At the end of “Thor: The Dark World,” audiences were introduced to the cosmic being known as the Collector (played by Benecio Del Toro), a character we came to understand more fully in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Now, in the upcoming “Thor: Ragnarok,” Marvel Studios is poised to introduce the Collector’s “brother” — the enigmatic, insanely-powerful being known as the Grandmaster, who will be played by Jeff Goldblum. Like the Collector, the Grandmaster is an Elder of the Universe, cosmic beings that have been part of the greater Marvel Universe for decades. The Grandmaster in particular has an eventful history with Earth’s heroes. Because of his very nature as a master of games, he has been a part of some of the most memorable fights in Marvel Comics history, beginning with his first appearance, where he served to introduce a sneaky inter-company crossover.
The Grandmaster is, simply put, one of the greatest walking plot devices in the history of superhero comics. His very existence allows a writer to create conflict without anything more than, “Well, the Grandmaster wanted to see some people fight each other, so here we are.” The character debuted in 1969’s “The Avengers” #69 (by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema and Sam Grainger), challenging time-traveling despot Kang the Conqueror to a game, with the stakes being the fate of Earth itself. (Plus, if he won, Kang would gain the ability to bring his beloved Ravonna back from the dead.)
The game involved Kang choosing “champions,” heroes who would fight against the Grandmaster’s chosen team. Kang opted to pick his old foes, the Avengers, figuring that they always ended up beating him, so he might as well use them for something for his benefit. Earth’s mightiest heroes went along with it because of the whole “Fate of the Earth rests in the balance” aspect of it all. Meanwhile, the Grandmaster introduced a brand-new team called the Squadron Sinister: Hyperion, Nighthawk, Doctor Spectrum and a brand-new Whizzer, unconnected to the Golden Age superhero of that same name. (Side note – the Squadron Sinister would return numerous times after this debut, but in a more altruistic form, mirroring their JLA counterparts as the Squadron Supreme.)
The behind-the-scenes twist to this story is that each Squadron Sinister member was each based on characters from DC Comics’ Justice League — Hyperion=Superman, Nighthawk=Batman, Doctor Spectrum=Green Lantern and Whizzer=Flash. This was an attempt by Roy Thomas and the then-writer of the Justice League, Denny O’Neil, to do a sly crossover between the two books, as the Justice League were intended to encounter their version of the Squadron Sinister in evil versions of the Avengers. This didn’t happen, sadly, as the JL ended up fighting actual evil versions of themselves instead. In his battle, the Grandmaster became the latest in a long line of comic book characters who were introduced as having never lost to anyone, only to find himself losing to Marvel’s heroes.
The Grandmaster next appeared in “Giant-Size Defenders” #3 (by Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Len Wein, Dan Adkins, Jim Mooney and Don Newton). Here, he enlisted the Defenders, who now had reformed Squadron Sinister member, Nighthawk, as part of their ranks, to face off against the champions of the being known as the Prime-Mover.
Once again, the fate of the Earth was at stake, and since the teams weren’t even, the Defenders enlisted the help of Daredevil. This turned out to be important when, after the Defenders won, the Gamesmaster decided that he was going to proceed with his plan take over the Earth anyway. Daredevil challenged him to a coin flip, a simple game of chance that the Grandmaster could not resist — and a game that allowed for Daredevil to use his super-senses to ensure whatever side of the coin Grandmaster chose wouldn’t be picked. Remember this strategy — it comes in handy later on!
The next Grandmaster appearance was in Marvel’s first major miniseries, “Marvel Super Hero: Contest of Champions” (by Bill Mantlo, Steven Grant, Mark Gruenwald, John Romita Jr. and Pablo Marcos). Here, the Grandmaster and Death chose superheroes to fight against each other. While Earth’s heroes were mostly compelled to cooperate because Grandmaster put the planet into stasis until the Contest was over, he also promised to not mess with them again if they won the Contest for him. If Grandmaster won, Death would return his brother, the Elder of the Universe known as The Collector, back to life. If Death won, Grandmaster would lose all of his powers.
In the end, the Grandmaster won, although, amusingly enough, the Contest was actually a tie — but no one noticed the mistake at the time! Death then revealed that for the Collector to return to life, someone would have to die in his stead. Gamesmaster could have chosen one of Earth’s heroes, but he had just vowed no longer to mess with him if they won the Contest for him, which they had just done. Instead, he sacrificed himself to bring his brother back. A surprisingly noble sentiment for a weirdo like the Gamesmaster.
Or was it? As it turns out, it was all a plot by the Gamesmaster to enter Death’s realm and capture her! This was revealed in “Avengers Annual” #16 (by Tom DeFalco, Bob Hall and Tom Palmer), as the Grandmaster uses his new powers he stole from Death to create “life bombs” that will set off a new Big Bang. Why? The Grandmaster wanted to start the universe fresh, giving him has a whole new reality of people to play games with!
The Avengers are given a chance to stop him by fighting the Legion of the Unliving, but as it turns out, every time the Avengers win, they have to start over. As an added challenge, as the Avengers slowly die, one by one, they each end up joining the Legion of the Unliving, making it that much more difficult for the remaining Avengers to win each time. Seeing as the only Avengers left after the first battle were Captain America and Hawkeye, things did not look good for the good guys. Then, Hawkeye stepped in and offered the Grandmaster a simple game of chance, taking a page out of Daredevil’s gamebook. Using an old trick he learned from his time as a carny, Hawkeye beat the Grandmaster, which gave Death time to break free. Death then banned the Elders from ever entering her realm.
Finding themselves effectively unkillable, the Elders took on Galactus in another attempt to restart the universe. While that did not work out, the story established that the Elders each had Infinity gems. Upon discovering this, Thanos took their gems from them (including the Grandmaster’s Mind Gem) to form the Infinity Gauntlet.
The Grandmaster was a key player in the DC/Marvel crossover “JLA/Avengers” (by Kurt Busiek and George Perez), drawing the Justice League into battle with the Avengers discovering that the powerful DC villain Krona had the potential to destroy both the DC and the Marvel Universes. The Grandmaster manipulated the JLA into not only coming into conflict with the Avengers, but also collect a bunch of powerful weapons to stop Krona later on. Of course, the JLA and Avengers eventually discovered the truth and teamed=up to stop Krona once and for all.
Following a number of appearances here and there — where he seemed to end up being killed again and again, somehow — the Grandmaster’s most recent major storyline came in the wake of Marvel’s “Secret Wars.” Coming across the Maestro, a future, super-smart, super-violent incarnation of the Hulk, the Grandmaster decided that he and the Collector were going to compete against each other in a new game, one that involves alternate reality characters from various broken Earths, as well as major heroes from Marvel’s main Earth. The game is currently unfolding in “Contest of Champions,” a comic book tie-in to the video game of the same name, but set in the actual Marvel Universe.
While the Grandmaster may seem quaint and even goofy, his nature and power makes him a great fit for stories that need to generate conflict between characters who might otherwise work together — like, perhaps, seeing the Hulk and Thor throw down on the big screen?
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