When the trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming was released in 2017 – the film that finally brought the webbed superhero into the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe after seemingly endless negotiations with Sony, who still owned the rights – the fans could have hardly been more excited.
The trailer showed Tom Holland's Spider-Man perching atop the Washington Monument 169 metres in the air. It showed him dispatching bank robbers, taking on an arch nemesis played by Michael Keaton, flinging himself over the rotating blades of a helicopter and holding a ferry together with webs alone.
But for devoted followers of the Marvel world, it was the final shot that was the real showstopper: Spider-Man swinging through New York closely followed by a turbo-jetting Iron Man, the pair seemingly off to do battle together. Spider-Man and Iron Man: together at last!
Except not really. The scene wasn’t real. Or rather, it never occurred in the film. The fans weren’t angry as such, more baffled. For the devoted, it raised a curious existential question: if a scene in the trailer doesn’t make the film, did it actually happen?
“And that was the first time Marvel did it,” says Michael Roman, a dedicated chronicler of Marvel movies on his YouTube channel Everything Always. His videos sometimes rack up views in the millions, and has made more than 350 about the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame alone. He started to spot a trend.
Since then, Marvel have upended the very idea of what a movie trailer can be. Gone are the days when a trailer would simply provide a taste – and sometimes a full course – of what was to come. If that shot in Spider-Man: Homecoming was simply a case of Marvel giving fans what they wanted – even if just for what amounts to a trailer mirage – then others have gone further still. They’ve become their own separate reality.
The trailer for Thor: Ragnarok, for instance, which digitally altered Chris Hemsworth’s face in one scene, showing him with both eyes and a perfect face in order to prevent a spoiler that the true scene would have divulged: by that point in the story, Thor had actually lost an eye. Or, most notoriously among fans, last year’s trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, which clearly showed the Hulk on the charge with his superhero friends – Black Panther and Captain America among them – in Wakanda. Not only did the scene not occur in the film, but Hulk never appeared at all, at least not beyond the opening minutes on a spaceship. It was, again, to disguise a key plot point, in this case the (cough) performance issues Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner faced when trying to transform into Hulk.
“It was with Infinity War that Marvel really started to feel themselves,” says Roman. “That’s when Marvel studios were like, 'Hey, what if we just put fake trailers out there?' And they got away with it.”
Anthony Russo – one half of the sibling duo that directed both Avengers: Infinity War and this week’s sequel Avengers: Endgame – was unequivocal in terms of what he saw the role of their trailers to be. They were not to show what’s going to happen, but to actively disguise it.
“That shot,” Russo said, talking to the Happy Sad Confused podcast, “was never in the movie version. It was never even created for the movie. It was literally created for the trailer.”
And now, such is the intense secrecy for Avengers: Endgame, a curious and thrilling and incredibly odd theory has emerged, a culmination of the Marvel ethos. What if, the theory goes, all the trailers for Endgame are fake? What if every scene is simply made for a trailer to put ravenous fans, who pick apart every released frame for clues, off the scent?
Russo only fanned the flames when he later said of the forthcoming film: “We look at the trailer as a very different experience from the movie. Audiences are so predictive now that you have to be very smart about how you craft a trailer, because an audience can watch a trailer and basically tell you what’s going to happen in the film. We consume too much content. So at our disposal are lots of different shots that aren’t in the movie that we can manipulate through CG to tell a story that we want to tell specifically for the purpose of the trailer and not for the film.”
And Roman, from his hours and days and weeks of study of everything Marvel have put out so far, has found himself convinced.
“I’m really beginning to wonder if all of these trailers we’ve seen for Endgame aren’t just literally a big marketing team getting together and being like, ‘OK, how can we have a bunch of footage that will completely mislead everybody?’ My inkling is that it’s all fake. I genuinely believe we haven’t seen a frame of Endgame yet. And we’re going to sit down and see Endgame in a week and none of this footage will be in there.”
Pop culture site The Ringer summed up the feeling: “The Marvel Trailers Are Lying To You.”
After all, beyond making sure fans are aware of the release date, what does it matter? Of perhaps any film released in the history of cinema, this is one that doesn’t need a hard sell.
From what fans can make out from the trailers alone (sidenote: GQ has not watched the reported leaked footage for this piece), the following rough outline of Endgame can be guessed.
Early on, perhaps within the first 20 minutes, The Avengers will embark on a revenge mission to take down Thanos on his home planet. It will include Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel, who popped up in an early trailer, but will not include Iron Man, the Hulk or Ant-Man, who are not seen on the ship they travel in. This won’t be successful, so they will have to find another way to undo Thanos’ snap, which wiped out half the population.
Different haircuts – notably how short and blonde vs red and long Scarlett Johansson’s hair is – signify several months then pass. A shot of the team – now complete with Ant-Man and Iron Man – in matching red-and-white suits suggests another plan is then formed.
These, the theory goes, are “quantum suits” – of the type Ant-Man uses – which could enable them either to travel through time or to different dimensions (delete as applicable or by how much incredulity your brain will allow).
Beyond that, fans don’t know much. But even that much, if you want everything to be a surprise, is a fair amount.
And just from the material released for Infinity War, points out Roman, one fan was able to correctly predict the death of Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana.
“People have been able to work out a ton of stuff from the trailers in the past,” says Roman. “And I don't think that's anything new, but what I think is unique about Marvel, specifically the MCU, is that you have fans so hungry to just completely consume every single detail. They know that no matter what they give us we're going to soak it up like an IV.” He is, he says, “well aware of the sense of irony coming from the guy who runs the YouTube channel that breaks down every single detail he can. But we live in an age when there's just too much given away.”
One slight problem with the theory could come in the form of the accompanying toys, which similarly show our favourite heroes in those red and white suits.
“That would be a heck of a thing for a marketing team to come up with, that there’s these toys on the shelves that wouldn’t have a direct tie to the movie.” On the other hand, he reasons, “Maybe the quantum suits only play a small role.”
It also wouldn’t even be the first time the toys were fake. For Infinity War you could buy a tie-in Hulk toy that broke out of the “Hulkbuster” armour – something that Ruffalo’s character kept trying to do, but couldn’t.
And, to follow the logic, the “marketing team” could well be the Russo brothers themselves. After all, it’s already commonplace for directors to film fake scenes to put watching paps off the scent. For Infinity War alone, points out Roman, they filmed five Hulk death scenes. Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk did not die in Infinity War.
Last Friday, the Russos seemed to be acutely aware of early viewers spoiling the surprise for others, taking the unusual step of posting an open letter to fans, stating, “When you see Endgame in the coming weeks, please don’t spoil it for others, the same way you wouldn’t want it spoiled for you.”
Earlier in the month, Anthony Russo’s brother, Joe, told Empire magazine that they had spoken to Marvel about “all scales of marketing” in order to “preserve the surprise of the narrative”.
As Joe Russo later put it in the same interview: “When I was a kid and saw The Empire Strikes Back at 11am on the day it opened, it so profoundly moved me because I didn’t know a damn thing about the story I was going to watch.”
They are, he said, “trying to replicate that”.