Where you can watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe on UK TV

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It’s not what it sounds like – is it possible to watch all of the Marvel Studios movies with only a UK TV licence? Well, you’ve had your work cut out for you…


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This feature contains spoilers for all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that have appeared on free-to-air UK TV thus far.

Forgive the clickbaity headline, but here in the nerdy alleys and hidden niches around Film Stories Towers, we think we might have a proper answer to one of these questions for once.

If you’re here because you genuinely want to know where you can watch all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and TV shows in the UK, most of them are on Disney+ (for now!!!), and for this sort of thing in general, we’ll happily recommend the JustWatch website and app, which provides a searchable overview of what’s on which streaming service. And maybe if we all use it instead of Googling, the internet may yet be dug out of an SEO hole.

On the other hand, think of this feature like one of those YouTube videos where they try to complete the Spider-Man PlayStation games without using webs. We know it takes longer and that it’s unnecessarily difficult, but is it possible to follow the MCU going only by their screenings on BBC One, ITV, and Channel 4?

Well, they’d have to at least have had a network premiere, and at the time of writing, there are 14 movies that have yet to appear. While franchises like James Bond and Harry Potter have popped up sequentially and then repeated every few years on ITV channels, (in fact, both series are in the middle of a repeat run right now) the current biggest movie franchise has been all over the shop.

So, going back through old TV listings with a red pen, here’s how you’d have to catch up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, if you were really determined not to buy any cinema tickets, discs, downloads, or streaming subscriptions…

Phase One 

Things were complicated from the off, by the way the MCU’s distribution was set up. In 2005, Marvel Studios struck an initial agreement with Paramount to distribute up to ten movies that it would produce independently of the studio system. The first five films under this deal, dubbed “Phase One”, would include 2008’s Iron Man, 2010’s Iron Man 2, 2011’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, 2012’s Avengers Assemble.

Phase One also included The Incredible Hulk, released by Universal the same summer as Iron Man and tied to the budding storyline by a mid-credits cameo by Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark. The rights to make Hulk movies were tied up at Universal under the previous deal that led to Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2003, and producer Kevin Feige was involved in guiding the soft reboot in line with their MCU plans.

But where could I have watched them on free-to-air UK TV, I hear you cry, ignoring their original disc releases, their hard rotation on Sky Movies/Cinema, and the thousands of cinema screenings through summer 2008! Well, by the time these first movies were in the terrestrial TV premiere window, Channel 4 had a deal with Paramount, while ITV had Universal movies. There were exceptions to both deals, but that wasn’t troubling the Marvel films just yet.

However, it didn’t stop the very normal UK TV premieres of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk appearing on different channels on the same day at almost the exact same time. On 2nd January 2011, ITV scheduled a network premiere of The Incredible Hulk at 5:00 p.m., and less than an hour later, Channel 4 broadcast Iron Man from 5:40 p.m.

Not to say this endeavour was doomed from the start, but you’d have had to record at least one. This early-evening clash of premieres is silly enough, but the scheduling throws up another issue. A lot of PG-13/12A films (and the occasional 15) turn up in afternoon and pre-watershed showings on UK TV, with occasional cuts to make them suitable for all audiences.

So, if you’re looking for a way to watch these movies uncut, it ain’t gonna be on free-to-air TV. Why would it be??? This would be an insane way to watch these movies, but let’s press on anyway.

You’d have had plenty of time to catch up with either Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk when they were repeated, because Channel 4 took its time scheduling any more. Indeed, the next film to pop up was 2012’s big crossover, Avengers Assemble, which first appeared on BBC One on Boxing Day 2014, but we’ll get back to that.

Over the following 18 months, Channel 4 eventually got around to premiering the other Paramount-backed Phase One movies – Iron Man 2 (6th September 2015), Thor (17th July 2016), and Captain America: The First Avenger (August 14th 2016) – and these have since gone into rotation on Channel 4, E4, and Film4.

Phase Two

As you may have heard, The Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion at the very end of 2009. Paramount marketed and released Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger as agreed, but thereafter, the Mouse paid off the Mountain, handing over a reported $115m to cede worldwide rights to the next two films, The Avengers, (that’s Avengers Assemble to us lot) and Iron Man 3. These went onto become the first and second Marvel films to gross more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office.

The growing box-office success of Phases Two and Three were no good to Paramount, but this changeover did simplify things on the UK TV side, where the BBC generally have the rights to broadcast new Disney movies once they reach the free-to-air window.

