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Source images: Marvel Studios | Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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The greatest memes of the MCU

Twenty-two movies, 11 years, and so many Avengers moments worth remixing

The Avengers have a Hulk. The internet has Hulk memes.

Avengers: Endgame is a reminder of Marvel’s grand achievement: Twenty-two movies, 11 years, and lots and lots of launch pads for the Extremely Online community. Part of being a massive blockbuster franchise through the 2010s means being front and center of meme culture, and the MCU has provided a steady stream of remixable imagery and moments since its humble beginnings.

A look back at a decade of MCU memes spotlights the shifting subtleties of internet culture. This compilation isn’t just about text-over-images memes — it’s intended to be a retrospective of the MCU in online spaces, be it memes or larger shared internet experiences. If you don’t understand what Hawkeye means to a faction of online inhabitants, buckle up.


Phase 1

The early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — before the term “MCU” even really existed — didn’t see an uptick of memes until the first Avengers film. (“I am Iron Man” was quotable, but not meme fodder.) The explosion makes sense: The Avengers was an “Oh shit, this is really happening” moment and pre-2012 memes simply took longer to catch on. The early 2010s was the era of rage comics and the Bad Luck Brians of the meme world, and as such, a lot of the meme in Phase 1 followed this format.

That’s my secret, Cap...

This meme was born from the moment in Avengers right before Bruce Banner hulks out in the battle against Loki (wow, remember when Loki was a bad guy?). When Captain America tells him to “get angry,” Banner replies with the funny, quippy, and most importantly, versatile response,“That’s my secret, Cap, I’m always angry.”

Most of the memes ended up being very standard (“I’m always high” “I’m always hungry” “I’m always stressed” rinse and repeat) complete with the Impact font, a staple of 2012 meme culture.

“That’s my secret” was versatile enough to transform out of the simple adjective format: riffs on pop culture and riffs on other memes (like the above) for instance.

Some later variations flipped the template, setting up a joke and using Mark Ruffalo’s face as the zinger.

Out of all the Avengers (2012) text-on-image memes, “That’s my secret, Cap” has had the longest lifespan, still popping up today. Very often, the only thing from the original scene that remains is the background and vague positioning of whichever character gets swapped in (“I’m always depressed!”), but like with most long-lasting memes built on pop culture, the internet just knows the context

Sometimes it pops up as a meta-commentary on the MCU.

“That’s my secret” wasn’t the only popular text meme. Out of the many riffable quotes, “I have an army. We have a Hulk” and “He’s adopted” also iterated. The former mostly had another fandom responding to Loki’s “We have an army,” and since the meme involved scenes from other media, it also transcended to video.

This one also turned political, particularly in the 2016 election. More predictably, it was frequently used in response to DCEU movies (particularly Suicide Squad’s Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling).

“He’s adopted,” meanwhile, applied in more specific niche pop culture and real life situations, but was still funny enough to be enticing. This meme saw a bit of a second life when Tom Hiddleston started dating Taylor Swift in 2016.

All three of these have a sort of legacy status where they still pop up every so often (“That’s my secret” more so than the rest). Because of how long lasting earlier memes were and because these were built into big pop culture moments, they are still used.

“I understood that reference”

This reaction image will live on forever. Nowadays, you might find memes of the meme of the meme. It’s pretty simple: born from the moment where Tony Stark makes a reference to the Wicked Witch of the West, which Thor does not get, but Steve Rogers — who had previously missed all of Stark’s quippy references — does.

The Hawkeye Initiative

After The Avengers, more eyes were on comics than ever before.

“The Hawkeye Initiative” was born from responses to the unrealistic, sexified women’s bodies in comics. Around this time, there was a movement in online spaces, particularly Tumblr, to recreate the impossible body contortions of female comic book characters (very specifically, this one oft-reblogged thread). Usually, fans took it upon themselves to recreate the poses with photographs.

In late 2012, though, Tumblr user hoursago redrew a cover of Black Widow and Hawkeye, but flipped the poses of the heroes. This — coupled with a suggestion from Noelle Stevenson that all sexy superheroine poses should be redrawn with Hawkeye — prompted a movement. A Tumblr blog entitled The Hawkeye Initiative launched and racked up over 10,000 followers in just a day.

Avengers Tower

After The Avengers, the idea of all the heroes hanging out together appealed to fans, especially fans on Tumblr. It was the fanfic genre to be writing about, the fan art to be drawing. It’s akin to coffee shop AUS — taking the fast-paced, high-stakes world of the MCU movies and giving them everyday, run-of-the-mill routines: Thor smashes Natasha’s favorite vase, for instance; the gang plays on their Nintendo DSes; Clint hides in the rafters and builds nests. These fics and artworks continued throughout the MCU, but they can be traced back to that first Avengers movie.

The memeified fanfic had offshoots, like Science Bros, a ship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Some kept it platonic, others took a more romantic (and, yes, sexual) approach.

