When “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” opens on Friday, expect a lot of viewers to stick around to see what bonus scene Marvel Studios tacks onto the end credits this time. After all, this could be the final hint we get about what lies ahead for Cap and his shared-universe compatriots before “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opens in May 2015. (We’re not banking on Marvel’s new venture “Guardians of the Galaxy,” coming this August, to have a direct Avengers connection — although geeks of a certain age will recall that a different incarnation of the Guardians did get loosely folded into the “Avengers” comics for a time.)
How the cinematic landscape has changed. When “Iron Man” opened six years ago, many filmgoers scoffed at fans who anxiously hung around afterward, subculturally clued in that it would be worth their while. Now when a Marvel movie rolls credits, everyone is primed for getting some Big Reveal if they just keep their seats and an open mind. Here’s a rundown of the various Avengers-related Easter eggs that we’ve gathered in our basket to date, and the ways they’ve tied the mythology together.
IRON MAN (2008)
Wait time for bonus scene: 7 minutes and 55 seconds’ worth of end credits.
Bonus scene duration: 32 seconds.
Worth the wait? Heck, yeah!
Particulars: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) returns home from a climactic battle and post-fight press conference to find a mystery man waiting in the shadows: S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” Fury asks rhetorically. “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”
Payoff: This “initiative” comes to fruition, of course, in “The Avengers.”
THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
Wait time: None — immediately follows the movie’s last scene. (Maybe the filmmakers were afraid they wouldn’t like us when we’re angry from waiting.)
Worth it? N/A.
Particulars: Army general Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) sits in a bar trying to drown the memory of his recent encounter with the Hulk. In swaggers Tony Stark. “What if I told you we were putting a team together?” Stark asks casually. “Who’s ‘we’?” asks Ross, setting aside his trademark stogie, suddenly plenty sober.
Payoff: Again, see “The Avengers.”
Additional Avengers connection: At the movie’s 32-minute mark, Ross explains that the fateful experiment that transformed Bruce Banner into the Hulk was an extension of a weapons development program dubbed “Super Soldier” during WWII. It’s left unsaid, but fans know that the program’s original test subject was Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America.
IRON MAN 2 (2010)
Wait time: 6:33.
Duration: 54 seconds.
Worth it? Thunderous-ovation material for some fans; solid teaser for everyone else.
Particulars: In the New Mexico desert, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) surveys what looks like a dig site out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A closeup shows a hefty metallic mallet immovably lodged there, like the Sword in the Stone. Coulson phones in: “Sir, we’ve found it.” Cut to black screen and cue thunderclap.
Payoff: A year later, in “Thor,” Chris Hemsworth’s Asgardian thunder god shows up to claim the mallet — actually his war hammer, Mjolnir, deposited here as a test of character by his father, Odin.
Additional connection: At the movie’s 85-minute mark, as Stark toils to correct a fatal flaw in his armor, he grabs a prototype of Captain America’s specially engineered shield — not as the elusive answer, but as a shim for some equipment. This installment also introduces Scarlett Johansson’s “Avengers” superspy, the Black Widow.
Wait time: 7:53.
Worth it? We say thee nay — the drama is strictly webisode-caliber.
Particulars: One of Thor’s new mortal allies, scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard, looking confused), is met by Fury in a classified government facility. Fury shows him a steel attaché case containing a crackling, infinitely powerful artifact called the Tesseract. (Diehard fans will recognize this as the Cosmic Cube, a venerable Marvel plot device — or as the contents of Jackson’s “Pulp Fiction” briefcase finally revealed, take your pick). Unfortunately, Selvig still has Thor’s archnemesis, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), on the brain — or more accurately, in his brain, secretly controlling him.
Payoff: Preeesenting . . . your “Avengers” MacGuffin!
Additional connection: Among the S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives on mallet-monitoring duty is super-marksman Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Nice to get an early look at him here, especially considering the way he’d be underutilized in “Avengers.”
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
Wait time: 9:06.
Duration: 29 seconds.
Worth it? Packs some punch (see below), but we could go for even more.
Particulars: Rescued from suspended animation, Captain America (Chris Evans) works out, pounding a punching bag right off its chain as he struggles to come to grips with being a man out of time. Enter Fury, with news of a new mission. Cap: “Trying to get me back in the world?” Fury, pointedly: “Trying to save it.”
