We’re still over a year away from Avengers: Infinity War, and two years away from its untitled sequel, but the never-satisfied fans of the MCU have already been asking: what’s next? After Thanos is defeated and the Infinity Stones are safely separated again, what opponent could possibly stand in the way of The Avengers that could live up to the threat of Thanos? Even in the comics, Marvel had a hard time following up their Infinity Gauntlet storyline, which killed half the universe and promised to change the Marvel universe before basically undoing any action that might have had a lasting impact.
To make matters of prediction even more difficult, the rights to most of Marvel’s best villains are tied up with Fox, so baddies like Galactus, Kang, and Doom aren’t showing up any time soon without a major deal being made. However, what if Marvel has been setting up their next Big Bad for years, right in front of our dumb faces? What if Marvel’s next group of antagonists have been establishing themselves since Phase 2, quietly pulling the strings to influence events according to their plan? I’m talking about the Elders of the Universe: a group of ancient beings who might just be the MCU’s next Big Bad.
Who are the Elders of the Universe?
In the comics, the Elders are essentially the oldest sentient beings in the universe, each one the last living member of one of the universe’s earliest civilizations. With no other family, the Elders consider each other brothers and occasionally work together towards a common, usually nefarious, goal. For instance, they once teamed up to try to kill Galactus and bring about the end of the universe. Having previously tricked Death into making them immortal, the Elders believed that they would survive the ending and subsequent rebirth of the universe, becoming supremely powerful beings. Yeah, comics are weird.
In the MCU so far, we’ve only been properly introduced to one Elder: Taneleer Tivan, better known as The Collector. However, we know that we’ll meet at least one more by the end of 2017. Thor: Ragnarok will introduce us to The Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum. While there hasn’t been any official confirmation that The Grandmaster and The Collector are related to each other in any way, a quick look at both of them makes it obvious there’s a connection:
So we know about two Elders for sure, but it’s possible we’ve even seen a third. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Kurt Russell will play Peter Quill’s father, Ego the Living Planet. In the comics, Ego is also considered an Elder of the Universe. However, he’s an Elder in the same way that Wolverine is an Avenger: he’s definitely been on the team, but that’s not what he’s best known for. Still, everything we know about Ego so far would make sense if he’s an Elder. Just like them, Ego is ancient, powerful, mysterious, part of an unknown race, and prefers to work through others like the Ravagers. In fact, what we knew about Peter Quill’s father matched so well with what we know about the Elders of the Universe that many thought The Collector could be Quill’s dad back when Ego’s role was still a mystery.
Beyond The Grandmaster, The Collector, and Ego, there are many other Elders of the Universe that could show up in the future. In fact, a few of them may have already been cast. Sylvester Stallone‘s mysterious role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Sam Neill‘s in Thor: Ragnarok have both been described as very important, but not necessarily large, roles. Neill described his role saying that, despite only filming for a few days, he couldn’t say anything about his role or whether or not he’d return:
I’m not really allowed to say this, and I can’t tell you what it is… I did a couple of days on Thor, just before I came over here. If I say anything else, Marvel’s secret agents, and they are lethal, will come and get me and probably my children, as well.
Meanwhile, Sly’s role in Guardians has been described as a “very, very, key, important role” by director James Gunn, and a fan on Reddit who saw some unreleased footage at a CCXP panel described his appearance:
Totally human. No cgi or makeup. It was just a few frames and looked like he was on that main planet from the first movie. In the panel, JG said we will a character of major importance for the cosmic side of MCU…Looked like some aristocrat outfit from said planet. As I said just a few frames. A retired Richard Ryder seems likely. From what he said I got the impression Sly may have a multi picture contract. I looks like he may be the Samuel L Jackson of Cosmic MCU
While the Redditor above suggests that Stallone could be playing Richard Rider, Gunn’s comments seem to indicate that it’s highly unlikely we’ll see any human (particularly Nova) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. So who else could Sly be playing? A major cosmic character, played by an older actor, dressed in fine or extravagant clothing. I wonder if that matches anyone else we’ve seen in the MCU so far?
We aren’t the first to speculate that Neill and Stallone could be playing Elders– in fact, as far back as October, James Gunn debunked a rumor that the Elders would play a “major role” in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. However, that doesn’t mean that the Elders of the Universe won’t appear at all, and the Elders could instead be playing a large role in Thor: Ragnarok with the introduction of the Grandmaster, and possibly the second Elder portrayed by Sam Neill.
What Do the Elders Want?
With a group like the Elders of the Universe, it’s tricky to pin down exactly what they want for two main reasons. First, it’s entirely possible that they all want different things. Like I mentioned earlier, the Elders only work together occasionally, the rest of the time doing their own thing for their own reasons. Second, the Elders’ plans are usually concocted by The Grandmaster, whose millennia of studying of games and contests have made him an incredible strategist, so his moves might be hidden to us. But for the sake of this theory, let’s assume that the Elders are indeed working together and try to figure out their plan based on what we’ve seen.
