ClandesTime 136 – The Politics of the Cinematic Universes
From racism and sexism to the military-industrial complex, the politics both within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and surrounding it here in the real world are a constant source of news stories and controversy. This week we look at how the world’s biggest film franchise is both the source and the subject of political disputes and ask why popular culture has become one of the biggest battlegrounds for the settling of political antagonisms.
As some of you will no doubt be aware the latest MCU film Black Panther was recently released. It centres around a character we were introduced to in Captain America: Civil War, who is both a superhero and the king of the fictional African country of Wakanda. I am not sure where he gets his superpowers or if it even matters given that none of this is real, but I quite enjoyed him as a character, I think the actor they’ve picked was a good choice and let’s face it, panthers are really cool animals.
But then a small group of idiots decided to try to get the film a really bad rating on RottenTomatoes before it was released, to try and damage its take at the box office. This is presumably the same group of people who boycotted The Force Awakens due to the diversity of its cast, and were the tiny but very vocal minority who complained so bitterly about the all-female remake of Ghostbusters. Exactly why they have a problem with Black Panther isn’t clear – I’ve seen reports saying it’s both an objection to the central character being black, others saying it’s because one of the actors – Michael B Jordan – is going out with a woman who isn’t black. I’ve also read reports saying that these latter reports are nonsense. So whether you’re a white ethnic nationalist idiot or a racist black woman, apparently you’re supposed to find something objectionable in all this.
In reality, Hollywood heroes are almost always white straight males. The only real nod to the progressives and political correctness is that you can now have a white or somewhat off-white straight female lead – Lara Croft, Wonder Woman and Rey from Star Wars being good examples – but they’re usually very bland and almost characterless. They certainly have no interesting flaws that allow for some kind of vulnerability, because apparently you have to portray women as strong these days, and apparently that means they have no weaknesses. Even if the whole point of a hero or superhero film is that they have exceptional abilities but also have flaws which they struggle with and have to overcome in order to defeat the villain. Because otherwise you just end up with the climax of the film being one big CGI fight sequence. Like in the Tomb Raider films, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and in Wonder Woman. All female protagonists, all underwritten, all lacking in any interesting character defects that impact on the plot, all a bit boring as a result.
At least in Wonder Woman our protagonist has been raised on some lesbian goddess island (location: uncertain) so she has some kind of naivety about the real world which she has to overcome to even figure out who the bad guy is. But then the ending is just the two of them fighting and obviously in the end she wins. It would have been better if, for example, she accidentally fought and wounded or even killed the wrong person, due to her naivety and lack of experience in this sort of thing. Then she’d have to deal with the guilt and disillusionment about her quest, which she’d have to overcome in order to confront the true villain. Instead she just finds him, they fight, she wins.
It would have been even better if the villain, instead of being some generic ancient God or whatever, was also female, and that instead of violence she has to defeat them with superior personal qualities. But I guess that would involve people actually being creative, rather than thinking ‘let’s just make what’s essentially a Superman film but with a female lead’. Because Wonder Woman is essentially the 1970s Superman – clean cut, pure, heroic, a bit dull. When Zach Snyder and Warner Bros rebooted Superman they made it all dark and gritty, like Christopher Nolan’s Batman, because the 1970s style was considered a bit camp and outdated. But make Superman a woman, and suddenly it’s all fine. I will also say that this is contrast to TV, where the central character in Supergirl isn’t just a flawless, tedious Mary Sue.
While all this is a bunch of identity politics and therefore idiotic and for the most part a waste of our time, there are some lessons to be learned. The most important is that none of this has anything to do with cultural Marxism, and anyone who says that is does is a cretin or a liar. For the most part these decisions are made for capitalistic reasons – for example with Ghostbusters it is obvious that they never should have remade that classic, and they made a hash of it. So they stirred up a bunch of meaningless controversy by responding to a handful of vicious, misogynistic responses to the trailer and making out like the film was somehow striking at sexism and at online woman-haters. This failed miserably because the film was terrible. This was an attempt at a new kind of identity-politics-based marketing, which in this case didn’t work at all.
Likewise, the reason why Disney’s Star Wars films have such diverse casts is to appeal to the widest possible audience. This is still done in a ham-fisted way, for example in Rogue One where they had the blind Chinese guy who had no character other than he was blind and had some sort of connection with the Force. But that sufficed to make the film successful in East Asia, or at least that’s how the studio executives think of it. Likewise the writers of Dr Strange changed the character of the Ancient One from a Tibetan man to a white woman, to avoid pissing off the Chinese government and capitalise on the Chinese market. These decisions are made primarily for industrial, capitalistic reasons. So they are not cultural Marxism.
