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The buildup to The Avengers – Marvel/Disney’s half-mad gambit to infuse the superhero movie genre with the same sense of continuity-driven “shared universe” scope that’s fueled superhero comics for decades – is now 5/6 of the way complete. With four individual main heroes (Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and The Hulk) and their attendant sides of the Marvel Universe have been introduced via five films and Avengers itself on deck for Summer 2012.

Comic style continuity was once thought an unwieldy impossibility for feature films. But in a digital age of instant watch and on demand where the answer to any confusing reference is a mouse click away and even mainstream fare like Lost has viewers compiling databases and debating theories, I honestly think that Marvel/Disney really could enshrine a connected universe as a semi-permanent part of their production plans, and that other studios and other genres could easily follow suit.

The actual story of The Avengers is – as it should be – still a tightly guarded secret. But one can only presume that at least some of its narrative will involve either advancing or tying up lingering story details from the previous five films. With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of what I’d say are the big questions yet-to-be-answered from the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

NOTE: The following, obviously, contains major spoilers for pretty much every Marvel movie up to this point.

What Does the Tesseract Actually Do?

At the end of Thor, we found out that S.H.I.E.L.D. is in possession of “The Tesseract,” AKA “The Cosmic Cube.” In Captain America, we learn that this same object was discovered on Earth in early 1940s (after having gone missing from Asgard some centuries before), used as a power source for super-science weaponry by The Red Skull and ultimately wound up in the hands of future S.H.I.E.L.D. co-creator Howard Stark.

But what is it for?

In the comics, The Cube is basically a magic wishing rock. If you have it, you can re-write the rules of reality. Thus far, all the movies have managed to discern about The Tesseract is that it’s a kind of unlimited energy source – even the super advanced HYDRA was mostly just using it as a big-ass battery. But when The Red Skull grabbed it bare handed, it seemed to rip open a hole to the cosmos and suck him into it. Is that what it does – enable inter-world travel that is otherwise impossible without the Bifrost Bridge from Thor? That would be pretty damn impressive in its own right, along with providing a handy explanation for why the various alien beings who formed the basis for Earth’s legends of gods and monsters haven’t been around as they seemed to be in the ancient past.

Is the Red Skull Dead?

As mentioned above, Captain America climaxes with The Red Skull getting zapped into pure energy and blasted into what looks like the deep cosmos glimpsed in Thor. So does this kill him, or is he floating somewhere in intergalactic limbo waiting to make a comeback? The answer, of course, probably has more to do with the question of “Is Hugo Weaving available to shoot Captain America 2?” than technical issues of how cosmic transport actually works.

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What Is the Undiscovered Element and Why Was it Hidden?

Iron Man 2 revolves partially around Tony Stark’s father Howard having hidden the formula to create a new element capable of massive energy storage (hmmm…) in the schematics of a map for his World’s Fair-esque “Stark Expo.” This level of subterfuge suggests that the element was being hidden from someone or something, obviously, but also raises the question of what it actually is. Stark Sr. had The Tesseract at one point; are the two connected in some way?

Who Are Dr. Selvig’s Mystery Contacts?

In Thor, Jane Foster’s scientist mentor Eric Selvig says he knows to be wary of S.H.I.E.L.D. because he suspects them of having “disappeared” a colleague of his. Later, he emails “a friend” who may be able to help them wrest Thor and Jane’s research out of the Agency’s hands. Neither man is named. Who are they?

Realistically, the missing scientist is almost certainly Dr. Bruce Banner, AKA The Incredible Hulk – though it could just as easily be (also Hulk related) Dr. Samuel Sterns. As for the email contact, really, this could be anyone. The postscript of Thor reveals that Selvig’s pool of acquaintances extends beyond the scientific community as he already knows Nick Fury, so who knows what strange characters he’d think to email? Supposedly the contact is named in the screenplay as Dr. Hank Pym, AKA “Ant Man,” which would make the most sense as he has a movie in development.

Where Is Samuel Sterns?

“The Consultant,” a comic short film included on the Thor DVD, answers the lingering question of what became of Emil Blonsky (aka “The Abomination”) following the events of The Incredible Hulk. But what about Samuel Sterns, the oddball biologist who tries to help Banner cure himself, by mass producing Gamma irradiated genetic material and is forced to help Blonksy go The Full Monster? When last we saw him, a splash of Gamma goo was causing his cranium to enlarge, which fans will recognize as the beginning of his transformation into perennial Hulk foe “The Leader” – but did he get all the way there? And, if so, is he still out there?

What Happened to Arnim Zola?

In Captain America, HYDRA’s mad scientist weaponsmith becomes a “guest” of the US Army in exchange for turning over his knowledge of The Red Skull’s plans and the weapons he helped create. This is a cute nod to the real life fate of German scientists and engineers directly following the war, wherein many of them escaped prosecution for aiding the Nazis by being scooped up by U.S. and Soviet agents seeking to harness their talents to aid in their respective Cold War arms buildups (and Space Programs, as it turns out). The question is, what happened to Zola next? Did he find himself similarly pardoned in exchange for lending the U.S. his expertise?

