A Deeper Look At The MCU's 'Military Problem'
At times it can feel like everything is wrapped up in some kind of messaging. This week at Cracked, we're taking a closer look at propaganda and how it has shaped the world in ways that may not be so obvious.
From the moment Robert Downey Jr. first stood up and started glorifying weapons manufacturing, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been awash in claims that it's little more than a vehicle for American military (and intelligence community) propaganda. 13 years and 20+ movies on, those arguments continue, bubbling up all over again anytime anyone dares show up in a flag-patched jumpsuit or flash an acronym-covered badge.
So, are those claims correct? Are all those Reddit threads screaming about the government brainwashing the moviegoing public via armored spandex and CGI bogeymen telling the truth? Or is Marvel as chaste and innocent as we're all still pretending Peter Parker is? Let's take a look ...
Make Mine Military Propaganda
The largest pieces of evidence for Marvel being a pawn of a vast military propaganda program are twofold. First, several prominent superheroes are veterans of various armed forces. Scandalous, we know. Second, and arguably more damning, several movies have not only received official Pentagon approval and support but have actually changed their scripts to keep the American government happy.
The most allegedly egregious of these is Captain America: The First Avenger. After all, Chris Evans' Steve Rogers is a gung-ho jingoist who engages in his own propaganda efforts during the film. The U.S. Army is glorified to the point of rewriting history. (The movie shows nonsegregated military units during World War II, which was decidedly not the case.) Hell, a real-life military official even went so far as to say that Cap'n Helmet Wings embodied "the values of today's modern soldier," and the Army was stoked to lend their support.
More recently, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier opened with Sam Wilson working with the Air Force and murdering terrorists in Libyan airspace as a fun little loophole to avoid an international incident. Despite a body count that would make a serial killer blush, the entire scene went unexamined, as did some of the more rah-rah military moments early on in the series.
And it's not just the Captains America getting in on this: Captain Marvel loved the Air Force so hard that a prominent website for military veterans likened the trailer to a recruitment video. An actual recruitment video aired before several early theater screenings. And then, of course, there's this behind-the-scenes featurette where Brie Larson gushes about how cool the Air Force is.
Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier also received support from the American government. That first Iron Man even changed its script, dropping a vague and wildly misconstrued reference to military suicides to keep the Pentagon happy.
Hell, WandaVision, a Disney+ series about witches and TV, gave special thanks to the Department of Defense in its credits. The conspicuous inclusion of Randall Park's FBI agent, Jimmy Woo, too, raised a lot of eyebrows. You see, he flashed his badge, and you can't show the FBI's logo without their support, which can only mean a vast, multi-agency propagandist conspiracy to make us all blindly trust authority.
Because something nefarious has to be afoot, right? If the American military's willing to approve (and tacitly endorse) Marvel films, and Marvel's willing to make changes to appease them, well, the large-scale brainwashing of international viewing audiences is the only answer, isn't it?
"What's the Use of Having and Owning a Racecar If You Don't Drive It?"
There's a questionable scene in The Eternals where responsibility for America's dropping a pair of atomic bombs on Japan is essentially ceded onto the shoulders of an immortal extraterrestrial genius. Some took this as further proof that Marvel was nothing more than a propaganda machine and that all their movies received DoD approval.
But, as Tromeo and Juliet writer James Gunn explained, this is very much not the case:
Military approval is only required for productions that want to use authentic military props and locations, i.e., all the fancy jet fighters in Captain Marvel or the literally billions of dollars worth of vehicles, personnel, and Air Force base ambiance just hanging out in the background of Iron Man 2.
The official entertainment liaison for the Department of Defense does need to OK those scripts, and they won't do that if America and its military brass and service members, more specifically, are portrayed negatively. Fully 95% of scripts submitted to the DoD are rejected for that very reason – or, as was the case in 2012's The Avengers, because the Pentagon didn't care for the implied chain of command.
If you'll recall, S.H.I.E.L.D. – an international, extra-governmental, and entirely fictional spy organization – was calling the shots in that movie, and, apparently, the military bristled at being ordered around by a group that exists "outside the system." The fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. had better equipment than the Army also seems not to have sat well with them, either.
All of which is to say, the government is very much aware that assisting with the magic of movie-making is a chance to make themselves look good – and maybe even increase recruitment into all their various forces of arms, too. Something you, the savvy internet intellectual that you are, might recognize as, yes, the literal definition of propaganda. The military will help Hollywood, but only if Hollywood helps them.
And while the Department of Defense and all its affiliated affiliates shy away from using the actual term, they know damn well what they're doing – the Army genuinely could not have been more blatant about using 2014's Godzilla to subtly "educate" America about the military's greatness. Seriously, it's on the official U.S. Army .mil website. Just right friggin' there, out in the open.
Uh-oh. Seems pretty damning for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, doesn't it?
FUs in the MCU
If Marvel's movies are military propaganda, they are, as one Army veteran points out, very, very bad at their job. For starters, only about one-quarter of the MCU's output has gone through the Department of Defense's approval process. The seven productions mentioned earlier are, in fact, the only ones to get the government's OK out of the 30+ movies and TV shows released by Marvel Studios so far.
