The MCU films so far (copyright Marvel Studios)

[I’ve updated this article from when I first posted it, to add details from the new MCU release Marvel One-Shot: Agent Carter. The rest of the article unchanged.]


The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the current project employed by Marvel Studios, whereby specific characters and franchises not already licensed to other studios  are not only getting their own films, but the films themselves are set in the same universe and overlap in big or small ways, and all of these films are set up as stand-alone origin stories for the characters in the forthcoming movie The Avengers.

The theatrical films so far are: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).  Other Marvel characters appear in these films, though often in supporting roles, and I could spend days listing them, but some of the more prominent ones are Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and a new character created for the MCU, Agent Phil Coulson (Gregg Clark). Coulson is important because he not only appears significantly in both Iron Man movies, but has a substantial role in Thor. His presence in the series is enhanced on the DVDs/Blu-Rays by the short films included, the Marvel One-Shots: “The Consultant” and “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer” where he is basically the star in these little snapshot movies. I imagine he was created specifically to do as his character has done, which is movie through the MCU films and act as an anchor for the stories. That isn’t to say the plots necessarily revolved around him, but his movements through the films is important to establishing how the films fit together, which I admit is quite cleverly done.

I had to do a bit of research online to fit it all together, where hardcore fans have watched every scene, picked up every clue and put the pieces in place. Here’s a link to a site that explains the sequence in great detail.

It’s invaluable that dedicated fans like this exist, because I love this level of attention to detail!

If you haven’t looked at that link, go ahead (unless you haven’t seen the movies! Do that first, then come back). I’ll wait…


For those who want an easy breakdown that allows you see the story in the most chronological way, with least amount of fuss, here’s my suggestion for the order of watching the saga on home video:

The Incredible Hulk: Deleted Original Opening

Captain America: The First Avenger

Agent Carter

Iron Man

Iron Man 2

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer


The Incredible Hulk

The Consultant

That will take you, more or less, through the timeline as it plays out in in-universe order.

Over the Christmas Holidays, I took an afternoon and watched the series in this order and, even though I’d seen each film in the theatre and several times at home as the DVDs and Blu-Rays came out, I saw a larger, slightly different story buried in these films. It seems to me that, admist the exploits of these superheroes and their varied and diverse origins, an important story emerges when viewed from chronologically: that of the Stark family.

Yes, you can see the story fragmented as each movie came out, but seen this way, it’s a much grander tale.

We first meet Howard Stark at an Exposition in New York during World War II. The Expo is attended by a young Steve Rogers and his friend Bucky Barnes. Howard, an industrialist and up-and-coming playboy, is in the process of perfecting a magnetic/anti-gravity system for vehicles which he demonstrates to the Expo crowd. He’s also making his fortune with US government contracts, as he’s professed to be the best engineer in the country. He’s certainly the most ambitious, having embedded himself in the WWII weapons game so deeply that he’s working on advanced experimental equipment and projects and travelling with top military personal into the European Theater. After Steve Rogers is recruited for the Super Soldier Program (run by the Scientific Strategic Reserve), Howard is there operating his Stark Industries equipment in the experiment that turns Rogers into Captain America. While Rogers is on tour selling war bonds in the US, Stark is in Europe still working on new weapons and gear with the US Army. When Rogers arrives in Europe and decides to save his friend Bucky from the Nazis, it’s Stark, piloting his civilian aircraft, who drops him behind enemy lines. Stark creates the round shield and Captain America’s new battle-ready outfit and consults on briefings about captured HYDRA technology.

When Rogers is forced to ditch the HYDRA aircraft into the Arctic sea, It’s Stark who personally oversees a recovery mission. Stark finds the lost source of HYDRA’s power, the Tesseract (a glowing blue cube that came from Thor’s homeland in another realm and was left on Earth centuries before). After finding the Tesseract, Howard orders his ship’s crew to keep looking for Rogers, but we know he never finds him.

A year after Rogers’ crash,  the Scientific Strategic Reserve has become the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (It would seem that the only people who called it by its acronym, SHIELD, were its own employees, as by 21st Century it’s still pronounced by it’s full name to the public, such as when Agent Coulson meets Pepper Potters in IM1). With WWII over, SHIELD has a field office in New York City and one of it’s staff is Agent Carter, formerly of the SSR. After a successful solo mission, Carter is promoted to Co-Director of SHIELD by Howard Stark (himself one of the Co-Directors). A former member of Steve Roger’s unit, “Dum Dum” Dugan, is also a member of SHIELD by this point and is working directly with Howard in an unstated capacity.