After more than 5 million viewers tuning in to watch Avengers Assemble on Boxing Day, BBC schedulers continued to slot network premieres into Christmas, Easter, and bank holiday showings over the next year or two, including Iron Man 3 (2nd January 2016), Thor: The Dark World (29th August 2016), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (30th December 2016), and Guardians Of The Galaxy (Easter Monday 2017). Phase-toppers Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Ant-Man also turned up in the festive schedules for 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Nice and straightforward, right? These films have continued to turn up in weekend schedules or late at night on weekdays – every now and again, you can come home from the pub and channel-hop onto Groot or Tony Stark doing something or other. And for at least 7 days after those repeats, BBC iPlayer is the most reliable source of MCU movies streaming for free in the UK, as followers of our regularly updated column will know.

Read more: Films to watch on BBC iPlayer right now

Of course, it’s never that simple – Marvel Studios and Marvel Television were two separate divisions at this point, and the latter produced TV shows for both streaming services and US TV networks.

The Beeb didn’t get either of the network shows – flagship companion show Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D turned up on Channel 4 and E4 from September 2013, and, more disappointingly, both seasons of the underrated Hayley Atwell-led spy series Agent Carter went out on the UK pay channel FOX from July 2015.

The MCU was expanding rapidly and from Phase Two on, there was no way to watch everything coming out of it on free-to-air UK TV. Except for Agent Carter, that’s no great shame – the benefits of not accidentally watching all of Secret Invasion far outweigh any subscription!

Phase Three and beyond

It gets trickier with the films thereafter as well – even though the Phase Three films are all under the Disney umbrella, there seems to be a separate broadcast rights situation from here on out, starting with 2016’s Doctor Strange appearing on ITV1 on Good Friday 2019.

Following the BBC premiere pattern, Captain America: Civil War turned up on the August bank holiday weekend and Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2 arrived at the end of the year (30th December 2019). The first two Iron Man movies and the first Captain America have also turned up as repeats, while also in circulation on Channel 4’s networks.

Our best guess on this is that it’s Star Wars-related. ITV was the home of Star Wars on free-to-air UK TV since it first broadcast the original trilogy over Christmases throughout the 1980s. This continued with a heavily promoted repeat season of the Special Editions and the prequels throughout the 2000s and went all the way up to The Force Awakens and Rogue One, which premiered in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

Like Marvel, Star Wars is now a Disney property, so maybe the other live-action franchise films were included in a package when ITV re-upped its deal for the sequel trilogy. This would also explain Channel 4 premiering Captain Marvel (22nd April 2022), ahead of picking up where ITV left off with the Star Wars sequels and showing The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise Of Skywalker over successive Saturdays last October.

Meanwhile, Civil War had reintroduced Spider-Man to Marvel’s stable, ahead of a co-production deal on further movies between Marvel and Sony Pictures. Five (nee. Channel 5) originally showed Sam Raimi’s trilogy in the UK and then the Amazing Spider-Man double bill premiered on ITV1 during a season of Saturday-night premieres in summer 2015.

However, 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and its 2019 sequel Far From Home both tipped up in BBC One’s festive schedules in 2020 and 2021, and they’ve joined the Phase Two movies in rotation. Goodness knows how you’ve got time to go to the pub if you’re still following all this, but you could have made it back after a few pints to watch Tom Holland Tom Hollanding at the Vulture and Mysterio the past two Friday nights where The Graham Norton Show is usually on.

If you’re anything like me, your hands and face are covered in red pen and you’re very, very drunk, but if you’re keeping track, this leaves five Phase Three movies that have yet to appear on free-to-air UK TV  – Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man And The Wasp, and Avengers: Endgame.

We’d also venture that on the current schedule, it’s a fair bet that 2021’s Phase Four blockbuster Spider-Man: No Way Home will turn up on in a nice watershed slot on BBC One sometime just before Christmas as well. As long as you’ve seen the previous Jon Watts-directed movies and the Raimi and Webb movies on other channels, you should follow that just fine.

But we have no clue when and where the others may appear. If you’ve watched all the ones that have been on UK TV as they appeared, then Far From Home has spiked the Infinity War double-bill by starting in the aftermath of Endgame, with no spoiler warning on its opening montage of the Avengers who left the franchise in that one.

However, if you’re impatiently waiting to watch these in the order they came out, you’re still on Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. And if that’s you, then this nichest of niche content about where to watch the biggest franchise going with only a TV licence was written especially for you. Keep the faith, true believers!

Lead image: BigStock

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