Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fanwank Corner: The Marvel Universe's Embrace of Freedom

2008's "The Dark Knight" was one of the more interesting films in what I'd call "The Post-9/11 Era" of pop culture.   Batman, one of the better superheroes suited to a Post-9/11 story, battles a maniac out to shatter the safe dimensions of America's greatest city, Gotham (read: New York).  Modern Batman jumped right out of late 1990s cheese, threw away his Bat Credit Card, and got on the streets, fighting a gritty battle against terror, as symbolized by a re-imagined Joker.  This nightmare of a supervillain was the nihilism of terrorism given living form, a man without any plan at all but to destroy everything around him.  This Joker wasn't throwing out Laughing Gas and making puns, he was blowing up buildings, assassinating elected officials, basically bringing the War on Terror home to the United States.  All the fear and insecurities of the 9/11 attacks came together, making for an exciting action movie based upon our modern horrors.

That was DC's take on the War on Terror.  It was one of the most successful movies of all time, and widely considered the greatest superhero film ever made.  Meanwhile, other superheroes have simply avoided world politics*.   But what about Marvel?  Marvel's film universe began the same year as "The Dark Knight", with "Iron Man".  Since then the Marvel universe has had Viking Gods, invaders from outer space, a WWII story, and will soon include a talking raccoon to its ridiculous collection of heroes.  You would assume then, looking at this eclectic film universe that it has mostly ignored the War on Terror entirely to focus on fun entertainment with a smile.  But Marvel hasn't done that.  It has embraced the times it was born into and made them fundamental to its mythos.  It is impossible to imagine, for example, Tony Stark being given his inspiration for Iron Man in the middle of an Afghan Cave in any decade other than the 2000s... Naughts... whatever the Hell the name for the last decade is.

The Marvel movies do something very interesting with the War on Terror.  Rather than have its heroes fight on the front lines of the war, staring madness in the face, like Batman did, it has its heroes transcend the war.  The Marvel cinematic universe is one where the War on Terror is a place of exploitation and manipulation, a moral gray zone of corruption which is - more often than not - a sham for its heroes to overcome.  That's not to say the threat is not real or the villains there are no less villainous in the Middle East (if anything they're too evil for a superhero film to deal with) but rather the War on Terror offers temptations for the Marvel heroes.  It is tempting for them to look upon the fear of Islamic threats and simply surrender to easy answers, such as endless security, a loss of liberty, and militarization.  But the heroes say no every time, staying heroic in ways that shame our real world peacekeepers.

A lot of the reason this post is getting written is because of the surprise twist featured in the main plot of "Captain America: The Winter Solider", which I could not spoil directly in my review.  Turns out Captain America's main enemy was within the US government.  S.H.I.E.L.D., a government organization made to "deal with threats" (basically Terrorism), was actually an elaborate plant created by the Nazis HYDRA.  While the known characters of Steve Rodgers, Nick Fury, and Black Widow were all heroic, along with a good faction within the organization, much of S.H.I.E.L.D. was actually controlled by the computerized brain of Tobey Jones, a Nazi scientist brought over after World War II.  HYDRA is obsessed with order, and believe mankind cannot govern itself freely.  Thus it has to take over in the name of security and peace.  Giant spaceships would float up out of the Potomac and target Americans who would be threats to the new HYDRA regime.  So essentially the villains' plan was to use NSA spying to find potential dissidents and kill them with unregulated Drone Strikes on American citizens.

Nobody really thought the most damning condemnation of the Obama Administration's handling of the War on Terror would come from a superhero film, did they?

"Hail HYDRA"
It actually gets more political as the film goes on.  Steve Rodgers, the living breathing avatar of the Greatest Generation transported to modern times, wants nothing to do with this power to control.  This guy is already disturbed by the drone strike program, he already feels like his America has been lost.  Captain America walks with disgust through corruption and back-handed dealings of modern America, despairing at the moral compromises made in the name of safety**.  So we get this bizarre moment where Captain America is being targeted for capture by the American security apparatus.  He's the champion of freedom, a symbol of American righteousness and heroism, decked out in the goddamn red, white, and blue, getting trampled by government thugs.  Worse for national security hard-liners, at the end of the film, once the Nazis have been defeated, Captain America personally tears down all of the secrets and barriers of the spy networks.  He becomes Edward Snowden!

