Saturday, February 9, 2013

Marvel Cinematic Universe: A Conspiracy Theory

As much as I enjoyed "Avengers" last year, I couldn't help but feel like I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't thoroughly spoiled myself about basically everything important. I knew about Coulson, I knew about Thanos, I knew about Hulk's "secret", I pretty much knew every major detail and every super popular line...

I guess I was hoping that the movie would still have one or two surprises left for me, but it really didn't. I still loved it, but I allowed myself to be completely engulfed by spoilers and TV spots and trailers and reviews and so on to the point where I had basically already seen the movie before I even saw it, and so I vowed to try and not let that happen for future Marvel installments.

Of course, I'm only human. While I don't intend to let myself get spoiled for every little detail and twist in a particular upcoming Marvel movie (I've actually been able to avoid most spoiler posts and set photos for "Thor: The Dark World" and "Iron Man 3") part of the fun for me, particularly with the MCU, is speculating on where exactly the story is going, and frankly, it's been kind of hard to do that so far.

So when I heard that the ever-reliable El Mayimbe of Latino Review had a scoop on the shape of "Avengers 3", I knew I had to hear about it. Given that it was a potential spoiler for a movie that hasn't even been officially announced yet, I knew that it couldn't possibly be anything more than a vague direction, and that's essentially what it is.

And I'm really glad I heard about this one because it pretty much feels like the big puzzle piece that was missing. I now feel like I get where the MCU is headed, at least to a degree.

That being said, some people would probably prefer to not be spoiled about anything, and I can't blame them.



OK, so to start off, here's El Mayimbe's video.

So yeah, while we likely won't know if any of this is true for quite a long time, and big plans like this have a tendency to change over time, I think it's fair to assume that this is a very possible truth.

To sum up in case you can't watch the video, the Meta-Plot of Phase 2 (the story thread that connects all of the movies much in the same way S.H.I.E.L.D. connected Phase 1) is either the existence or the founding of the Illuminati.

In the comics, the Illuminati are a group of leaders of various factions of the super-community that meet secretly to use their vast power and resources to orchestrate certain big things from behind the scenes. They were originally written to explain away certain coincidences and plot-holes throughout Marvel's continuity and to set up things for "Civil War" and other events from the past decade. Their core membership often shifts, but in its original mini-series run, it was formed by Iron Man (representing the Avengers), Professor X (representing the X-Men), Reed Richards (representing the Fantastic Four), Black Bolt (representing the Inhumans), Doctor Strange (representing the cosmic/mystical side of Marvel), and Namor (representing Atlantis).

The next reveal from the video is that, as in the comics, the Illuminati will launch Hulk into space "for his own good" as part of "Avengers 2". In the comics, they did this mostly because they were about to do "Civil War" and whichever side Hulk was on would probably have just won by default.

In the comics, they intended to send Hulk to a planet full of non-sentient creatures that he could vent his rage on without causing any real harm or serious consequences. Unfortunately, plans go awry and Hulk lands on a different planet where he basically becomes a slave, a gladiator, and then king. He gets an alien wife and two kids. This shapes the comic story "Planet Hulk".

The next reveal is that "Planet Hulk" is going to be Hulk's next solo movie in Phase 3. And the final reveal is that his return will be the central conflict of "Avengers 3", which will essentially be "World War Hulk" from the comics, where Hulk is back and pissed after his wife gets killed and he believes the Illuminati are responsible.

OK, so this is a lot to take in, but if you'll bear with me, I think that this raises a lot of really interesting questions about the shape of things to come, so let's take it a step at a time.

The Illuminati and Iron Man

For me, this was probably the biggest reveal of El Mayimbe's scoop. While I personally think the bits about Hulk are subject to change based on the success or failure of "Guardians of the Galaxy" (more on that later), I think that the existence of the Illuminati is an EXCELLENT Meta-Plot for Phase 2.

I had never really considered the potential of the Illuminati before now, mostly because the MCU had yet to establish Namor, the Inhumans, or Doctor Strange, and the Fantastic Four and X-Men are going to be sticking around Fox for the foreseeable future.

But now that I think about it, it makes pretty good sense.

Writing-wise, the biggest challenge the MCU faces right now is in establishing new heroes within the universe. If it is established at any point that there were other superheroes around during the events of "Avengers", it immediately raises the question, "Where the fuck were they during the invasion of New York?"