Payoff: An immediate segue into first-look “Avengers” footage.
Additional connection: Cap’s WWII nemesis the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) is all about insidiously tapping the power of — what else? — the Tesseract.
THE AVENGERS* (2012)
*New twist: a pair of bonus scenes. (Hey, it’s “The Avengers” — the entire enterprise is about giving us more superhero bang for our fanboy buck.)
Segment 1 wait time: 1:58 of a backloaded opening-credits sequence.
Duration: 49 seconds.
Worth it? To repeat: heck, yeah!
Particulars: In some eerie corner of the cosmos, the Other, a shadowy alien figure who’s been conspiring with Loki, reports back to his equally otherworldly master. “Humans,” he hisses, “are not the cowering wretches we were promised. To challenge them is to court death.” They’re words that bring an evil smile to the face of purple-skinned Thanos. This power-mad nihilist is known in the comics for one thing first and foremost: having the hots for the physical embodiment of Death.
Payoff: The scene stoked anticipation that “Avengers 2” would mine one of Marvel’s classic galactic sagas — possibly “The Infinity Gauntlet,” in which Thanos wipes out half the universe to impress You-Know-Who. (Viewers got a fleeting glimpse of the gauntlet itself in “Thor,” during a scene in the Asgardian vault housing the Tesseract.) The notion made sense; Marvel and director Joss Whedon had proven that they could make their audacious multi-franchise crossover work, so why not go cosmic for an encore? Then came word that the sequel would instead spotlight the robotic Ultron, another classic villain. So . . . “Avengers 3,” maybe? Thanos also will reportedly be a presence in, yep, “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Segment 2 wait time: 6:15 of the end-credits crawl.
Duration: 34 seconds.
Worth it? Oh, what the heck — yeah.
Particulars: Well, Tony Stark did tell us at the finish of the Avengers’ epic New York battle that he was hankerin’ to give shawarma a try. And so the team does. Silently. For over half a minute. The characteristically Whedonesque scene marks a new trend in Marvel bonus segments: the continuity-lite comedy kicker. And if the shawarma biz has seen an uptick over the last couple of years, they know whom to thank. (Google “shawarma” and the “Avengers” clip comes up in the top half-dozen results.)
IRON MAN 3 (2013)
Wait time: 9:26.
Worth it? Does Tony Stark have issues?
Particulars: More comedy, as Stark lies on a shrink’s couch, wrapping up his account of the movie’s events. The doctor? Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who’s nodded off, to Stark’s peeved surprise. “I’m sorry,” Banner fumbles. “I’m not that kind of doctor.”
Payoff: More of a payback, really, as the Hulk franchise finally returns the favor for Downey’s cameo back in ’08.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)
Segment 1 wait time: 2:05 of another backloaded opening-credits sequence.
Worth it? Verily!
Particulars: Thor’s warrior pals Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) show up at the galactic-curiosities depository of Taneleer Tivan, a.k.a. the Collector (Benicio Del Toro, in a Jim Jarmusch coif and “Velvet Goldmine” finery). The Asgardians want this cosmic curator to keep an eye on the sequel’s MacGuffin, the darkness-spreading Aether, because they’re nervous about leaving it in their own vault alongside the Tesseract. “It is not wise to keep two Infinity Stones so close together,” says Volstagg. “It will be absolutely safe here,” the Collector assures them, with all the greedy relish of Comic Book Guy stumbling onto “Avengers” #1 at a yard sale. Then, after his visitors have gone: “One down, five to go.” To be continued . . . in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” in which Del Toro costars.
Segment 2 wait time: 5:16 of the end-credits crawl.
Duration: 51 seconds.
Worth it? For romantics, sure, even if others might not be thunderstruck.
Particulars: Seemingly given an immortal “I’ll call you” by Thor — again — Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) sits in her London flat, poking forlornly at her food. (Cereal, not shawarma.) Then, suddenly, the hero reappears for a happy-ending lovers’ clinch. Of course, he’ll probably have to dash again, judging by the post-post-postscript of a “Dark World” beastie still comically running amok…
Payoff: No word yet on an uptick for UK breakfast staple Shreddies.Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.