It must have been a very depressing day for Barack Obama the day superhero films start calling his policies the work of Nazis, and worse, his enemies become celebrated as true patriots.  Snowden, Chelsea Manning, William Blinney - they're the real patriots, the real people who kept up the golden spirit of what America was supposed to symbolize.  As for Obama's methods, he's being told by a stupid blockbuster that he's basically no better than a guy with no face who hung out with Adolf Hitler and used Viking God technology to build doomsday weapons.  Speaking of Doomsday Weapons:  And what the Hell kind of world are we living in when the policies of the US government are indistinguishable from a supervillain's mad scheme for world domination?  We have DEATH BOTS!!  KILL LISTS!!  I almost can't blame "Captain America 2" for ending up so politically charged, so much of what we do today in the United States would have been a bad guy's scheme in a comic book.

Now as for how much of "Captain America 2"'s plotline was accidental is hard to say.  One thing a Hollywood Blockbuster does not want to do is take a definite stand on a controversial issue.  This is why the remake of "RoboCop" rambled for hours about Drone Strikes without making any definitive statement either way as to their effect or morality.  Nobody is going to come forward with a movie that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and say the President is a Nazi.  There's a level of safeness and uncontroversialness that a major blockbuster must stick to.  But still, "Captain America 2" was a very subversive movie.  It is rare to see a film, Blockbuster or not, make a meaningful political statement, but here, "Captain America 2" did.  You can say it was unintentional, that the headlines overtook their script, but a statement is a statement.

And really, as shocking as this movie is, its actually continuing a theme from earlier Marvel movies.

Superhero diplomacy.
One thing you will never see a superhero do in the 21st century is go where we probably need them most:  the Third World.  Superheroes don't fight wars.  They especially will not fight in modern American wars, because, let's be honest, those wars are too damn depressing.  Nobody wants to see a movie about Iraq to begin with.  Even after the War in Iraq ended, "The Hurt Locker" was a disaster at the box office***.  We want our superheroes to fight aliens in Manhattan, not win the War on Terror.  Yet oddly, Marvel heroes have been fighting that war since the beginning.  Tony Stark destroyed a terrorist cell in the first "Iron Man" movie in his very first moment of action as a superhero.  That may have been the sum total of Marvel heroes being shown fighting the War on Terror, but it is definitely a huge step into questionable territory.  It is implied that Col. Rhodes/War Machine/Iron Patriot has been off fighting terrorist cells in the background, but this is never shown for the good of the box office.  Probably Captain America while at S.H.I.E.L.D. defeated a few Islamist threats.

What the Marvel movies have been doing instead of having its heroes spend their plots fighting terrorists (and in turn, fighting a suicidal battle against film profitability) is having them fighting a secret cabal within the United States who want to exploit that War on Terror.  All three Iron Man movies seem to be a recurring battle with the same kind of villain.  Tony Stark begins his life as a war profiteer, then steps down to be a superhero.  In his place come a variety of new rivals, be them Bald Jeff Bridges, Justin Hammer, or Aldrich Killian.  They are all people who want to be the next Tony Stark - to be the man to build the weapons that will keep an endless era of war flowing.  And more importantly, they want to sell to both sides of the War on Terror, to control the endless conflict forever.  In comparison, the HYDRA revolt is just the latest exploitation of the War on Terror, the fourth one in fact.  You really cannot trust the military industrial complex in the Marvel Universe.

One weird consequence of this is that no Marvel movie has ever shown a legitimate terrorist threat.  Bald Evil Jeff Bridges created the terrorist cell that kidnapped Tony Stark.  Aldrich Killian more elaborately created the operatic bomber, the Mandarin.  Even that guy's bombings were a smoke and mirror show, made to cover up Killian's failed experiments, but used to maximum political gain.  Neither of these terrorists would have existed without Western invention.  Killian was more ambitious than most, not merely being content to control the false Terror side, but also attempted to take over the United States government himself by murdering the President.  And that was only the first coup against the US government to happen in about a year in that universe!  Just months later HYDRA would try to conquer from within S.H.I.E.L.D., again targeting that same poor President.

Where are the real threats from the real Islamists?  Well, obviously, that's too much for a superhero film.  "The Dark Knight" couldn't have an Islamic terrorist, it needed the Joker instead.  Some kinds of villains are just too much this medium, fortunately or unfortunately.

