While Avengers: Age of Ultron was quite good, one of the ways it suffered was from all of the breadcrumbs littered throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe that tied into it. For those of you who maybe haven’t been following along and taking notes, here are a few things to note that help it all make sense.
So, this is split into two parts. Part I has no spoilers in it for Age of Ultron, but the end of Part II does. These are not exhaustive, but will hopefully help you understand either what you are about to see or have already seen. There are a lot of layers in Age of Ultron, and a lot of breadcrumbs to follow.Part I: Timeline
Marvel is writing its movies (as well as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in tight interlocking timelines as well as ‘phases.’ All pieces in a Phase move towards one goal. Phase One ends with The Avengers and includes all Marvel Cinematic Universe productions up to that point: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk (the one with Edward Norton), Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor. All of these films are establishing where superheroes come from, as well as what kinds of things they might do in a world much like our own.
Phase II deals with the fallout of a changing world, and keep in mind that it’s still changing as the phase progresses. These titles include Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Seasons 1 and 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (arguably Agent Carter, as well), The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and will finish later this summer with Ant-Man. Netflix’s Daredevil is also somehow part of the MCU, but how it ties in yet I’m not sure of. (I’m still watching. I can’t be on top of everything!)
Now if you’ve missed a piece or three of this build up, you’ll still mostly get Age of Ultron. But, some things to keep in mind:
Tony is very broken following the Battle of New York, and Iron Man 3 doesn’t help. He’s had his work follow him home, and this isn’t acceptable. He’s terrified in a way that he’s never been before, because he’s never really faced something he couldn’t fight and easily beat. This informs his actions during Age of Ultron greatly.
Thor left Earth for two years to help bring peace to the nine realms. It made him grow up. He found an Infinity Stone. More on that later. So in Age of Ultron we see a more subdued, but steadier, Thor than we’ve seen before.
Cap can’t stop fighting. He doesn’t know how to be a civilian, and isn’t sure he wants to learn. However, he doesn’t like trying to stop crime before it’s occurred. When H.Y.D.R.A. resurrects from within S.H.I.E.L.D., Steve helps Fury and Black Widow stop the ultimate evil plan from being enacted, but this leaves S.H.I.E.L.D. broken and Fury supposedly dead. The ‘Twins’ are teased in an end credits scene. We also meet Falcon, the first Marvel Black superhero from way back in the day. A sidekick for now, but likely not for long.
The Guardians give us a look outside of Earth and away from the pseudo-Fantasy world of Asgard. More Infinity Stones (we’ll talk about those later).
The events of the first four films of Phase II take place nearly simultaneously in the timeline. So Tony isn’t worried about the convergence because his house just blew up, Steve and Natasha are having an existential crisis and are on the run from H.Y.D.R.A., and Hawkeye is M.I.A. all at the same time.
On the small screen, Phil Coulson and his team have been working to take apart H.Y.D.R.A. one bite at a time since the events of Winter Soldier. I assume dear ol’ Phil’s been feeding Fury intel on bases his team couldn’t crack without massive losses, and the Avengers have been using them as team building exercises. In the episode that premiered April 28, Coulson’s team found a H.Y.D.R.A. base where H.Y.D.R.A. was doing experiments on, and trying to create, ‘Enhanced’ people. Aka, superpowers. For realsies. In the intel from the base, the Agents learn that there have only been two successes in this experimentational program, and the Twins are located at another secret base. Phil tells Maria Hill to call in the Avengers.
The Infinity Stones
These seem to be the current overarching thread through all Phase 1 and Phase 2 films. We’ve seen four of the six so far, and by the time Avengers 3’s credits role, I’m assuming we’ll have seen them all. It’s like Pokemon, but for Marvel.
So what are these guys? Well, as told to us by both Odin in Thor: The Dark World and the Collector in The Guardians of the Galaxy, once upon a time our universe was made up of infinite powers. But then the world grew up a little and moved on, and these powers were condensed down into six stones. (This gets confusing, as the Aether isn’t actually a stone, but a weird liquid that doesn’t always obey gravity.)
Of the stones we’ve encountered so far, number one is the Space Stone, otherwise known as the Tesseract from Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. Following its recovery by S.H.I.E.L.D at the end of The Avengers, Thor takes the Tesseract and Loki back to Asgard for safe keeping. As Fury says, there’s not much arguing with a god.
The second stone named as such is the Aether, also known as the Reality Stone to comic buffs. This shows up in Thor: The Dark World as the weird red stuff that infects Jane Foster. In the end credits teaser, we see Lady Sif and Volstagg (the dwarven looking guy) take a contained Aether to someone named the Collector. When asked why the Asgardians aren’t putting something so valuable in their vault, they admit to having the Tesseract in the vault already and say that it is unwise to keep two stones so close together.
Of course, that doesn’t stop the Collector from trying to get his hands on another stone. This time its the Orb, aka the Power Stone, which the Collector arranges to buy from Lady Gamora in The Guardians of the Galaxy (which is really only a few days later). This almost immediately backfires, and the stone is stolen by Ronan the Accuser and used in a battle against Xandar. It should be noted that the Orb is the only Infinity Stone directly handled by any character on screen, and for the most part the stone destroys anyone who tries. The Guardians themselves survive only by holding the stone together as a group. At the end of the movie, the Guardians have left the Orb in the hands of the Nova Corps, an intergalactic police and military force headquartered on Xandar. (The Aether’s whereabouts are again unknown, as the Collector’s Museum is in shambles halfway through The Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe Howard the Duck escaped with it?)
So if you’ve seen Age of Ultron by now, you’ll notice the Mind Stone that was taken from Loki’s scepter. Vision, day old superhero that he is, seems to have a handle on it, isn’t being destroyed by it, and moreover, is likely better able to protect it than Thor himself (he is worthy!). So Vision’s likely the most powerful Avenger at this point. The Mind Stone is still on Earth, being utilized by the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D.
Now, on top of all this, when Scarlet Witch fries everyone’s brain, Thor gets a vision in his nightmare of the Infinity Stones (the Aether one a stone, not wtf it was) including the two we haven’t met yet. Things have gone terribly terribly wrong in this vision, and most of Asgard is dead. This may be why the third Thor movie is entitled Ragnarok (it’s the end of the world as we know it...). We also get a tiny teaser mid-credits of Thanos (big purple dude from Guardians of the Galaxy who was also teased at the end of The Avengers) grabbing a gauntlet (glove for the non-fancy) with space for six stones on it. He says ‘If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.’
Hopefully my meanderings have triggered some memories for you, or at least helped you put all the pieces together. (And there are likely more that I missed.)