    • Behind the scenes: first and final appearance of Terrence Howard as Rhodey. Marvel replaced Howard with Don Cheadle in all subsequent MCU films due to money/contract disputes.

The Incredible Hulk

After a gamma ray experiment goes awry, an irradiated Bruce Banner now transforms into a green rage-monster called The Hulk.  US Army General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross relentlessly pursues Banner throughout South and Central America.  Ross subsequently procures a sample of Banner’s blood in order to create a Hulk of his own; aging British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky volunteers as tribute.  Blonsky gets drunk on power, Hulk defeats him and goes on the run again.

Major plot points

    • First appearances of Hulk/Bruce Banner and General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.
    • Establishment of Banner’s limited ability to control his Hulk transformation before it even starts with meditation and breathing exercises. Banner appears to exercise full control of his transformation in the final seconds of the film.  Sets up for Banner’s at-will transformations starting in 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers.
    • Behind the scenes: first and final appearance of Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. Mark Ruffalo replaced Norton in all subsequent MCU films.

Iron Man 2

Tony Stark refuses to release the Iron Man technology to the United States government, fearing that his inventions may end in the wrong hands.  The arc reactor in Stark’s chest poisons him with continued use, but Stark refuses to have an operation. Meanwhile, business rival Justin Hammer partners with Russian inventor Ivan Vanko to create a legion of Iron Man drones.  Hammer wants to put Stark out of business and Vanko wants revenge for his father who was forced off the original arc reactor project in the 60s by Howard Stark, which financially ruined the Vanko family.  Tony discovers hidden plans in his father’s old notes to synthesize a non-poisonous engine for the arc reactor.  Rhodey confiscates an Iron Man suit for the United States Army and becomes War Machine.  Iron Man & War Machine high five each other and beat up Iron Man drones or something.  Not gonna lie, this movie is dumb.

Major plot points

    • First appearance of Black Widow, Don Cheadle as Rhodey/War Machine, John Slattery as old Howard Stark, and Senator Stern
    • The revelation that Howard Stark helped found SHIELD
    • Exploration of Tony Stark’s relationship to his inventions and the destructive nature of his own ego, sets up a character arc that continues in Iron Man 3.
    • Control of Stark Industries is signed over to Pepper Potts
    • Iron Man armor drones are invented, sets up Age of Ultron
    • First allusions to Thor and Captain America
    • Arc reactors become truly sustainable when Tony invents a new element to power the reactor, sets up a Winter Soldier subplot


Frost giants break into Asgard, home of the Norse pantheon, to steal a Jotun weapon that Odin confiscated centuries earlier during the final Jotunheim/Asgard war.  Thor, heir apparent to the throne of Asgard,  confronts the giants on Jotunheim and incites a new war.  As punishment, Odin strips Thor of his hammer Mjolnir and then banishes him to Earth to live as a mortal.  With the help of astrophysicist Jane Foster, Thor learns lessons in humility and heroism.  Thor regains his powers and returns to Asgard to stop a coup led by his brother Loki.

Major plot points

    • First appearance of Thor, Loki, Odin, Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, Heimdall, and Hawkeye/Clint Barton
    • First Marvel movie at least partially set in outer space, and establishing alien life in the MCU
    • Establishment of the existence of wormholes for intergalactic travel, sets up Marvel’s The Avengers
    • First apparent death of Loki
    • Marvel teases their Infinity War storyline with the first appearance of an Infinity Stone, the Tesseract Cube, in the movie’s post-credits scene.

Captain America: The First Avenger

The United States Army seeks to develop a platoon of Super Soldiers to win WWII.  Lead scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine recruits the unassuming Steve Rogers to become the first human test subject of the Super Soldier Serum.  The experiment succeeds but Erskine is assassinated and his lab notes are demolished, leaving Rogers as the first and only Super Soldier. Rogers becomes a war hero and ultimately gives his life to defeat the Nazi rogue faction Hydra.  Cap’s commanding officers, Peggy Carter & Col. Chester Phillips, go on to found SHIELD along with military contractor Howard Stark.

Major plot points

    • First appearance of Captain America/Steve Rogers, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, Agent Peggy Carter, Hydra, Dr. Emile Zola, and Dominic Cooper as young Howard Stark
    • Marvel kicks off their Infinity War storyline in earnest with the Tesseract Cube as the central plot device.
    • First mention of Vibranium, setting up Black Panther in the future
    • First Marvel movie to primarily take place before 2008.  Captain Marvel (2019) would be the second, taking place in 1995.
    • The apparent death of Bucky Barnes, setting up for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
    • Captain America crashes a Hydra bomber into the North Pole, goes into a coma, and his body remains in cryostasis for 65 years until SHIELD locates and revives him just in time for a major franchise crossover movie.

Marvel’s The Avengers

Loki, in fact, did not actually die at the end of Thor.  He strikes a bargain with Thanos, the Mad Titan, to conquer Earth using an army of Chitauri aliens and a mind control scepter.  Nick Fury assembles the Avengers for the first time as a team, however, Loki pushes the team to dissolve from within.  After the death of Phil Coulson, the Avengers reconcile and stave off the Chitauri invasion of Earth.

Major plot points

    • First appearance of SHIELD Agent Maria Hill, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, and Thanos (post credits scene sans dialogue, before Josh Brolin was cast as his voice (uncredited) in Guardians of the Galaxy)
    • The official formation of The Avengers
    • First appearance of Stark Tower/Avengers Tower
    • First appearance of the SHIELD Helicarrier
    • The apparent death of Phil Coulson, who would later resurrected for the TV show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD
    • Secret appearance of the Mind Stone (embedded in Loki’s scepter, ultimately revealed during Avengers: Age of Ultron), the second of the six Infinity Stones.
    • The revelation of Bruce Banner’s stress coping mechanism from the end of The Incredible Hulk (“I’m always angry.”)
    • Establishment of Captain America’s and Tony Stark’s opposing ideologies, which will culminate in Captain America: Civil War
    • Iron Man escorts a nuclear warhead through a wormhole to destroy the Chitauri mothership, sets up a PTSD subplot for Iron Man 3, his stances in Civil War, and his motivation to take the fight to Thanos in Infinity War.
    • The Battle of New York causes billions of dollars of property damage, begins a chain of catastrophes that lead to the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War
    • Thor imprisons Loki and escorts him back to Asgard along with the Tesseract Cube, where it remains in Odin’s vault until the end of Thor: Ragnarok.

And that’s pretty much that for the MCU Phase One!  Check out the recaps for Phases Two and Three!

All images belong to Marvel Studios and are included in this article under the fair use statute.  Please don’t sue us.

5 thoughts on “Marvel Cinematic Universe Recap — Phase One”

  1. Once again, here I am relying on cliffnotes hours before the big final.
    No really, this is super in-depth and concise. Well written! On to the next one!

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