We learn through the films that Stark eventually married a woman named Maria and had a son, Tony. Stark continued to build his empire as a weapons manufacturer and designer of experimental technology. He meets and works with Nick Fury. He develops the arc reactor, an environmentally friendly super power supply, with a Russian engineer named Anton Vanko. We’re left to wonder if his study of the other-worldly Tesseract led in part to the arc reactor’s design. I have a feeling it did. Vanko wanted to use the reactor has a weapon, which Stark objected to. Stark used his clout in the military and government to have Vanko deported back to Russia.

Howard partnered with Obedia Stane (played by Jeff Bridges) and the two built an industrial empire in Stark Industries. In a car accident not discussed too deeply (yet), Howard and Maria are killed. A lingering valid question is whether Stane had anything to do with it, or perhaps Vanko put out a hit. We may never know.

Stane took temporary control of Stark Industries and the backdoor, under-the-table dealings with terrorists and other governments likely began at this stage. It was during this period that Stark Industries was involved in the gamma-ray project that turned Dr. Bruce Banner into the Hulk. When Tony took over Stark Industries, he was unaware of the double dealings Stane was involved with. To him and most of the country, Howard Stark was a patriot and great man. The image was becoming tarnished in the new millennium as investigative journalists poked around Stark Industries’ part in US foreign policy. However, it wasn’t until Tony himself was captured overseas by a terrorist group (The Ten Rings, who we later find out was working with Stane) that he sees that his company has gone from supporting the US military alone, to supporting many sides of many conflicts. There’s war profiteering that Tony was blind to, and after escaping the terrorists, he publicly announces an end to Stark Industries weapons manufacturing division.

The scene where he does this is even more touching when viewed after the film Captain America. Tony says he never got a chance to say goodbye to his father and that there are questions he’d ask Howard, about how he felt about his role in events leading up to now. We’ve seen that Howard Stark, the one in WWII who worked to stop the Nazis and save the world, but by the time of Iron Man, that legacy is surrounded by doubt brought on by the actions of the man and the company since. And Tony may never know that Howard whom we met in the 1940s, though there is a chance. One man who knew the elder Stark personally was Steve Rogers, who was freed from the ice by the Hulk (accidentally) and thawed, now ready to avenge the world again. Stark is made consultant to The Avengers and will meet Rogers.

After shutting down the weapons division, Tony Stark develops the Iron Man suit, powered by a mini version of the arc reactor his father and Vanko designed, housed in his chest to keep the fragments of metal from a Stark Industries-designed explosive from piercing his heart and killing him. The reactor, though, according to Nick Fury, was never really finished by Howard and we learn why as Tony watches old footage of his dad, including a message left specifically for him, where Howard tells Tony about the clues he left his son which will perfect the reactor (and save Tony from the slow poison the reactor is now causing in him).

This scene, too, carries much more weight after meeting Howard in CA:TFA. We know who he was and Tony doesn’t. Howard and Tony had a troubled personal history, probably because they’re so much alike. If Howard hadn’t died, things might have been different. Tony now has an answer to the question he would have asked his father. Howard allowed Stark Industries to make weapons to preserve peace and to try to advance technology so that he, Howard, could eventually finish the arc reactor, a power supply that could change the world for the better. Howard never got the chance, but Tony is ready to take up the cause and can do so as Iron Man and as a consultant with the Avengers.

Anton Vanko dies poor in Russia and his son, Ivan, vows revenge on Tony, creating his own arc reactor to power his weapons. Eventually, Ivan is defeated and killed in a battle not just of weapons, but of ideologies. Tony fought because he had to, much like his father serving the Allies in WWII, where Ivan fought to avenge his father and endangered thousands of innocents to do so.

Even though Howard is nearly 20 years dead by the time, as the Avengers assemble in 2012 his legacy will be an underlying support for Tony, Rogers, Banner and Fury. They (and we the audience) would not be here if it weren’t for Howard Stark.

Howard Stark (copyright Marvel Studios)