However, the Illuminati side-steps this issue entirely. If during "Avengers 2" the Illuminati are revealed and someone asks why they weren't at New York, they can reveal that one of the plot-holes or convenient coincidences of "Avengers" was a result of their manipulation from behind the scenes. Perhaps they themselves were behind the attack, but more on that later.

This serves so many functions that now that I've thought about it, I can't imagine them NOT doing it. It allows them to introduce anywhere from 3-5 new characters all at once without having to explain their whereabouts, it corrects plot-holes, and it sets the stage for tons of other plots moving forward.

Once we have the Illuminati, we can have "Civil War", "World War Hulk", "The Infinity Gauntlet", as well as movies about Doctor Strange (something that was recently announced to be a part of Phase 3), Namor, Black Bolt, and maybe even Black Panther.

Lastly -- and this is a bit of a stretch on my part, so take it with a heaping helping of salt -- it could reveal a secret cooperation between Fox and Marvel/Disney. As I've mentioned in a previous post, the concept of Fox cooperating with Marvel/Disney in terms of universe-sharing was not inconceivable since all parties involved potentially have something to gain from the arrangement, and what better way to reveal that cooperation than through a sudden reveal of Reed Richards and/or Professor X in one of the upcoming films?

That said, we really don't NEED Reed or Xavier to have the Illuminati, but if they were planning some kind of IP crossover, this would be one hell of a way to reveal it.

Most importantly, the Illuminati fits in very nicely with what appears to be the focus of Tony Stark's story in his upcoming film.

Kevin Feige, Robert Downey, Jr. and a few others have talked quite a bit about how Tony's arc has developed thus far. His first film was a journey of self-discovery. His transformation into Iron Man. "Iron Man 2" was about his learning to rely on others and not carry the weight of the world on his shoulders alone. "Avengers" took that even further and taught him to actively team up with others and get along with them, but it also showed him that he was completely unprepared for the kind of dangers that existed in his universe.

So now "Iron Man 3" comes along and he and the rest of the world are still freaking out about the alien invasion from "Avengers". The world's brightest minds are in a sort of arms race to determine who is best equipped to combat this kind of threat supposing that the Avengers aren't around next time. Meanwhile, Tony Stark has withdrawn back into his lab, trying not to acknowledge the terrifying truth that no one is prepared for what might come next. Then the Mandarin shows up and takes the world down a peg, putting Tony's back against a wall.

It's likely that Tony will lose someone important to him in "Iron Man 3". Possibly more than just one person. He'll blame himself, the other Avengers, and the rest of the world for not being able to stop it, and so he'll get desperate.

The other thing we've found out recently is that Tony will go into space at some point. It's not abundantly clear how or why this happens, but let's say it's because Tony realizes that if they're going to stand a chance against the ever-escalating threats, they're going to need outside help. There are rumors that the Guardians of the Galaxy will show up at this point, and that would make sense since that movie needs all the promotion it can get and tying it to the most popular solo franchise in the MCU is probably the best way to accomplish that. However, from a narrative perspective, I'm not entirely sure how much sense it makes. I personally think that it would make more sense for Tony to get introduced to the Illuminati at this point (probably Black Bolt or Doctor Strange since they're the most cosmic members of the group) and he will decide to join them, making him a part of their actions behind the scenes for the rest of Phase 2. Cap and Thor will learn that Tony's gone missing and he won't show up again until the events of "Avengers 2".

The Illuminati and Tony's involvement with them will likely not be fully revealed until one of the later films. We'll probably get hints sprinkled throughout, maybe strange coincidences or cloaked individuals. It's also possible we've already gotten our first hint through the rather ostentatious product placement of the corporation Oracle, which, yes, is an actual company that has an actual sponsorship deal with Marvel/Disney, but within the comics Oracle is also a company that Namor's secret identity uses as a front. It would be a fairly brilliant stroke of genius to turn a shameless promotion into retroactive world-building.

Iron Man and Hulk

One reason a lot of people are hesitant to accept that they'll do the whole "World War Hulk" story line is because one of the big emotional threads that really worked in "Avengers" was the friendship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. How could the MCU version of Tony sign off on the idea of shooting Bruce into space? In the comics, Bruce was never really friends with anybody. Others may have respected him or had faith in him, but none of the other heroes ever really befriended him in any significant way, so when the most powerful group of superheroes collectively decides to launch him into space, no one is really all that surprised. But in the MCU, this act would be a major betrayal on Tony's part.

Well, I think that's exactly what Whedon is planning.

