Previously In…The Marvel Movie Canon

Remember when that guy did that thing? Then the bad guy with the moustache blew up that place? No? PoP! does, and we’re here to tell you what happened Previously In…

This week marks the U.S. theatrical premiere of one of the most-anticipated superhero movies of all time in The Avengers. This film is the culmination of four years of world-building from Marvel Studios, who have spent five films so far establishing the individual members of Marvel’s premier non-mutant hero team. Before you grab your seat for the big premiere, join us as we relive the five films that led up to what is sure to be the most ambitious and long-awaited onscreen team-up in cinematic history.

Iron Man (2008), Directed by Jon Favreau

Our story begins with this surprise blockbuster hit from the summer of 2008 that introduced movie audiences to billionaire industrialist Tony Stark and his trusty suit of armor. Stark is introduced early in the film as a glib, cocky arms dealer who is taken hostage by a terrorist group known as The Ten Rings in Afghanistan after being critically injured by a bomb that was made by his own company but has fallen into the hands of the terrorists. He wakes up in a cave, where he is held prisoner along with another scientist named Dr. Yinsen, who has built an electromagnet that keeps the shrapnel from the bomb that injured Stark from reaching his heart and killing him. The leader of the terrorist tells Stark that he can earn his freedom if he builds him a version of his newest missile, known as the Jericho. Instead of complying to the leader’s demands, Stark and Yinsen build an arc reactor to power his electromagnet heartguard and a large, weaponized suit of armor for Stark to wear in order to protect him from enemy fire and enable the two of them to escape. Yinsen is killed during their escape attempt, but Stark manages to break free of his captors and is later rescued by an Army unit led by his friend and military liason, Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes.

Upon returning home, Stark announces to the media that Stark International, the company that he inherited from his late father Howard Stark, will no longer make weapons. This announcement enrages the stockholders of Stark Industries and company manager Obadiah Stane, who tells Stark that the board of directors has voted to try to wrest control of the company from him. While on hiatus from running the company, Stark begins to create a new suit of armor based on the prototype he made in Afghanistan and powered by the same arc reactor technology that keeps him alive. Upon crashing a fundraising gala sponsored by Stark Industries, Stark discovers that his own company sold weapons to The Ten Rings and then decides to use his new armor to disarm and take down these rogue organizations that are using his weapons for evil. He soon brings Rhodes and his assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts, in on his plan, and they all soon learn that Stane himself is behind this plan to sell weapons to the terrorist group and that he was also behind Stark’s own kidnapping. Upon discovering this information, Pepper enlists the help of Agent Phil Coulson from a government anti-terrorism agency known as the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division to try to take Stane down, while Stane manages to steal one of Stark’s arc reactors and successfully builds his own suit of armor. Stane and Stark eventually duke it out in their own respective suits of armor, with Tony emerging victorious after Pepper overloads Stane’s armor with electricity, which kills him.

After the climactic battle, Tony is briefed by Coulson and the rest of the agency, now conveniently shortened to “S.H.I.E.L.D”, to tell the press that the man the press has dubbed “The Iron Man” is his licensed bodyguard, but instead, he reveals to the press and to the entire world that he is the man in the suit of armor. After outing himself, Stark is visited at his home by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury, who tells him that he would like to discuss something called “The Avenger Initiative.”

The Incredible Hulk (2008), Directed by Louis Leterrier

The second chapter in the Marvel Movie Canon begins with a quick introduction to the main character, Doctor Bruce Banner, whose experiment about the effects of gamma radiation on the human body goes horribly wrong and turns him into a large, green monster whenever he is angered or agitated. After destroying his lab and inadvertently injuring his fiancee and lab partner, Betty Ross, Banner goes into hiding and is pursued by the U.S. Armed Forces and their commander, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who incidentally is Betty’s father.