1) They want the Infinity Stones
In his first appearance in the post-credits scene of Thor: The Dark World, The Collector is entrusted with The Reality Stone by the Asgardians. After assuring Sif and Volstagg that the stone would be safe, The Collector ominously says “One down, five to go,” referring to the other five Infinity Stones. Sure, maybe he only said it because he’s The Collector and he likes to collect things, but it seems like it probably means more than that, especially given the fact that the line was the last line of dialogue in the entire movie. If The Collector (and therefore, the Elders) want the Infinity Stones, that either means they have their own plan for them, or they’re working with Thanos. Which brings us to the second thing we know about the Elders…
2) They aren’t working with Thanos
In Guardians of the Galaxy, it may seem like everybody in the Galaxy is after the Power Stone, but every person we see trying to get the stone can be traced back to one of two opposing parties: Thanos and The Collector. Ronan, Nebula, and Korath are all working directly or indirectly for Thanos, while Gamora and the Ravagers had both been hired by The Collector (well, technically, The Ravagers were hired by The Broker, who was hired by The Collector). So whatever The Elders want, they definitely don’t want Thanos to collect all six gems.
3) They prefer to work through others
Although they definitely aren’t working together, The Elders of the Universe and Thanos do have one thing in common: they prefer having others do their work for them. It’s become a running joke about the MCU that it took Thanos the entirety of Phase 2 just to stand up from his chair, because all of his plans thus far have involved using others like Loki, Ronan, and possibly even Ultron. It hasn’t been confirmed that Thanos had anything to do with the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it would make sense if he was somehow responsible for the evil AI’s birth. In the post-credits scene, Thanos picks up the Infinity Gauntlet saying “Fine, I’ll do it myself.” If we assume that the “it” to which he is referring is destroying The Avengers (or Earth in general), and that Thanos is only just now deciding to take matters into his own hands, it makes sense that Ultron is another example of one of Thanos’s failed plans to take over Earth and defeat the Avengers. Thanos being somehow responsible for Ultron’s creation would also explain why Tony seems so convinced he and Banner aren’t responsible for Ultron:
Bruce: Tony, maybe this might not be the time…
Tony: Really? That’s it? You just roll over and show your belly, every time somebody snarls?
Bruce: Only when I’ve created a murder-bot!
Tony: We didn’t, we weren’t even close! Were we close to an interface?
Likewise, the Elders have historically used others to accomplish their goals. The Collector sought the Power Stone first through hiring the Ravagers, then through hiring Gamora to betray Ronan. Ego went after his own son not by himself, but by hiring the Ravagers. And The Grandmaster, as powerful as he is, prefers to watch others fight for his amusement. So therefore, we can conclude that any moves they’ve made to secure the Infinity Stones and/or stop Thanos have been made indirectly.
4) They know about The Avengers
Before the Guardians of the Galaxy arrive on Earth next year for Avengers: Infinity War, it’s hard to know exactly who knows anything about the big picture of the MCU. Most characters are either only aware of what’s happening on Earth, or only aware of what’s happening out in space. However, there are a few people that we know for sure are privy to everything that’s happening across the universe. Thor, for example, is starting to piece together the big picture (and will surely learn even more during this year’s Thor: Ragnarok). Thanos, obviously, is aware of everything that he’s up to. It’s also safe to assume that the Elders have been keeping a close eye on Thanos’s activities, and are well aware of The Avengers on Earth. The Collector accepted the Reality Stone from the Warriors Three, so he probably knows about the events of Thor: The Dark World, and if Ego was able to make sure the Ravagers abducted his son on the very night his mother’s death, it’s probably a good bet that he’s keeping an eye on Earth. On the off chance the Elders aren’t aware of the Avengers, they certainly will be by Thor: Ragnarok, when two of them will fight in The Grandmaster’s arena. It’s possible, likely even, that The Grandmaster is directly responsible for Hulk’s trip to Sakaar, as he has a habit in the comics of kidnapping people to compete in his games.
So based on the facts we know, it seems as though the Elders are trying to stop Thanos from collecting all the Infinity Stones so that they themselves can collect them for some currently unknown (but almost certainly dastardly) reason. It also looks like they’re using The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy as pawns to block Thanos, positioning everything so that when the time comes, someone will be able to stop him. Right now, they could probably be technically considered allies for The Avengers, as they share a common enemy. However, once Thanos is out of the picture, it seems certain that The Avengers and Guardians won’t like what the Elders plan to do with their newly acquired Infinity Stones.
Where’s the Evidence?
So far, there’s very little hard evidence to support the theory that there’s some hidden conspiracy in the MCU involving the Elders of the Universe. Some of the things we know (like the details we have about Stallone and Neill’s roles) do fit the theory pretty well, but it’s vague enough evidence that it could probably be used to support any theory. So needless to say, take this theory for what it is: speculation based on some circumstantial evidence that fits well enough for me not to think it’s a coincidence.
