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
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?
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.
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.|
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.