Five years after his first transformation, Ross’ team tracks Banner down in Rio de Janeiro, where he is practicing meditation and attempting to find a cure for his condition. Ross sends a team led by a British soldier named Emil Blonsky to capture Banner, and after his team is defeated by the Hulk, Blonsky agrees to receive a serum from the same experiments that turned Banner into the Hulk in order to turn him into a creature that can match the Hulk in power and agility. Banner then returns home to Virginia, where he is reunited with Betty, and together they evade Blonsky and Ross’ team and meet up with a scientist named Dr. Samuel Sterns, who tells Banner that he may have found an antidote to Banner’s condition. After his test proves successful, he then reveals to Bruce and Betty that he intends to use Bruce’s blood samples in an attempt to further human evolution. Bruce and Betty are soon ambushed and captured by Blonsky’s troops, and Blonsky forces Sterns to inject him with one of the vials of Banner’s blood, ignoring Sterns’ warnings that such an injection would react with the serum that is already in his veins and turn him into an “abomination.” Blonsky forces Sterns to give him the blood anyway, which results in Blonsky mutating into a giant green creature similar to the Hulk, but he is unable to change back. Blonsky destroys Sterns’ lab in rage, and some of Banner’s blood falls on Sterns’ head, causing it to grow and bulge.

After leaving Sterns’ lab, the enraged Blonsky rampages through the streets of Harlem. Banner convinces Ross that he is the only one who can stop Blonsky and shocks himself into turning back into the Hulk by leaping from a helicopter in mid-air. After defeating Blonsky after a long battle, the Hulk escapes custody, turning up a month later in British Columbia, with Banner still attempting to control the beast within him. The final scene of the film shows General Ross being visited by Tony Stark in a bar. Tony begins to tell Ross of a team that is being assembled, a subject which deeply interests Ross.

Iron Man 2 (2010), Directed by Jon Favreau

As the first and, to date, only Marvel Studios sequel opens, an inventor named Ivan Venko watches Tony Stark out himself as Iron Man on Russian television and begins work on a similar suit using the same arc reactor technology that powers Stark’s armor. We flash forward six years, after Stark’s Iron Man armor technology has been used to help maintain peace in the world. Some in Washington want Stark to turn his technology over to the government, but he refuses.

One thing that Stark has not revealed to the world is that the palladium core in the arc reactor in his chest is slowly poisoning him, and he has tried and failed to develop the technology that he could use to substitute his reactor. Because he feels like he cannot avoid death, he becomes increasingly reckless and volatile around those who are close to him. He appoints his assistant “Pepper” Potts as the new CEO of Stark Industries and hires a young woman named Natalie Rushman as his new assistant. During a Formula One race at the Circuit de Monaco, Vanko appears in a suit of armor that radiates whip-like streams of energy and attacks Stark. After narrowly defeating Vanko, Tony soon learns that Vanko’s father Anton was his father Howard Stark’s partner and that they both worked on developing the first-ever arc reactor. He also learns that Anton was deported to the Soviet Union and died in poverty while Howard’s fortune increased. Vanko soon partners with Tony’s rival Justin Hammer to create a line of armored soldier suits to compete with Stark.

After a falling out during Tony’s birthday party, Rhodey dons one of Tony’s suits and delivers it to the U.S. Army. Stark is then visited by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury, who tells him that his new assistant is actually S.H.I.E.L.D agent Natasha Romanoff, who has been hired to keep an eye on him. Fury also reveals that Howard Stark was a co-founder of S.H.I.E.L.D and gives Tony some artifacts that once belonged to his father. Tony finds a diagram of a new element within a diorama of a past Stark Expo and synthesizes it with the help of his robotic aide Jarvis. He then uses the element to replace the deadly element in his arc reactor.

The final battle  takes place at the Stark Expo, where both Stark and Rhodey in the Mark II armor team up to defeat Venko, who kills himself by activating his suit’s self-destruct mechanism. Romanoff, a.k.a. the Black Widow, aids Stark and Rhodey in their mission. Later, during his debriefing (and with the Hulk’s rampage from The Incredible Hulk shown on a TV screen in the background), Fury informs Stark that he will not be included in the Avenger Initiative due to his erratic behavior but will stay on as a consultant. After the credits, we find Agent Coulson on assignment in New Mexico, where he finds a large crater in the middle of the desert with a strange object embedded inside.

