Who is The Collector, and what the hell is he doing in the middle of the credits of "Thor: The Dark World"?

That question, or some variation on it, has been hammering my e-mail inbox all weekend long, and I was asked it by my kids as soon as the movie ended as well. I've seen a fair number of people complaining that the scene is "pointless." While most of the Phase One post-credits tags were concerned with laying groundwork leading to "The Avengers," Marvel's playing a different game this time around, and one that's not as easy for mainstream audiences to get immediately.

After all, it's easy to understand what it means when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up and asks each of the Marvel characters to join something called The Avenger Initiative. Makes sense, and even if you're not sure what the Avenger Initiative is, you get that there's a program and Sam Jackson's the man in charge and he needs a bunch of superheroes.

Considering how little we've seen of Marvel's cosmic side on film so far, it's not surprising people are unsure what to make of the scene that appears about a minute and a half into the credits for "Thor: The Dark World." From this point on, we're going to be talking in very explicit spoilers with some speculation factored in.

"Guardians Of The Galaxy" is Marvel's next big gamble, with a release set for July 31, 2014, and Benicio Del Toro will be playing Taneleer Tivan, who is one of the oldest and most powerful beings in the entire Marvel mythology. He is billions of years old, and while his wife eventually decided to relinquish her immortality, leaving him alone, he chose to begin a hobby that would keep him sane over billions of years. This is how he began to build his collection of life forms and powerful magical items from all over the universe, and it's how he earned the nickname The Collector.

While he's not one of the main characters in "Guardians," he plays a key role in the film, and so does his collection. The Guardians are going to need something from him, and we'll see what happens when Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and a giant man-tree thing called Groot all show up on his planet asking for access to something in that collection.

Del Toro's character has been described as "an outer-space Liberace" by James Gunn, and there's no doubt there's a flamboyance eccentricity to the work he's doing, even in that short scene we see during "Thor: The Dark World." As far as the reason he's in the film and what he's taking from Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), that's not clearly communicated, and that may be why so many people are asking.

The reason for the confusion seems to be because of the specific names that are thrown around and a visual step that is missing completely. In "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "The Avengers," there is much discussion of The Tesseract, the object that sets off all the mystical mayhem in those films. They don't really call it by any other name, but that's one of the Infinity Stones. Now it appears that the Aether, the weird creepy looking stuff that the Dark Elves are trying to take away from Jane Foster after she touches that big glowing rock she finds, is actually another of the Infinity Stones. When we see Del Toro at the end of the film, the thing that Sif and Volstagg hand to him is that same big glowing rock, but it appears to have been shrunk down somehow. The design is identical, though, and based on The Collector's reaction, he immediately recognizes it for what it is.

What's the big deal, and why does he say "One down, five to go?" It seems that each of the Infinity Stones, at least as they've been established in the Marvel comics universe, has enormous power on their own, but when you put the six of them together, you are given unlimited power to reshape reality itself. There is no greater possible power, and that's why Sif and Volstagg mention that they don't think it's safe keeping two of them in the same place.

Thanos, who we first saw at the end of "The Avengers," is eventually going to make a play for all six of the stones, and at this point, based on what we've seen and what we've heard and a bit of our own speculation, we're going to guess that "The Avengers 3" is going to be all about Thanos and the stones. This suggests a shape to the films we'll see between now and "The Avengers 3," with various powerful artifacts showing up and being revealed as the various other Infinity stones.

After all, the Comic-Con footage from "Guardians Of The Galaxy" showed that Star Lord is chasing some sort of artifact, a glowing blue stone, and that certainly looks like it could be one of the other Infinity Stones. If the Avengers all learn to distrust S.H.I.E.L.D. thanks to the events of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and then end up fracturing over something in "The Avengers: Age Of Ultron," then Phase Three could be all about having to somehow rebuild the trust that would allow The Avengers to become a team again just in time to stand against Thanos.

All of this shows how clearly Marvel has their eye on the long game, and I like the idea that they let James Gunn direct the "Guardians" tease so the introduction to his corner of the Marvel Movie Universe was shot by him and not by someone else. My guess is that Gunn's movie is one of the most important to Marvel's overall plan for the next few years, and while that mid-credits scene might not seem important yet, you've actually just seen one of the key moments that will tie together the next four to five years of Marvel movies.

"Thor: The Dark World" is in theaters everywhere now.