<i>By <a href=http://twitter.com/sizzlerkistler>Alan Kistler, Newsarama Contributor</a></i> <p>With <b>Marvel's The Avengers</b> less than two weeks away, fans are eagerly awaiting the latest installment in the Marvel Studios cinematic canon. <p>In <b>The Avengers</b>, Earth's mightiest heroes will join forces to take on a threat no single woman or man can face alone. Many are excited to see if this film will be able to pull of an exciting story while also uniting several different superhero franchises. But the groundwork of this shared universe has been paved since 2008's <i>Iron Man</i>, and has continued to grow. <p>For your enjoyment (and for those of you who may have missed a movie or two), here is a basic map to the many connections of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (<i>Newsarama note: Albert Ching contributed to a revised edition of this story.</i>) <p><i>Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's <a href=http://www.facebook.com/Newsarama><b>FACEBOOK</b></a> and <a href=http://twitter.com/newsarama><b>TWITTER</b></a>!</i> <p><br>


The connections between the first few Marvel Studios productions were sometimes subtle, but the threads became a lot more visible in July 2011's <b>Captain America: The First Avenger</b>. <p>Being the last Marvel film before <b>The Avengers</b>, <b>Captain America</b> referenced this May's team-up even in its subtitle. To make things even more obvious, the obligatory post-credits scene of <b>The First Avenger</b> was a short trailer for <b>The Avengers</b>, giving audiences a first taste of the dynamic between Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye. <p>Even though <b>Captain America: The First Avenger</b> takes place mostly during World War II, it's the clearest link in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chain yet, at least once Cap wakes up in the present and is greeted by Nick Fury.


In the Marvel Comics universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Hazard Intervention/Espionage Logistics Directorate) was an international intelligence and counter-terrorist organization. It existed in a few incarnations before, beginning with the Brotherhood of the Shield, a group of special individuals who formed in Ancient Egypt to protect the Earth from alien forces. <p>In the Marvel Studios movie universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) is a creation of the U.S. government. In <b>Iron Man</b>, Agent Coulson (played by Clark Gregg) implies that S.H.I.E.L.D. is a brand-new organization, so new that they haven't even figured out a fun acronym yet. But Nick Fury says in <b>Iron Man 2</b> that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been around for decades and that Howard Stark was a founder of it. <p>S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, such as Agent Coulson appear in Iron Man and <b>Iron Man 2</b>. Coulson is later a major player in the movie <b>Thor</b>. Other agents of note are the Black Widow, who shows up in <b>Iron Man 2</b>, and Agent Barton, who appears in <b>Thor</b>. The S.H.I.E.L.D. database is seen and used in <b><b>The Incredible Hulk</b></b> and that same film involves the U.S. Army borrowing a sonic cannon from S.H.I.E.L.D. A promotional web-site for <b>Iron Man 2</b> later revealed that this sonic cannon was created by Stark Industries.


In Marvel Comics, Nick Fury was a World War II soldier who led a Rangers team known as the Howlers (nicknamed the "Howling Commandos"). During the war, he fought alongside Captain America and other superheroes of the day. After being treated with the vitality-increasing "Infinity Formula", his aging rate was greatly decreased. After working with the CIA for several years, he was asked to become the new director of S.H.I.E.L.D. <p>In the Marvel Studios movie universe, Nick Fury first shows up in the after-credits scene of <b>Iron Man</b>, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Fury showed up again in <b>Iron Man 2</b> to further discuss the Avengers Initiative. In the same film, Fury implied that he was older than he looked. But that's not all. Nick Fury's name is seen on documents that appear in the movie <b>The Incredible Hulk</b> starring Edward Norton. The document concerned Bruce Banner, the Hulk's alter ego, and said: "<i>Details: Classified. Subject is THREAT LEVEL RED, surveillance only. The Bruce Banner manhunt is still not over.</i>"