At the same time I’m sure there are writers, producers, casting agents and so on who are liberals who believe that politically correct cinema will somehow do something about prejudices in the real world. It’s just that if those decisions come into conflict with making money, those political principles get abandoned pretty quickly. It’s only when those ideas and agendas usefully coincide with capitalism that they are enacted. So again, not cultural Marxism. Cultural liberalism, maybe. Cultural capitalism, certainly. But not cultural Marxism.
Also, and this is a point for hyper-sensitives on both the Left and the Right, this stuff has been around for decades. Black Panther and Wonder Woman are not new characters who’ve never appeared in popular culture before. There have been female mutants in the X-Men comics for a long time. There have been female protagonists in action movies since before I was even born. Take Ripley from Alien – magnificently portrayed by Sigourney Weaver. In both of the good Alien films her flaw is that she’s not a soldier, she can’t just kill the alien or aliens with brute force. In the first film she has to outwit the alien, in the second she has to learn how to use weapons and then to weaponise the cargo-carrying robot suit in order to fight the aliens. She isn’t perfect to begin with, and it makes for a much more appealing character. You ask most young men and they think Ripley kicks ass. You ask them about Lara Croft or Nice McGirlface from Rogue One and they probably can’t even remember anything about them. Likewise, Black Panther is not going to be, as one blogger put it, ‘The Most Important Movie Black People will See . . . EVER’.
As such, to those who think this is a sign of some new cultural Marxist agenda to get rid of white men I say: don’t be so pathetic. To those who think they’re somehow doing something new that progresses society I say: don’t be so pathetic. None of this is as important as it is made out to be, and ultimately it’s a highly effective way for people with a lot more money than you to direct your attention towards their product and then cash in.
Marvel and the Military-Industrial Complex
Another recent story that listeners to Pearse’s radio show will know about is Marvel’s partnership with Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest arms dealers and weapons manufacturers. The plan was to produce a special comic book where some of the Avengers teams up with Northrop Grumman employees, and distribute it at the New York Comic-Con. This plan was cancelled very shortly after being announced due to a widespread backlash.
What was barely mentioned in the media coverage, except on Pearse’s show, is that Marvel have a long, long history of working with the military, and that this has produced very little by way of criticism and opposition. Stan Lee, one of the grandfathers of Marvel comic books, worked for US Army intelligence in World War 2. He was one of only 9 men in the Army to be given the classification ‘playwright’ – others included William Saroyan, Theodore Geisel a.k.a Dr Seuss, and Frank Capra. Army manuals from this time said that this specialist position involved writing scenarios for military instructional films, and for publicity purposes i.e. PR and propaganda. For an example of the sort of thing they made you can look up the film ‘your job in Germany’, produced by Geisel and Capra.
Also during WW2, Marvel and DC started producing comics specifically aimed at a military audience. The massive expansion of the US military in war time created new markets, and they responded – comic book sales doubled in three years – and the US government began producing their own informational comic books for both the military and ordinary US citizens.
Fast-forwarding a little, from 1986 to 1993 Marvel Comics produced and sold The ‘Nam, edited by a Vietnam veteran who came up with the idea for the series. Each month, the issue told a fictionalised version of the real events 20 years earlier. From 2005 to 2010 they also went into co-production with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service to produce the first volume of The New Avengers. This was a series that was only available to military personnel, as part of the DOD’s America Supports You programme, so if you were unlucky enough to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan during this period, you were subjected to this comic book propaganda to try to keep your spirits up, keep you loyal to what must have seemed like an increasingly futile mission.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon supported Hulk, even making ‘radical’ changes to the script which we detail in National Security Cinema. The edits made by the Pentagon were things like the desert lab where Bruce Banner’s father works and where Banner is accidentally turned into the Hulk was made a non-military facility, run by an ex-military contractor, rather than a proper DOD laboratory. They also removed dialogue by Banner’s father referring to military experiments on human subjects. Technically this wasn’t a Marvel studios film, but the moderate success, and then the big success of the rebooted Batman franchise helped get Marvel going.
