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This Line From Captain Marvel Foreshadows A Dark Timeline In The MCU

Among the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 2019's Captain Marvel broke a lot of ground. With Brie Larson in the title role as Carol Danvers, it was the MCU's first female-led superhero movie. Additionally, Captain Marvel was the first to credit a female co-director in Anna Boden, who helmed the project with creative partner Ryan Fleck; fellow MCU prequel Black Widow will follow up as the second film to tick those respective boxes, with director Cate Shortland in the driver's seat and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) as the title character.

In addition to these long-awaited MCU milestones, Captain Marvel also gave us a canonical first as well, with the first real look into the backstory of one Nicholas J. Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), at this point just an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., before he ascended to the top of the global peacekeeping initiative. In 1995, Fury is a mid-level agent, still has his left eye, and — personality-wise — is downright cheery and jovial, even displaying a surprising fondness for cats; well, for one particular cat-like creature named Goose, who's actually a Flerken. About that left eye...

Fury also displays his resourcefulness by demonstrating the versatility of common office supplies: at the site for Project Pegasus, a joint NASA-USAF facility, Fury very cleverly lifts a security guard's thumbprint off his S.H.I.E.L.D. badge with some scotch tape and uses it to open a secure door. Carol, whom we only know as Vers thus far, calls the act "impressive," to which Fury offers a response that means more than you realize: "Oh, you should see what I can do with a paperclip." On the surface, it might just seem like Fury comparing himself the title character on MacGyver, a show that was canceled three years prior to when the film is set. In actuality, it looks more like an Easter egg referencing a dark timeline in the future of the MCU.

We've already seen what Nick Fury can do with a paperclip

The fact of the matter is that we've already seen exactly what Nick Fury can do with a paperclip and the results were absolutely terrifying, especially for the likes of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a TV anchor in Cairo, the undersecretary of defense, a high school valedictorian in Iowa City, Bruce Banner, Stephen Strange, anyone who's a threat to HYDRA, now or in the future. Of course, Fury wasn't immune to the effects of his work; after all, he had to fake his own death with Tetradotoxin B, which Bruce Banner had developed to slow his own heart rate down to one beat per minute to prevent himself from transforming into the Hulk.

By now, we suspect, you've figured out we're talking about the events that unfolded in Captain America: The Winter Soldier — specifically the Project Insight "ready-fire-aim" program Fury had developed, which involved launching three next-gen S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers for pre-emptive strike purposes — but you may still be thinking "... paperclip?" To which the answer is yes, Nick Fury did all that with a paperclip. It was made possible with one very specific paperclip: Operation Paperclip.

In real life, Operation Paperclip was a secret program by the United States government to bring important German scientists to work for America which began near the end of WWII and lasted more than a decade, as detailed by Smithsonian Magazine. As TIME lays out, the program led directly to the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969, as rocket scientist Wernher von Braun — whose work was instrumental in developing the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo 11 space craft — was among the scientists brought over during Operation Paperclip. In the MCU version of events, the results weren't nearly so positive.

Give Nick Fury a paperclip and you get Project Insight

As Natasha Romanoff-Black Widow relays during the bunker scene in Winter Soldier, the Red Skull's chief HYDRA-Nazi scientist, Swiss-born Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), was among the scientists integrated into the United States as part of Operation Paperclip in the MCU's timeline. Zola is given a position at S.H.I.E.L.D. where he keeps HYDRA alive and well, hidden beneath the benevolent facade of the peacekeeping organization. Over the course of decades, Zola helps HYDRA spreads like a cancer; the evil doctor, having received a terminal medical diagnosis, even manages to record and-or emulate his own brain into a malevolent artificial intelligence. As such, Zola was able to keep up his nefarious plan from the bowels of Camp Lehigh after his physical form expired. As a result, he was able to devise the Project Insight component known as Zola's Algorithm, which will identify potential threats, as he explains while stalling Captain America and Black Widow in the hopes they'll be destroyed by the missiles that the HYDRA-controlled S.H.I.E.L.D. just volleyed their way. Spoiler alert: they survived, his pre-floppy disk storage media didn't.

At Winter Soldier's climax, HYDRA is a split second away from global domination. The evil parasite within S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), nearly won big before Cap managed to replace the targeting blade in the third Insight helicarrier, thereby programming Big Brother to blow itself out of the sky. While Nick Fury had his concerns and suspicions about Project Insight and sought to delay it, through his work on the initiative, he unwittingly helped HYDRA come closer to victory than Johann Schmidt could ever have dreamed. Had Insight successfully initiated, humanity would have practically begged for Thanos to snap his fingers because that would have likely been the only chance to mount a potential resistance against HYDRA in the hopes of stopping them. That, friends, is the terrifying MCU hellscape Nick Fury nearly conjured. That's what Nick Fury can do with a paperclip.