In the comics, Zola continues living into the present day; rendered immortal by transferring his consciousness into a mechanical body (the film foreshadows this with a face-distorting-lens gag.) Will the films follow suit? Are the technological descendants of Zola’s WWII-era designs – which were so freakishly advanced they required a power source that hadn’t been proven to exist yet – floating around in the high tech guns and gear of S.H.I.E.L.D. and others?

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Is Selvig Possessed?

The postscript to Thor shows Selvig being either controlled or at least influenced by a still alive Loki. How? Why? And to what end?

Is Bucky Barnes Really Dead?

Short version: When Marvel re-introduced a time-displaced Captain America as a character in the 60s, they added the detail of Cap’s Robin-esque sidekick Bucky having been killed in action. This wound up being a masterstroke – not only giving Cap a certain amount of trauma to wrestle with but also providing a starting point where the Marvel Universe lost the Golden Age innocence that its counterparts in the DC Universe never did (i.e. Bucky’s death was also the death of starry eyed kids eager to become Junior Heroes).

Bucky stayed dead for real for four decades, until writer Ed Brubaker gave his story a grim new twist in a celebrated mid-2000s story arc: Bucky had indeed survived, but he’d been brainwashed and converted into a cyber-enhanced Soviet assassin called “Winter Soldier.”

Captain America’s cinematic version of Bucky is much more in line with Brubaker’s revised version than the original take. What’s more, when Bucky is rescued from Arnim Zola’s lab he’s seen strapped to a gurney overseen by scary looking device and frantically repeating his name, rank and serial number – commonly regarded as a tool to resist psychological torture and brainwashing. Are we supposed to infer that Bucky was already well on his way to becoming Winter Soldier, and that he could somehow reappear in future Cap sequels?

How Long Did Howard Stark Search for Captain America?

In both Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Howard Stark is presented as an enigmatic figure whose fierce dedication to his work distanced him from his family and may have led him to a drinking problem. The Iron Man films characterize this life-consuming work as top secret science and energy research. But the young Howard’s final scene in the closing moments of Captain America offers a tantalizing additional possibility: that Stark Sr. went on to spend at least part of his life in an ultimately futile search for the remains of his friend, Steve Rogers. (A map of Antarctica, where Cap’s plane went down, is among the trinkets found in the elder Stark’s footlocker in IM2.)

Of the many ways that the events of Thor and Captain America retroactively infuse the initially somewhat hollow feeling Iron Man 2 with unexpected resonance (exhibit A in why this continuity experiment is so damn interesting) this is the one that interests me most. Yes, it’s a grin-inducing character detail that Agent Coulson – whose whole shtick is being glibly unimpressed by the superheroes he’s asked to handle – has his taciturn resolve broken by the mere glimpse of Captain America’s shield; but the idea that Howard Stark’s ambitions and frustrations were driven by his friendship with, and failed search for, a larger-than-life icon of goodness is a megaton of potential character depth. How much of Howard Stark’s life was spent either seeking or trying to “live up” to Cap? More immediately, is Tony Stark about to join a superhero team with the living myth whose standards his father may have unfairly held himself and his son to? What do you say when you meet the “thing” your father missed your birthday/baseball game/whatever to look for?

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What Became of Jim Hammond – AKA “The Human Torch?”

Sitting amid the other showpieces at a WWII-era science expo in Captain America is a humanoid-looking robot encased in a glass tube touted as “Phineas Horton’s Synthetic Man.” Marvel fans will recognize this as Jim Hammond, a Frankensteinian artificial human whose design flaw of bursting into flames upon contact with oxygen earned him the nickname “Human Torch” (later adopted by Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four).

Is this an (expensive) throwaway gag, or more Marvel Studios universe building? It’s unlikely we’d see Hammond “flame on,” as the Torch moniker is still held by a separate studio, but he does have a much more tangible connection to Avengers lore: Hammond’s chassis was eventually converted into an entirely new form, the android superhero called “The Vision.”

What’s Going on in Africa and the Atlantic Ocean?

A map of trouble spots roughly corresponding to events happening or soon-to-happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is seen among Nick Fury’s room-sized “to do” pile in Iron Man 2. Thus far, two of the trouble spots remain unaccounted for: one in Africa and one in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s not hard to suss out what’s being teased here. Africa is almost certainly of interest because of Wakanda, a nation that disguises a super-advanced underground civilization with surface level trappings of a simple tribal culture. It’s the sole source of Vibranium – the mineral that comprises Captain America’s shield – and is protected by a king who is also the costumed hero Black Panther. The spot in the Atlantic, meanwhile, corresponds to the traditional Marvel Universe location of Atlantis, another secret society (this one of amphibious mer-people) ruled by Prince Namor, AKA The Sub-Mariner.

The question is: Are these just inside jokes, or are they seriously plotting movies or movie appearances for these two characters?

Did MovieBob Just Compile and Explain the Minutiae of Marvel Comics Continuity as Part of His Job?

Yes he did. How ya like them apples, Mister Guidance Counselor?!

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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