Then we get to Iron Man, a film which fooled quite a few reviewers into believing it was somehow anti-war or anti-military industrial complex. Tony Stark is kidnapped by generic Muslim terrorists and builds the prototype for the Iron Man suit in a cave, and busts out of the terrorist camp and is rescued by the US military. He then goes home, makes the proper Iron Man suit, and uses it to kill generic Muslim terrorists. He also announces that Stark Industries will no longer be manufacturing weapons. At the same time the bad guy, Jeff Bridges, is secretly dealing with the terrorists who kidnapped Tony, selling them weapons under the table. He tries to replicate the Iron Man suit, and builds a vast, clunky, awkward version of the same thing. At the end of the film the two do battle, and Tony uses the Arc Reactor – a sort of free energy device like in the third Batman film – to overcome Jeff Bridges and his giant flying suit of armour.
So a lot of people took the parts of this that suggest an anti-war vibe and concluded it is an anti-war film. I think this is a mistake, especially when compared to an early draft of the screenplay from 2004 which leaked online. I’ve discussed this before, but in that film Tony goes to war with the entire military-industrial complex, including his father who is still alive and is running Stark Industries. His father even builds a bunch of high-tech robots and uses them to try to take over the US, attacking the naval base in Annapolis. Throughout the film Tony keeps railing against the weapons industry and how no weapon makes the world any safer.
Compare that to the film where Tony fights against one bad apple in his own company, not the weapons industry as a whole, no one tries to take over the US, and Tony spends much of the film blowing away brown skinned people in a foreign land. Not quite as anti-war as it might first appear. There’s also the issue of War Machine, which was originally the name of Jeff Bridges giant flying suit of armour, but this became the name of Tony’s sidekick in the second film. The US Air Force even helped design the markings on War Machine’s suit of armour, so they clearly think being a ‘war machine’ is a good thing, whereas in the original script for the first film it’s the name of the main enemy.
Perhaps ironically, perhaps as a way of thumbing their nose at the military, in the third Iron Man film, which was made after the big falling out on The Avengers, War Machine is rebranded. He is renamed Iron Patriot, because (he explains) the name tested well with focus groups. This renaming of the character and the little dig at the military PR people is, I think, a response to the Pentagon breaking off from the relationship with Marvel in the middle of filming The Avengers. There are some other elements to both Iron Man 3 and the next film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier that appear to be Marvel mocking the Pentagon. Not least of which is the idea that SHIELD is full of closet Nazis. But I’ll get into all that in my film.
In 2011, following some trial events, the military took part in their first full discussion panel at the San Diego Comic-Con. They’ve since repeated this a couple of times, they describe the event as a ‘key annual outreach and networking event’. In particular the Navy run shuttle buses from the convention centre to the San Diego naval base – this is the one where Anwar Al Awlaki used to hang out and pick up local prostitutes. The Navy take people down to get a look at submarines and if you’re a Hollywood executive or screenwriter they sometimes even take you out for a ride around on one of the boats.
While bits and pieces of all this has been covered by the major media and the entertainment industry media, on occasion, they never seem to put it all together. But the point is obvious – the comic book world, and up until 2011 the Marvel films, are a key target for the Pentagon’s propaganda efforts in the entertainment industry. To some extent this relationship goes back to the 1940s. But until Northrop Grumman made an ill-advised PR move, there was no outcry from the general public.
Technocratic Military Propaganda
In the Science and Entertainment Exchange episode I looked at how even they, an apparently genial bunch of nerds just trying to get more accurate science into films, are actually promoting a technocratic and militaristic agenda. It seems that nerds are the future, and that one of the military’s objectives is to showcase high-tech military hardware, transhumanist military technologies and careers in developing these things.
We see this in the Northrop Grumman-Marvel comic fiasco, where after it was pulled Marvel released a statement saying:
The activation with Northrop Grumman at New York Comic Con was meant to focus on aerospace technology and exploration in a positive way. However, as the spirit of that intent has not come across, we will not be proceeding with this partnership including this weekend’s event programming. Marvel and Northrop Grumman continue to be committed to elevating, and introducing, STEM to a broad audience.
Firstly, ‘activation’? Second, focusing on something in a positive way doesn’t excuse doing it. You can focus on the positives of sweat shop labour and of dropping sarin gas on a village but that doesn’t make it right, and makes you into a propagandist for criminals if you promote that in a positive way. And thirdly, since this is all about promoting STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – this controversy will not stop them doing this sort of thing in the future.
