WARNING: SPOILERS FOR 'THOR: THE DARK WORLD' BELOW
If you stuck around for the credits of "Thor: The Dark World" -- and it's a Marvel movie, so you should know by now that you have to stay in your seat to the very end -- you saw a scene pop up in the middle that looked like it could be from another movie. And that's because it is (sort of).
In the scene, the Asgardian warriors Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) step cautiously through a room filled with large glass display cases containing alien lifeforms and artifacts. They carry a box emitting a faint red glow. Apparently they retrieved the Aether from the dark world of Svartalfheim, and as said in the beginning of the film, it cannot be destroyed, only hidden. They are then introduced to the white-haired Taneleer Tivan, better known as The Collector, played by Benicio Del Toro (who joins Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges in the ranks of Oscar-winning actors who appear in Marvel films).
The Collector was first introduced in the comics in "The Avengers #28" back in 1966. He's one of the Elders of the Universe, the oldest living creatures in existence, and he fills his time with assembling a massive archive of items and creatures. The Collector filled up 10 entire planets that he converted into museums just to house his precious artifacts.
In the post-credits scene, The Collector asks why they are bringing the Aether to him, rather than keep locked away in Odin's vault. "The Tesseract is already on Asgard," Volstagg says, referring of course to the blue "cosmic cube" the caused so much trouble in "The Avengers." He goes on: "It is not wise to keep two Infinity Stones so close together." The Collector assures the pair the item will be safe with him. But as they depart, he says to himself, "One down, five to go."
Okay, more backstory: the Infinity Stones (or Infinity Gems as they're often referred to in the comics) are six precious stones that each are able to control a different element of the universe: mind, soul, time, power, space, and reality. Put them all together on a golden glove called the Infinity Gauntlet, and you can rule over -- or destroy -- all life in existence. Apparently, the Tesseract is one of the six (Marvel president Kevin Feige told CraveOnline it's the Space Stone), and the Aether is another. And this is a very big deal for comic book fans, because possessing the Infinity Gauntlet and bringing about the end of the universe is the obsession of the villain Thanos, the big purple alien who smiled evilly in the post-credits scene of "The Avengers."
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The reason this is all important is that this scene sets up the next original Marvel Studios movie, August's "Guardians of the Galaxy." In fact, it was "Guardians" director James Gunn who came in at the last minute to direct the post-credits scene for "The Dark World." He told CraveOnline, "It wasn't that long ago that we shot it," and that the scene was filmed in just two hours. It fits into our overall story of what's going on [in 'Guardians']." He added that the little bit of Del Toro you get in this short scene is just a preview of what's to come: "Benicio is whacked out in our movie. He is utterly whacked out, and we were mesmerized by him the whole time he was on set."
Gunn also said that Thanos is in league with the main villain of "Guardians of the Galaxy," Ronan the Accuser (played by Lee Pace). What's not clear is if The Collector plans to gather up the Infinity Stones for himself or in service of Thanos. Whatever the case, it's unlikely Thanos gets what he's after in 2014's "Guardians" or even in the second "Avengers" movie (called "Age of Ultron"), which is scheduled for 2015. The Infinity Gauntlet storyline may not even happen until "Avengers 3," which would probably come around in 2017 at the earliest. It really shows just how far in advance Marvel is thinking about their future movies.
The other lingering question from the end of "Thor: The Dark World" is what exactly does it mean that Loki is sitting on the throne of Asgard in Odin's place (and how is it he's alive in the first place)? We'll have to wait for an answer to that as well, since director Joss Whedon and star Tom Hiddleston have both gone on record to say Loki will not appear in the next "Avengers" film. But with "The Dark World" opening with an impressive $86 million weekend and a worldwide total of $327 million to date, it seems likely that the God of Thunder and his mischievous brother will return for a third film before long. So remember to stay to the end of the credits for that one, too.
Watch footage from the "Guardians of the Galaxy" Comic-Con panel: