Avengers: Endgame is as overwhelming as it is satisfying, somehow paying off the 21 films that preceded it in spectacular, cinematic fashion. It’s the culmination of one of the most universal and vocal fandoms in the past fifteen years—what other franchise can boast three hours of inside jokes that millions of people will understand? But it’s also pretty illegible to anyone who isn’t intimately familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Watching all of the films is a herculean task, considering how many of them are origin stories and their sequels, so here's a guide to the the key players in the film and where they are at the end of Infinity War, plus a “must watch” list in case you're catching up.
Obviously, major spoilers to every other Marvel film follow, but no Endgame spoilers.
Where we left off
Infinity War brought together nearly every superhero in the MCU to fight against big baddie Thanos—the large, purple, scrotal-chinned father of two who also wants to rid the universe of half of its population. Backing up for clarity, Thanos wants to cleanse the Earth (among other planets) of half of its population, in order to achieve some watered-down version of abated population growth and environmental destruction. You might be asking yourself “don’t the rich produce most of the planet’s waste— shouldn’t Thanos just eat the rich?” and also “if he can snap and destroy half the population, can’t he also just snap and create more resources?” Which, sure, the logic isn’t airtight, but we’ve all agreed to accept it on the contingency that superhero films already ask us to believe that humans can have superpowers.
Thanos is Gamora and Nebula’s (both Guardans of the Galaxy characters) abusive, adoptive father—Infinity War shows him adopting Gamora while committing genocide on her home planet. Because he’s an irredeemable, heinous creature, he made them brutally fight against one another throughout their childhood. Nebula always lost, and every time she lost he replaced a part of her body with a piece of machinery. This gruesome practice is the cornerstone of Nebula’s tortured persona, and her complicated relationship with her sister (which is narratively relevant; you'll understand why later).
In order to achieve his dastardly goal, Thanos needs to collect all six Infinity Stones and put them in his fancy jewel gauntlet, which will enable him to snap and erase half the Earth’s population at random. Infinity War tracks Thanos’s quest for the Infinity Stones, and follows the Avengers Team as they assemble with the larger universe of Marvel heroes in order to fight him. Tl;dr: They lose and the film ends with the “Snappening,” whereby Thanos does exactly what he said he would and roughly half of our favorite heroes disappear into ash.
Essential viewing list (in order of release)
The following films are necessary to understand the emotional arc of the series and Marvel’s sense of humor.
As one of the founding members of the Avengers, Tony Stark’s superhero origin story is essential viewing. The sequels are solid, though not as dazzling as the first, and you can figure out what’s going on without them.
Captain America: The First Avenger
This film sets the overarching narrative of the Avengers team, and gives context to the power of Infinity Stones. It also gives backstory to one of Marvel’s most prominent superheroes.
Marvel’s The Avengers
This film continues to lay essential groundwork for understanding the primary members of The Avengers team—Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye—and how they work together during the Battle of New York. It also introduces S.H.I.E.L.D.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Understanding Captain America's emotional arc is essential—including his close friendship to Bucky—so all his films are in here. Also, Hail Hydra.
Captain America: Civil War
This film sets up the strained relationship between Tony Stark and Captain America, which persists through Infinity War. It also includes enough Ant-Man and Spider-Man to make the Avengers Team legible without watching their individual movies. It's more useful than Avengers: Age of Ultron because Infinity War is understandable without Ultron.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Volume 2 introduces a few new notable characters, so it's slightly better for context than the first one. It will give you context for how many times Nebula has tried to kill her sister Gamora, along with the greater emotional arc of their sibling dynamic as a result of Thanos’s abuse. Both films are among Marvel’s grooviest entries.
Thor’s films weren’t that interesting until Thor: Ragnarok—directed by Taika Waititi, and therefore obviously good—so skip the first two films and instead read the Wikipedia pages about them. Ragnarok also gives good insight into The Hulk’s relationship with Thor.
Avengers: Infinity War
As this one is basically a prequel to Endgame, it goes without saying that it’s a must watch.
Extra credit (in order of release)
Watching these will make you feel like you’re in on the inside jokes, but they aren’t necessary for tracking the plot.
