Escapism through Military Propaganda? My Conflicted Love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Most of my COVID coping mechanisms have revolved around consuming media.  During the first go round, nearly a year ago, I decided I was going to watch all the prestige dramas I’ve missed, and started The Wire.  This stopped when the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police became international news, and I couldn’t stomach any copaganda in my life.  

I can milestone my pandemic experience through these media consumption phases. Spring and Summer 2020 was watching Theme Park YouTube, learning the history of mega giants in the industry like Disney and Universal, both reinforcing my hatred of capitalism and desire to learn more about these conglomerates.  This dive into amusement culture was punctuated by my June 2020 foray into Freeform drama The Bold Type, as glossy millennial stories were all I wanted when my career felt directionless and I was separated from all my friends.  Late Fall was comfort shows only as my best friend moved far away and I accepted that moving back in with my parents was going to be a permanent affair.  Arrested Development and Brooklyn 99 (my lingering copoaganda soft spot) stayed on in the background constantly at a time when being alone with my thoughts was unbearable.  December found me craving the surreal, living in Twin Peaks and channeling my inner film bro, deifying the genius of David Lynch.

My most recent foray into fantastical escapism, though, has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Like anyone even marginally into pop culture, I was familiar with it previously, and had seen a few of the films. But I was hardly an MCU fan.  Going to theaters to see Black Panther and Captain Marvel was less about the fandom, and more about financially supporting stories not about white dudes. 

My piqued interest in superhero stories happened organically. My summer immersion in Theme Park YouTube also overlapped with Film Review YouTube, which heavily favors science fiction content.  I had watched reviews of many of the MCU films and therefore had a working understanding of the characters, but had yet to experience the magic for myself.  In early January, though, as winter loomed on and the boredom intensified, I decided to watch the first Avengers film.

To my surprise, I couldn’t remember the last time I had so much fun watching a film.   This viewing was quickly followed by the next two Avengers films, Age of Ultron and Infinity War.  The All-American Girl living inside me was enamored with Steve Rogers, so next came Captain America: Civil War, Captain America: The First Avenger, then Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Organization has never been my strongest trait.) Next I watched Thor: Ragnarok after a film buff friend told me it was the funniest MCU film. (It was!)  I watched Guardians of the Galaxy because everyone and their mother had been obsessed with it in 2014. I quickly moved on to newer stories, a dumb smiled on my face through the first 30 minutes of Spiderman: Homecoming because it made me miss my home city of New York so much. 

However, during my most recent watch, the MCU’s first installment, 2008’s Iron Man, I couldn’t ignore the problem of the MCU anymore: it is straight United States military propaganda.

Of course, I had already recognized this during the other films.  S.H.I.E.L.D. is a government agency, a fictional branch of the very real Department of Defense.  My beloved Captain America is a literal Super Soldier created by the US government to protect that star-spangled freedom.  Black Widow was evil when she worked for Russia, but then later turned to the “good side” in America and became an Avenger.  Tony Stark, the man in the iron suit, however, is a complete embodiment of the military-industrial complex America so highly reveres. 

This observation is entirely canonical. Stark Industries, Tony’s multi-billion dollar company, made its money through weapons manufacturing. Both Tony and his predecessor, father Howard Stark, work closely with the Pentagon and its associates. Stark Industries is painted as an ally of the armed forces, a protector of freedom.

Truth be told, I am comforted by this ideology of American exceptionalism and innovation.  I live abroad, and haven’t been back to the States in nearly 3 years. I am happy with my choice to leave the country, but I still miss home. Like all American children, I was taught I lived in the greatest country on Earth, that we held the keys to global freedom and justice.  Today, as an avowedly left wing adult who by and large hates the US government as it stands, I see the cracks in that foundation.

The military-entertainment complex is nothing new in films.  What better way to promote the honor of the Armed Forces than through a shiny blockbuster. Marvel Studios has openly partnered with the Pentagon for numerous films, including Captain America: Winter Soldier, Iron Man 2, and Captain Marvel [Editor’s note: and even the very hyped Top Gun: Maverick], receiving access to military equipment and locations in exchange for a pro-military, Department of Defense approved script. In fact, the Pentagon cancelled support for 2012’s The Avengers after it “couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization [S.H.I.E.LD.] and our place in it,” according to DoD entertainment liaison Phil Strub in a 2012 interview with Wired.   This seems like an awfully strange line in the sand to draw, as moviegoers are likely aware they are watching science fiction. Throughout the MCU, the enemies our heroes are facing are fantastical .  Thanos isn’t real.  Loki isn’t real.  No recently inaugurated president has been briefed on The Avengers Initiative.

