Warning: Obviously, this article is nothing but huge, huge spoilers for The Avengers. Read on at your own risk.
Believe it or not, there aren’t a lot of big reveals to be found in The Avengers. That’s probably appropriate, with it being the payoff to over half a decade of buildup over multiple films, so this is a movie about opening the presents, not putting more of them under the tree. So while Marvel Studios movies like The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 were packed to the gills with worldbuilding details, The Avengers really only yields two explicit expansions to the Marvel Movie Universe …
… but man, are they big ones.
Yet, also fairly obscure ones, bound to have audience members not already versed in comic book arcana scratching their heads as to why the other half of the theater is losing their damn fool minds. Want to know who or what they are? Read on …
The Chitauri (aka “Loki’s Army”)
In the years leading up to The Avengers, even before anyone knew who was going to be on the actual team or who the central bad guy was even going to be, everyone pretty much assumed there would be some kind of evil army to fight, despite that not necessarily being a fixture of superhero team up books (the general idea is that teams exist in the first place to fight the individual villains/threats that are a near-match for all of them combined to start with) or The Avengers specifically. In movies and TV people want to see sprawling, multi-tiered battles and for that, bad guys need flunkies; Shredder has his Foot Soldiers, Rita Repulsa has her Putty Patrol, etc.
As the makings of Avengers took clearer shape, it became clear that Loki would be busting out an army of goons for the good guys to smack around in the finale … but exactly what said army would consist of wasn’t immediately revealed. The early assumption was that it would be The Skrulls, the most well known evil alien race of the Marvel Universe, and this speculation was bolstered by rumors of a leaked script featuring alien shape-shifters (the Skrull’s signature special ability) and later video footage of a canceled tie-in video game featuring beefed up Skrulls as enemies.
But reality seemed to dash those hopes. Having originated in the Fantastic Four series, the movie rights to The Skrulls belong to Fox, who own the license on that set of characters owing to business deals made before Marvel started making its own movies and became part of the Disney empire. So when Loki’s Army started to turn up in the trailers looking nothing like any recognizable Marvel Comics alien and having no given name on any of the marketing or merchandising, people sort of assumed that some kind of surprise twist as to their identity was coming. Instead, we casually learn their name in the first minute of the film: They’re The Chitauri, the “Ultimate Universe” version of The Skrulls.
Except they aren’t, really.
In The Ultimates, The Chitauri are shape-shifters like their 616 (read: “Regular Marvel,” it’s complicated) compatriots. While we never actually see what their true form really looks like in full, they don’t appear to look or act anything like The Chitauri in this film; shrieking, skeletal-faced brutes who zip around on aerial scooters and use armored sky dragons as troop transports but seem to prefer hand-to-hand combat because that looks cooler.
So what’s going on here? At this point, nobody is talking, but I’ve got what I think is a pretty good guess: Marvel Studios, pre and post Disney, is already notorious for simultaneously pinching its pennies and diving into major productions with unfinished scripts and only part of an idea as to what the endgame is. The first Iron Man rewrote its entire third act and changed villains mid-production, while the surprise final scene of Captain America was shot on the fly while Chris Evans was briefly in New York doing an MTV interview.
Given that, it would not surprise me at all if Marvel went into production on The Avengers with the question of “who are they fighting” still undecided, probably still hoping to use The Skrulls (hence the videogame and some early tie-in toys featuring them), but ready to find something else if necessary. The evil soldiers are all CGI, inserted over motion capture actors who did the on-set fight scenes with the good guys, so it would’ve been fairly easy to change their look/identity in post-production. If so, using the Chitauri name is probably the safest bet, since no one knows what they were supposed to look like to begin with.
Thanos: The Mad Titan
Well, if you’re only going to have one major new surprise in the movie it should probably be a big one.
Throughout The Avengers, Loki is seen bargaining somewhere in the cosmos (there are a lot of strange worlds in the Marvel Universe, and a lot of them take the basic form of chunks of freaky space rocks floating around against a starfield) with a pair of aliens from whom he’s getting weapons and soldiers in exchange for promising to deliver The Tesseract once he’s done with it. The first alien, thus far identified only as “The Other,” acts as a spokesman for the second, who lounges on a giant throne with his back to Loki the whole time.