Phase 2

With the MCU gaining momentum, this two year span churned out six movies. The team-ups — Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: Age of Ultron — were the most ripe for memes. This era also saw a lot of memes that riffed on the other Marvel movies (Spider-Man not being part of the lineup, for instance, as well as dueling Quicksilvers).

Hail Hydra

Captain America: The Winter Soldier focused on terrorist organization Hydra infiltrating SHIELD and the reveal that it had been doing so for quite some time. The group’s insidious, whispered declaration became instant Impact fodder.

There were Disney versions, there were Mean Girls versions, there were other superhero versions, there were political versions. Name a movie or a series or another fictional property, there was a version of Hail Hydra. The virality was so widespread, people created memes begging for it to stop. Part of Hail Hydra’s ubiquitousness was that it was easy to make — and also easy to find a funny pairing to throw it on. Part of the reason the earlier “That’s my secret” got redundant was because there were only so many things to sub into it. But Hail Hydra releveled in the unexpected, stemming from its first iteration using Bert and Ernie.

Even MCU celebs weighed in.

Now this is not to be confused with this meme’s evil doppelganger which rose two years later, when Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 came out. It racked up controversy because of a panel of Captain America saying “Hail Hydra” (that’s the subject of another post).

Still, that moment became its own meme. This time, though, Cap was edited to be a popular and likeable character saying something heinous.

Among the minor Captain America: The Winter Soldier memes was “On Your Left,” which didn’t gestate beyond specific pop culture references (specifically a boatload of DC versus Marvel memes) and the stray political meme. But we’ll give it a nod here because the movie moment itself gets a nice reprise in Endgame.

I am Groot

I am Groot. I am Groot? I am Groot!

There were various iterations of Grott’s catchphrase: “Three words, eight letters, say it and I’m yours,” photos of human-looking trees (or trees with certain...human parts), and other riffs on the line. I am Groot memes aren’t particularly inspiring, but they are easy to churn out and sustain to this day.

Of course, there are more dedicated versions of the memebale phrase, such as 1300 word erotic fanfiction with over 700,000 hits on Archive of Our Own, comprised solely of the phrase “I am Groot.”

Quicksilver versus Quicksilver

X-Men: Days of Future Past came out just a year before Avengers: Age of Ultron. Thanks to the complicated copyright of the Marvel characters, both movies introduced Quicksilver as a character, played by Evan Peters and Aaron Johnson respectively.

Naturally, this made for some funny comparisons — especially, well, given how super powerful X-Men Quicksilver ended up and how super dead Avengers Quicksilver ended up.

Another running gag to come out of the confusing copyright scenario were crossover edits of Matthew Fassbender’s Magneto and Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, and later on with Emma Dupont’s Polaris in The Gifted.

Spider-Man joins the Avengers

As the MCU really kicked into gear, and the Andrew Garfield-led Spider-Man movies landed with a thud, Spider-Man’s exclusion became more and more of a sticking point, particularly as more obscure heroes like the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Maximoff twins ended up in the MCU and not Spider-Man.

We got text over images (with a constant recurring parents are dead joke), purposefully bad comics featuring Spoderman, and the like. Some took in-universe moments of the MCU and created fan-art with Spider-Man, including a GIF of a particularly hero-filled battle in Age of Ultron edited to include Spider-Man.

Phase 3

The MCU’s run between Captain America: Civil War to Avengers: Endgame was robust with memes. Memes of the era shifted from text over images to adding images to text, turning a screencap quote into a punchline. Additionally, memes became increasingly more absurd. What were edits of Spider-Man joining the Avengers compared with Thanus?

Civil War

The format for this four panel meme was simple: a screencap of Captain America, a screencap of Iron Man — captioned with a controversial opinion, warring pop culture hallmarks, or some digs at each other — and then the title card of Captain America: Civil War. For instance:

There were variations to include the whole Avengers cast for maximum debate.

There was also fun variation that included a rumored Planet Hulk movie. Instead of starting a fight, the twist is that Bruce Banner says something so outlandish that he gets exiled from Earth.

Is this your king?

Much like “That’s my secret” before it, “Is this your king?” made a meme of an instantly iconic scene. The raw power of Killmonger yelling “Is this your king?” turned into Twitter users shaming themselves. The initial uses were almost like a callback to the format of “That’s my secret.” The below, for instance, would’ve been “That’s my secret, Cap ... I’m always broke” in 2012.

But let’s observe some fun differences that happened in the meme’s six years in existence. Because this is 2019, and not 2012, there’s an element to absurdity, taking the original and putting more and more fun spins on it, like the below. Because this meme started on Twitter (as late ‘10s memes are more prone on doing), the screencap is sans text and serves more as the punchline than the setup.

It’s just a year out, we can’t quite say if this will have as much lasting power as That’s my secret, but if Michael B. Jordan’s ripped bod is any indication, this meme should have just as long a life.

The most ambitious crossover...

Part of the marketing for Avengers: Infinity War was the insistence that the movie was the “most ambitious crossover in history.” It was a bold claim — a claim that some took offense to. Especially when there were clearly superior alternatives.

