As the second season of Loki heads into its final few episodes, some eagle-eyed fans have been questioning a mysterious phrase spotted in the first episode's credits.
At the end of season 2, episode 1, as the credits roll, the camera lingers on a file card that cryptically reads "The Zartan Contingent". It's a strange enough phrase to stick out and feels like it might be a deep cut reference to Marvel Comics lore.
In fact nobody (apart from the folks at Marvel Studios of course) is quite sure what it means, but it's prompted some speculation.
Travel back deep enough into comics history and you will meet a mercenary called Zartan who first appeared in July 1984's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #25, published by Marvel. This Zartan was a master of disguise and often worked for the villainous Cobra Commander. He's proficient in martial arts and leads the Dreadnok biker gang.
Don't get too excited at the thought of some multiversal crossover though. After all, Marvel no longer hold the rights to the G.I. Joe comic, which is being relaunched with A Real American Hero #301 next month over at Skybound. We're almost certainly not gonna see Loki fight off a motorcycle bad guy - though that would be badass.
Change the spelling slightly, however, and you'll find that there is a race of beings known as the Xartans in Marvel's own continuity. This race of shape-shifting aliens first appeared in one of the earliest Thor stories, from 1963's Journey Into Mystery #90. They hail from "the warlike planet Xarta" and are led by the mighty lord Ugarth.
In the issue, the Xartans send a ship to Earth, where they run straight into Thor. The aliens strip him of his powers and steal his human identity as Dr Donald Blake. This is part of their plan to plant "impersonators in key jobs throughout the city! Their task is to make foolish laws... to cause confusion and panic!"
Eventually Thor gets his powers back, of course, and fights off the Xartans, despite being encased in ice at one point. Luckily Mjolnir "the invincible magic mallet" is on hand to set him free.
The Xartans have actually already been featured in the MCU. Hulu's Runaways series (remember that?) featured a Xartan character called Xavin who appeared in several episodes. And if you're thinking, "Well that all sounds a bit like Secret Invasion" then you're not wrong. Runaways Xavin was based on a comics character of the same name... who was originally a Skrull.
So is The Zartan Contingent a reference to this race of shapeshifters under a slightly different spelling? Possibly. Some fans have already speculated that it's a hint that Ke Huy Quan's character OB is in fact an alien in disguise, mainly due to the fact that his name appeared on screen next to The Zartan Contingent title.
We're not entirely convinced by this, though. Like we say, it's all a bit too Secret Invasion, and we can't see the MCU shows doing another shapeshifter plot so soon.
We're really not sure what to make of this one! It's such an odd thing for the end credits to linger on that it feels significant. At the same time the different spelling would make it quite a weird reference to the Xartans that Thor once fought. Perhaps it really is just a nod to the old G.I. Joe comics, or a bit of world-building unrelated to anything that has come before. Not everything is a reference, after all.
Still, we'll be keeping an eye and an ear out for anything else that sounds like a call back to the shape-shifting scoundrels of Planet Xarta.