Fantasy

My little guide to the Marvel cinematic universe

The epic finale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Avengers Endgame, just got released. Never have I witnessed a science fiction/ fantasy movie of such an epic proportion other than its immediate prequel Infinity War. The thunderous claps that can be heard in the theaters during the epic fight sequences of Endgame speaks volumes how heavily the Marvel franchise got the audience invested in its characters over the last decade.

To cherish this epic moment in the history of cinema of the fantasy / sci- fi genre, I have been bing-watching all the 21 movies of the MCU these past few weeks. Some I had watched before but had forgotten the plots, some I had never watched earlier! As I watch them, the nerd that I am, I have been taking notes so that I have the full picture of MCU in my head while watching Endgame.

So here is a brief summary of each of their plots, description of the main characters and some interesting observations I made connected to each movie that hold all of them together. Going over this post will quickly provide the readers with all they need to know to follow and enjoy Avengers: End Game. (Empty spaces below the names of some movies will be filled up soon as I watch them)

PHASE 1

1. Captain America : The First Avenger (Timeline: Second World War, 1942-45, location: Brooklyn, NY, US and Europe)

Hero: Steve Rogers aka Captain America

Villain: Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull

Other important characters: Peggie Carter (Officer in Super Soldier project and Cap Am’s love interest), James “Bucky” Barnes (Cap Am’s best friend from Brooklyn), Chester Philips (colonel in US army)

Plot Summary : Steve Rogers is a frail young guy from Brooklyn who shows a lot of heart in every fight with bullies but gets beaten up. Steve’s passion and good nature wins over Dr. Erskine, who injects the Super Soldier Serum, invented by him, into Steve, coupled with “vita-rays” and turns Steve a much taller and muscular Captain America. Cap Am next leads a mission that rescues his friend Bucky Barns, who was captured in the war, and then demolishes the Hydra project, led by Johann Schmidt/ Red Skull, who had utilized the power of the Tesseract and Erskine’s serum to nearly launch weapons of mass destruction at major American cities. In order to prevent the plane that contained those weapons from destroying the American cities, Cap Am was left with no option but crashing it in the Arctic and got buried in the ocean in the process.

Interesting facts:

  1. The Tesseract was brought to earth by Odin (king of Asgard and father of Thor) long time ago, as mentioned by Schmidt.
  2. Howard Stark, the science and technology entrepreneur, who assists in the Super Soldier project is Tony Stark aka Iron Man’s father.
  3. When the container that held the Tesseract broke inside the plane towards the end of the movie and Schmidt held it in his hand, it opened up a wormhole which made Schmidt disappear. Essentially in these fantasy movies, important characters do not die that easily.  Instead they disappear through wormholes so that they can reappear in some other space and time.
  4. The tesseract was later found by Howard Stark from the floor of the ocean.
  5. Cap Am’s friend Buckey falls from a train in a fight scene in which Cap Am and company try to demolish the hydra project. Buckey is assumed to be dead.
  6. Ending/ Mid credit/ Post credit scene: About 70 years after World War II, Captain America wakes up from his sleep. Nick Fury, director of Shield, welcomes him to modern day America and talks about a mission with big implications .

2. Iron Man (Timeline: late 2000s, sometime during the later part of the Afghanisthan war, location : NY, US and the middle east)

Hero- Tony Stark aka Iron Man

Villain- Obadiah Stane, Ten Rings (group that captures Stark)

Other important characters: Pepper Potts (Tony Stark’s PA and love interest), Colonel James Rhodes (Stark’s friend), Yinsen (scientist who implants the electromagnet in Stark’s chest that keeps Stark alive)

Plot Summary: Technologist and entrepreneur Tony Stark gets captured in the Middle East by a group called Ten Rings, where he finds them using weapons made by his own company for killing innocent people. With the help of fellow captive Yinsen, Stark makes the first Iron Man suit wearing which he escapes from captivity. After getting back home, he upgrades his suit. He also finds out that Obadiah Stane, second-in-hand in his business has carried out several under the table deals with organizations like Ten Rings and sold his company’s weapons to them. Soon Stane gets his own suit made and tries to kill Stark. In the climax of the movie, Stark, dressed in his Iron Man suit, beats Stane when Stark’s PA Pepper Potts overloads a reactor that causes a massive electrical surge and burns Stane.