Tony Stark refuses government control.
What this means is that the superheroes must remain independent of the military industrial complex.  One of the more memorable plotlines within the mess that was "Iron Man 2" was Tony Stark's brief, aborted battle in the US Senate against government oversight of his new super weapon.  Stark makes the argument that he has successfully privatized world peace with his Iron Man, and walks out in triumph.  You'd notice that one of the main antagonists of this meeting is a Senator played by Garry Shandling, who in "Captain America 2" is revealed to be a corrupt HYDRA plant.  Tony Stark's refusal to hand over his superhero might have been his own pigheaded arrogance to remain independent, but it also turned out be a sage move, keeping the technology of his suit out of the hands of the Nazis.  Did the Marvel movies anticipate each other years in advance?  If that's the case, color me impressed.  But more than that, very few heroes actually are working under government control.  Iron Man is independent, Thor lives in outer space, nearly all of the S.H.I.E.L.D. heroes are divorced from that organization after "Captain America 2", and the Hulk really doesn't want to join with the same government that tried to have him killed several times during his movie.

Ultimately, what the Marvel universe is saying is an extremely libertarian (in the classical sense, not the Conservative definition) argument against the security apparatus of the United States.  They're saying no to overseas wars, they're saying no to government spying, they're saying no to drone strikes.  Of course, Marvel says this because in their universe, they have an alternative:  the superheroes.  We don't need the government to protect us because in that world, there's Iron Man.  But I have to wonder:  even without Iron Man in the real world, do we need the drone strikes?  How much compromise should we be making?  And why is it, ultimately, that I have to look to fucking Marvel to find the answers to these problems?  Where are the supposedly responsible intellectuals, politicians, and pundits who should have come up with these answers on their own?

The Dark Knight trilogy may have dealt with the themes and the mood of Post-9/11 America, and it came up with its own answer.  You need wire-tapping and control to catch the Joker.  Lucius Fox might have half-heatedly bemoaned the loss of liberty and oversteps in Batman's power, but those oversteps were necessary in that movie to win.  The Marvel movies exist in a new time for our world:  Post-Post-9/11 America.  And its heroes say no to living in fear, say no to pointless control, and embrace liberty.

* Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy completely avoided the issue of 9/11, white-washing the World Trade Center out of the first movie, and continuing to ignore the issue entirely.  I don't think that version of Peter Parker ever even noticed the missing skyscrapers within his city.  The "X-Men" films have been focused more upon social injustice and divisions, they have no room for national security.  Then the rest of the superhero films have been far too stupid to bring up the issue.  Except for "Man of Steel", which during what it thought was a fun action climax reminded its audiences of the horrors of 9/11.  We were supposed to be entertained and cheer, instead we were left depressed and defeated.

** Steve Rodgers - and Marvel Studios - seem to have forgotten that during Steve's day we built concentration camps for millions of Americans who had done nothing wrong and just happened to be born the wrong ethnicity.  I guess Rodgers wouldn't know anything about that since one of his war buddies was, quite improbably, a Japanese-American who somehow avoided interment.  Okay, modern America sucks, but the Greatest Generation did more than their fare share of horrors.  Ask the City of Dresden about how squeaky-clean America's war record was during that period.
*** "The Hurt Locker"'s sales have remained pitifully poor despite winning Best Picture in 2010.  It's final box office was fifty million, definitely the finest showing a movie about the Iraq War has ever done, but pathetic compared to "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire"'s respective draws of around 400 million each.  Even "12 Years a Slave", a movie about an equally-uncomfortable subject matter, slavery, has managed to get close to making 200 million.


  1. .........Hmmmm. You have given me some things to consider.

    Now I am going to be the first one to defend freedom of speech, I despised SOPA with a passion and not using drones on ones own soil.

    But we do not live in a perfect world. As much as we wished it this is not a world of superheros. I want to see a world of honest and good hearted politicians who do whats best for humanity, instead of bickering over the most trivial of issues.

    So occasionally we must make sacrifices for what is right. And this is no new outlook back in your Lincoln review you pointed out that Abraham Lincoln one of the paragons of Americans presidents used back hand deals to pass the emancipation act.