This brazen campaign sparked a Twitter moment, when people chimed in about what they deemed was the “most ambitious crossover in history.” The catchphrase “most ambitious crossover in history” is still used as a kicker.

I don’t feel so good

If this meme spoiled Infinity War for you, you’re not alone. The last tragic moments of Infinity War, in which Spider-Man turned to dust in Iron Man’s arms were so devastating that everyone just had to take to memes in order to grieve. Just days after Infinity War came out, people were already making memes about the movie’s heartbreaking ending without caring about spoiling the movie.

Just to be clear, the concept of a character disintegrating as a meme coupled with text had been around since 2017, but the dusting at the end of Infinity War made for a good caption. Soon, almost every possible character was given a heartbreaking moment in the dust.

You can’t defeat me; I know but he can

While this meme from Thor: Ragnarok gained traction on a subreddit dedicated to creating and churning out viral memes, according to KnowYourMeme the actual first use started on Facebook for once, a mark of the platform’s growing number of shitposting communities. While Facebook still gets associated with relatives who share politically charged articles from dubiously credible news sources and those acquaintances from high school now selling candles, it also boasts many shitposting meme groups for every interest — and yes, sometimes the memes start on Facebook now.

Hawkeye is the secret weapon

Posted by Migo Abuel on Monday, July 2, 2018

Reddit stepped in just a few days after the first meme, in July 2018 (notably almost a full year after Thor: Ragnarok actually came out; in fact, you’ll notice that the first variation was more a riff on Infinity War than it was on Ragnarok)

Easy to create — just label your versions of Hela, Thor, and Surtur — this format blew up just as the Redditors who crafted it to perfection intended. From gaming to internet browsers, from real life to meta-meme commentary, there was always something ready to be defeated and always something ready to take it on.

Once again, versatility is a friend; this meme format — like distracted boyfriend, for instance — continues to be used as a commentary on what’s going on online.

Another very versatile meme that spawned in the months after Infinity War from a movie that released earlier was the “So you...” meme, featuring a scene from . This one has a less interesting origin story: someone posted it on Twitter, it blew up on Twitter over the next few days, and it then trickled off. But because the image now evokes a specific phrase — perhaps more so than the above meme — it persists.

Thor: God of Lesbians

Congratulatory pat on the back for a minute cameo aside, the MCU has been pretty berefet of LGBTQ representation. Scenes alluding to Valkyrie’s bisexuality were nixed from the final cut of Thor: Ragnarok, and a canonical queer couple was cut out of Black Panther. In an effort to fill that gap, members of the LGBTQ community decided to claim Thor as a lesbian icon.

Thor also became known as Thor: God of Lesbians. T’Challa soon joined Thor in Lesbian Icon status, becoming known as T’Challa: King of Lesbians. A tumblr post delineates the differences between the two, but made it very clear that the lesbian community was willing to embrace the both of them.

The headcanon that Carol Danvers is a lesbian sparked in an adjacent way on social media, enough that both Brie Larson and Tessa Thompson gave it their blessing by continually retweeting fanart of Captain Marvel and Valkyrie.

The scene in the second Avengers trailer, when Carol meets the Avengers, hits a particular chord. If we recall, Thor stares Carol down, a bit dubious at first, but when he raises his hand to summon stormbreaker and Carol doesn’t flinch, he declares he “likes her.” And hey, as the God of Lesbians, why wouldn’t he?

Thanos did nothing wrong

After Infinity War, a subreddit dedicated to Thanos popped up. Three months later, the group had roughly 20,000 members, and someone came up with the idea that in order to fulfill Thanos’ ultimate goal, the subreddit needed to ban half its members. It started as a joke, but a plan to make the mass ban happened started to take off.

The moderators made sure the majority of the subreddit was okay with the idea and went to Reddit administrators with the idea. After a bit of back and forth, the Reddit team agreed and the ban was set for July 9, 2018.

Members of r/thanosdidnothing wrong decided that if they were banned, they would congregate in a new subreddit entitled r/inthesoulstone, a nod to a theory at the time that those snapped were in a pocket dimension. At the time of the ban, r/thanosdidnothingwrong boasted over 200,000 members, making the 50% random ban the biggest mass ban in Reddit history.

Thanus

Perhaps the greatest example of a small observation blossoming into “a thing,” the Thanus theory started on Reddit before Infinity War even came out, turned into a semi-viral Twitter and Tumblr post, and was all but forgotten over the next year or so.

But in March 2019 with Endgame around the corner, the concept of Ant-Man defeating Thanos by crawling up his butthole and expanding started to kick back into gear. Soon, the cast got involved with the meme.

At this point, (spoiler) we know that the Thanus theory as it’s been dubbed didn’t exactly happen in the events of Avengers: Endgame, but there’s just something so Very Online about this completely outlandish theory gaining the momentum. While everyone geared up to mourn the end of a saga, they still had time to celebrate the shitposts of it all.