Warning: This post contains spoilers for literally damned near everything Marvel.
A McGuffin is an object that conveniently gives characters in a story motivation. It powers the plot. In Avatar it was "unobtanium," a name that seems to make fun of itself. Indiana Jones had the Ark of the Covenant, which Star-Lord even references in Guardians of the Galaxy to refer to the Orb they were after. The first phase of the Marvel films revolved around the Tesseract, a powerful cube with magical powers. In other words, the McGuffin.
Marvel does many things right with its cinematic world, but the best aspect of the movies can be found in their ability to weave in and out of each other. The films constantly reference themselves and the movies around them. There is one single timeline, and events in one film inform that action in the next, until everything comes together in the beautiful chaos of an Avengers film, the all-star collection of superheroes that put a few story threads to rest before setting the next phase of the universe in motion.
This is a hard trick to pull off, but Marvel has one of the best framing devices in the history of film. They don't have one McGuffin, but six.
The universe is larger, and smaller
Guardians of the Galaxy has been said to make the Marvel universe larger, and weirder, but I don’t think that’s really true. We’ve already visited Asgard, for the love of Stan Lee, and the cinematic world has already seen gods battling each other for objects of power.
We took a step into the greater world of outer space, and Guardians of the Galaxy lore, in the post-credits bumper for Thor: The Dark World, when the Aether was given to the Collector for safe keeping.
This is why Guardians may be one of the most telling of the Marvel films. It makes a lot of subtext of the past movies explicit, during a speech by the Collector. These objects of power are called the Infinity Stones, and there are six of them. They are objects of great power, and will destroy anyone who tries to wield them unless that person is incredibly powerful themselves. They are being hunted by a being called Thanos, who we glimpsed as the mastermind behind Loki’s failed invasion of the Earth.
This is the story of a man trying to woo a woman by killing as many sentient beings as possible
Everything snaps into place: The Tesseract is an Infinity Stone, the "Space" stone, capable of sending people those who wield it through space itself. It’s a pretty nifty thing to have access to if you want to, say pour an army into a world you would like to rule. Loki’s attack is fought off by the Avengers, and then we discover Thanos pulling the strings. To attack the humans, he’s told at the end of the movie, is to "court death."
Why does Thanos smile at this line? It’s a play on words. Thanos in the comics is literally trying to "court" the manifestation of death, and his way of getting her attention is to kill a whole lot of sentient beings. Collecting the Infinity Stones is a very efficient way to do so.
This is the story of a man trying to woo a woman he has a crush on by gathering the most powerful items in existence, and using them to kill as many sentient beings as possible.
The Aether, the item fought over in Thor: The Dark World, is another Infinity Stone, the one known as reality. It can be absorbed, and used as a source of nearly unlimited power. By the end of the film the Aether is "given" to the Collector for safe keeping and, as we know from Guardians of the Galaxy, the Collector is actively trying to buy other Infinity Stones.
In fact, The Collector nearly had two of them in his possession, which would have made him one of the most powerful beings in existence, if he chose, or was able, to wield their power. In fact, it was the second Thor movie that gave the Infinity Stones a name, and the Collector begins a sort of countdown. "One down," he says. "Five to go."
I’m not sure he’s the type to use it, however. He strikes me as the type of dude who collects rare and amazing video games only to keep them sealed, and never played. The joy is in the ownership, not the use.
Think about the genius of this strategy. Each Infinity Stone can be its own McGuffin, and each one works as a convenient plot point for an epic battle over a powerful object. The Orb in Guardians of the Galaxy hides an Infinity Stone, and it sets the events of the film in motion. It’s a story about one man trying to destroy a single world, and he makes a deal with the most powerful being he can: Thanos.
It’s a simple transaction: He delivers an Infinity Stone, and Thanos destroys a planet for him. Easy!
In fact, director James Gunn has confirmed which Infinity Stone was shown in Guardians.
So we now know the location and name of three of the six Infinity Stones. The Space stone is in Asgard, which is being ruled by Loki pretending to be Odin. That’s not exactly a secure location. The reality stone is being held by the Collector, and the last time we checked in with him he was standing a pile of rubble being mocked by Howard the Duck. The Power stone is being held on Xandar, after being successfully defended by Star-Lord and crew.