Interesting facts:

  1. Tony Stark wears a shining chest piece throughout the Iron Man movies. It is essentially an electromagnet which prevents pieces of shrapnel that entered his chest during the explosion in middle east from piercing into his heart. The original version of it was made by Yinsen in a cave in the middle east, where Stark was captured by the Ten Rings. Stark later upgraded it when he got back to US.
  2. The Iron Man suit Stark makes is powered by the chestpiece.
  3. SHIELD representative Phils Coulson is shown several times in the movie approaching Stark for a secret project. He later assists Pepper Potts in fighting Stane.
  4. Ending/Mid Credit/ Post credit scene: Once Stark reveals himself as Iron Man to the press, Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, approaches Stark to talk about the formation of a superhero group called Avengers.

3. The Incredible Hulk

4. Thor (Timeline: 2011, location: Asgard, New Mexico, US)

Hero: Thor

Villain : Loki, Laufey (king of the Frost giants)

Other important characters- Jane Foster (astrophysicist and Thor’s love interest), Erik Selvig (astrophysicist, works with Jane Foster), Odin (father of Thor), Thor’s childhood friends- Hogan, Fandral, Sif

Plot summary- Thor is about to be coronated as the king of Asgard, but the frost giants, against whom the Asgardians fought wars previously but currently have a peace treaty with, try to steal the “Casket” from the Asgardians. This infuriates Thor and drives him to Jotunheim (land of Frost Giants) for revenge. Odin doesn’t approve of such rash and untactful act on Thor’s part, strips Thor of all his powers and banishes him to earth along with his hammer, which he cannot lift anymore.

On earth, Thor falls in love with an astrophysicist who works on portals between different galaxies, which are roughly equivalent to “realms” in Asgardian terminology. In the process, he loses a lot of his old arrogance and starts caring about her and other fellow denizens on earth. As a result, when Thor’s brother Loki, who has always been jealous of Thor, sends the Destroyer to earth to kill him, Thor offers himself to the Destroyer urging it not to kill anyone else on earth. This act of kindness on Thor’s part moves his father, who lifts away all his curses. Thor recovers his strength and his hammer, bids his lover goodbye, goes back to Asgard and destroy the bridge (Bifrost) that connects Asgard with other realms so that Loki cannot go to Jotunheim and destroy it.  Thor and Loki get in a fight in the process, and Loki apparently commits suicide by refusing Thor and Odin’s help and falling off the bridge at some point.

Interesting facts-

  1. Portal between different galaxies/ realms through which people can travel across time and space have been referred to as “wormholes” in most Marvel movies, but in this movie the more technical term- Einstein Rosen Bridge is used a few times.
  2. Hawkeye is shown to be working for SHIELD in this movie. When Thor gets very close to the hammer and is about to pick it up, Hawkeye is shown pointing an arrow at him from a distance and talking to Phil Coulson, agent of SHIELD.
  3. Coulson confuses the Destroyer, sent by Loki to earth, to be Iron Man at first.
  4. Thor promises his support to SHIELD in the movie in his short coversation with Agent Coulson before he leaves the earth. Thus this movie follows the lines of the other movies in Phase 1 that it introduces an Avenger, narrates his origin story and roughly ends with a scene on how he got connected with SHIELD and rest of the Avenger team.
  5. Ending/ Post credit scene: The post credit scene of “Thor”  shows Nick Fury introducing Dr. Selvig to the Tesseract, with Loki watching them from the shadows and mystically controlling Dr. Selvig. This scene is an immediate precursor to the starting scene of “The Avengers”, where Loki comes to the same location, steals the Tesseract and abducts Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig, controlling their minds in the process.
  6. It is not clear how Loki survived the fall from Bifrost and got back to earth. Marvel Wiki says that he passed into an wormhole and reached Other (featured in “The Avengers”) and Thanos. He made a pact with Thanos that he would attack the earth with the help of the Chitauri army and rule it, and in exchange will steal the Tesseract from the earth and hand it over to Thanos since it is one of the infinity stones.

 

5. The Avengers (Timeline: 2012, location : NY, US)

Hero- Tony Stark aka Iron Man, Steve Rogers aka Captain America, Bruce Bannar aka The Hulk, Thor, Natasha Romanoff or black widow ( a spy based around Russia working for SHIELD), Clint Barton or Hawkeye (another spy working for SHIELD)

Villain – Loki (Thor’s brother)

Other characters- Nick Fury ( the mastermind behind SHIELD), Maria Hill (agent of SHIELD who works with Fury), Phil Coulson (agent of SHIELD, appeared in Iron Man as well), Erik Selvig (astrophysicist who is enslaved by Loki and helps Loki with the tesseract), Other (leader of extra terrestrial race known as Chitauri who gives Loki an army under the condition that Loki will give him the tesseract)

