On May 4, 2012, The Avengers was released, signifying the climactic event Marvel had been building up to since the beginning of its cinematic universe with Iron Man in 2008.
The Avengers brought together Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Thor for the first time. It marked the biggest superhero movie since the trend began in 2000 with X-Men. There are a plethora of scenes to talk about as the movie celebrates its fifth anniversary, but perhaps one of the best moments from The Avengers — and undeniably its funniest — is the one below.
The scene isn’t supposed to be funny. Bruce Banner turning into the monster he despises in an attempt to help his friends save New York City from the army of Chitauri attacking it is one of the more sullen moments. It’s an epic transformation, as actor Mark Ruffalo turns away from his friends and instantly changes into the magnificent Hulk, but it was designed to be funny.
What makes the scene so remarkable and relevant five years later isn’t the actual footage itself, but rather the reaction the scene got. “That’s my secret, Cap” became a meme almost overnight, with people using the line to deliver self-deprecating jokes and applying the phrase to cultural and political news. Even this week, in the wake of political strife, Avengers fans have found a way to work the joke into conversation.
Even beyond that, however, people have found ways to use it as part of their daily vernacular. It’s transcended being a simple meme and has become a point of reference for many — a joke that nearly everyone understands immediately. It’s the perfect response, and that says more about how ubiquitous Marvel’s cinematic universe has become than anything else.
That's my secret, Cap. I'm always hungry https://t.co/vSTXoZaoJT— Arthur Chu (@arthur_affect) March 19, 2017
@austin_walker that's my secret cap, i'm already dead inside— Chris Person (@Papapishu) September 14, 2016
@MaraWritesStuff pic.twitter.com/PpviBc2v0Q— Jeff Y. (@Veeduh25) July 6, 2016
The joke has also been used for a number of other beloved properties, including Pokémon and Steven Universe. Even though it’s applied to different characters in entirely different universes, the general understanding of where the joke originated from is still there. People know the joke was born out of that very specific moment from The Avengers.
Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige always wanted to create a universe that transcended just comic book fans. He wanted to develop an inviting world for both comic book aficionados and non-readers, to allow anyone to go to a theater and understand what they were seeing. More importantly, he wanted to be able to give both factions of viewers something to be excited about — something that stemmed from creating a universal understanding of the characters.
“There’s something that is exciting about this kind of thing because it hasn’t happened before,” Feige told Wired in 2012 just before The Avengers came out. “Look, comic book fans are smart and they are discerning. And they are not going to obsess over something for decades if it’s not delivering. But you know, the amount of people that will drive to a place and buy a comic book is much smaller than people who will drive to a movie and see a movie.
“So even before Marvel Studios, I gambled that if we were able to put what was on the page up on the screen, people will respond to it the same way, whether they read it not.”
Having a meme like “that’s my secret, Cap” take off, alongside the incredible financial and critical success of the film, is a way to ensure that universe is accessible to everyone, not just those who are going to venture out to see a movie because they spent their childhoods reading stories about these characters.
The Avengers may be turning five this week, but what’s amazing about the film is how relevant and new it still feels in 2017. A large part of that is due to the internet fandom and culture surrounding both the film and universe at large — and a smaller part of that is due to Ruffalo’s accidental joke.
The next installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is in theaters now.