Skip to main content

In less than 10 years Marvel has created the biggest money-making film franchise of all time with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, this probably wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the Pentagon. In this episode we examine the rise of the MCU, the Pentagon’s involvement, and the fallout of their disagreements when making The Avengers. We round off looking at the creative implications of the cinematic universe becoming the new model for Hollywood.


Something has happened to Hollywood in the last 10 years – a new concept has been adopted for how to build a movie franchise: the ‘Cinematic Universe’. While this idea was not invented by Marvel Studios, theirs is the most successful example so far, enabling them to create the highest-grossing film series of all time in less than a decade. However, this probably would not have been possible were it not for the involvement of the Department of Defense. So this week we’re going to take an in-depth look not just at Marvel’s films and the Pentagon’s involvement in those, but also the DC Extended Universe and other attempts to rival what Marvel have done.

The Shared Fictional Universe

The notion of a shared fictional universe is nothing new, but it is much more common in literature. One example that’s over a century old is Sherlock Holmes – the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. They all take place in the same basic setting, the same world. Likewise the James Bond novels or a lot of the works of John Steinbeck. These are multiple stories affecting different characters where what happens in the fictional universe has lasting effects that carry over to new stories.

What is different in the cinematic form of the shared fictional universe is that there is usually no single protagonist. There are main characters who recur across multiple pieces of fiction but it isn’t one character’s story that is being told. The reason why the James Bond films do not qualify as a cinematic universe is because they are about a central character and he is simply rebooted using a new actor every so often to keep the franchise fresh. If we compare this to the Middle Earth fictional universe of books and films where Frodo is the vehicle by which we travel through this world, you see the distinction. This absence of a single protagonist means that it is the world itself that is the major spectacle, rather than any specific person or people within it (note: this only applies to cinema, literature is somewhat different, comic books and video games somewhat different again).

The first cinematic universe in Hollywood was created in the 1930s with Universal Monsters. There you have Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and other monsters all occupying the same fictional space. They are trying to recreate that now, which I’ll come back to later on. Since then we’ve had the Godzilla cinematic world with Mothra and all the rest, the Alien-Predator shared universe, Freddy vs Jason and several others. While all of these were relatively successful they all had quite specific audiences – people who want monster movies, people who want supernatural horror. They were defined by genre very heavily.

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU is based in comic books, their appeal extends way beyond comic book nerds. I read a few comic books and watched some animated series like the X-Men cartoon when I was young but I’m much more into disaster films and monster movies and obviously spy thrillers and political thrillers. Nonetheless, I really enjoy the MCU, or at least I enjoyed the first phase of films. The second phase, not so much.

Regardless, they are now the largest film franchise in the world, they’ve made nearly 11 billion dollars worldwide out of 14 films, an average of over $770 million per film. Marvel Studios was bought by Disney in 2009 for $4 billion dollars, and made subsequent deals to buy up the distribution rights to the films that were coming out in the couple of years following that. This is an absurdly large money making film factory that has outstripped Star Wars, James Bond, Harry Potter, all of them.

What is particularly impressive about this is that the MCU is more real than other fantasy films. Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter are fantasies, so are Star Wars and the Hobbit Chronicles. So I can see why they serve so well as escapist entertainment. Whereas the Marvel Universe is, for the most part, anchored in the real world. As time has gone on they have expanded outwards with Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy introducing outer space and otherworldly dimensions and so on. But most of the action still takes place on earth, and it’s a lot like our earth. Indeed, it is our earth, but there are superheroes and gods and aliens. It is a hyperreal universe – it is our universe but at the same time it is not our universe. It is recognisable but yet different and strange. All fiction inherently tries to balance these things but the MCU does it particularly well.

Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and the Pentagon

However, it could not have happened without the support of the Pentagon. Of the six films that comprise the first phase of the Marvel Universe the Pentagon assisted four – Iron Man 1 and 2, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. The Incredible Hulk was supported by the Canadian military, and even the producers of Thor hired a former Navy SEAL to help on set. Of these films it is the first two Iron Man movies that announced Marvel as big players in Hollywood. These films were enormously popular, grossing well over a billion dollars between them.

Other government agencies also helped build up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The British Ministry of Defence provided filming locations for both Avengers movies. NASA worked on Iron Man 2, Thor and The Avengers. But the Pentagon provided the most added production value because without them some of the most memorable scenes in Iron Man and Iron Man 2 would not have been possible.

