Who are "The Avengers"? Chances are, if you've been to the movies at all in the last couple of years, you've seen at least one of these characters before. The Avengers have a long history of appearances in comic books and other media. This particular version, however, is the culmination of the last few years of Marvel Studios films, which tie each separate story into one giant team-up. But you might not be familiar with all of the connections. So here's a brief introduction to each of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, along with their support staff and enemies. Read on, true believers!
The de facto leader of the team, super-soldier Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) starred in his own 2011 film, "Captain America: The First Avenger." That movie took place during World War II, but in The Avengers, Cap (who had been frozen in ice after the war) has been thawed out and reintroduced into modern society. Now Rogers has to figure out how to make the disparate personalities and powers of The Avengers work together.
Appearances in other Marvel films: Cap's trademark shield can be seen in Tony Stark's workshop in both "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2." An alternate scene included in the DVD release of 2008's "The Incredible Hulk" shows Cap still frozen.
Audiences are probably most familiar with billionaire scientist and playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) after two successful solo films, "Iron Man" (2008) and "Iron Man 2" (2010). A former weapons manufacturer, Stark changes his philosophy after being abducted by terrorists (who use his weapons). His mercurial nature, however, puts him at odds with Captain America and others. Stark has no superpowers aside from a genius-level intellect, but his personally designed metal suit includes a number of projectile weapons, augmented strength, and the ability to fly at supersonic speeds.
Appearances in other Marvel films: Stark makes a cameo appearance at the end of "The Incredible Hulk," discussing a possible alliance with a military figure.
The 2008 film of the same name introduces brilliant scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), who undergoes an experiment intended to make humans immune to gamma radiation. (This is a departure from the comic-book version of the story, where Banner is caught in the accidental blast of a "gamma bomb.") Instead, the experiment makes Banner transform into a massive, immensely strong green humanoid whenever he becomes angry. In "The Avengers," Mark Ruffalo plays Banner/Hulk rather than Norton.
Appearances in other Marvel films: A background image in a S.H.I.E.L.D. base in "Iron Man 2" features an image of a college campus in ruins -- a reference to a Hulk rampage.
The son of the god Odin, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the prince of Asgard and adoptive brother to villain Loki (we'll get to him). His 2011 film tells the story of Thor's exile to Earth after a rash decision ruins a peace treaty in Asgard. Thor atones for his mistake and proves himself again worthy to wield his hammer Mjolnir, the source of many of his powers. At the end of the film, the link between Asgard and Earth is broken, but Thor finds another way to return when he hears that Loki is on Earth seeking revenge.
Appearances in other Marvel films: The crater in the New Mexico desert, formed when Mjolnir falls to Earth with Thor, can be seen in the background of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base in "Iron Man 2."
Master archer and acrobat Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) is one of two Avengers not to have starred in a separate feature film. In the comics, he initially learns archery by joining a traveling carnival after his parents are killed in a car accident. After an early run-in with Iron Man, he decides to become a superhero himself and is invited to join the Avengers. He has also been linked to Black Widow professionally and romantically. Hawkeye has no superhuman abilities, but he is in peak physical condition and uses a variety of "trick" arrows with different functions.
Appearances in other Marvel films: Hawkeye is briefly glimpsed in 2011's "Thor" as a bow-wielding sniper at the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility surrounding Mjolnir's crater.
Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is an assassin, spy and double agent whose loyalties have changed several times over the course of her comic-book history. She has yet to star in her own film, but she featured in "Iron Man 2" as an assistant to Tony Stark (and an undercover spy for S.H.I.E.L.D.). In the upcoming "Avengers" film, she works for Nick Fury and is the long-time comrade-in-arms of Hawkeye.
Appearances in other Marvel films: She played Tony Stark's assistant Natalie in "Iron Man 2" before being revealed as a S.H.I.E.L.D. spy.
Played by Samuel L. Jackson (whose likeness was specifically used for the character in a 2002 comics reboot), Nick Fury is the director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (or S.H.I.E.L.D.). He is renowned as a soldier and super-spy, and his trademark eye patch conceals a cybernetic implant with a host of powers and uses. In some versions of the comic-book character, he also has a cybernetic arm. He utilizes a number of high-tech gadgets concealed in everyday items, similar to James Bond.
Appearances in other Marvel films: Fury mostly made cameos in post-credits scenes, recruiting the various Marvel heroes for his Avengers initiative. "Iron Man," "Thor," and "Captain America: The First Avenger" contain such appearances. Fury played a larger role in "Iron Man 2" as he aids Tony Stark with information and technology.
Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) is the only main character in "The Avengers" that did not originally exist in the comics. He is one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s best agents and often works alongside Nick Fury. He made his first appearance as an unassuming bureaucrat in "Iron Man," but he was quickly revealed as a capable field agent. His dispassionate, unflappable manner and dry wit belie his abilities.
Appearances in other Marvel films: After "Iron Man," Coulson is assigned to watch over an increasingly erratic Tony Stark in "Iron Man 2." He also appears in a post-credits scene in that film, informing Nick Fury that he has found the crater where Mjolnir and Thor landed. In "Thor," Coulson interrogates Thor when he is captured attempting to retrieve Mjolnir.
Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is one of Nick Fury's most trusted S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and often acts as his second-in-command when Fury is otherwise occupied. She serves the Avengers in a support role, although she has a strong, fierce personality. She has no superpowers, but she is a highly trained field agent and skilled in tactics, firearms, and hand-to-hand combat.
Appearances in other Marvel films: None.
Like Thor, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a demigod from Asgard. However, he is only Thor's adoptive brother; Loki's real father is Laufey, king of the Frost Giants. This fact leads to the rift between Thor and Loki detailed in the 2011 film "Thor." Loki ends up on Earth, seeking revenge on his brother and the people who aided him. While physically weaker than Thor and unable to wield Mjolnir, Loki has many magical powers, including illusion, shapeshifting, and mind control.
Appearances in other Marvel films: Loki was the main adversary in 2011's "Thor."