The Crazy Message Of The Marvel Movies Everybody Missed
It's been almost ten long years since Tony Stark first donned the Iron Mansuit to battle ... Jeff Bridges? Wow, the first villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a 60-year-old stoner? In any case, Iron Man paved the way for the Avengers to finally assemble on the big screen, first to fend off an invading alien army, then to take on a sassy robot that Tony invented in his spare time. Now, as a decade's worth of storytelling culminates with Avengers: Infinity War, it sure is tempting to take a look back at all the movies that led here -- although it's less tempting to camp out in theaters for a 31-hour movie marathon capped off by Infinity War, presumably in a urine-soaked seat and with only the vaguest recollection of what daylight is.
When you put these movies together, the overarching story is ... pretty odd. As a whole, it feels as though the reality of the MCU is inadvertently one in which every crazy internet conspiracy theory you've read actually comes true -- less like our world and more like an Alex Jones fever dream.
Back when the first Iron Man came out, it was clear Marvel was working through some post-9/11 anxieties. The inciting incident is an attack by Middle Eastern terrorists ...
... which leads Tony to build the Iron Man suit and ... violently intervene in the Middle East.
This was at the tail end of the Bush era, but by the 2010 sequel, uneasiness around the new Obama presidency seemed to percolate into the franchise. At the time, there was a paranoid theory that Ol' Liberal Barry was going to confiscate all the guns. Similarly, Iron Man 2 opens with the government, headed by Senator Garry Shandling, trying to take Tony's "weapon" away.
All of this led up to The Avengers, which gives the MCU its own 9/11-like incident, which comes to be known as "The Battle of New York." The impact of that event is felt in almost every ensuing movie, from Tony's PTSD to Spider-Man: Homecoming's villains scavenging the rubble for alien technology. The next phase of the MCU is all about the fallout from the attack.
Not unlike in real life, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s reaction is to over-militarize and infringe on people's civil rights. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo specifically called out Obama's "kill list" and use of "preemptive technology" as the inspiration behind S.H.I.E.L.D.'s problematic plan in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Now, these are all fair criticisms to make, but then the movie takes a left turn into crazy-town. We soon find out that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been secretly controlled by Hydra for years! They had infiltrated the organization from the beginning! A secret cabal of Nazis is running the damn government!
Even Garry Shandling turns out to be a friggin' Nazi.
This isn't merely a fun plot device for a comic book movie. The idea of a shadow government secretly running the country (be it the Illuminati, the New World Order, or the dreaded Deep State) is one of the most pervasive conspiracy theories of modern times. The movie is conflating a crazy conspiracy theory with a legitimately relevant political allegory, which is just confusing.
Iron Man 3 gets even more convolutedly paranoid about a conspiratorial plan to take over the U.S. By the end, we find out that the villain is essentially staging a military coup, using superpowered army vets and the vice president to kidnap and murder the president.
If all that wasn't enough, the movie also rewrites the racist-as-all-hell comic book supervillain the Mandarin as a bin-Laden-like terrorist ...
... only to reveal that he's just an actor. I mean, every movie character is just an actor, but in the story, he turns out to be an actor.
This seems inspired not only by the suggestion that 9/11 was an inside job, but also by the theory that the raid and killing of bin Laden was staged, which was propagated by Infowars two years before Iron Man 3 came out.
Then there are the survivalists, the people who believe you should live off the grid in preparation for an apocalyptic event. That philosophy is oddly validated in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, wherein the only way for the Avengers to stay safe from a technological monster is to hole up in an isolated house surrounded by woods.
In the end, Steve's not-at-all-fact-based fears are vindicated by the fact that Tony, the government, and every law enforcement agency have all been manipulated by Zemo and his dastardly plan to ... wait, what was his plan again?
This isn't to say anyone at Marvel intentionally built their fictional universe to vindicate every tinfoil-hat-wearing YouTuber going on about chemtrails and the extraterrestrial origins of Col. Sanders' secret recipe. These types of themes certainly aren't uncommon in comics. But by importing them into a live-action realm, they've created a world no one would want to live in.
Think about it. Sure, it would be cool to see Iron Man flying around, Bruce Banner Hulking out, and Hawkeye ... hanging out with Iron Man and Hulk. But who would want to live in a world in which so much crazy crap happens on a regular basis that no one even talks about the time the vice president tried to overthrow the government so his daughter wouldn't need a wheelchair anymore?
Packaging familiarly preposterous conspiracy theories with real-world social commentary unintentionally muddies that message, at best. At least there are no scenes in which one of the Avengers runs a pizza business as a cover.
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