What makes the many films of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe impressive, box office notwithstanding, is the connective tissue. With this week’s Captain Marvel, 21 films now live in the same fictional universe, with the same shared set of world logic, without contradicting one another in major ways.
That shared endeavor also means many overlapping characters, settings, and plot devices all appearing and influencing the overarching meta-narrative at various points throughout its 10-plus-year run. And one of the earliest examples continues to have a profound impact on the MCU: the Tesseract.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Captain Marvel as well as about a half-dozen other Marvel Studios movies.]
The Tesseract’s power seemed limitless during the first phase of Marvel Studios films. The cosmic cube that houses the Space Stone has, appropriately enough, jumped around Marvel’s universe quite a bit, and its outsized influence on the MCU continues with Captain Marvel and her origin story. With 10 years of lore now comprising the Marvel timeline, it’s worth looking back at exactly how the cube got to this moment.
What is the Tesseract, and how is it connect to the Space Stone?
If you’re dizzy from Thanos flexing those Reality and Time Stone muscles in Infinity War, you may forget exactly where the hunt for the gems really began. In the MCU, the Tesseract is a container for the Space Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that serve as the all-powerful MacGuffins of the MCU. Each of the Stones embodies some aspect of the universe and their respective capabilities reflect that. In practice, the Space Stone/Tesseract has been used to create portals for traveling across the universe, but just as frequently, it’s a magical blue box that’s used to create weapons, spacecraft engines, and in the case of Captain Marvel, a superhero.
At some point in the history of the MCU, Asgard king Odin (also Thor’s father) gains possession of the Tesseract. Sometime after that, Odin hides the Tesseract on Earth — specifically in Norway.
The Tesseract debuts in Captain America: The First Avenger
Though not the first on-screen appearance — Thor’s post-credits scene preceded it by a few months — the Tesseract became a major plot device in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. The movie opens when a group of Nazis/Hydra soldiers led by Johann Schmidt (aka Red Skull) track the Tesseract to a church in Norway. Schmidt, whose knowledge of its existence seems to come from mythology, then takes the Tesseract and, along with co-conspirator Arnim Zola, develop weapons that harness Tesseract’s energy.
Ultimately, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) foiled those plans when he infiltrated an aircraft packed with the Red Skull, the Tesseract, and several nuclear bombs. In the end, Red Skull tries to physically hold the Cosmic Cube, which — as we learn in Avengers: Infinity War — teleports him through space to the planet Vormir, where Thanos eventually sacrifices Gamora.
Post-wormhole, the Tesseract burns through the aircraft and falls into ocean, where it is later retrieved by Howard Stark (aka Iron Man’s dad, one of the many important dads in the MCU) while searching for Rogers. At some point, between then and 1989, the Tesseract finds itself at Project PEGASUS, a joint effort by NASA and the US Air Force to study the Tesseract. We’ll have to wait until the next Marvel prequel to know what happened to the Tesseract during the 45-year gap in MCU history
Captain Marvel and Project PEGASUS (part one)
The Tesseract’s importance in Captain Marvel’s story isn’t revealed until later in the movie, after Carol Danvers regains her memories. Prior to the events of the film, Mar-Vell (Annette Bening) joins Project PEGASUS under the guise of an aerospace engineer named Dr. Lawson. She ultimately gains possession of the Tesseract, storing it in a hidden lab orbiting Earth. Mar-Vell, a Kree scientist helping refugee Skrulls escape the horrors of war, works to create a faster-than-light (FTL) engine powered by an “energy core” that harnesses the Tesseract’s power.
As revealed in flashbacks, Danvers was the pilot of an experimental plane (special energy engine in tow) that escorted Lawson/Mar-Vell. As we see in flashback, the Kree operative Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) shoots down the plane in order to steal the technology. Danvers, acting on Mar-Vell’s dying wish, blows up the engine so that the Kree would not be able to obtain it. The resulting explosion bathes Carol in energy from the Tesseract, granting her powers. Yon-Rogg brings Danvers into the Kree fold, her memories pre-explosion missing, while also implanting a power-dampening chip in her neck.
Back to the present, Danvers — along with Nick Fury and Mar-Vell’s alien cat/flerken Goose — travel to the orbital lab and find the source of this faster-than-light power: the all-too-familiar blue cube (to the audience, at least — the characters are understandably not as familiar). A battle with the Kree ensues, during which Goose swallows the Tesseract. We next see the Tesseract in Captain Marvel’s post-credits scene, when Goose barfs it up.
So to recap: The Tesseract moves from Project PEGASUS to a hidden space station to an alien cat’s interdimensional stomach and then to SHIELD HQ, and along the way it “created” Captain Marvel by proxy. The ’90s were a weird time.
The Avengers and Project PEGASUS part two
In MCU chronology, the next time we see the Tesseract is the post-credits scene for 2011’s Thor, in which Nick Fury shows the cube to Dr. Selvig (and, unbeknownst to Fury, an invisible Loki) in the hopes that Selvig could help SHIELD harness the Tesseract for, among other things, weapons that would help Earth defend itself from otherworldly forces. The program that Selvig would be working for? Project PEGASUS.
In brief — insomuch as anyone can be, given the Tesseract is the entire driving force of The Avengers’ plot — Loki steals the Tesseract from SHIELD and uses it to create a portal over New York for an army of Chitauri to invade Earth. Loki’s appearance prompts Fury to enact the Avengers initiative — named after Carol Danvers’ call sign — bringing together all of the MCU heroes thus far to save the world, which of course they did.
In the end, Thor takes both Loki and the Tesseract to his homeworld Asgard, where he locks it away in Odin’s vault for the next 10 or so films.
Post-Avengers: Ragnarok and Infinity War
The next time we see the Tesseract (outside of any weird character visions or animated expositions) is in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. Loki — who is at this point on the side of the heroes helping Thor and team evacuate Asgardians — quietly grabs the Tesseract while in Odin’s vault, summoning the fire god Surtur.
Possession doesn’t last long, as seen in Ragnarok’s post-credits scene when the Asgard refugee spaceship is very soon overtaken by Thanos’ much larger craft. The aftermath opens 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War: After killing half of the Asgardians on board, Thanos tortures Thor until Loki reveals the Tesseract. After a very quick scuffle with the Hulk, Thanos obtains the Tesseract, crushes it in one hand, and places the now-exposed Space Stone into his Infinity Gauntlet.
One more recap: In short, the Tesseract went from Thor’s dad to Norway to Nazis/Hydra to the ocean to Iron Man’s dad to Project PEGASUS to a space station to an alien cat’s stomach back to SHIELD to Loki to Asgard to Loki to Thanos.
There are still several questions surrounding the Tesseract’s timeline. When did Howard Stark give it to Project PEGASUS? How did Odin get possession of it in the first place, and when did he hide it on Earth? When did the Space Stone get its own little container? And looking ahead, what happens to the Space Stone in this post-snap universe?
We’ll know the answer to at least one of those questions in April when Avengers: Endgame closes this chapter of the MCU.