(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for a big reveal/easter egg in “Avengers: Infinity War.” So if you don’t know about it and don’t want to know, leave now.)
In “Avengers: Infinity War,” super-powerful bad guy Thanos’ quest to gather the six all-powerful Infinity Stones takes him all over the galaxy, meeting a host of different people and mostly murdering them. Over the course of the movie, he visits no fewer than three different planets, plus the strange space outpost of Knowhere from “Guardians of the Galaxy” as well.
One of those planets, Vormir, is home to some pretty interesting things: First and foremost, it’s where Gamora (Zoe Saldana) takes Thanos (Josh Brolin) to find the Soul Stone. Second, there’s a familiar face present to guide people to the stone and explain it.
That character is the Red Skull, one of the chief villains of the Marvel Comics universe. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though, we haven’t seen the Red Skull since way back in “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
The Red Skull, also known as Johann Schmidt, is a HYDRA member and former Nazi whose face was deformed when he took an early version of the super-soldier serum that would eventually turn Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) into Captain America. The serum made Schmidt powerful, though, and in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” he used that power and his position in HYDRA to inflict some serious damage on the world.
Schmidt and his chief scientist, Arnim Zola, created powerful weapons for HYDRA using the power of the Tesseract. That’s the blue cube that Loki used in “The Avengers” to open up a portal to space to let Thanos’ army of aliens attack New York — and it’s the cube that Thanos destroys at the start of “Avengers: Infinity War” to reveal the Space Stone.
During the climax of “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Cap and Red Skull fought aboard Red Skull’s huge, Tesseract-powered bomber. During the fight, Red Skull fell backward into the device drawing power out of the Tesseract, knocking it loose. The villain picked up the cube and it opened a portal into space above him, much like it does when Thanos uses the Space Stone. Blasted by a beam of energy, Red Skull disappeared through the portal, never to be seen again. Until now, anyway.
Now we know that the Space Stone transported him to Vormir, and has done some weird things to him besides. When Thanos and Gamora find him on Vormir, he’s floating in a black cloak, looking a whole lot like the Grim Reaper. What’s more, he seems to know exactly who the pair are from sight, almost as if he’s getting the information from sort of supernatural place — he says part of his role there is to know everything about everyone who visits.
The Red Skull explains that his quest to control an Infinity Stone led it to reject him, sending him to Vormir. He’s tied to the Soul Stone as its representative, it seems, and he can never possess it himself.
That idea that the Space Stone “cast him out” is really fascinating. Though you could draw parallels to characters blowing up when they held the Power Stone in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” that was always portrayed simply as those characters not having the strength, or will, to handle it. Now, we know from Marvel Comics lore that the Infinity Stones are not just powerful cosmic rocks — they are sentient to some degree and have wills of their own. The Red Skull’s line there is the first time in the MCU that that idea has really been articulated, however.
Likewise, the way Red Skull talks about the Soul Stone is similar — it’s the stone itself imposing the sacrificial test on Thanos moments later, when Thanos had to murder Gamora before being allowed to take possession. The big question, then, is what exactly that means for “Infinity War” and “Avengers 4.” Do the Infinity Stones themselves have an idea for how they want this all to play out?
We’ll find out a year from now, when “Avengers 4” takes the world by storm and concludes this opening 11-year chapter in the Marvel shared universe experiment.
Side note: if you were wondering if that was Hugo Weaving returning to don that crazy red facial prosthetic again, it’s not. This time, Ross Marquand played the role of Red Skull. That probably is a big part of why Marvel was able to keep the Red Skull’s surprise appearance under wraps.
Speaking of which, we have some big ideas about what’s in store for the next year of the MCU, including how “Captain Marvel” fits in after that insane “Infinity War” cliffhanger.
Click here for our deeper look into how “Captain Marvel” might impact that distressing “Infinity War” plot twist. Click here for a closer examination of Doctor Strange’s actions in “Infinity War,” and how losing this fight might end up being the key to winning it later. Click here for our discussion of the whole Vision situation and whether he’s really dead. And, finally, here’s our run-down on how the comic book version of these events played out.