A bluffer's guide to the Marvel Universe
As the 14th film in the Marvel cinematic franchise arrives in cinemas, Chris Wasser guides the uninitiated through the fictional universe
Every year, millions of comic book fans around the world join forces to celebrate the release of another Marvel Studios picture. Like an Apple product launch, basically, only with beautiful Hollywood people pretending to be beautiful superhero people. Same product, different packaging. Sometimes, we get two Marvel Product Launches in the one year. Because Marvel now runs the world. They're all connected. They're all characters and storylines that originally appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics, dreamed up by a bloke named Stan Lee and his mates.
The 'Marvel Cinematic Universe', they call it. Think of it as an expensive television series, in which every episode costs at least $100 million to produce. The forthcoming 'Doctor Strange' is the 14th 'episode'. The other 13 grossed a combined total of $10 billion at the box office. Yep, those beautiful people are now very, very rich. But how did we get here? Who are the Avengers, exactly? Allow me to explain.
Basically, it's 2008 and handsome Hollywood bad boy Robert Downey Jr is instructed to grow a beard for a movie called 'Iron Man'. Robbie played Tony Stark: genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist and the head of Stark Industries (they make weapons). Tony (a total ledge) is in Afghanistan, testing out new missiles when he and his buds are ambushed. A wounded Tony is abducted by terrorists and imprisoned in a cave, where some clever clogs called Yinsen inserts an electromagnet in Tony's chest to prevent shrapnel shell shards from reaching his heart. Got it? Good.
He then builds a sensational suit of armour, breaks out of the cave, flies back to America, kills Jeff Bridges, and eventually tells the world that he's Iron Man. Downey Jr now has more money than God. Stark's antics attract the attention of Samuel L Jackson, aka, Nick Fury, the director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. We'll call them SHIELD. Fury wants to put together an after-school superhero squad. We'll call them The Avengers.
Meanwhile, hiding out in Calcutta, we have Bruce Banner - an incredible scientist who was exposed to gamma radiation and now turns green whenever he's grumpy. Some people call him Hulk. SHIELD reckons he might come in handy. Bruce used to resemble Ed Norton. Later, he transformed into Mark Ruffalo. That has nothing to do with the plot.
Tony, on the other hand, still looks like Robert Downey Jr. In 'Iron Man 2', Tony falls in love with his assistant, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), forms an alliance with the super cool Don Cheadle, and is acquainted with a freakin' awesome Russian spy named Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Alas, Black Widow doesn't get her own movie, because even Marvel struggles to keep up with the times.
A billion dollars in, and the lads introduce Chris 'Thor' Hemsworth. He's the God of Thunder, you know; a muscular, over-achieving dreamboat of a fella from the magical, Shakespearian realm of Asgard. An after-credits scene told us he might show up. There's always an after-credits scene. And a Stan Lee cameo.
Thor is banished to earth after he upsets his auld fella. Later, he develops a crush on Natalie Portman, and saves the world after his brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston) goes loco. And then there's Captain America. He's even more handsome than Thor. Basically, a scrawny World War II army man named Steve agrees to take part in a secret government experiment to turn him into a Chris Evans-shaped beefcake, so as he can defeat the crazy 'Hydra' Nazis, re-write history and finally get a girlfriend. Simple.
Problem is, Captain Steve crashes his damn plane into the Arctic where he remains frozen for 70 years. Bummer. Fortunately, SHIELD wakes him up just in time for him to join Tony, Bruce, Black Widow, Thor and a modern-day Robin Hood called Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to save the world from aliens. Yep, 2012's greatest hits collection, 'Avengers Assemble', tore up the superhero movie rulebook. That's another billion in the Marvel account.
'Iron Man 3' followed. In it, Tony struggles with a crippling case of PTSD and has an operation. Another billion. In 'Thor: The Dark World', Hemsworth messes with thunder and falls out with Loki. Again. In 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier', poor Steve spends two hours chasing after an old war buddy and taking down SHIELD (because they're evil now… sort of). In 2014, Marvel introduced 'Guardians of the Galaxy' in which Vin Diesel played a talking tree. It had a bangin' soundtrack. A year later, they hired Paul Rudd to play 'Ant-Man'. Because Marvel now has more money than sense. We also got a second Avengers movie.
Six months ago, the lads all fell out with each other (and called up Spider Man) in 'Captain America: Civil War'. Or, to give it a more appropriate title - Avengers 3: War at the Superhero Dinner Table. All of which somehow brings us to next week's 'Doctor Strange', in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays a wounded neurosurgeon who becomes a sorcerer. As you do.
He'll be joining the Avengers at some point in the near future. Oh, and do keep an eye on that blue alien from all those after-credits scenes. He's going to be very important, we hear. Because, in case you haven't noticed, these things are never going to end. And nobody ever dies. Best of luck with the Doctor.