In the last episode I mentioned the sequence where Tony Stark flies into Afghanistan to take revenge on the terrorist gang who kidnapped him. As he leaves he is intercepted by two US Air Force F-22 fighters. He gets into a little squabble with them and crashes through one, ripping off its wing. This is one of those sequences that everyone remembers, while they might have forgotten most of the rest of the film. Likewise in the second film it is the sequences at Edwards Air Force base that stand out. One very memorable part is when Rhodey, Tony Stark’s friend and an Air Force liaison to the arms industry, takes one of the armoured suits. He flies back to Edwards, doing a fly by of the tower like in Top Gun before swooping in to land in front of a hanger amongst maybe a dozen Air Force planes.

Naturally, these sequences could not have been filmed without the assistance of the Air Force. I recently published the production assistance agreements between Marvel Studios and the Pentagon for both of these Iron Man films but to garnish the salad of the papertrail we’re going to listen to a clip from the website about the filming of Iron Man 2 at Edwards AFB.

This mini making-of feature was put out by the military because they were so delighted to be involved in these successful films that made them look great. But if you were listening closely you’ll have heard Air Force Entertainment Liaison Project Officer Capt. Bryon McGarry describing their aircraft as ‘production value’.  One of the producers Jeremy Latcham spoke of how much military hardware there was in some shots, estimating it was worth ‘a billion and a half dollars’. Ironically that’s the average revenue of the two Avengers movies.

Or perhaps it isn’t ironic. What other organisation could provide one and a half billion dollars worth of props to help dress the set for a movie scene? It is perhaps only the Pentagon who can provide such added production value. If you just need a truck or a jeep or a bunch of uniformed guys with guns you can hire any one of a hundred firms, but to get a pair of F-22s to just sit in the background while you film a scene? There are very few institutions who can offer that, and the only one with a dedicated office are the Pentagon.

It is the same with filming locations – it is typically only big corporations and government departments who own skyscrapers, or huge underground bunkers or large airfields, or other visually impressive locations. So you have to make some kind of deal with these people to get these things into your movie. And sometimes that involves massive creative compromises.

The story with Iron Man is a great case in point. I’ve talked before about how the director Jon Favreau and DOD Hollywood liaison Phil Strub got into an argument on set at Edwards Air Force base. They disagreed over the line where a military officer says that people would ‘kill themselves for the opportunities he has’. Strub didn’t like even this casual reference to military suicide so it had to go, leading to him and Favreau getting into a loud argument in front of everyone. Curiously it was Strub, not Favreau, who told this story to the world. It shows how cowardly the Hollywood machine is that they just don’t talk about this stuff.

However, I think the influence of the Pentagon on Iron Man goes a lot deeper. I read an early draft script of Iron Man from 2004 which is very, very different to the final movie. In essence the whole story and most of the characters were rewritten and only a few small elements of the original screenplay appear in the first Iron Man movie. Most crucially the entire political tone of the film was changed.

In the 2004 draft Tony Stark’s father Howard Stark is still alive and is working with Justin Hammer, another military industrialist, to make and sell weapons. Tony doesn’t agree with this and so he runs his own small development lab where they work on futuristic but peaceful technologies. He refuses to sell them to weapons manufacturers when people tell him how much money he could make. Tony discovers that his father and Hammer are stealing his creations, weaponising them and covertly selling them to North Korea and other ‘rogue states’. He then creates the Iron Man suit as a way of fighting back against Justin Hammer and his father, against the military industrial complex.

The 2008 movie almost entirely reverses this – now Tony’s father is dead and he has inherited the military industrial company from his father. He is kidnapped by terrorists while on a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan and builds a primitive Iron Man suit so he can escape. He then refines it and uses it to take revenge on the terrorists who kidnapped him. His objections to the military industrial complex are diluted down to a few public reservations about making tools to blow things up, before he makes an extremely advanced tool to blow things up.

Likewise, the corruption and danger inherent in the military industrial complex is minimised. In the original script his father and Hammer are trying to take over the world (there’s one line about ‘total world order’ being their ultimate aim) but in the film this is reduced to his corporate colleague selling ordinary weapons under the table to terrorists. While the film retained just enough anti-war sentiment to fool some reviewers, none of which even realised that the Pentagon helped to make the film, it is ultimately a pro-military movie.

While there are no available documents proving that these changes were made as a result of the Pentagon’s influence we do know that when they started filming Iron Man they didn’t have a finished script. The writers strike of 2007-2008 meant that a lot of the dialogue had to be improvised by Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. It also meant that the Pentagon were in a unique position to be able to exert more than the usual level of influence over the script.

What went wrong on The Avengers?

However, a few years later something went wrong when they were making The Avengers. The first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe involved origin stories for four characters – Thor, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America. These four, along with several others, come together in The Avengers, the first big showpiece film that marks the end of phase one. It also marks more or less the end of the Pentagon’s involvement in the franchise.

Within a couple of weeks of The Avengers being released we got a story in Wired ‘Pentagon quit The Avengers Because of its Unreality’ where Phil Strub was interviewed talking about how they withdrew from cooperating with the film. Strub said, ‘We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it. To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything’.