That being said, let’s consider the evidence we have. Aside from the evidence about the roles Stallone and Neill might be playing and some suggestive lines from The Collector, we also know from James Gunn that both Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone have plans to return in future movies:
“This is definitely not a one-off. They’re both characters that we’ve taken a lot of time to develop, and they’re a big part of the MCU now.”
Furthermore, Thor says something at the end of Age of Ultron that warrants some examination:
Thor: I have no choice. The Mind Stone is the fourth of the Infinity Stones to show up in the last few years. That’s not a coincidence. Someone has been playing an intricate game and has made pawns of us. But once all these pieces are in position…
Tony: Triple Yahtzee?
Steve: You think you can find out what’s coming?
Thor: I do. Besides this one, there’s nothing that can’t be explained.
When Thor says that someone “has made pawns of” the Avengers, many people might assume he’s talking about Thanos. But that doesn’t really make any sense. Thanos has tried to destroy the Avengers before, but even if he is responsible for the Mind Stone creating Ultron, nothing he’s done has included using The Avengers as pawns. Pawns are pieces that are supposed to be used, and often sacrificed, for someone’s own benefit. And if the Avengers are the pawns in the game, who are the players? Thanos is one of them, but who is his opponent? All of this can be explained away as just sloppy or careless writing, but this is Joss Whedon we’re talking about: plenty of adjectives can be used to describe his writing, but “sloppy” and “careless” aren’t among them. It makes far more sense that the Elders are using The Avengers as pawns, driving them towards conflict with Thanos by making sure they’re around when the Infinity Stones pop up. Essentially setting up their pieces so that, when Infinity War rolls around, they can get their Triple Yahtzee before Thanos.
At the end of Age of Ultron, Thor leaves Earth to investigate who could be behind the resurfacing of the Infinity Stones. Knowing that, it seems like Thor: Ragnarok will do a lot work to set up Avengers: Infinity War. Marvel Studios president (and overlord of the MCU) Kevin Feige has said as much, highlighting the powerful and important characters that will appear in the movie:
It’s going to be, perhaps, as totally different from the two prior Thor movies as Winter Soldier was from the first Captain America. We want to take it to new places, we’ve got new characters that will show how big we’re swinging on this.
One of the big characters to which Feige is referring is The Grandmaster, who runs the gladiator fighting tournament on Sakaar where Thor and Hulk find themselves. But there’s a problem with The Grandmaster: in the comics, he has pretty much nothing to do with the Planet Hulk storyline from which Thor: Ragnarok is borrowing. The Grandmaster also has no special connection to Asgard, Ragnarok, or Hela. None of the elements of the story in Thor: Ragnarok require an appearance from The Grandmaster, which leads me to believe that he’s there to set up something for the future. And in the comics, the most important things that The Grandmaster does almost always include scheming with the other Elders. It seems likely to me that Thor: Ragnarok will introduce the Grandmaster and another Elder, as well as establish the bigger game of the MCU that the Elders are playing against Thanos.
If indeed the Elders of the Universe are being set up in the MCU right now, when should we expect to see The Avengers face them? It’s possible that they could be the main antagonists of the currently untitled fourth Avengers film in 2019. In an interview with IGN last year, Kevin Feige stressed the fact that Infinity War and its sequel would in fact be two separate, but connected, stories.
There’s a reason we have publicly called the first one ‘Infinity War’ and the second one ‘Untitled,’ because the movies we were developing were not — certainly there’s a connection, there are with all our movies — but it’s not a first part and a second part. It’s a whole movie and a whole story, and then a whole movie and a whole story. That’s about all I can say. It’s certainly inspired by everything that has come before and everything that is hinted at before.
Feige’s comments definitely seem to support the theory that the sequel to Infinity War will deal with some new threat, aside from just Thanos, that’s been hinted at before. Could 2019 see the release of Avengers: Elders of the Universe? Maybe, or maybe the Elders will be saved for a long-term threat for a later phase. Or, maybe this entire theory is wrong and the Elders of the Universe aren’t planning anything! Either way, one thing seems certain: there’s a lot about Thanos’s plans and Avengers: Infinity War that we still don’t know. There are pieces to this puzzle that we’re still missing, and whether those pieces could include the Elders or not is up to you to decide. What do you think? Do you think the Elders could be a good group of villains for the Avengers to face? If so, who are some other older actors (and actresses) that you’d like to see fill out the rest of the group? Personally, I’d love to see James Woods play off the likes of Kurt Russell and Jeff Goldblum, and at 69 years old he’s in the right age range to play an Elder–like The Possessor, who sustains his life through his never ending quest for more knowledge.
Sound off in the comments below with your thoughts on this theory and who you’d like to see play an Elder of the Universe!