This week, filming begins on Avengers: Infinity War. Set to release in 2018, this will be the third Avengers film from Marvel Studios, with a fourth untitled film scheduled for release the following year. Avengers: Infinity War will involve not only the Avengers roster but many other superheroes seen across the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But what’s the deal with all this? What is an “Infinity War?” And what does it have to do with the magical rocks we occasionally see in MCU films? Read on!
In the films Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and and The Avengers, audiences see that there’s this glowing cube that holds a lot of cosmic power. It’s referred to as a “tesseract” (which is another name for a mathematical hypercube) and is seen to be able to warp space, as well as deliver great energy from other sources. The Red Skull refers to this as an item that once belonged to Thor’s father Odin, evidently part of his collection of powerful objects he keeps in a vault.
Some comic book fans thought this was an adaptation the Cosmic Cube, which in the comics is an artifact created by humans (and other races with the right technology) that can turn thoughts into reality. But Marvel Studios said it was an “infinity stone” and this was confirmed in Thor: The Dark World by Volstagg. In that same movie, the villain attempts to conquer and destroy through use of a powerful thing called the “aether.” Volstagg said that this too was an Infinity Stone. Another infinity stone is seen in Guardians of the Galaxy, and the character known as the Collector explains that there are six such stones,
“Before creation itself, there were six singularities. Then the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of these systems were forged into concentrated ingots: Infinity Stones. These stones it seems can only be brandished by beings of extraordinary strength.”
In the comics, the Infinity Stones are also known as the Infinity Gems or, originally, the Soul Gems. The first such gem appeared in Marvel Premiere #1 in 1972, in a story by Roy Thomas, Gil Kane and Dan Adkins. Called the soul gem, it was an alien object entrusted to Adam Warlock, a genetically engineered man with great power who first appeared under the name “Him” years before in the pages of Fantastic Four. Marvel hadn’t been sure what to do with Adam Warlock for a while now, other than making him a misguided antagonist to heroes such as Thor. Starting with this story, Roy Thomas made him a science fiction messiah to Counter-Earth, a duplicate of Earth. The soul gem’s power would help him in this role.
Years later, in 1977, writer Jim Starlin decided to have his alien villain creation Thanos become a major threat in the pages of Avengers Annual #7. Thanos discovers that there is not one but six soul gems, which can grant god-like power when combined. He’s attempts to do this by collecting their power into a giant artificial soul gem. During the story, Adam Warlock dies, his soul absorbed into the strange “soul world” that exists in his gem, and the artificial gem is destroyed. Spider-Man then frees Adam Warlock’s angry soul form from the soul gem, long enough for the guy to use his new power to turn Thanos into a statue and then return to soul world.
So Warlock was gone, Thanos was gone, and the gems disappeared for long stretches of time, only occasionally returning to remind the Marvel readers that they might be a big deal in the wrong hands. In 1990, Jim Starlin resurrected Thanos in the pages of Silver Surfer. Starlin then wrote the two book mini-series Thanos Quest wherein Thanos once again went after the Soul Gems, now calling them Infinity Gems. This time, they were explained in more detail. Each gem could warp a particular aspect of reality.
Roughly, these are what the gems are supposed to do (though sometimes it gets a bit iffy depending on which story you read). The Soul Gem affects spirits and astral bodies. The Mind Gem affects the mind and telepathic/telekinetic power. The Power Gem increases strength and durability, enhances any superhuman ability, and increases the powers of the other gems. The Time Gem can warp time, provide insight into the past and future, or alter its effects on others. The Space Gem can warp space and affect how others move through space. The Reality Gem can manipulate matter itself.
This time when Thanos collects the gems, he doesn’t create a giant artificial gem to control them, he just uses them to bedazzle one of his gauntlets. These events lead into the 1991 crossover Infinity Gauntlet, where Thanos becomes a god-like entity thanks to the gems and decides to wipe out half the sentient life in the universe. In the end, he is defeated and is ok with it, realizing godhood is not what it’s cracked up to be. In the sequel crossover Infinity War, Adam Warlock’s dark double the Magus attains great power and unleashes an army of demonic dopplegangers against Earth’s superheroes while he manipulates Thanos and Warlock into bringing him the Infinity Gems. Another sequel crossover was Infinity Crusade, where Adam Warlock’s feminine and spiritual side, the Goddess, attempts a religious crusade across the universe in an effort to cause a literal rapture event. There are other stories later featuring the gems and/or Thanos, but those three are the initial big ones by Starlin.
So now we are building to something similar happening in the movies. The tesseract is turns out is the movie version of the Space Gem (or “Space Stone” as the movie calls it). The aether is the Reality Stone. Ronan uses the Power Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy. Avengers: Age of Ultron confirms that Loki’s staff secretly contains the Mind Stone, which gives Scarlet Witch her powers, creates life in Ultron, and is then entrusted into the care of the android hero Vision (whom it creates in a bizarre fashion along with advanced science and Thor’s lightning). Doctor Strange features the Time Stone. That leaves the Soul Stone still to be discovered. And we know from Guardians of the Galaxy and the end of Age of Ultron that the movie version of Thanos is in pursuit of the stones. Will we also see Adam Warlock too before the next Avengers film? We’ll just have to wait and see!