Mark the calendar: On Sept. 19, the day after Marvel Studios released the first trailer for Captain Marvel, the Russo brothers finally proved, once and for all, that Marvel is at the peak of its powers with the photographic equivalent of Schrodinger’s cat.
In a tweet that has already been liked more than 20,000 times, the Russos posted a black-and-white photo that appears to show Joe Russo sitting in a chair looking at a laptop in a soundstage. “Look hard…” teases the caption — and the internet was all too eager to oblige.
Fans “found” four letter A shapes in the image — for the fourth Avengers movie, of course — as well as a hidden message spelling out “ENDGAME” (admittedly, you have to really squint to make that out). They also managed to uncover a tease for a potential X-Men project, the word “ATTACK,” a hidden Homer Simpson and the Italian word for “month.” It turns out, if you look hard, you could find all manner of things inside the image, which may or may not have been the point.
Look hard… pic.twitter.com/NxI8RFh4f6
— Russo Brothers (@Russo_Brothers) September 19, 2018
More than revealing anything about upcoming Marvel projects — although, sure, it has to have something to do with Avengers 4, right? — the response to the Russos’ tweet proved just how strongly Marvel’s hold over pop culture and fandom is at this particular moment in time. When a simple black-and-white image becomes the ultimate Rorschach test, allowing everyone to see everything and nothing they want in it (Oh, my God, what if that’s not Joe Russo but actually a disguised Thanos?!), it’s likely a sign that Marvel is at the height of its cultural dominance.
That only makes sense; 2018 has been unusually kind to the studio, even when compared with its brief but charmed and astoundingly successful life. Look beyond the box-office receipts for Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War if you can (sure, Ant-Man and the Wasp, too, if you have to), and fans can still point to Black Panther and the first Captain Marvel trailer as signs that the studio is, finally, moving past its White Guys Called Chris format to diversify and bring others into its superhero clubhouse.
Plus, Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of the Marvel formula in more ways than one. Yes, it’s the ultimate expression of the shared-universe idea, with characters from every movie to date interacting, and plot threads from all corners of the universe coming tying in a way that crosses over ideas and locales in a manner that is unusual, if not entirely unseen, in cinema; it’s also the first Marvel movie that ends in an outright cliffhanger, pushing the idea of a never-ending narrative even further than the studio had managed to this point. It’s difficult to imagine a more Marvel movie than Infinity War; it’s as if it’s evolved into its final form, Pokemon-style.
In many ways, the Russo brothers’ tweet — and the furor it provoked — feels like a snapshot of a moment that has already almost passed. Will the current excitement and passion for Marvel still be felt a year from now, when both Captain Marvel and Avengers 4 have been released and, as actual real movies instead of abstract containers of expectation and optimism, risked upsetting and disappointing fans?
With fandom increasingly vocal about perceived slights and failures, it often seems that anticipation for a movie is more rewarding than the reality of the finished product — consider the response to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Could this be as good as it gets for Marvel, and the Russos’ tweet an acknowledgement of that fact? Or is that, too, looking too hard at the picture?