What happens when one collects all six stones? Well, if you put them in the Infinity Gauntlet, you basically get to rule everything by default. It’s omnipotence, power and control. In the comics Thanos snapped his fingers and killed half of all living things. That's the sort of power you can expect from the Gauntlet.
By the way, the Infinity Gauntlet has made an appearance in the Marvel films already, although you might have missed it in the first Thor film.
Remember when I said one ofbest strengths was planning? They've been laying the foundation for Avengers 3 since the first films.
Let's talk about Loki
Marvel seems to have a very specific timeline for its films, and everything is headed towards a future where Thanos wields the Infinity Gauntlet, complete with all six Infinity Stones. The pieces have been set in place, and are in motion. Marvel has a built-in set of McGuffins that move its films, and there are three we still haven't seen.
Or have we? The secret may lie with this guy right here.
Loki's sceptor was given to him by Thanos to aid in his invasion of Earth, and it has the power to control the mind of anyone he touches. It's an object of immense power, being given to one henchmen in exchange for one planet. Remind you of anything else?
The Power stone from Guardians of the Galaxy was supposed to be used to destroy Xandar, and Ronan the Accuser uses it to power his weapon and defy Thanos rather than turn it over. One popular theory, and there's a lot of reason to believe this, is that Loki's staff is actually holding a fourth Infinity Stone, "mind," which does exactly what it sounds like. Loki's staff was powerful enough to challenge Mjolnir in single combat, and proved powerful enough to allow him to challenge the Avengers.
Looking at images of the staff, it's clear that the stone inside is a discrete object, and certainly looks like an Infinity Stone.
There are a few holes here. It's said the staff is "powered" by the Tesseract, but this could be due to imperfect knowledge of how the stones work. It's also unlikely that Thanos would allow Loki to wield one Stone while giving him access to another. On the other hand, the staff seemed to be the only thing that could counteract the Tesseract, and it's been studied extensively by S.H.I.E.L.D. who may or may not know how these stones work with each other.
If this theory pans out, it means we know the location of four of the six stones, as well as the now-empty Infinity Gauntlet itself, which is in Asgard. Under the protection of Loki, who is pretending to be Odin. We may be much closer to a showdown than we think.
The power of the stones
The fact that these six stones have been driving the narrative of this many movies across this many characters is kind of amazing, and it means that there is always conflict available for Marvel's film. You need something that would cause entire civilizations to go to war, or lead the most powerful beings in the universe to battle each other? Simple: They want an Infinity Stone for one reason or the other. The conflicts for these stones stretch across known existence, and allow Marvel to link all of the movies together with ease.
She's another piece that has been set in motion
The character that links Guardians to the wider world of Marvel is Thanos, and his lust for these stones. And now one of Thanos' adopted daughters is involved with a team of heroes that includes a human, and they know what the Infinity Stones are and what they can do. This is strong enough thread to start speculation that the Guardians will meet Tony Stark and company in Avengers 3.
Also, if you think Nebula just ran away forever at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, I have a stone to sell you. She's another piece that has been set in motion, and will likely come back into play during future films.
One of the reasons the latest the latest film has been put on hold.movies have been such snoozers is that every super hero and villain comes from Oscorp. The world of that film is tiny, to the point it's literally centered on one company. Sony has all but admitted it doesn't know how to handle Spider-Man as a franchise, and
Marvel doesn't have this problem, and it's mostly due to using the Infinity Stones as a framing device for its films. These items come from the stars, they cause entire planets to live or die and it's simple to write them into nearly any hero's story.
They make the world of these films both huge and understandable, and they're a testament to how smart Marvel has been since the first films. The stones are written into the very DNA of Marvel's cinematic universe, and the fate of every character is somehow wrapped up in the stones.
This is storytelling on a scope that has never been done before in films, and may never be done again. When this is all over, when the Avengers are forced to deal with a Thanos wielding the Infinity Gauntlet, shit is going to get real. And I can't wait to buy the box set.