The surgeon turned protector against The Darkness adds new scope to The Avengers’ powers. Think of it this way: Cap America is very strong, and Iron Man has a metal suit, but Thor is a literal God and Doctor Strange can access alternate dimensions, manipulate time, and cast powerful spells.
This Spider-Man origin story doesn’t add to understanding of the plot, but it adds a valuable paternal layer to Tony Stark’s normally assholey personality. Iron Man and Spider-Man’s relationship becomes an emotional core of the series.
While Infinity War does supply enough backstory to make this inessential to understanding the main plot, you should honestly just watch it because Ryan Coogler is a legend and you are cheating yourself out of Michael B. Jordan if you don’t.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
While Captain America: Civil War gives a good idea of his powers and his dynamic with the other Avengers, Ant-Man and The Wasp (the second Ant-Man film) is very enjoyable for getting more insight into his character development.
The film is fun but inessential—you mostly just need to know that she’s indestructible, can fly through space, and can create and direct massive amounts of energy. In short, she’s powerful enough to pose a major threat to Thanos in ways none of the existing Avengers could.
Key Players in Endgame
Here are the characters on the Endgame official theatrical poster. You can think of the following as an incredibly fucked-up family tree, as it involves some characters who are family, some characters who are part of a “chosen family” (a.k.a. The Avengers), and a few who act like they’re family but also have weird sexual tension (Hawkeye, Black Widow, here’s to you):
As of the end of Infinity War, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), our favorite tech-genius-egomaniac and primary member of The Avengers, is stranded on an alien spaceship bounding towards the endless void of the cosmos.
Karen Gillan plays a perennially rage-filled blue robot-woman who speaks with a Christian Bale level voice-gravel. (Granted, you’d be angry too if you had her childhood.) As of the end of Infinity War, she’s trapped on the spaceship with Stark.
In case you weren’t aware, Bradley Cooper voices the talking Raccoon, and will be reprising the role in Endgame. He’s got lots of baggage, but hides behind a tough facade (just like Jackson Maine, badum chhh).
Chris Evans plays the titular, unstoppable optimist who serves as an ideological opposite to Tony Stark. You should probably get familiar with the Chris Evans Infinity War butt poster memes—just because.
The beloved, angsty God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) has long been a central member of the Avengers team. His arc involves balancing power and inheritance with isolation, unworthiness, and immense loss of both his homeland of Asgard and his close family.
The leader of Black Panther’s Dora Milaje (Wakanda’s warrior women) is among the franchise’s best characters, who came from one of the MCU’s best films. She is sworn to protect the Wakandan throne.
Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been a central figure in the Avengers Team since the start. Many fans have grumbled that she’s never had a solo film—though one is potentially in development. The other, nay, most important thing to know about Black Widow is the number of wigs she’s had throughout the series and how they’ve historically been pretty bad.
His origin film is meh and stars Ed Norton rather than Ruffalo, but you need to know that Banner was transformed by gamma ray exposure, and that he and The Hulk are distinct personalities trapped in a single person. They often don’t get along.
Don Cheadle plays Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, a key player in Stark Industries’ relationship with the military—and later, The Avengers' tense relationship with the government. He fights in an Iron Man suit, and later uses technologically advanced leg braces to help him walk following his leg paralysis from being shot out of the sky in Winter Soldier.
Bow and arrow and sword assassin Jeremy Renner finally gets some screen time, after dubiously sitting out of Infinity War. There's not a lot more to say about him.
Marvel’s most powerful superhero, played by Brie Larson, didn’t make an appearance until her own film, Captain Marvel, just a few months ago. She’s the newest addition to The Avengers.
Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is one of the most comically undervalued Marvel superheroes. Last we saw him, as of Ant-Man and The Wasp he was trapped in the quantum realm.
Endgame may be dense with references, but armed with this knowledge, you'll be able to follow all of them. The film signals the end of an era, so go in with an open mind, ready to anticipate breakneck action, heartfelt family drama, and ultimately, the kind of film that pays homage to every one of the 21 films that preceded it.
Follow Nicole Clark on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.