Thor (2011), Directed by Kenneth Branagh

The most fantasy-oriented of all the Marvel Studios films begins with a brief history of the Norse Gods of Asgard and their war with the Frost Giants of Jotunheim. The Asgardians, under the leadership of the All-Father Odin, are charged with protecting the nine realms, of which Earth is one, from the Frost Giants, who have tried for millenia to conquer them. The Asgardians eventually defeat the Frost Giants and capture their greatest weapon, the Casket of Ancient Winters. When then flash forward to the present-day, with Odin’s son Thor set to take over the throne of Asgard. His coronation ceremony is interrupted by an attack by an army of Frost Giants trying to recapture the Casket. In retaliation, and against the wishes of his father, Thor leads an attack on Jotunheim, joined by his brother Loki and good friends Volstagg, Sif, Hogun, and Fandral. Odin catches wind of their plot and follows them to Jotunheim, eventually rescuing them after they are cornered by the Frost Giants and other horrible beasts. To punish Thor for his arrogance and insubordination, Odin takes away Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir and banishes him to Earth to live as a mortal. Before the portal to Earth closes, Odin enchants Mjolnir to permit only those worthy of its power to pick it up and throws it towards Earth. Both Thor and Mjolnir land in present-day New Mexico, and Mjolnir’s landing creates the crater that S.H.I.E.L.D came across at the end of Iron Man 2.

A groggy and disoriented Thor is discovered by a team of astrophysicists that includes Jane Foster, her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig, and their assistant Darcy Lewis. Led by Agent Coulson, S.H.I.E.L.D forcibly removes Mjolnir from the crater and forcibly gains possession of Jane’s data about the wormhole that acted as the portal that brought both Thor and Mjolnir to Earth. Thor soon discovers where Mjolnir is being kept and convinces Jane and her colleagues to help her break it out of S.H.I.E.L.D’s possession. Thor’s attempt is thwarted when he finds he cannot lift Mjolnir, and he is taken prisoner. Selvig convinces S.H.I.E.L.D to release Thor into his care. Thor quickly befriends the three scientists, and a romance begins to develop between him and Jane. Back on Asgard, it is revealed to Loki that he is descended from the Frost Giants and was adopted by Odin. An over-stressed Odin begins to fall into the “Odinsleep” in order to regain his composure. During Odin’s hibernation, Loki assumes the throne of Asgard and begins to communicate with the Frost Giants, offering their king Loufey the chance to kill his archnemesis Odin in his sleep.

Heimdall, Sif, Fandral, and Hogun convince Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifost bridge that connects Asgard to Earth, to let them travel to Earth in order to bring Thor back so that he can help them defeat Loki. Loki is informed of their plan and sends a large automoton called the Destroyer to Earth in order to kill his estranged brother. Shortly after Thor’s friends find him on Earth, the Destroyer attacks, and Thor selflessly offers himself as a sacrifice, a gesture which makes him worthy of Mjolnir again. The hammer quickly rushes to Thor’s hand, and Thor uses his regained powers to defeat the Destroyer. He then returns with his friends to Asgard to force Loki from the throne. On Asgard, Loki betrays and kills Laufey and attempts to use the Bifrost to attempt to destroy Jotunheim in order to make himself worthy in the eyes of his adopted father Odin. Thor arrives and battles Loki on the Bifrost bridge, damaging it in the process, which cuts off Asgard’s link to Earth and separates Thor from his new love Jane. Odin then awakes from his sleep and helps Thor defeat Loki, who falls off the bridge to what is thought to be his death. The reunited father and son make amends, and Thor admits that he is not yet worthy to assume the throne of Asgard. Meanwhile, on Earth, Jane begins researching a way to bring Thor back. After the credits, Selvig meets with Nick Fury, who reveals to him a briefcase containing a cube-shaped structure that Fury says contains considerable power. We see an apparition of Loki appear in a reflection right next to Selvig. Loki convinces Selvig to agree to Fury’s offer to study the object.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Directed by Joe Johnston