In the middle of the film’s ending credits, The Other fearfully explains to his still-unseen master that humanity will not fall as easily as he’d predicted: “To challenge them,” he stammers, “is to court death.” At that point, any Marvel Zombie worth his No-Prize could tell you exactly who he’s talking to, but the Big Bad turns to reveal himself anyway: a massive figure, clad in regal armor, with purple skin, glowing eyes and a distinctive ridged chin.
Thanos. The Mad Titan. Not only one of the most well-known and powerful Marvel villains, but one of the keystones to the cosmic/magic side of the Marvel Universe.
Thanos was originally created by writer/artist Jim Starlin in 1972 as the nemesis of Drax The Destroyer (both characters debuted in Iron Man #55, with their conflict continuing through appearances in multiple issues of other Marvel books). At first, Thanos’ big hook was that of an all-in-one bad guy. Not only did he wield magical and super science weaponry, he was also a hulking bruiser that could physically out-fight all but the strongest of Marvel’s superhumans.
His (eventual) backstory is a doozy. A native of Titan (a moon of Saturn), Thanos grew up feeling gloomy and ostracized owing to his decidedly non-Titanian physical appearance (more on that in a bit) and became basically the most powerful (and literal) version of an Angry Goth Kid ever. Remember that line about “courting death?” Well, while some withdrawn youngsters develop a fascination with death, Thanos is in love with Death. See, in the Marvel Cosmology, the Embodiment of Death (yes, as in The Grim Reaper) is a woman and Thanos has a crush on her. Christening himself “The Ultimate Nihilist,” he resolves to spread death and destruction across the universe as a tribute to his Mistress Death. (Please take note of the fact that, despite seeming to be a skeleton, in adherence to Comic Book Design Logic “Mistress Death” still somehow manages to have breasts.)
Starlin has openly acknowledged that Thanos and Drax both drew heavy inspiration from Jack Kirby’s then recent New Gods series at DC Comics (Thanos is, to be charitable, essentially a Marvelization of Kirby’s Darkseid character), but that connection soon got even stronger. While regarded as a major work that was ahead of its time, and a huge integral part of the DC Universe mythology today, Kirby’s New Gods never really took off sales-wise and the series was canceled. Kirby was wooed back to Marvel to undertake an even more out-there idea called The Eternals, which would allow him to turn his fascination with Erik Von Daniken and the “Ancient Astronauts” theory that had already informed parts of the “Thor” mythos up to eleven.
The Eternals posited an expanding roster of superhuman characters who were among the results of experiments conducted by gigantic aliens called Celestials five million years in the past, experiments that also jump-started life on Earth created an enemy superhuman race called The Deviants. Originally conceived as a stand-alone series, Kirby’s Eternals (which, like New Gods, proved a little too bizarre to catch on in a big way) and their history was soon integrated into the cosmology of the Marvel Universe. The Celestial’s experiments were revealed as the root cause of various mystical/monstrous phenomena on Earth and beyond, including the genes responsible for giving Mutants their powers. While the Titanians were retconned into being another strain of Eternals, Thanos’ deformity was due to his possession of the Deviant Gene mutations.
Exactly what Thanos’ place in the Marvel Movies will be is unknown. He’s certainly a formidable foe for the all but inevitable Avengers 2, but Marvel has indicated that its next big wave of new movie franchises will be focused on cosmic/magic/outer-space characters, which The Mad Titan would almost certainly be a key part of. If you want to play the Guessing Game, here’s the main thing to look for …
Apart from his obsession with The Cosmic Cube (“The Tesseract” in the movies), Thanos’ big recurring storyline in the comics involves The Infinity Gems, a set of six magic stones of immense reality-reshaping power held by various powerful figures in the Marvel Universe. Like any good multi-part relic in genre fiction, they’re individually powered and color coded: Soul (Green), Time (Orange), Power (Red), Mind (Blue), Reality (Yellow), and Space (Purple). If brought together and affixed into an armored glove called The Infinity Gauntlet, they would give its wielder the power to … well, it kind of does whatever the writers say it does, much like The Cube.
The original Infinity Gauntlet story by Jim Starlin is considered the Thanos story and one of the benchmark epics of Marvel history. So, if you see multicolored stones suddenly being treated as really, really important in upcoming superhero movies (a prop of The Gauntlet itself was displayed without explanation at Comic-Con two years ago, and was among the background-clutter of Odin’s Vault in Thor), now you know what they’re probably building toward.
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.