“Captain America: Civil War” promises to be one of the biggest superhero movies ever, but catching up with the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe before watching the movie might be a bit daunting. Here’s a quick primer for anybody who either hasn’t seen all the previous films or just needs to brush up on the ins and outs of the ever-growing and increasingly complicated MCU.
Easily phased: The Marvel Cinematic Universe has rolled out in separate phases. Phase 1 began with 2008’s “Iron Man”; continued with "The Incredible Hulk," "Iron Man 2," "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger"; and went on through 2012’s “Marvel’s The Avengers,” which saw the core team of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk finally assemble in order to thwart Tom Hiddleston’s villainous Loki.
Phase 2 wrapped up last summer with the one-two punch of “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man.” Other films in Phase 2 include "Iron Man 3," "Thor: The Dark World," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Guardians of the Galaxy." Whereas the first wave of movies brought the team together, Phase 2 split them apart as the rift set to play out in “Civil War” began to form between Cap and Iron Man, and team members such as Thor and the Hulk went off on their separate quests.
By the end of Phase 2, the Avengers lineup looked like this: Captain America, Black Widow, The Vision, Scarlet Witch and War Machine.
“Captain America: Civil War” kicks off Phase 3 of the MCU.
This phase is set to introduce a bunch of new heroes — a couple of whom will appear for the first time in “Civil War," including Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel. When it concludes with 2019’s “Avengers: Infinity War — Part 2,” it will mark the end of part of the MCU, according to Marvel’s senior vice president of production, Jeremy Latcham (via moviepilot.com).
Not to be confused with: Although also based on Marvel Comics properties, neither the Fox Marvel movies (e.g. the X-Men/Wolverine series, “Fantastic Four,” “Deadpool”) nor any of Sony’s existing Spider-Man movies belong to the MCU.
Where that might get especially confusing for casual fans is that Sony and Marvel Studios finally struck a deal to allow Spider-Man to join the MCU, hence his appearance in “Civil War.” This version of the character, though, is a hard reboot and is not a continuation of either the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man or the more recent Andrew Garfield Amazing Spider-Man.
Instead, he is played by British actor Tom Holland, who is set to get his standalone, MCU-connected movie in 2017 with “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
Friend against friend: As the name “Civil War” implies, this movie sees the rift between Captain America and Iron Man develop into all-out conflict with the rest of the heroes forced to pick a side.
On Team Captain America, there is Falcon, Hawkeye, Sharon Carter (Agent Carter’s niece), Scarlet Witch and Winter Soldier.
On Team Iron Man, there is War Machine, Black Widow, Black Panther, The Vision and Spider-Man.
Why are they fighting at all?
There are a couple of key issues at play.
1. The Sokovia Accords
First is the question of how much government oversight the Avengers should have. After the events of “Age of Ultron,” which saw all of humanity threatened by an evil AI program created by Tony Stark, the United Nations decides to establish an international governing body to police the Avengers. This is established by the Sokovia Accords — named after the city where the final act of “Age of Ultron” took place.
Iron Man, feeling responsible for nearly causing the extinction of his species, quickly jumps onboard. Captain America, on the other hand, whose last solo outing, “Winter Soldier,” saw him on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D., the supposedly benevolent government agency that had been infiltrated by the sinister Hydra organization — is less than thrilled at the idea of being told what to do.
The other key issue is Captain America’s loyalty to his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier. As shown in the previous two Captain America standalone movies, Bucky, who Cap thought had died during World War II, was actually captured by Hydra and brainwashed into becoming a metal-armed killing machine — basically an evil version of Cap himself. As the Winter Soldier, Bucky did some very bad things. In “Civil War,” the newly formed governing body targets him as part of their new focus on accountability.
Characters: When we last saw them
• Captain America (Steve Rogers)
Played by: Chris Evans
At the end of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” he and Black Widow were training a new team of Avengers recruits. His most recent appearance, though, was in one of two postcredits scenes attached to the end of “Ant-Man,” showing him and Falcon meeting in secret to discuss the Winter Soldier, who has his arm stuck in a vice in the background.
• Iron Man (Tony Stark)
Played by: Robert Downey Jr.
After Sokovia, Tony Stark walked away from the Avengers, leaving the team in Captain America’s hands.
• Black Widow (Natasha Romanov)
Played by: Scarlett Johansson
Last time fans saw her, she was acting co-leader of the new Avengers alongside Captain America. She was also nursing a broken heart after the disappearance of Bruce Banner.
• Ant-Man (Scott Lang)
Played by: Paul Rudd
By the end of “Ant-Man,” Scott Lang has yet to join the Avengers, but the very last line in all of Phase 2 is Falcon telling Captain America, “I know a guy.” That guy is Ant-Man, so the link is already there for when he joins up with the rest of the crew in “Civil War.”
• The Winter Soldier (Bucky Barnes)
Played by: Sebastian Stan
The Winter Soldier seems to have come in from the cold, so to speak, although the circumstances of why he has his arm stuck in a vice remain unclear.
• Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff)
Played by: Elizabeth Olsen
She is one of the new Avengers recruits, motivated by the death of her brother, Pietro, during “Age of Ultron.”
• Hawkeye (Clint Barton)
Played by: Jeremy Renner
A big reveal in the second Avengers movie is that Hawkeye has had a secret family the whole time. At the end of “Age of Ultron,” he retires to go raise his newborn son on his farm.
• Falcon (Sam Wilson)
Played by: Anthony Mackie
A full-fledged Avenger by the end of “Age of Ultron,” he pops up doing guard duty (unsuccessfully) at the team headquarters in “Ant-Man” before the postcredits scene mentioned above with Captain America.
• The Vision
Played by: Paul Bettany
After ostensibly destroying the last remaining Ultron bot, The Vision joins up as another new Avenger-in-training.
• War Machine (James “Rhodey” Rhodes)
Played by: Don Cheadle
The last of the new recruits, Iron Man’s best friend has apparently ditched his regular gig as a U.S. military peace keeper in order to do the superhero thing in Tony’s absence.
• Sharon Carter
Played by: Emily Van Camp
Her last appearance was as an undercover agent in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” As a niece of Peggy Carter, Cap’s old flame (and star of ABC’s “Agent Carter” series), she and Steve Rogers may have a more complicated relationship in the future.
• General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross
Played by: William Hurt
One of the main antagonists in “The Incredible Hulk” — the one with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner — General “Thunderbolt” Ross makes his triumphant return to the MCU, once again played by William Hurt.
• Crossbones (Brock Rumlow)
Played by: Frank Grillo
After getting crushed by a building in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” he was last spotted getting wheeled away on a stretcher.
• Spider-Man (Peter Parker)
Played by: Tom Holland
To reiterate, this is not the Spider-Man from any of the previous movies. This version of the character is still in high school, but otherwise, audiences should pretty much know what to expect.
• Black Panther (T’Challa)
Played by: Chadwick Boseman
There have been a few references already in previous MCU movies to Black Panther and the fictional nation of Wakanda that he rules as chieftain. For one thing, it is the source of vibranium, the ultra-hard metal used to create both Captain America’s shield and The Vision’s body. Black Panther is slated to get his own movie in 2018.
Characters not in 'Civil War'
• Thor (Thor Odinson)
Played by: Chris Hemsworth
Thor left Earth to go hunt for answers to his own questions, prompted by a vision he had in “Age of Ultron” that pointed to something bigger, something that starts with “Th” and rhymes with “manos.” Thor will next appear in “Thor: Ragnarok” alongside …
• The Hulk (Bruce Banner)
Played by: Mark Ruffalo
At the end of “Age of Ultron,” Hulk, afraid of his own destructive power, hops on a Quinjet and rides off into the sunset, ditching his new love interest, Black Widow, in the process. It’s not clear how, but his next appearance will be a long way from home as he teams up with Thor in “Ragnarok.”
• Quicksilver (Pietro Maximoff)
Played by: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Appropriately enough for someone with his powers, his time in the MCU was short-lived. He died fighting Ultron in Sokovia.
• Nick Fury (Nicholas J. Fury)
Played by: Samuel L. Jackson
As of now, Nick Fury has not been announced to appear in any of the upcoming films, although it seems likely that he’ll pop up somewhere in the two-part “Infinity War.”
Played by: Josh Brolin
A character that has mostly stayed in the shadows so far, he’s set to make his big entrance in 2018’s “Infinity War — Part 1.”
• The Guardians of the Galaxy
Played by: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista
They’re still out there, somewhere deep in space. Whether they’ll ever crossover with the earthbound Avengers remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, they’re scheduled to headline their own sequel, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” which is scheduled to hit theaters a year from now in May 2017.
One last thing ...
Inasmuch as there has been any one element to connect all of the MCU up to this point — including the Guardians of the Galaxy, who otherwise seem to exist in their own little corner of the universe — it is the Infinity Stones, which have appeared in various guises: the Tesseract in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the Aether in “Thor: The Dark World,” etc.
All signs point to them being the major plot point moving forward, particularly relating to Thanos’ overarching scheme, namely to unite all six stones in the Infinity Gauntlet. In the comics, this grants the wearer unimaginable power.
So far, only four stones have appeared in the MCU. Here’s a quick roll call:
• The blue Space Stone: Currently in Asgard, it is presumably stashed away in Odin’s Treasure Room, which would be less of an issue if Odin weren’t actually Loki in disguise.
• The red Reality Stone: This one played a big part in “Thor: The Dark World,” finally ending up in the hands of the Collector (Benicio Del Toro).
• The purple Power Stone: The superweapon used to defeat Ronan the Accuser at the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy” was last seen in the possession of the Nova Corps on Xandar.
• The yellow Mind Stone: You know the yellow crystal in Vision’s forehead? Yep. It’s an Infinity Stone.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, with his wife and two dogs.