Iron Man, however, is not a far-fetched character. Tony Stark, not dissimilar to DC’s Bruce Wayne aka Batman, has super powers based in reality. His strength doesn’t come from extraterrestrial beings or a science experiment gone wrong.  He is powerful because he has above-average intelligence and exorbitant inherited wealth, and he knows how to utilize these resources for justice and vengeance.

Because of the grounded-nature of his character, Iron Man is the perfect vehicle for military propaganda.  When the film was released in 2008, the “War on Freedom” raged on, 9/11 still fresh in people’s minds.  Anti-Middle Eastern sentiment was at the core of the collective American psyche. 

Tony Stark fits perfectly into this world. King of capitalism and protector of freedom, he jets off to Afghanistan to show our brave troops the amazing new weapons Stark Industries has to sell them.  Of course, because plot development, a bomb goes off in the desert, and the nice white man trying to protect America with his money is taken hostage by the evil Afghanis. 

This narrative, though of course problematic even upon release, has not aged well. The original Iron Man is much darker and more graphic than the newer MCU films, as this was pre-Disney’s acquisition of Marvel.  The viewer is supposed to watch Tony’s capture and torture and view the Afghani people as the enemy, regardless of the fact Tony has created the weapons that are destroying their home. Later, in a surprise twist, we discover Tony’s colleague, Obadiah Stane, paid these men, a terrorist group called Ten Rings, to capture Tony and kill him so he can instead become Stark CEO. Unsurprisingly, the film’s climax shows patriotic Iron Man destroying American traitor Stane. 

Iron Man, operating to some degree of self-awareness, works to demonstrate that these are the “bad” Middle Eastern people. We see the members of Ten Rings ripping men away from their families to recruit them to their group. Through this, too, the central character conflict emerges.   Tony sees what his weapons have done and the true cost of war, and upon arriving home from captivity, declares Stark Industries will stop manufacturing weapons.

But then he makes the Iron Man suit. As Iron Man 2 shows, this technology is also (rightfully) considered weapons-grade by the government. The second Captain America film, Civil War, shows the US government interfering again, saying The Avengers need to be regulated, as their battles with galactic villains have caused mass destruction and death on Earth. It even speaks to the real-world consequences of American intervention in foreign conflicts, as the film’s version of the UN comes together to prevent The Avengers from wreaking havoc outside the United States. With America’s legacy of violently interfering in foreign conflict and then just trotting back home to ignore the mess they caused, this conflict mirrors many other global conversations about American interventionism.

Even when trying to “help” other countries, American foreign policy usually results in destruction. Within the MCU, Tony Stark wanted to create a technology to serve as an alternative to weapons of mass destruction.  So he created a suit that allowed him to become that weapon himself, and joined forces with US government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. to create an army of super-powered humans to fight foreign enemies.  

The MCU, though a body of fiction, is so popular because it’s just like our own reality, except in this one, there are aliens, demigods, and superheroes. Because the MCU’s power structures are so grounded in reality, it makes the war propaganda present in its films even more troubling.  While Thanos isn’t real and half the world can’t be killed with the snap of a finger (I hope), the core threat is the same:  there is some “other” who wants to kill us, and we must stop them, and we must protect our people. In the MCU, we have The Avengers to protect us.  In the real world, we have the US military. 

I’ll admit I’m a bit uncomfortable with my newfound love of the MCU.  I want the military defunded, soldiers to stop being glorified, billionaires sent straight to the guillotine, and an end to American imperialism. 

But I still love superheroes.  I love complicated, larger-than-life characters who are trying to do the right thing. I love seeing a band of misfits come together to work towards a common goal.  I love fight choreography and stunts, seeing all the incredible things a well-trained body can do.  I love exploring the limitless possibilities of technology. I love being totally immersed in a world that has clear solutions to big problems, at a time when I want to rage cry every single day because of the incompetence of our elected officials. Yet how can I root for Iron Man when Tony Stark is a fictional embodiment of so much of what I loathe about America, the culmination of what all those incompetent elected officials have allowed to happen?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer. As a feminst and hater of liberal woke performance, I’ve gotten good at dimming down my politics for the interest of my entertainment. For the sake of my own sanity, I allow myself to consume content that contradicts with my politics, so long as I am aware of these contradictions. I’m still working my way (out of order) through all the films, and fell prey to the capitalist mouse with a Disney+ subscription. (Everyone, Wadavision is so good.) 

Lately I’ve been feeling small and helpless. An invisible virus has completely changed the world we all knew seemingly overnight. I am 27 years old, underemployed, living with my parents, and I haven’t seen a friend in nearly four months. My loved ones are facing the same anxieties I am every single day, and I can’t do anything to help. 

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe so much because it embodies so many of the things I want right now: travel, adventure, a sense of belonging, and strength. So I’ll keep watching, aware of the propagandistic flaws, but also deeply appreciative of the escape they provide for me.

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