One scene that particularly bothered the DOD was where SHIELD fire a nuclear missile at New York to try to repel an alien invasion. The notion of this private organisation taking such a unilateral decision was not something the Pentagon were happy with, Strub has said as much in other interviews. But there is a problem here, namely that this is no more unrealistic than most of what appears in the Transformers films, the first three of which were heavily supported by the Pentagon. We could say the same about Battleship too, though in that case it is the Pentagon who are fighting back against the aliens. Nonetheless the point stands – realism is not the Pentagon’s concern.

Curiously, there is nothing about this falling out in the reports from the Army’s entertainment liaison office for this period. They record a positive response from the military to the requests for assistance from the producers of The Avengers. They provided access to White Sands Missile Range for filming and loaned them vehicles and soldiers for the final battle scene. If you watch closely you’ll also spot F-22s and F-35s in the movie, most prominently on the deck of SHIELD’s giant flying aircraft carrier. Strub tried to explain this away saying they were ‘digitally inserted’ by the studio and not real aircraft provided by the military.

No shit. For a moment there I thought that the aircraft of the deck of this computer generated flying battle fortress/aircraft carrier were real aircraft. Only I didn’t. Because I’m not an idiot. But again, this is no different to other military sponsored films. The F22s you see in Transformers are CGI, not real planes. The F-35s in Man of Steel are CGI, not real planes. And funnily enough the fighter jets that you see falling out of the sky into the San Francisco Bay in Godzilla are CGI, not real planes. They didn’t just ditch $2 billion worth of planes into the water for the sake of a movie. So there’s no distinction between The Avengers and these other military-supported films.

Despite this the Pentagon now maintains that there was no military involvement in The Avengers whatsoever. They claimed this in a letter to me, The Avengers does not appear on either list of DOD-supported films that they’ve provided to me – this is now the official line. What’s particularly laughable about this is that the Army’s reports also mention their appearance at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con and it lists the officers they sent to be on a discussion panel. The Lt Colonel from the Army’s entertainment liaison office has his name redacted but among his credits is The Avengers.

Rival Cinematic Universes

I hypothesised in a recent article that what really happened is that the Pentagon provided this support, believing that they’d be able to push through a change to the ending, the scene where SHIELD tries to nuke New York. But the producers realised that having built up the Marvel Cinematic Universe so well that they didn’t really need the Pentagon anymore, so they refused to rewrite the scene. This caused a falling out, but by that point the studio had got all that it needed from the Pentagon so they just walked away. In response, the Pentagon made out like they were the ones who walked away and now claim they were never involved in the first place. Just as when a couple breaks up and one of them goes around falsely telling people that they were the one that ended it, and then years later pretends like they were never going out.

Since then, Marvel have only gone back to the Pentagon for one film – Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The rest of the phase two films in their cinematic universe have pretty much all been produced with help from NASA and the Science and Entertainment Exchange, but not with help from the DOD. However, the Pentagon didn’t just badmouth Marvel and act like they dumped Marvel rather than the other way round. Like a true bunny boiling jealous ex-lover they set about supporting rival cinematic universes.

As things were falling apart with The Avengers and Marvel the military got involved with the rival DC Extended Universe, based on the DC Comic book franchise. Various documents now attest to the full co-operation between the Pentagon and the producers of Man of Steel, the superman movie that came out a year after The Avengers. According to Strub himself, when he first saw the script for Man of Steel he, like most people who have seen the movie, thought it was horrible.

However, something persuaded him to sit down with the writer and they did provide script notes and make changes to the film in return for providing military vehicles and shooting locations and so on. What made him change his mind? I think it was the chance for revenge. The Pentagon knows that they can add a lot of production value to a movie because they have assets no one else has. They use this to influence scripts and sometimes even to stop films from being made. So, having built up the Marvel series they then fell out with them, so they helped build up their market competition. Not just Man of Steel but also Godzilla the following year, which is reportedly the first movie in a shared Godzilla-King Kong Universe. The new Kong movie looks like it was supported by the military, and looks a lot better than the 2005 version. Likewise the relaunched Universal Pictures Monster Universe is going to start next year with The Mummy, which is written and directed by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the writers behind the Transformers series. I’d expect the military to turn up in that movie too.

As such it isn’t just the Marvel Universe that the Pentagon have helped to create, it is at least two if not three or four others. Aside from underlining the Pentagon’s commitment to fantasy rather than reality it has another major implication for the movie industry as a whole. This model of the shared cinematic universe is being adopted by most of the major studios, though some projects like the Ghostbusters universe now look to have been ditched because the remake did so poorly.

