Ever since 2008's Iron Man, the Marvel movies have all featured cute little scenes after the end-credits which tease the next big Marvel movie. These scenes tend to feature some piece of comic-fetishist lore that causes fans to shriek while leaving the average civilian scratching their head. Iron Man introduced Nick Fury and the notion of "the Avengers initiative." Iron Man 2 offered the first look at Thor's hammer. Thor trotted out Fury again, this time introducing the Tesseract — a double-tease for Captain America and Avengers. In turn, Captain America just ended with a full-on Avengers trailer. Now, Avengers has concluded with the most mythologically explosive — and potentially confusing — end-credits sequence yet. If you're a Marvel neophyte desperate for an explanation — or if you're a comic book fan looking for theories about what's ahead — then read on. (SPOILERS from here.)

Throughout the film, we see Loki interacting with a mysterious shrouded figure — a character credited as "The Other" in the liner notes. In the post-credits sequence, we see the Other addressing his boss. He says that the Avengers had proven that Earth could be a real threat. Specifically, he says that launch another attack "would be to court death." Cut to: The Boss, a man with a big purple head, turning to the camera and smirking. The End.

Comic book newbies, allow me to introduce you to Thanos: An insanely powerful alien who is obsessed with Death. That's "Death" with a capital-D: Thanos took nihilism to a new level by falling in love with the literal personification of death, usually rendered as an attractive, robed woman with a face that occasionally turns full Skeletor. In the most famous story about the character, "The Infinity Gauntlet," Thanos got ahold of the most powerful weapon in the galaxy and killed half of all life in the universe. A massive showdown with all the heroes of Earth ensued. (Since "The Infinity Gauntlet," Thanos has been a more ambiguous figure, occasionally fighting for the cause of good — think of how the malevolent Ben Linus became a sorta-hero in the latter days of Lost.)

What does the appearance of Thanos mean for the future of the Marvel movies? Answer: Things are going to get real cosmic real fast. Marvel Studios has hinted in the past that they're interested in exploring the outer recesses of the Marvel universe. That probably won't happen with every sequel. Iron Man is decidedly earthbound. Early word is that Cap 2 is more of a fish-out-of-water story, with the WWII hero exploring the modern world. But rumors indicate that Thor 2 will see the Norse god venturing into the cosmos. Maybe that exploration will tee up a Thanos-centric Avengers 2. (As for the very different scene that played after all the credits had run, check out this exclusive behind-the-scenes report on the truly last-minute sequence from EW's Anthony Breznican.)

Heck, maybe the Avengers sequel will take its cue from "Infinity Gauntlet" and feature even more heroes. Iron Man 2 already introduced War Machine, and presumably the next wave of sequels will dig deeper into Marvel's second-string roster. The ranks of the Avengers could swell considerably by the next go-round.

Then again, maybe the Thanos introduction is actually a double-reverse tease for Thor 2. I can't remember any particularly memorable Thor vs. Thanos storyline from the comics. But the two characters occupy a similar slipstream region between spacefaring science fiction and mythic fantasy — between Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, if you will. Possible evidence for the Thor 2 theory: We already saw the Infinity Gauntlet in the halls of Asgard.

I grew up reading up reading Marvel comics in the 1990s, when basically every major superhero had a long-running crossover involving space aliens — I'm a little bit ambivalent about the idea of expanding so rapidly into the distant corners of the Marvel universe. The second you put Thanos on the table, there's a sense that the stakes have been raised almost impossibly high. By comparison, The Dark Knight feels like a tasteful low-stakes chamber drama.

Joss Whedon has stated that he'd prefer an Avengers sequel be a bit smaller — "more personal, more painful." "Personal" and "painful" are not the first words that come to mind when I picture a movie about a genocidal galactic conqueror with purple skin who has the hots for Skeleton Lady. Of course, Marvel has shown a willingness to cycle through directors, so maybe Whedon is just carefully talking himself out of the Avengers 2 gig.

On the other hand, Thanos really is one of the great weirdo villains in comics lore. The Marvel movies have been surprisingly short on glittery Big Baddiess — only Tom Hiddleston's Loki has made a seismic impact, although Hugo Weaving had a lot of fun with his under-written Red Skull. If Marvel is serious about escalating the already-jampacked Avengers franchise with more characters, then the sequel would require an impressive antagonist.

Thanos is a dynamite combination of bizarre emotions — he's sort of the Hunchback of Notre Dame crossed with Napoleon and the mythic titan Prometheus. It could be a real showstopper role for the right actor who could combine a vast criminal intellect with overpowering physicality, a childishly obsessive naivete, and the ability to act in a performance-capture suit. Ray Winstone: Your chariot awaits.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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