Plot summary- Guided by the ambition to rule the human race Loki makes a deal with Other, leader of extra terrestrial race Chitauri, that they will give him an army to help him attack the earth if Loki can give him the Tesseract, possessed by the SHIELD on earth. Loki enters earth from outer space through a portal,  steals the tesseract, enslaves various agents and scientists of SHIELD and takes their help in energizing it. In order to stop Loki from ruling the planet, Fury puts together a team of superheroes called the Avengers. After several banters and quarrels within the group, the Avengers finally unite, Culson’s death in the hands of Loki being the catalyst. The Avengers successfully beat Loki and his army that attacked Manhattan, NY, entering the earth through an open portal. Iron Man sends the nuclear missile, launched by the higher administration to destroy Manhattan in order to kill Loki, to outer space through that portal. The Tesseract is recovered, Thor carries it with Loki back to Asgard and the rest of Avengers disbands for the moment.

Interesting facts-

  1. Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) are shown to be very familiar with each other. They refer to a lot of their past adventures together, with a particular emphasis on some incident in Budapest.
  2. The Tesseract is shown to be possessed by the SHIELD in the beginning of the movie. There is a reference to its recovery from the bottom of the ocean, which was shown in “Captain America: The First Avenger”.
  3. The movie ends with the Tesserract being taken back to Asgard, where it came from originally (again shown in the beginning of “Captain America: The First Avenger”), by Thor and Loki, who is chained.
  4. In the beginning of the movie, Banner/ Hulk is shown to be practicing medicine in the outskirts/ slums of Calcutta. What a way for Calcutta to be a part of the Marvel franchise!
  5. Mid credit/ end credit scene- Other is seen complaining to Thanos that humans are an unruly species.

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Fantasy

Alchemy, equivalent exchange and karma, Professor Shanku and Full Metal Alchemist

Though I have taken a lot of interest in metaphysical stuff over the years and dedicated large chunks of this blog to discussions on that, I never took much interest in alchemy perhaps because of my natural lack of inclination towards chemistry. I read Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shanku story “Shankur Suborno Sujog” (Shonku’s Golden Opportunity) very recently but didn’t really look up on alchemy after that. Well, Satyajit Ray based his science fiction stories on a lot of stuff- from time travel to unicorns, from witchcraft to artificial intelligence, so why bother? Also to be honest as much as I respect Satyajit Ray for all the amazing movies he made and the fictional sleuth he created- Feluda, who was a large part of my childhood, I never was a big fan of his Professor Shanku stories. As a kid, I didn’t understand or appreciate them much, and as an adult I felt them to be too childish. Satyajit Ray was an artistic genius and probably had a lot of curiosity about science too, but in my opinion that is not enough to write good science fiction. One actually needs to know a little bit of science so that the story has enough details to appear realistic even though it is fantasy. Satyajit Ray probably lacked the knowledge of science to fill up his stories with sound details. As a result most of the Shanku stories, despite providing a good read, are hardly memorable- Shanku owns a gun which makes any object in front of it vanish when fired, he makes a machine which can translate the language of ants, he makes some object which can float in air to defy gravity. Sure this is science fiction and not science and so I am ready to suspend my disbelief, but provide me with the details of how these things happen for science’s sake!

Okay enough of Satyajit Ray bashing, now back to alchemy! In the story “Shanku’s Suborno Sujog”, Professor Shanku and his two other friends, both scientists like him, try to reproduce the experiment to transform other objects to gold that has been reported in a Spanish diary from medieval Europe, when the study of alchemy had its heyday. They keep putting different objects in a well of some liquid that they prepare as a part of the experiment but to their dismay nothing turns into gold until the villain of the story accidentally jumps into it and his entire body is turned into gold. The scientists realize that the transformation to gold demands life and hence it works only for living objects.

I read this story and pretty much forgot about it until recently when I started watching the massively popular anime- “Full Metal Alchemist”- the 2003 version. I finished all its episodes in the last one month, and also watched the sequel movie- “Conqueror of Shamballa”. The series made me look up on alchemy and understand the basics of the different concepts in alchemy that have been highlighted in the show- transmutation, transmutation circle, law of equivalent exchange, gate of truth, philosopher’s stone etc. Most of the information available on the internet about these concepts is based on the TV series and the manga it is based on, so I am not very sure how many of these concepts are borrowed from actual annals on alchemy written over the ages, and how many have been concocted for the sake of the manga. Nevertheless, I will discuss some of the concepts over here and relate them with other things that have interested me in the past.