Tony Stark and Stark Industries are the focus of the films <b>Iron Man</b> and <b>Iron Man 2</b>. In <b>The Incredible Hulk</b>, weapons made by Stark Industries are used to combat the green monster. The <b>Iron Man 2</b> DVD also reveals that Stark Industries constructed the gamma device that was involved in Bruce Banner's mutation into the Hulk. In the film <b>Thor</b>, the Destroyer armor is mistaken for a Stark techno-suit. In the epilogue scene of <b>The Incredible Hulk</b> (which takes place after the events of <b>Iron Man 2</b>), Tony Stark shows up to discuss a team that is still organizing members and allies. <p>Tony's deceased father Howard Stark also has a big role in the Marvel Universe, beyond his being mentioned quite a bit in both Iron Man films. In <b>Iron Man 2</b>, we learn that he was a founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. Special features on the DVD of that film also indicated that Howard Stark was involved with the Cosmic Cube (which will be discussed later) and Captain America. A young Howard Stark will also appear in <b>Captain America: The First Avenger</b>. The most recent trailer for that film has revealed that Howard actually constructs the Captain's specialized, light-weight body armor, based on some of Steve's own designs (which is not too far off from a scene we saw in one of Captain America's origin issues).


Dr. Bruce Banner and his green-skinned alter ago the Hulk are the focus of the film <b>The Incredible Hulk</b>. During that film, a news broadcast describes one of the Hulk's battles. In <b>Iron Man 2</b>, Nick Fury is watching this very same broadcast during a meeting with Tony Stark, indicating that <b>The Incredible Hulk</b> takes place simultaneously to that film. As mentioned above, the DVD for <b>Iron Man 2</b> also shows that the gamma device Banner used on the day he was mutated was constructed by Stark Industries. <p>In <b>Thor</b>, Dr. Selvig mentions a scientist he knew who had been a leading expert in gamma radiation and then vanished one day. He also mentions that he believes S.H.I.E.L.D. was involved. The scientist he's talking about is Bruce Banner, who had to go underground as a fugitive after his mutation, as he was now hunted by the military and sought after by S.H.I.E.L.D.


Thor's presence is first felt in <b>Iron Man 2</b>. Agent Coulson tells Tony Stark he has to head to New Mexico because of a strange occurrence there. Tony remarks that Utah is the "land of enchantment", which is the state motto but also foreshadows the presence of Asgard, Thor's home. When Stark meets with Nick Fury later, the S.H.I.E.L.D. director confirms that he's dealing with a situation in the American Southwest. On a monitor nearby, you can see photograph of a crater in New Mexico. In the after-credits scene of <b>Iron Man 2</b>, Agent Coulson arrives at this crater and sees that Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, is lying in the center. This leads directly into the movie <b>Thor</b>.


Steve Rogers became Captain America due to Operation: Rebirth, a World War II government project that involved him being injected with a "super-soldier serum" and having his body bombarded with "vita-rays." Steve's presence can be felt throughout various films. In <b>Iron Man</b>, a half-completed replica of Cap's famous, indestructible shield can be seen on Tony Stark's work bench. This replica is seen again in <b>Iron Man 2</b>. In that same film, a foot locker belonging to Howard Stark contains a copy of the comic book <i>Captain America #1</i>. This isn't breaking the fourth wall, since in the Marvel Comics universe it has been shown time and time again that the government wished Captain America to be a public rallying symbol and so many comic books and licensed products were sold based on his likeness and on fictionalized accounts of his adventures. <p>The biggest nods to Marvel's famous super-soldier were in <b>The Incredible Hulk</b>. In that film, General Ross refers to "bio-tech force enhancement" project that operated during the 1940s to create a "super-soldier", a project that was later "put on ice" (which is both a slang phrase that is accurate and also a funny nod to Steve's fate towards the end of the war). Ross reveals that attempts were made to replicate the success of that initial experiment. Later, he goes to a storage room and removes a chemical that had been used during that project. The chemical's cold storage unit has a label on it that says: <i>PROGRAM: Weapon Plus DEVELOPER: Dr. Reintstein</i> The label also indicates the chemical has received VITA-RAY treatment and that the Cryosync container was made by Stark Industries. <p>In the comics, "Dr. Reinstein" was the codename of Dr. Abraham Erskine, the scientist who created the vita-rays and the super-soldier serum that were used in Operation: Rebirth. The Weapon Plus Program began later when the U.S. government decided it might be a good idea to biologically engineer a soldier to be able to fight, contain or kill the rising number of superhumans in the world. Operation: Rebirth was retroactively designated WEAPON I. Decades later, the WEAPON X project split off as an independent organization and experimented on the mutant Logan AKA Wolverine. <p>Director Louis Letterrier revealed that the chemical Ross removes from the Weapon Plus storage unit was colored bright blue as a deliberate reference to Captain America. In <b>Captain America: The First Avenger</b>, a similarly colored chemical is injected into Steve Rogers.