Moreover, every "pro-" military moment in those productions is pretty much undone entirely by the end. Let's work our way back down that list, shall we?
We've already mentioned that Iron Man spends most of his movies actively and openly defying the American military, while Steve Rogers' Captain America eventually engages in a full-on rebellion against the government, breaking his friends out of prison and going on the run as a fugitive – and that's after he removes all the secret Nazis from office in Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Also? That openly-propagandist USO show from The First Avenger is so nakedly stupid and infuriating – who sidelines a literal super-soldier? – that it actually ends up driving Rogers to disobey the Army and go AWOL with a British spy, creating a legend that will soon be appropriated by the very institution that had been trying to stop him.
His successor Sam Wilson takes things even further in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, exposing the military's history of systemic racism – both fictional and historical – before stealing Captain America's shield from the government and taking on the mantle for himself. He even gives a whole speech about how he won't work for them until they start acting less shitty. Meanwhile, John Walker, the new, government-approved (and eminently punchable) face of the American military, is shown to be a rage-filled psychopath eliciting less sympathy than the "terrorist" Flag Smashers.
Captain Marvel, meanwhile – despite Brie Larson's outward adoration and the Air Force's own attempts at image rehabilitation – still shows the Air Force as a sexist institution infiltrated by a foreign (if, admittedly, interstellar) government, that then covers up the apparent murder of a pilot.
By the time we get to WandaVision, the real-world military's presence is entirely as background extras, just tanks and soldiers standing around – except for the part where they're also one-hundred percent responsible for the indiscriminate murder of Wanda Maximoff's parents and the emotional scarring of two children.
Jimmy Woo, the FBI Agent, is shown to be heroic, yes, but only after he, like Captain America before him, goes against orders and starts Doing the Right Thing™ all by his lonesome, trying to take down a corrupt governmental institution – this time, the fictional paramilitary group S.W.O.R.D. However, the trailer for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness seems to imply that Woo's good work stopped there. Because it certainly appears that Wanda got away from the events of her show entirely without issue, either because of FBI and military ineptness or because neither institution cares enough to bring a witch to justice.
And those are just the productions the military thought made them look good.
In Infinity War and Endgame, the government is bypassed entirely, with the Avengers gathering pretty much everyone except the American military to fight Thanos and his invading alien army. In fact, very early on, Colonel James Rhodes, a staunch supporter of the Sokovia Accords, tells Secretary of State "Thunderbolt" Ross to screw off, an action that gets Rhodey court-martialed. Does this stop him? Of course not! He just goes and starts saving the world on his own time, with his friends and without a government, as nature intended.
Black Widow and the Hulk have practically made their careers being hunted by Ross and the American military. Ant-Man's entire second movie had him under governmental house arrest for the crime of Doing the Right Thing™. Hell, even Hawkeye has a beef against the American military-intelligence complex. In the fourth episode of his titular Disney+ series, Clint Barton gives a stirring monologue about how the only thing he's any good at is hurting people. The American government turned him into a weapon, he says, but pointed him at the "right" people, so, instead of being seen as the war crime-committing murderer that he is, the public calls him a hero.
Kind of doubt the Army's going to put that on their website.
Might Makes Right
So, if Marvel isn't particularly good at making the American military look particularly great, why is everyone so caught up in claims of propaganda?
Well, for starters, because Marvel's comic book history is certainly rife with actual propaganda – look no further than Captain America and his 1940s Nazi-punching heyday. For seconds, because Hollywood and the Department of Defense have been pretty cozy for decades, military propaganda has proliferated pretty much every aspect of film and television from World War II onward. And, thirdly, because a wide swath of America bristles at the notion of anything being even slightly anti-military, and they want to like Marvel, ergo Marvel must be pro-military.
Which, conveniently, brings us to the final point: the MCU really just feels like propaganda, doesn't it?
As much as various Marvel movies may criticize or demonize various aspects of real-world American governance, militarism and exceptionalism are still baked into the core concept of superheroes. In the Marvel universe, after all, might always makes right – and the notion of exploding away all your problems definitely has a pro-military ring to it.
Even the iconography and outfits of big-screen superheroes borrow from the military. Comic books can get away with skintight super suits made from science/magic, but, in the real world, real people have to wear real fabrics, which are then made to look like the Kevlar that soldiers wear. Final battles, too, often mimic that of (Hollywood versions of) warfare, with two sides lined up on opposite ends, pausing dramatically before charging toward one another in a fever pitch.
The only times that diplomacy even vaguely shows up are when two robots get logical on one another and when Doctor Strange annoys the interdimensional dark lord into sparing humanity with a party trick. Everything else is fisticuffs and laser blasts. Even WandaVision, for all its high-minded meditations on grief and identity and the healing power of TV, ends with Agatha Harkness and the Scarlet Witch throwing fireballs at each other.
Does Marvel have a military problem then? Maybe. Probably. But not in the way everyone seems to think – and certainly not more than any other movie franchise. Or, y'know, America. Whether all that's OK or not, though, is a different question entirely.
Eirik Gumeny is the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, a five-book saga of slacker superheroes, fart jokes, and assorted B-movie monsters, and he recently added werewolves and assassins to The Great Gatsby. He’s on Twitter a bunch, too.
Top image: Walt Disney Pictures