The law of equivalent exchange is the fundamental law of alchemy- for everything gained in the world, something of equal value must be lost, though the series never explicitly lays out what parameters determine equal value. Some examples are shown instead- the protagonists, Ed and Al, try to bring their dead mother back to life but Ed loses his arm and leg and Al loses his entire body, the teacher Izumi loses organs inside her belly in the attempt to regain her lost child, umpteen human lives need to be sacrificed to create the philosopher’s stone and so on. The idea is indeed similar to that in Professor Shanku’s story – only living objects can be transmuted to gold, i.e., creation of gold comes at the cost of sacrifice of a life.

In the series, Ed and Al’s understanding of the law of equivalent exchange evolves over time. When they are young and innocent, they take the law as absolute truth. As they grow older and have several life changing experiences in their pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, and particularly after an altercation with the antagonist, Dante, at  the climax of the story, their absolute belief in the law seems to erode. Dante passionately argues that the law of equivalent exchange is a theory that has been concocted to delude innocent minds. The world is cruel, random and unfair. Good things happen to some people and bad things to the others for no reason whatsoever. By the end of the series, Al concedes that he no longer considers equivalent exchange an absolute law. He rather interprets it as a promise- a ray of hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that someday he will reunite with his brother Ed.

I find this theory of equivalent exchange very similar to the theory of karma in ancient philosophy. According to the theory of karma, everything in this world happens for a reason. Events that are separated by vast expanses of space and long passages of time are actually connected by strings, invisible to us. Though this idea seemed implausible to me initially, experiences in life have taught me otherwise. As I have mentioned in some of my other posts, there is always a subjective aspect to consciousness which will keep our understanding of the world around us grey forever. Once someone is isolated enough or is deeply in pain due to a heartbreak or is obsessed with metaphysical ideas over a long period of time, their mind works in ways like it does never before. The mind starts making long range connections and relating events with each other, which it always considered uncorrelated before. It is not impossible that an individual, possessed with such a mental state, will be afraid crossing the road because a car can run him over for the way he mistreated his girlfriend six months back.

I do not think we can ever be sure whether our world is so causal, correlated and deterministic as the karma theory considers it to be. This world might as well be completely random and unfair, or it can be somewhere in between – some things happen for a reason and some other things just happen randomly. However what I do believe is that every individual should have the right to choose their own view of the world. And just like Al chooses to believe in equivalent exchange since it instills hope in him, I also choose to believe in karma but not take it as an absolute because that way I take everything I do and everything that happens to me way too seriously. I find it difficult to do simple things in everyday life, which always involve a little risk, if my mind is haunted with the thought that they may have severe consequences as a result of something I did wrong ages ago.

Another interesting concept in the series which I find worth discussing is the concept of the Gate of Truth. In the 2003 TV series “Full Metal Alchemist”, the Gate is presented as a portal between two worlds. One of the worlds is the world we live in, where modern science is dominated by physics and its derivatives and alchemy has no power, and the other world is that of Ed and Al’s- the state of Amestris, where alchemy is considered the most superior science. Majority of the episodes in the series is set in the latter world, with the former appearing in the last few episodes of the series and the sequel movie.

Essentially in our world, practice of alchemy was not that uncommon even a few centuries ago. Attempts were made in different parts of the world, particularly in Europe at the later stage, to transmute different substances to gold, develop panaceas that can cure all diseases and create the philosopher’s stone. However in the post Renaissance era, with the widespread success of physics, attempts were made to rigorously quantify and record the various practices in alchemy, and to separate the procedures performed on various substances as a part of alchemy from the spiritual practices connected to it like the purification of soul and grant of eternal life. Thus refined versions of age old practices in alchemy, with the metaphysical connotations stripped off them, became what we call “chemistry” today, while alchemy got the status of an outdated, occult branch of knowledge. The series Full Metal Alchemist and the manga behind it essentially imagine a world which has a very similar history as ours, just that alchemy does not fall from grace there and physics and chemistry do not take its place. The protagonists Ed and Al and most of the other characters belong to that world. In the series, that world of alchemy is separated from our world by the Gate of Truth- an idea very similar to the central theme of my blog- bridge between the physical world and the abstract world.

A few things about the characters and storyline in the series need to be mentioned before I end the post. The expressiveness on Ed’s face at every close up shot is simply mesmerising. The artists deserve a huge credit for that. That, alongside the innocent conviction in Al’s voice every time he states his intentions or opinions, will stay with me for a long time. I also found the use of comic elements at different points in the show, even in the serious situations, extremely innovative and refreshing. Ed going berserk every time he is called short and Al holding him back screaming “brother” innocently never gets old.