9 Things You Need To Know About The Marvel Universe Before Seeing Captain America

In 2008, Marvel Studios embarked on an incredibly ambitious project. Starting with Iron Man, the company began releasing a series of superhero movies based on their own properties that would eventually be tied together in the team-up movie The Avengers in 2012. The drawback, however, is that not everyone in the world is as obsessed with the characters as their key fanbase and while the films do cater to a wide audience, there are always going to be details that leave sections of the movie-going public saying, “Huh? The good news is that I’m here to help.

Just as I did prior to the release of Iron Man 2 and Thor, I’ve crafted yet another handy guide to the Marvel universe, this time for Captain America: The First Avenger, which comes out this Friday. If you still have no idea what the Cosmic Cube is or who the hell the Howling Commandos are, read on below for the full scoop.

WARNING: This article contains some minor spoilers for Captain America: The First Avenger. While the first seven entries are safe, the last two may affect the surprise element and are clearly marked. It should be noted that people who have viewed behind-the-scenes photos probably won’t be too shocked by this information anyway.


What Is It? HYDRA is, as Peggy Carter puts it, the Nazi deep science division run by Johann Schmidt, aka The Red Skull. Even though the name of the organization is in all capital letters, it actually isn’t an acronym. Instead, the name refers to the mythical creature that, when beheaded, would grow two heads in the original head’s place (referring to the groups growing power and reach). HYDRA’s armies are massive and equipped with technologies that exceed even modern standards. Their symbol is a skull with six tentacles and they salute by extending both fists and proclaiming “Hail HYDRA!”

How Does It Fit? HYDRA, its armies, and the Red Skull together play the antagonist role in Captain America: The First Avenger. Using the organization’s resources and manpower, the Red Skull plans to execute his plans for world domination using a power never before seen by this world and previously thought to exist only in the world of myth. It’s up to Cap and his crew to stop these forces before it’s too late.

Arnim Zola

Who Is He? Much like the Red Skull, Zola is a genius, but is more of an inventor than he is a military strategist. Working under HYDRA, Zola develops weapons never before conceived by mankind. In the comics Zola is one of the stranger looking supervillains, his character usually drawn as a man with a monitor in his chest that shows a close-up of his original face.

How Does He Fit? Though the character is introduced in a way that will make comic book fans smile, Arnim Zola is played by Toby Jones in Captain America: The First Avenger. At the start of the film, Zola has already made plenty of weapons for HYDRA, but they are not yet functional. To remedy this, the Red Skull finds the Cosmic Cube and harnesses its power. Though Zola is considerably weaker than the Red Skull, they are both high ranking members in both the Nazi party and in HYDRA.

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 Cosmic Cube. Its power is simple: the owner of the cube can alter anything in reality. In proper, responsible hands it can be managed, but in the hands of a supervillain it can be the most dangerous item in existence.

How Does It Fit? Previously seen in the end credits sequence of Thor, the Cosmic Cube plays a much larger role in Captain America: The First Avenger. While Arnim Zola has developed quite a number of new technologies and weapons, they prove to be useless until Schmidt harnesses the power of the Cosmic Cube. Distributing its power as a blue energy source, the HYDRA guns become blasters capable of disintegrating their target in an instant and bombs are powerful enough to destroy entire cities in moments. Remember what I said about the cube’s power in the hands of a supervillain? This is what I meant.

Super Soldier Serum Or Erskine Formula

What Is It? Developed by a German scientist named Abraham Erskine, who defects to the United States during World War II, the Super Soldier Serum enhances not only physical attributes, but emotional ones as well. When given to the right person and paired with a treatment called “vita-rays” (light that stabilizes the chemicals in the serum) it can have incredible effects, but if improperly applied and/or given to the wrong subject, it can have disastrous results.

How Does It Fit? Steve Rogers starts the film as a sickly, scrawny orphan who wants nothing more than to fight for his country, and is discovered by Erskine and found to be the perfect candidate for the super soldier serum. The experiment turns him into Captain America, but Rogers isn’t the only person in the film given Erskine’s Formula. Before defecting, Johann Schmidt forces Erskine to give him the serum, but because vita-rays aren’t used and Schmidt’s evil intentions, the procedure results in Schmidt becoming deformed and going absolutely insane.

Howard Stark

Who Is He? As you can probably guess by the name, Howard Stark is the father of Tony Stark, the man who would eventually be called Iron Man. Much like his son, Howard is a bit of a playboy, but his more impressive characteristic is his genius-level intellect. The creator of Stark Industries, Howard is the principal weapons developer for the United States Army and a skilled inventor.

How Does He Fit? If you’ve watched the two Iron Man films than you have already been introduced to this character twice. First played by Gerard Sanders and then John Slattery, the young Howard Stark is played by Dominic Cooper in Captain America: The First Avenger and helps the hero in many ways. In addition to providing the super soldier with his famous costume and shield, Stark is even present when Steve Rogers is first given the super soldier serum and exposed to vita-rays.


What Is It? Comic book fans may already be familiar with the fake metal known as adamantium from the X-Men movies, but vibranium is another element that you won’t be able to find on the standard periodic table. The material’s name comes from its incredible ability to absorb all vibration and kinetic energy targeted towards it. The strongest metal on earth and a third the weight of steel, what makes vibranium even more special is that the absorbed energy actually makes it even stronger.

How Does It Fit? This is actually not the first time that Vibranium has made an appearance in the Marvel movie universe. Though it’s not mentioned by name, it’s the element re-discovered and formulated by Tony Stark in Iron Man 2 as a replacement for the palladium core in his chest arc reactor. In this film, however, the ultra-rare metal is made into a shield by Howard Stark that Captain America paints and takes into battle.

Howling Commandos

Who Are They? In the comics, the Howling Commandos is an elite group of soldiers brought together by Colonel Nick Fury to fight the Nazis during World War II. Notable members of this group include Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough), Gabe Jones (Derek Luke), Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi), James Montgomery Falsworth (JJ Field), Jacques Dernier (Bruno Ricci) and, of course, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Wolverine was a member of the unit during the War, but because rights for the character belong to Fox, he can’t be included in the Marvel films.

How Do They Fit? Though they are never called the Howling Commandos by name, the group is formed after the members are kidnapped by HYDRA and freed by Captain America. Because Nick Fury isn’t around this early in the Marvel movie timeline, it is instead Cap who enlists the men’s help. Together they fight to take down HYDRA bases across Europe.



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? Captain America: The First Avenger largely takes place during World War II, but the story is framed by bookends set in the present. At the start of the movie a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are sent to the arctic to investigate a ship found in the ice. At the end of the film, Captain America wakes up in a compound in New York run by the organization.

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? In the comics the character’s origin begins in World War II where he was the leader of the Howling Commandos, but obviously that’s not the case in the film’s continuity as that would make Fury at least 70 years old in modern day. Fury shows up at the very end of the film after Captain America is woken up and has escaped from the S.H.I.E.L.D. compound in New York.

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.