An article on Io9 goes into some detail about what the comic entails – they got their hands on a copy from a ‘whistleblower’. The author Charles Pulliam writes:
As with all tie-ins that go this route, the idea here is that readers should be able to identify and see themselves in at least one of the new characters, but identifying with them here entails identifying with a Northrop Grumman employee and not, say, someone driving the same kind of car as the Black Panther.
Within the issue, there is a pair of ads juxtaposing characters and places from Marvel’s comics (“dream”) with Northrop Grumman-branded imagery (“reality”). Northrop Grumman’s brand messaging reads “From undersea to outer space, Northrop Grumman’s cognitive autonomy is vastly expanding human potential.” The ads then direct readers to a URL that leads to a listing of open jobs at the company, something which recurs throughout the book.
The book’s story, written by Fabian Niceiza with illustrations from Sean Chen and Walden Wood, opens in Newark, New Jersey where the Avengers have assembled to fight against the giant robot Red Ronin, a foe they’ve faced and defeated a number of times. The story, framed as a mission report filed by N.G.E.N. employee Alyssa Woo, implies constantly that working for Northrop Grumman is like being a superhero.
The article concludes:
This isn’t the first time that a comic book publisher has offered up its properties to advertise very adult businesses and products to a younger audience. Marvel has marketed everything from candy to hair removal creams in the past, but the point still stands that Northrop Grumman is a defense contractor and this comic makes no real effort to clearly explain just everything this line of work entails.
Rather, it dresses up the idea of working for Northrop Grumman as a fantastical, superheroic adventure that belies the very sobering, real-world impacts that the defense contracting industry has. It’s also worth noting that the way the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. are written within the book is noticeably different than the way both organizations have been traditionally depicted in Marvel’s books and films. The idea that either would simply give up and make a phone call to the Department of Defense is wildly out of character, especially considering the organizations’ long-established skepticism about the government’s ability to handle superhero-level threats.
Whether the DOD had any involvement in this comic I do not know, but of course I will try to find out. I’m also trying to get a copy of the comic so I can do an episode on it specifically, but before we wrap up here I want to say a little about how this same agenda appears in Iron Man 2.
The Iron Man sequel was supported by not just the Pentagon but also NASA and the Science and Entertainment Exchange. In particular the scene where Tony Stark creates a new element, by blasting a piece of metal with a laser, was in part the influence of SEEX. This was revealed by Sean Gesell, a producer of the CIA-supported film Fair Game and Vice President of Zucker Productions. He’s also on the Advisory Board of the Science and Entertainment Exchange.
Note once again – this scene isn’t remotely realistic. This isn’t about promoting accurate science. It’s about using science fiction to make science and scientists look cool. It’s also about solving a plot hole of how does Tony create the new element so he can use it to power the thing in his chest keeping him alive so he can go fight the bad guy. And the bad guy is a Russian, who is using technology developed at a major ‘defense contractor’. On the subject of which, the Justin Hammer character (who appears in the original screenplay) isn’t a bad guy because he lets this crazy Russian loose on the world, but because his weapons don’t work. Throughout the film there are reference to his technology malfunctioning, the entire set up for the character being an antagonist is this. He’s otherwise quite a funny, entertaining guy. So again, it isn’t weapons manufacturers or the military-industrial complex per se that is at fault, it’s the odd corrupt guy and some people who have overcharged for low-grade tech. The answer obviously being to sign up and develop high-grade tech, so you’d better hit the books, get those grades and then you can be part of the military-industrial complex too.
If all of this is making you feel a little ill then that’s OK, I’ll stop soon. But one final point – why is it that given all the coverage about Marvel, especially the films, almost no one is researching this angle – how they’re an instrument of state propaganda? You’ve got your crackpots on the right complaining about how Iron Man is being replaced by a black girl (note: Iron Man is not actually being replaced by a black girl) and your crackpots on the so-called Left praising Stan Lee, former Army intelligence propagandist, for appearing in videos like this in response:
But for some reason it’s only when it’s a cynical arms dealer using Marvel as a vehicle for propaganda that people get pissed off. I have a feeling that if they realised how these powerful organisations were using the MCU and other similar things to promote military technocracy then they might get similarly pissed off, but who the hell wants to write that story? Better stick to safe targets like the fact there’s a black Avenger now, or the fact that some people are objecting to the fact there’s a black Avenger now.
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