10 Things You Need To Know About The Marvel Universe Before Seeing The Avengers

Back in 2008, Marvel Studios began one of the most ambitious projects ever conceived in the medium of film. The plan was to create and release individual movies about Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America and then bring them all together for a team-up film called The Avengers. In that time the studio has had its ups and downs, successes and mistakes, but this Friday it all comes together when the Joss Whedon-written and directed movie arrives in theaters. But while fans have likely been following along these past four years, the truth is that there are probably still a lot of people out there who have no idea what The Avengers is, who the characters are, or what makes the project so special. So I’m here to lend a hand.

Just as I did before the releases of Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, I’ve drawn up a quick encyclopedia with need-to-know information that will help you better understand not only what’s going on in The Avengers, but what’s driving the various characters. Whether you have no idea what a “Hulk” is or just what to read more about the The Tesseract, this article is for you.

WARNING: This article contains some minor spoilers for The Avengers. While the first nine entries are safe, the last one may affect the surprise element and is clearly marked. Please be careful while scrolling!

Captain America

Who Is He? Born Steve Rogers, Captain America began life as a sickly young orphan who wanted to do nothing more than fight for his country. When his heart is recognized by a brilliant scientist named Dr. Abraham Erskine, Rogers is given what’s typically known as the Super Soldier Serum, which turns him into the perfect human specimen. He uses these new found powers to fight against the forces of H.Y.D.R.A. and the evil Red Skull. While trying to save the world back in the 1940s, he winds up crashing a large airship into the arctic circle and is frozen alive, only to be brought back when discovered by S.H.I.E.L.D.

How Does He Fit? Even as The Man Out of Time, Captain America is called on by S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers as a natural leader who can bring his team into battle and craft brilliant strategy. He is hampered by the fact that he is lost in our age, but his strength and determination make him one of the greatest weapons (and shields) that our world has ever seen.

Iron Man

Who Is He? Tony Stark is a genius who spent years developing and inventing the most advanced weapons technology our world has ever seen for his company, Stark Industries. When he is kidnapped by terrorist forces, Stark finds himself forced to create a means of escape by inventing the Iron Man suit, an amazing piece of armor that not only protects Stark and gives him the ability to fly, but is also fully equipped with weapons that allow him to take out his enemies. The whole thing is powered by a special piece of technology in Stark’s chest called the Arc Reactor, which also serves to keep dangerous pieces of embedded shrapnel away from the hero’s heart.

How Does He Fit? Stark is one of the earliest super-powered individuals to be recruited for The Avengers Initiative, but that doesn’t make him the perfect candidate. Known for his arrogance and inability/unwillingness to work with others, Iron Man doesn’t like being a government puppet or taking orders, which makes him a poor candidate for the Avengers team, but he is also a man who knows when it’s time to shake off his own personality flaws and become a hero. The new movie also sees him create The Stark Tower, a new building in New York City that is entirely run on pure, clean energy.


Who Is He? Thor is best known from Norse legend as The God of Thunder. He hails from the mystical land of Asgard where he is next in line to the throne. In addition to his incredible strength and speed, Thor’s power is given to him by Mjolnir, a powerful hammer that the hero can use to conjure lightning and fly. He also happens to be the brother of Loki and they take sibling rivalry to a whole new level.

How Does He Fit? As the only other-worldly member of The Avengers, Thor has somewhat different motivations than the rest of the superhero team as he wants to see the criminal known as Loki brought to Asgardian justice. That said, Thor also sees himself as the protector of Earth and will use all of his powers to help the humans. At the end of his solo movie, the character seemed to be trapped in Asgard and unable to return to Earth, but is told that there are other ways to make it back.

The Hulk

Who Is He? Bruce Banner was a government scientist working in the field of gamma radiation when a secret test went horribly wrong and resulted in Banner being turned into a giant, rage-fueled green monster with inconceivable strength and invulnerability. Not wanting to be turned into a lab rat by the government, Banner went on the run trying to find a way to cure himself of the evil beast within him. The Hulk is triggered by rising blood pressure, meaning that you really don’t ever want to see Bruce Banner when he gets angry. It should be noted that the last time we saw the character Banner seemed to have learned how to control the creature.