Nonetheless, this shows how at the top level of Hollywood the Pentagon are quite influential at encouraging not just trends but entire models of approaching the creation of entertainment products. The entire shape of the movie industry is changing and the government are involved in that. When it was big blockbuster film franchises they supported them. Now that has morphed into shared universes they’re supporting that. Whatever the next big idea in Hollywood is, I imagine the Pentagon will support that too.

This doesn’t just have huge financial implications for the big studios, it also has huge creative implications. While I like a lot of these films it is certainly true that increasingly they are more concerned with extending their fictional universes rather than making tightly plotted films with good characters going on adventures. The sheer number of characters in Captain America: Civil War and the distracting efforts to introduce almost an entire universe in one go in Batman vs Superman made those films bloated and vague, and less entertaining as a result. But they made shed loads of money.

So it is not surprising that Disney are repeating the same model now they have acquired the Star Wars brand. I am far less enthusiastic about this, because a Star Wars film should be a rare pleasure, not an annual experience. They’re going to churn out origin stories for half of the characters from The Force Awakens and extend the brand outwards until it consumes the entire galaxy. I am relatively sure they will make a lot of money out of doing so but it’s still a sad way for a great movie series to end up.

I want to play a clip for you from a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Mr Plinkett. For those of you who don’t know, Mr Plinkett is the creation of Red Letter Media, and he revolutionised how people complain about movies on the internet. His reviews of the second Star Wars trilogy are legendary for their detail, their intelligence but above all their humour. Plinkett is a very funny character, very clever but utterly ridiculous at the same time, which is my favourite sort of humour. So here’s a clip from his more recent review of The Force Awakens which I think illustrates the problems of cinematic universes very well.

Once again that was Mr Plinkett of Red Letter Media and if you like movies I can strongly recommend not only the Plinkett reviews but also Half in the Bag, where the guys behind Plinkett review movies while getting drunk. They’re a funny group and sometimes come out with some very well observed opinions about the movie industry so it’s informative as well as very entertaining. Their review of the new Ghostbusters movie is particularly good because they rip it to shreds while consuming quite a lot of Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Skull Vodka.

To get back to the serious side of this, my closing thought for you to consider is that the cinematic universe concept is a state sponsored development in the industry and it is one that is destroying creativity. This goes beyond brand building and merchandising and tie-in live shows. They are cynical exploitations of the fans and should be recognised as such, but this concept fundamentally attacks what is great about the entertainment industry.

It used to be that the various components of the story – visuals, special effects, dialogue, props, sets and so on – were put into service to aid the story and the character development. Whether the story and characters had some wider social or political relevance or it was just an emotive, entertaining bit of escapism these other things were a means to an end, that end being creative. Now even story and character are relegated to being means to an end, the end being the construction of a cinematic universe, a meta-brand.

You could argue that this began with the Star Wars prequel trilogy, where the story took place in the same universe as in the original trilogy with a handful of the same characters and a bunch of new ones. There is no clear protagonist in the prequel trilogy, characters are merely there to flesh out the cinematic universe. There is no clear plot, the events of the film are call backs and references and role reversals and other reworkings of the story in the original trilogy – what is called ‘fan service’. It is about providing something recognisable as part of the universe and therefore part of the meta-brand. The importance of brand recognition has now relegated all the creative elements of movies, subsuming them beneath its overarching mission.

Not that there aren’t good movies being made, there are. But they’re mostly films like Nightcrawler, which is a standalone concept movie looking at a particular phenomenon that implies something important about the overall media landscape. Or films like Whiplash, about a particular character or characters suffering from some kind of emotional or psychological obsession, which drives the story forward to its inevitable conclusion and thus functions as a life lesson for those watching it. Or something like Tangerine, which is an absurd very low-budget comedy about two transsexual prostitutes in Los Angeles. All of these are one-of-a-kind stories that finish at the end at the movie. They leave nothing else to be said or told, or at least what they do leave to be said and told is up to the audience to reflect on and consider for themselves. Whereas at the end of each Marvel film, and given they are both owned by Disney I predict and expect Star Wars will be managed in the same way, you simply have a few more holes in the cinematic universe filled in. And all of your questions and thoughts are about what will happen next in the cinematic universe and not in your own life. Instead of cinema being a mirror for our society it is increasingly becoming a way to flee and escape from our society and thus become alienated not just from each other but from ourselves.

The cinematic universe is, from a storytelling perspective, the perfection of that process. Technologically they can still go further – I expect that one day we will see virtual reality technology being used to create a more immersive film-watching experience. But in terms of narrative, in terms of what the creative process is in service of, the cinematic universe is the logical end of a process that began at least a century ago. The fact that the Pentagon and other government agencies are seeking to encourage this, seeking to weaponise this process or co-opt it for their own aims, is very concerning to me. And not just because it means that movies will probably keep getting worse.