Tuesday, October 30, 2012

With Great Power Comes Great Ineptness

You don't have to be Borg to answer this

Marvel Trivia Question

Before it became famous in cinema, where did the idea for this thing come from?

If you've seen Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, you're familiar with the "Tesseract," a power source coveted by many a villain. I'm not sure of its true origin in the films--all that's apparent so far is that Odin kept it in his trophy room, until it was lost on Earth and subsequently recovered by the Red Skull. Somehow it's comforting to know that even the all-seeing Odin can't find things he's lost. Wonder how he is with car keys?

Nor is Odin as all-knowing as he thinks he is. Because in comics, the true origin of this "artifact" is strictly mortal:

The Cosmic Cube was created by Advanced Idea Mechanics (known at the time as "Them"), a high-tech group bent on (what else?) world domination. Their operations bring them into frequent conflict with both Captain America and S.H.I.E.L.D., and their two claims to fame are probably the Cube and MODOK. (Don't ask me what the MODOK initials stand for--we'll get into MODOK in a future post. Besides, don't we have enough initials to worry about here?) The Cube is, to put it bluntly, all-powerful. It's like having all of the Infinity Gems in one cube-shaped package, because it can do anything that comes to mind. That's why so many people have gone after it, like MODOK, Dr. Doom, Thanos, and the Red Skull.

The Skull--thanks to the short-sightedness of Them, who dug him up and brought him out of hibernation and then formed a shaky alliance with him--learned of the existence of the Cube and wasted no time in stealing it from Them. So, just as in the Captain America film, the first person to actively make use of the Cube turns out to be the Red Skull--who, with thoughts of Nazi Germany still ringing in his brain, dreams of the Third Reich rising again. And now he has a device that can make any dream a reality:

As it happened, this was about the same time that Captain America learned that the Skull was alive. Naturally, he goes after him, but fails to prevent the Skull from taking full possession of the Cube. The upcoming battle is a classic Marvel moment: a character possessing nothing but his fighting spirit, going up against a foe with almost unlimited power.

At first, time is on Cap's side, because the Skull, in typical villain fashion, spends a lot of time relishing in his new-found power over his old enemy, even creating a humanoid to engage him in battle. It's only when Cap nearly triumphs does the Skull wise up and decide to be more expedient:

You can guess what happens next. Playing on the Skull's vanity, Cap eventually gets an opening to disarm the Skull, who plunges into the ocean after his weapon but fails and is lost under crushing rocks and water.

The Cube doesn't surface again until the Sub-Mariner inadvertently discovers its existence (thanks to a slip of the tongue by the Avengers) and decides to recover it. And already he's mentally jotting down a to-do list on how he'll use it:

Yet now battling the Avengers, Namor all but forgets about using the Cube and becomes consumed with proving his might against Hercules, which leaves the rest of the Avengers free to deal with the Cube-created creature that Namor has set against them. Afterward, the Wasp locates the Cube on Namor and manages to separate the two. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the Cube then falls into a crevice and is lost. Again. Until, in a comical end to the tale, another villain happens to come across it:

In an interesting twist, it's Namor again who has the next encounter with the Cosmic Cube--yet it's during a period where he has amnesia. Namor knows his identity, but nothing about his past, and nothing about the Cube--until he's approached by Dr. Doom, who believes he's located the Cube at an old undersea A.I.M. base, and wants Namor's assistance in retrieving it. However, both discover that the base isn't as abandoned as expected--MODOK is conducting his own experiments on the Cube, which has destabilized and is emitting harmful radiation. When Namor drops into MODOK's lap, MODOK decides to attempt to use the Cube to switch his mind to the more physically adept body of Namor.

As you might expect, Namor puts up a fight against MODOK's android army--as does Doom against MODOK himself. In the end, with the base near destruction, Namor must convince Doom to abandon his designs on the Cube, as it could mean his death in its present form. The Cube is lost, again, in the resulting explosion of the A.I.M. base.

This three-part story was scripted by Marvel's resident morose writer, Gerry Conway--which might explain why the Cube is virtually unseen for the duration of the entire story. Conway focused more on the characterization of MODOK, Namor, and particularly Doom, with the Cube present mainly by reputation. Giving credit where credit is due, Conway's portrayal of Doom is excellent reading, with Conway even giving more lines to Doom's henchmen than I've seen in Doom's entire collective appearances. And oddly, Doom's men were well-oiled, loyal, and organized, as opposed to serving him in cowering fear as is usually the case. The Cosmic Cube, on the other hand, never actually makes an appearance, except through reaction shots of the characters--though technically you could say that it did so via flashes of light provided by artist Gene Colan.

The Cube is back to playing center stage, however, in its next story arc--this time in Captain Marvel, where the alien villain Thanos has meticulously sought it out. Its location had been implanted into the subconscious mind of Rick Jones (who at the time still shared the same life-force as Mar-vell) as a precaution of the Kree Supreme Intelligence against universal doomsday; so Thanos pilfered that info from a computer, extracted the location, and voila (though he had to use a large amount of his own power to stabilize the Cube's rampant energies).

As to what Thanos planned to do with the Cube, he wanted to accomplish two goals in one. To woo Death itself as a lover, he planned to give to "her" first Earth, and then the entire universe. And that would involve something he called the Grand Transformation. And grand it was:

Talk about "universal" armageddon. Mar-vell and his allies fought hard, but of course Thanos easily countered their every move. But while another ally, the Destroyer, engaged Thanos, a thought occurred to Mar-vell:

So he heads to the Cube to destroy it. Thanos, realizing his danger but, unfortunately, not being very imaginative for a god, chooses to inflict him with rapid aging to cause his death, rather than, say, disintegrating him on the spot. Mar-vell isn't about to give him a second shot at it:

As far as I'm concerned, that's where the story of the Cosmic Cube ends. Marvel has published several stories about it since then, but they've pretty much sapped the interest out of this once-interesting plot device. It even evolved into a huge life form, at one point ("Kubik," if you can believe it). The last I knew, the Red Skull was making use of it again--but sheesh. If you're a villain, and you spend a great deal of time and no small amount of effort to acquire this thing, wouldn't you set about accomplishing your agenda and securing your absolute power the instant you had it in your grasp? Captain America took advantage of the Skull's vanity; the Sub-Mariner treated it as a bauble to be used at his convenience; and Thanos, we learned later, was inescapably repeating a subconscious desire to be defeated. (He certainly nailed that to perfection.)

I think Jim Starlin's story concluding in Captain Marvel ended the saga of this weapon at just the right time, since you can't really believably continue to have villains bungle their actual possession of ultimate power. (At least tell me the surface of the Cube is made of grease, for Pete's sake.) There will always be such devices in the world of comics, as Thanos himself proved in his many quests for them. Let the Cube rest in pieces--or in Odin's trophy room, after all.

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