After months of unparalleled hype, "The Avengers" is set to hit theaters in just a few short days. For anyone who has seen Marvel's slew of superhero movies over the past four years, it's the culmination of an epic journey like no other.
And for those who haven't seen all of Marvel's movies… well, that's what we're here for.
In order to help you get ready for the movie event of the year, we've put together a comprehensive guide to "The Avengers." So whether you're a hardcore Marvel Zombie or a hero newbie who doesn't know your Pepper Potts from your Cosmic Cube, don't worry, because we've got it all covered right here.
Marvel Studios has been laying the groundwork for "The Avengers" ever since its first hit, "Iron Man," arrived in 2008. Overseen by shadowy spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), The Avengers Project is a plan to gather together the world's greatest and most powerful heroes, ready to deal with any kind of superhuman threat that is beyond the ability of our normal defense systems.
That threat comes in the form of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who first menaced Earth in last year's "Thor." The finale of that film showed him trying to get his grubby hands on an incredibly powerful artifact called The Tesseract, which, by the way, was also the focal point of the Red Skull's nefarious schemes in Marvel's other hit from 2011, "Captain America." In "The Avengers," he finally gains control of The Tesseract, and Fury only has one option: a giant superhero movie crossover.
Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.): A billionaire industrialist, playboy and philanthropist by day (seriously, just ask him), Tony Stark made his big-screen debut in "Iron Man," which showed how he created a suit of high-tech robotic armor from a BOX OF SCRAPS! IN A CAVE! In "Iron Man 2," Stark was deemed by SHIELD to be too unstable to join the Avengers, but imminent world destruction has a way of changing people's minds. Besides being super strong and super tough, Iron Man can fly and shoot force beams from his hands and do all sorts of other things … as long as his power supply doesn't short out his bum ticker.
The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo): The Hulk probably needs no introduction, but he's Dr. Bruce Banner, a scientist who was altered by the government in 2008's "The Incredible Hulk" in an ill-fated attempt to resuscitate the super soldier program that created Captain America. Instead, Banner developed the unfortunate habit of turning into a giant, enraged green behemoth whenever he stubs his toe or someone makes his latte wrong. He keeps saying that people woulnd't like him when he's angry, but fans actually seem to like him more and more the angrier he gets, so there goes that bit of conventional wisdom.
Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson): In her civilian identity as Natasha Romanoff, Black Widow infiltrated Stark Industries in "Iron Man 2," becoming Tony Stark's personal assistant in an effort to determine his suitability as a SHIELD operative. Trained as a super-spy, Black Widow is a martial arts and black ops expert and serves as the team's go-to agent when something more subtle than a hammer to the face is called for. In the comics, she was a former Soviet agent born in the 1930s with a mysterious past.
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Thor (Chris Hemsworth): The son of the all-father Odin, Thor is the Norse god of thunder. And as shown in 2011's "Thor," he also was a bit of an arrogant d-bag until Odin cast him out of Asgard and forced him to spend some time living as a mortal man on Earth. Pretty much stronger and tougher than anybody except possibly The Hulk, Thor has the added advantage of wielding a giant magic hammer that allows him to control the weather and fly, among other things. Considering his stepbrother Loki is the main villain of "Avengers," expect to see plenty of Thor all up in your face.
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner): Glimpsed briefly in one of "Thor"'s many action sequences, SHIELD agent Clint Barton -- codename: Hawkeye -- is the world's greatest marksman, being able to do tricks with his bow that would make Robin Hood turn green with envy. If that doesn't necessarily sound like the most amazing power a superhero can have, it should be noted that he usually carries around a bunch of trick arrows that do things like short out suits of high-tech robotic armor (sorry, Iron Man) or detonate giant explosions. Plus, it takes serious cojones to stand up to a menace like Loki wielding just a bow and arrow; Hawkeye's biggest super power may just be courage.
Captain America (Chris Evans): Originally a spindly 98-pound weakling, 4F candidate Steve Rogers volunteered to be a guinea pig for the government's super soldier project during World War II. It worked, turning him into the perfect human weapon, able to run faster, jump higher and punch harder than any regular Joe alive. Armed with an indestructible shield, he took on the Nazis in 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger," only to end up frozen in ice. 70 years later he's all thawed out, just in time to help SHIELD save the world.
Loki (Tom Hiddleston): The Norse god of trickery, Loki has a bit of a chip on his shoulder due to the fact that he's not really Odin's son, but is actually the progeny of a frost giant king that Odin killed way back in the day. So he's got major daddy issues, not to mention a sibling rivalry with his beefcakier brother, Thor. But he has a pretty simple solution to working out his issues: ravaging Earth with the help of a horde of aliens. And, oh yeah, he's also an incredibly powerful wizard. Since the Avengers don't have Harry Potter in their lineup, that could be a major problem.
Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson): The leader of the secret high-tech spy organization known as SHIELD, Fury has the unenviable task of wrangling a bunch of prima donna superheroes. He manages this owing to the fact that he's Samuel L. MF-ing Jackson. Through the first few movies, he mainly showed up in cameos and post-credit sequences to drop a couple cryptic lines, but this time he takes center stage as the main man coordinating Earth's defense against Loki's invaders. Tough luck, Loki. You should have picked an enemy that wasn't Samuel L. Jackson.
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SHIELD Agents Coulson and Hill (Clark Gregg and Cobie Smulders): Agent Coulson has been a cult favorite ever since he first showed up in "Iron Man." This time around, the understated operative is joined by Fury's understudy, Maria Hill, who is as feisty as Gregg is phlegmatic. Someone get these two a sitcom deal, pronto!
Behind the Scenes
Just about every major player from the first five Marvel movies is back on board for "The Avengers," but there is one exception -- one giant, green, angry exception. That's because "The Incredible Hulk" star Ed Norton had a falling out with Marvel over that film before it even arrived in theaters. As a result, Norton has been replaced by fellow Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo. But Ruffalo isn't the only major new addition, as "The Avengers" also boasts "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon as its director. Talk about your geek heaven.
Reviews vs. Box Office
So how did the previous Marvel movies fare, both critically and at the box office? Pretty darn well, as it happens. Here are the stats:
"Iron Man": 94% Positive Rotten Tomatoes, $585 million worldwide
"The Incredible Hulk": 66% Positive Rotten Tomatoes, $263 million worldwide
"Iron Man 2": 74% Positive Rotten Tomatoes, $624 million worldwide
"Thor": 77% Positive Rotten Tomatoes, $449 million worldwide
"Captain America": 79% Positive Rotten Tomatoes, $368 million worldwide
Created in 1983 by the comic book dream team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, "The Avengers" was initially Marvel's answer to the DC Comics super-team The Justice League of America. After 40+ years of publication, Marvel rebooted the franchise last decade by adding popular heroes like Spider-Man and Wolverine to the team -- something we sadly will not be seeing in the movies, as the film rights to those fellows are controlled by other studios. Bummer.
With "Iron Man 3" set to begin filming next in May and both "Thor 2" and "Captain America 2" already planned, "The Avengers" franchise seems poised to become even bigger. Just how those films will fit together is anybody's guess at this point, but you can expect plenty of hints, teases and foreshadowing: Marvel already has announced that the three movies will help set up "Avengers 2." Plus, chances are we'll be getting some new members to the team, with the likely candidates being the synthetic hero known as The Vision and the size-changing husband and wife duo Hank Pym and The Wasp. Hang onto your shields -- we're just getting started.