    And while depressing I think robotic war machines may be better in the long run. I think I put it best in a 1st year university essay I did on the subject.

    The second question is whether it is ethical to use Military robots. This is a bit more philosophical then the previous sections, so bear with me here. Now of the non-offensive robots only robots that raise certain issues are the Legged squad support vehicle and PETMAN. I suppose the argument that the reconnaissance robots are a invasion of privacy, but I can only write on so much and sacrifices have to be made. Anyway the Legged squad support system and PETMAN are special in my opinion because the research put into these robots could lay the groundwork or androids and cyborgs in the future. Now this seems a little weird that military research would lead to something used by the public. But then again the Internet started out as the ARPA NET and it was funded by the us department of defense and now the internet is used by millions the world over. So don`t count out androids and cyborgs by 2050. So steps have to be taken that the research used here is put to the right causes.
    But the bigger issue is the offensive robots. These are robots that are being designed to be capable to kill. Now killing is a touchy subject however you look at it. Because when you kill someone something happens. Now if you either believe in a soul leaving your body or all electronic activity ceasing in your brain, it doesn`t matter. Because either way you look at it a unique individual is no longer on this earth. And we are creating machines designed for that purpose. And maybe it`s just me, but that scares me a little.
    We are designing robots that will hopefully reduce casualties on our side and that is definitely a good thing, no questions asked. But we are also developing weapons that by themselves will kill other people. While I am a little uneasy to use military robots to kill others, I can justify by looking at it from a certain angle.
    A problem with the wars being fought overseas right now is that the public has mixed feelings continuing the fighting because of the risings troop deaths. But my replacing troops with robots, loss of deaths on average will lower. While this won`t change everyone’s opinion on the war and casualties will continue no matter what , by being able to reduce more people dying , more people will be able to accept the fighting. And the more support for the war, more people will be willing to fund it, giving the troops overseas all the resources they need to finish the conflict as soon as possible. That’s at least the way I justify the use of military robots.
    Overall I want a world that you are imagining Blue, I am just not sure I am going to see it in my lifetime.

    Sword Of Primus

    1. All I can ever think of when I hear of drone warfare is Trieze Khushrenada in Gundam Wing bemoaning the use of Mobile Dolls, the Drone Warfare of that universe. His hatred of mechanized warfare probably has nothing to do with the modern world, but it seemed noble during the show. He believed that if mankind is going to fight wars for their ideals, they actually should fight the war and die for them. Otherwise there is no cost at all involved in conflict, and wars will never cease. If you aren't willing to spill blood for your side, then why are you fighting the war at all? (Trieze, like everybody on that show, was secretly a pacifist, but he seemed utterly obsessed with the nobility of conflict, which Mobile Dolls violated.)

      Now I guess it is incredibly goofy to reference a cartoon when dealing with the realities of world politics, but I'd say he had a point. More practically, indiscriminate Drone Warfare, especially its use against American citizens, is a massive jump forward in government power. Governments are supposed to capture and try criminals, not slaughter them with no care towards civilian casualties. And back to Trieze's point - its because we can use these Drones without consequence to ourselves that we can be so careless towards the lives we spill. Drone Warfare doesn't put more value on lives, they cheapen them.

    2. Hmmmm
      Okay I see where your coming from and you do have a good point. And I don't think its goofy to use a cartoon as basis for ones beliefs. Because occasionally there will be the very great ones that can create a intelligent of a view such as politics, religion, racism , spirituality etc. If it had a effect on you what does it matter what medium it was presented in.

      But to the main point, I guess I just don't want a world with war and the bloodshed it causes. And I sincerely hope that drones if used intelligently may be able to do that. That with the use of the drones there will be no more need for war, that there is a equilibrium where the is no point to war when the machines make it pointless.

      I know my logic flawed and you are right it may diminish the value of human life, which really did give me pause. As much as I joke sometimes I do care about individuality of a human being and often wonder about what happens to it when it ceases to be. If my comment on your transcendence review showed nothing else was that I do consider the ramifications of the soul and what extinguishing means for that.

      I do respect your view point Bluehighwind, its merely a few of our viewpoints differ on a few respects.

      But that is not inherently a bad thing, you have to admit a world where we all agree on everything would be quite dull.

      ( I feel like I need to add a smiley face to put some humor in this comment)
      Sword Of Primus