The final prelude film to The Avengers begins briefly in the present-day, where a team of scientists uncover a red, white, and blue shield in the Arctic. We then flash back to 1942, where we see a team of Nazis led by an officer named Johann Schmidt steal a mysterious artifact. Meanwhile, we see a scrawny young New Yorker named Steve Rogers try and fail to enlist in the Army to fight in World War II due to physical shortcomings. While attending an expedition of future technologies with his friend James “Bucky” Barnes, he tries again to enlist and gains the attention of a German expatriate scientist named Abraham Erskine, who recruits Steve as a candidate for an experimental “Super Soldier” serum that he is developing. The trials to determine the perfect candidate for the serum are overseen by Erskine, U.S. Army Colonel Chester Phillips, and British agent Peggy Carter. Erskine champions Steve for the procedure based on his selflessness and courage, and Steve is eventually chosen to receive the serum.

Before he is given the Super Soldier serum, Erskine informs Steve that he was forced by the Nazis to develop an early version of the formula that was given untested to Schmidt, and the side effects deformed him and drove him insane. Schmidt and his assistant Arnim Zola successfully harness the energy of the artifact they stole at the beginning of the film and, after learning of Erskine’s location, dispatch an assassin to take him out. The assassin shoots Erskine soon after Steve is transformed into a larger, more muscular, and more agile version of himself. Steve chases down the assassin, who commits suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill. With Erskine dead, the government shuts down the Super Soldier program and orders Rogers to tour with the U.S.O. while wearing a colorful red, white, and blue costume and promoting the sale of war bonds under the government-mandated alias of Captain America. While on tour in Italy, Steve learns that Bucky’s unit has been captured, and he convinces Peggy Carter and Howard Stark (Tony’s father) to try to rescue them. While busting Bucky loose, Steve meets Schmidt, who reveals that the face he shows to the world is actually a mask that hides a deformed skull-like face that resulted from Erskine’s untested serum.

After rescuing Bucky and his fellow troops, Cap becomes the leader of a special unit to take out the bases of HYDRA, the organization headed by Schmidt, who is now known as The Red Skull. Steve receives a costume better suited for combat, and Stark gives him a shield made of an incredibly strong substance known as Vibranium that he can use for both offense and defense. On one of their missions, they successfully capture Zola, but Bucky falls to what we assume is his death. Cap and his team soon learn from Zola the location of HYDRA’s main headquarters, and they mount an attack to stop Schmidt from using the energy he got from the mysterious cube-shaped artifact to destroy the United States. During Cap and the Skull’s final battle aboard Schmidt’s aircraft, the cube’s container is damaged, and the cube itself comes into contact with Schmidt, who dissolves in a bright flash of light, leaving Cap alone in a damaged aircraft carrying a cache of weapons of mass destruction. Cap decides to sacrifice himself by steering the craft into the Arctic Sea. When he crashes into the water, Carter and the rest of Cap’s team believe that he has died. We then cut to the present-day, with Cap waking up in what appears to be a 1940’s hospital room, but he grows suspicious when he hears a baseball game on the radio in the room that he remembers attending in person. Cap escapes from the room and finds himself running around Times Square, still not sure where he is or what happened to him. Nick Fury eventually catches up to him and explains that he has been asleep for nearly 70 years.

All the dangling plot threads and unanswered questions from all five of these films will hopefully be resolved in The Avengers. How is Thor going to get back to Earth? How did S.H.I.E.L.D get possession of the Cosmic Cube? How did Loki cheat death when he fell off of the Bifrost, and what powerful force has he recruited to battle Earth’s Mightiest Heroes? How are the Avengers going to control a volatile being like the Hulk? How will the old-fashioned and earnest Steve Rogers get along with the modern and sarcastic Tony Stark? Will Hawkeye have more than two lines in the film? Like all fans of these films and of the characters, I will be on the edge of my seat on May 4th, waiting to see the answers to all of these questions and more.


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Who ARE these people!?

Ben Gilbert is an avid comic and movie fan, father of two amazing kids, and husband to one awesome chick. He resides in the hills of East Tennessee and still doesn't quite know what he wants to be when he grows up.

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  1. Bigtymin504 says:

    Wow great summary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s pretty damn remarkable what Marvel has done here. Not only have they pleased comic fans, they’ve made general audiences fall in love with it all too.

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