How Does He Fit? Banner isn’t brought on as part of the Avengers Initiative for his strength as The Hulk, but rather his intelligence as a scientist. The Tesseract that Loki has stolen (more on both of those things in a bit) gives off gamma radiation and Banner is hired to track it. That said, the nature of Banner’s condition makes him the definition of wild card…


Who Is He? Like Thor, Loki is an Asgardian of legend, but has a much darker, more complicated background. Born as a son to the Frost Giant King Laufey, Loki was kidnapped as a prize of war by King Odin of Asgard and raised as one of Odin’s sons. Upon learning of his lineage, the God of Mischief is driven mad with rage and becomes not only obsessed with the idea of power, but jealous of everything his brother, Thor, has been given and seeks to destroy it.

How Does He Fit? Loki is the central villain of The Avengers and is quite the powerful one at that. At the start of the film he finds his way back to Earth so that he can claim control of The Tesseract, a powerful device that will allow him to unleash his army on the world (but more on that later). He sees himself as a god and believes that humanity is meant to bow to him. The Avengers are out to prove him wrong.

The Tesseract a.k.a. The Cosmic Cube

What Is It? There are plenty of powerful items and people in the Marvel Universe, but only an minute few stack up against The Tesseract a.k.a. The Cosmic Cube. Its capability is simple: it’s an unlimited source of energy and power that can be used to open portals in space.

How Does It Fit? Best known from Captain America: The First Avenger, the Tesseract was first the ultimate weapon of H.Y.D.R.A. and The Red Skull, but this time around it’s Loki who sees its power. Knowing that S.H.I.E.L.D. is protecting the ancient device (as seen in the stinger at the end of Thor, the God of Mischief steals the cube and uses it so that he can bring his alien army to earth.


Who Are They? Introduced in the Earth-1610 universe of Marvel Comics, the Chitauri are a violent race of aliens originally conceived as alternate versions of the aliens known as the Skrulls. While in the comics they became known for their ability to shapeshift, they do not have that capability in The Avengers. They are, however, very militaristic and outfitted with powerful weapons and vehicles.

How Do They Fit? It is the Chitauri who call on Loki to lead them in a fight for control of Earth. They need Loki to attain the Tesseract and open a portal from their world to ours. But while Loki is the key, the race is actually lead by a mysterious figure who keeps to the shadows and is actually orchestrating everything behind the scenes.


What Is It? An acronym for the clunkily-titled Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, S.H.I.E.L.D. is like the C.I.A. if not only the agents, but the organization itself was kept a secret. Headquartered in the mobile Helicarrier, a city-sized base that floats in the sky, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. deal with matters beyond most people's comprehension, from super powered individuals to extraterrestrials. Responsible for clean-up and debriefing after super powered “incidents” they have way more power in world affairs than you could possibly know, and are headed up by one of the most powerful officials in the world: Colonel Nick Fury.

How Does It Fit? If it weren’t for S.H.I.E.L.D. there would be no Avengers. It’s the government agency that both creates and enacts the Avengers Initiative, the protocol that calls for superpowered individuals to be brought together in times of crisis to battle against forces of evil that otherwise could not be stopped. What’s more, key members of the organization, Hawkeye and Black Widow, were agents prior to agreeing to fight alongside Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and The Hulk.

Nick Fury

Who Is He? Played by Samuel L. Jackson, Colonel Nick Fury is the black duster-and eye-patch-wearing director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Stern and serious about protecting the world, he’s on a mission to bring together the most powerful individuals on the planet and form the superhero team known as The Avengers.

How Does He Fit? He’s shown up in bits and flashes in previous films – most notably in Iron Man 2, but it’s in The Avengers that Nick Fury finally has time to shine. Though Captain America is the team’s leader in the field, as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury is the real leader, as he was the one who calls for everyone to be brought together. Whether or not he can be trusted at all times is a different story entirely.



Who Is He? Thanos is one of the most powerful, evil beings in the universe. Fascinated by death and pain, the character in the comics is bestowed with many powers, including superhuman strength, stamina, intelligence as well as telekinesis and teleportation. He is best known for his quest to control an item called the Infinity Gauntlet, a glove that, when embedded with the six infinity gems, gives the wearer complete control over the entire universe (the item can briefly be seen in Odin’s treasure room at the beginning of Thor).

How Does He Fit? Remember how I said that the Chitauri were being controlled by a mysterious figure who keeps to the shadows? Well, Thanos is his name. The character appears in the after-credits sequence of The Avengers and smiles when his henchman tells him that anyone who goes up against the humans of Earth and The Avengers is a fool. As of now it’s unclear how Thanos will work into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the assumption at large is that he will be the central villain of The Avengers 2.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.