As we all should know well by now, Joss Whedon knows exactly what clicks with his audience. He's very good at sussing out what characters and relationships work and then he knows exactly where to turn the screw in order to make his audience squirm with feels.

Take Buffy for example. Almost everyone's favorite character for the first few seasons (if not the whole series) is Willow. Particularly once she starts developing her magical power, she really starts ramping up the badassery. Then she develops a relationship with Tara, which most fans also very much enjoy. Joss knew how much his audience liked Willow, how much they liked Willow releasing her inner badass, and how much they liked her relationship with Tara. So what did he do? He used Willow's power to drive her and Tara apart, got them back together, killed Tara, and then sent Willow off the deep end to turn her into the Big Bad for that season. Ask anybody, and that's probably one of the most emotionally powerful and memorable seasons of Buffy.

So now Joss has a guiding hand in the MCU and he looks at what the audience loves. In "Avengers" particularly, people loved Hulk smashing stuff, they loved Iron Man and Hulk's bromance, and they generally love Iron Man's tendency to go against the grain.

Well, Iron Man's tendency to go against the grain is what led him to skip the whole "secret identity" part of his back story, and his public persona will likely be what puts Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts, and Rhodey all in danger. As I said, this will probably lead him to withdraw into the Illuminati and start focusing more on the "big picture".

Then in "Avengers 2", we will likely get a part where we are reminded why the Hulk is scary to a lot of people. As in the comics, he will probably lose control and possibly hurt some people. It's possible that Tony will feel partially responsible since he was the one who told Bruce he should "strut". As a result, Tony, now feeling jaded about his past mistakes and concerned for Bruce's well-being will consent to launching him into space.

If Joss can make this work, it will likely be one of the more emotionally outrageous parts of the movie. Fans will feel betrayed that Tony would do this to Hulk, but it will still make sense and remain consistent with the characters.

Thanos, Loki, and the Illuminati's Xanatos Speed Chess

Speaking of "Avengers 2", it is highly probable that Thanos will have some role to play in the film, if not the central conflict of the film. If so, the most famous story regarding Thanos is "The Infinity Gauntlet". This fits in rather nicely with the approach of the other films and the potential involvement of the Illuminati.

In the comics, one of the first major tasks of the Illuminati was dealing with the aftermath of "The Infinity Gauntlet". To prevent it from happening again, they collected all of the Infinity Gems and each member was tasked with keeping their Gem safe.

In the context of the MCU, they can likely do better than just cleanup duty. Allow me to indulge myself for a moment.

It was very briefly revealed in "Thor" that Odin's treasure room contains the Infinity Gauntlet with all the Gems apparently intact. At least, it was before the Destroyer took out the Frost Giants that were attempting to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters. We only get a glimpse of it and we never see it again for the rest of the movie. While this PROBABLY wasn't intentional (I mean, obviously including the Gauntlet was intentional, but it was likely still present in the treasure room while they were filming the rest of the movie even if we don't see it), it's also worth noting that one of the other artifacts in the treasure room is the Eye of Agamotto, the amulet wielded by the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange. It's also worth noting that the Frost Giants' failed heist was orchestrated by Loki, presumably to ruin Thor's coronation, but perhaps it had yet another purpose beneath it.

OK, this is where I REALLY stretch the realm of possibility, but that's the fun of speculation, isn't it?

What if Loki is a member of the Illuminati?

OK, I know that this is kind of a huge leap of logic, and it basically requires me to assume that the Illuminati are pulling the Xanatos Speed Chess trope, but let's think about this for a moment. Say Loki is involved with the Illuminati. Or at the very least, involved with Doctor Strange or his predecessor. Let's say that, perhaps, Loki orchestrated the heist in order to distract the Destroyer while someone else stole the Eye of Agamotto and the Infinity Gauntlet, replacing them with convincing imitations. Say the Illuminati were aware of Thanos' plot to possess the Gauntlet and his impending invasion of Earth to reclaim the Tesseract. What would need to happen?

First off, they needed the Gauntlet to separate the Gems and split them up among the members of the Illuminati to prevent Thanos from obtaining it. That would prevent Thanos' immediate conquest of the Universe, but it wouldn't prevent him from invading Earth to take back the Gems and the Tesseract, and if Thanos could gain access to the Bifrost, he could easily conquer Earth just as the Frost Giants once did. Additionally, they needed to make sure Odin's ability to interfere with their other plans was limited. So one way or another, they needed to destroy the Bifrost. But what could possibly destroy the Bifrost? Realistically, only the power of Odin could destroy the Bifrost, but he would need a reason to do that. Still, even without the Bifrost, Thanos could still travel by conventional means and even with years to prepare, the Illuminati could not stop such an invasion alone. They needed a crisis to start getting things moving.

So to sum up, here's the checklist:
- Steal Odin's treasures
- Destroy the Bifrost
- Separate the Infinity Gems
- Get Earth prepared for Thanos
- Defeat Thanos

So here's what I think might have been their plan, assuming they are in fact behind EVERYTHING. They approached Loki and told him that they needed his help and that in return, he would become heir to the throne and Thor would be out of the picture. Loki agreed and was given access to certain magic that allowed him to let the Frost Giants into the throne room and distract the Destroyer long enough for the Sorcerer Supreme to pop in and take the Eye of Agamotto and the Infinity Gauntlet. The plan was only that this would keep Thor from being made King of Asgard for the time being, but it had the unexpected consequence of also getting Thor banished. Their next move was to induce Odin's Odinsleep early (hence why it was unscheduled and so unusual compared to his other Odinsleeps), making Loki the King of Asgard long enough to manipulate the Frost Giants into attempting to kill Odin and then using the Bifrost to retaliate and destroy their home world. This also might have been a good opportunity to steal the artifacts if they hadn't already.

The plan might have been to have Odin wake up, learn of what Loki used the Bifrost for, and while he might agree that it was a reasonable counter-measure given the apparent attempt on his life, he would still decide that they were no longer worthy to wield its power and thus destroy it so it couldn't be used as a weapon again.

Obviously, things didn't quite turn out that way, but the Bifrost was still destroyed by Thor's hammer, so mission accomplished. The only loose thread was that their ally, Loki fell into the cosmos.

It's assumed that Loki was discovered and saved by Thanos, but more likely, the Sorcerer Supreme found him first and explained the updated plan. They had a mole within Thanos' organization (the right hand man who is credited as "The Other" and voiced by Alexis Denisof, a frequent Whedon collaborator) and were planning to use the Tesseract to create a temporary portal for Thanos to release a portion of his vast army into a highly populated area in order to motivate the powers that be to start gearing up for an all-out invasion.

I believe that the mysterious scepter that Loki wielded was actually powered by the Mind Gem, which is blue and has the ability to read and manipulate minds. He was given it in order to gain access to the Tesseract, build a portal, release the army, and then close the portal once enough enemies had gotten through, all while appearing to be doing what Thanos commanded.

While this was happening, they paid Odin a visit and told him what Loki was up to. Without the Bifrost, he needed a way to send Thor down there to help, so they revealed that the Infinity Gauntlet he possessed was false and that they now possessed the Gems. They could grant him the purple Space Gem that could allow him to send Thor to Earth, whereupon he could use the Tesseract to return to Asgard with Loki. Either that, or Odin used some other power to do this without any prodding. Hard to say.

You might think that they couldn't possibly have planned for the Avengers to come together and stop the invasion, and you'd be right. They didn't plan for the Avengers. No one did. Their plan was just to let the World Security Council nuke Manhattan. The alien invasion would be stopped, the world would be shaken to its core, and they would all begin preparing for the REAL invasion to come.

I mean, when you think about it, it seems a bit ridiculous that Loki would just leave his scepter behind during the big battle, which just so happened to be the key to shutting down the portal. And, as Tony pointed out, Loki's plan had no clear path to becoming the ruler of Earth. Even if the alien invasion succeeded (which it was never meant to), Loki would never have been allowed to rule what remained. Thanos would betray him or Thor would find him or one of Earth's heroes would assassinate him. This was not Loki's way. He's a manipulator, not a conqueror.

Still, the Illuminati never expected the Avengers. Not only did they get the invasion they wanted, a surprise group of heroes banded together and minimized the damage done by the invading army and even sent the nuke in through the portal as an extra "fuck you" to Thanos before it closed. Now not only was the public terrified of the potential alien threat, but they also became obsessed with these superheroes and what they were capable of. Even better, The Other managed to turn the surprise into a way to get Thanos obsessed with these heroes as well, perhaps distracting him from exacting vengeance upon Loki for his failure. His full attention is now on Earth, which means that the Illuminati can start making more movement in the cosmic arena, probably involving the Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Big Picture

So with all that said, here's how I currently envision Phase 2 playing out. Keep in mind, this is all WILD speculation and based on so many assumptions that they'd basically all have to be correct in order for this to work out.