At the end of <b>Iron Man 2</b>, Nick Fury meets with Tony Stark and has multiple monitors functioning around him. One (as stated earlier) displays footage seen in <b>The Incredible Hulk</b>. Another monitor has a map of the world, with highlighted areas of concern in: California (where Iron Man lives), New York (where Bruce Banner went to find a cure for the Hulk), New Mexico (where Thor's hammer was just found), the Arctic Circle (where Captain America was discovered and reawakened in the comics), the middle of the Atlantic (Namor and Atlantis?), and a location in Africa, said to be the country Wakanda (the home of the Black Panther). <p>But there's another map of interest in <b>Iron Man 2</b>. In Howard Stark's footlocker, there is a map of Antarctica. Why? There are a couple of possibilities. In the Marvel Comics universe, Antarctica is the hidden location of the Savage Land, a tropical, savage paradise inhabited by many prehistoric beasts, preserved and maintained by great alien technology. Certain leaders of ancient Atlantis (home to the aquatic hero Namor, the Sub-Mariner) also made Antarctica a base of operations. In recent comics, it's been revealed that Olympia, home of the near-immortal sub-race of humans known as the Eternals, is now located in Antarctica. And this continent is also the only place on Earth, besides the African nation of Wakanda, where vibranium can be found. Typical Wakandan vibranium is an incredible ore that actually absorbs sound and kinetic force and was used to help construct Captain America's indestructible shield. Antarctic vibranium, discovered in 1915, creates vibrations that break apart all other metals, earning it the nickname "anti-metal."


In the Marvel Comics universe, the Avengers team formed when Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man and the Wasp were tricked by the evil god Loki into fighting the Hulk. Realizing who the true threat was, the five strange adventurers defeated Loki and decided to become a team, taking the name Avengers. Soon afterward, the group reawakened and recruited Captain America (who had been in suspended animation since 1945), considering him equal to a founder and later regarding him as the leader. Over time, the organization grew and often split off into other groups. Today, the "Avengers Initiative" is a program that allows Steve Rogers to form multiple teams of Avengers with official (but limited) federal authority, as well as to sanction the training of younger and/or inexperienced superhumans at the Avengers Academy. Recently, it has also been revealed that a similar program existed during the 1950s, involving a covert ops team led by Nick Fury. <p>In the after-credits scene of <b>Iron Man</b>, Nick Fury approaches Tony Stark to discuss "the Avengers Initiative." In <b>Iron Man 2</b>, Fury and Stark discuss it again, with Tony referring to the program as a "super-secret boy band" and implying that it's a special ops team. In the epilogue scene of <b>The Incredible Hulk</b>, Stark approaches General Ross and has now evidently joined the Avengers Initiative. Concerning the problem of fighting and containing the Hulk, Stark asks "What if I told you we're putting together a team?"


In Marvel Comics, the Cosmic Cube is a fantastic product of advanced science that only a few civilizations have been able to create. Whoever holds it can translate thought into tangible reality. Several times over the years, the Red Skull has attempted to use this to warp the world to his liking. The Cosmic Cube was recently featured in the cartoon series <i>Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes</i>. <p>In the Marvel Studios universe, the first hint of the Cosmic Cube appeared in <b>Iron Man 2</b>. Howard Stark's notes refer to a hyper-cube, also known as a tesseract. Later on, a glowing cube appears in the after-credits scene of <b>Thor</b>. In the film <b>Captain America: The First Avenger</b>, the Red Skull seeks out a cube that he refers to as the "tesseract" which, as previously revealed clips have shown, plays a major role in <b>The Avengers</b>. <p>And that wraps it up. Ready for the <b>Avengers</b> movie now? I know I am!


Date: 24 June 2011 Time: 08:54 PM ET