First off, this is my guess for the Illuminati line-up prior to Tony joining:
- Black Bolt (representing Inhumans, carrying the orange Time Gem)
- Doctor Strange (or the Ancient One) (representing magic, carrying the green Soul Gem)
- Namor (representing Atlantis, carrying the red Power Gem)
- Black Panther (representing Wakanda, carrying the yellow Reality Gem)
- Loki (representing Asgard, carrying the blue Mind Gem in the scepter... wait, what happened to that scepter anyway?)

"Iron Man 3" shows the people of Earth panicking to get ready for an impending alien invasion. Tony suffers a severe loss and launches himself into space. There, he is approached by the Illuminati in the post-credit sequence, much in the same way Nick Fury approached him about the Avengers Initiative. We probably will see five of them cloaked in shadow, maybe with the Gems glowing, and only one will approach him and it will turn out to be Loki, which will cause everyone to do a MAJOR double-take, leading directly into "Thor: The Dark World".

Here, we see Thor and Loki return to Asgard, where we learn that Odin is suffering from having used the Space Gem, though obviously we won't get any details about what exactly it is or where it came from just yet. This will lead to whatever the central conflict of that movie is, and while Loki will be imprisoned, he will mysteriously vanish while whatever conflict with the Dark Elves happens. In the post-credits teaser, I imagine we'll see Loki talking to another shadowy figure who will reveal himself to be one of the other members of the Illuminati (probably Doctor Strange) and they'll likely reveal that there was more going on in "Avengers" than initially suspected and that Loki was in on it the whole time. He will likely express his displeasure with being treated like a puppet, but they will appease him by promising that he'll get what was promised in due time. There will probably be some other stinger that will lead into the next Cap film, but so little has been revealed about that story that it's really hard to gauge what the connecting thread might be.

In "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", we'll likely get a better glimpse at the state of the military in the wake of "Avengers" and whatever happens in "Iron Man 3". We'll get the idea that there's some entity pulling the strings behind the scenes and it's possible that Steve will learn that Tony might be involved with them. In the post-credit scene, we might see another member of the Illuminati, maybe revealing that one of the new characters in the film is a member, perhaps setting the stage for the next film.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" will probably be where the Illuminati make their big play. Odds are, they're the ones responsible for Peter Quill, or at least for the circumstances that cause him to end up with the Guardians. They will be used to manipulate Thanos into further playing into their hand. We'll probably hear about a mole within Thanos' organization and the audience will likely assume that it's Loki due to his prior involvement, which will make the reveal that it's actually The Other all the more surprising when he meets with the Illuminati, finally completely revealed in the post-credit sequence as they prepare for the impending invasion from Thanos. We see Tony and Loki, side by side, as we also see all the other members revealed, creating the biggest fangasm possible to lead into "Avengers 2".

During "Avengers 2", all the shit will hit the fan. Whedon has previously stated that he doesn't want to go bigger, he wants to go deeper. The central conflict, in my estimation, won't be about fighting off Thanos, at least not right off the bat. This will be Avengers vs. Illuminati. Tony will try to recruit Bruce, Loki will try to recruit Thor, someone else will try to recruit Cap, etc. etc. Once it is revealed that the only reason they were able to stop the invasion was because the invasion was never meant to succeed, it will cause the heroes to question whether or not the Avengers really matter in this new world. Whether they can do more by manipulating and pulling strings and making calculated sacrifices rather than dashing about and saving people. Then at some point, things will go south for the Illuminati. Maybe one of the members of the Illuminati turns out to be a Skrull (for the record, that happened in the comics) and we have a "Secret Invasion" subplot. Maybe Red Hulk shows up and messes things up for Bruce, framing him for some big disaster so that the world stops trusting the Avengers and so that Tony feels he has to shoot him off into space. In any case, the third act will likely feature the more reasonable members of the Illuminati teaming up with the Avengers to take on whatever threat turns up, restoring people's faith in heroes. The post-credits teaser will likely be Hulk arriving on Planet Hulk.

Phase 3 will feature "Planet Hulk" and possibly also Tony going full-on alcoholic. Then for "Avengers 3" we get "World War Hulk" and everything is beautiful.

Will any of this happen? Probably not. And that's what I'm so giddy about. The prospect of the Illuminati joining the MCU opens up SO many possibilities and almost all of them are very exciting. We are finally starting to see how all of this is going to tie together, and I can't wait.