I'm Still Mad About Marvel's Weird Relationship With the U.S. Military

MCU projects have been pulling punches for years now. It’s time to take a look at why that is.

Originally Published: 
Martin Freeman as Everett Ross in Secret Invasion
Gareth Gatrell/Marvel Studios

It’s no secret the American military is involved in the Hollywood machine. Given the industry’s thirst for action, the military frequently plays a role on the big screen and small. And their involvement doesn’t end with war flicks like Top Gun: Maverick or American Sniper: wherever the military are depicted, the U.S. Department of Defense are regularly consulting. They fund large-scale battles and donate weapons and equipment; servicemen regularly cameo in films and series — but only in those that depict our troops in a favorable light. It’s a clever way to control the narrative and encourage enlistment, and nowhere is that more evident than in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

Though MCU’s more vocal filmmakers have denied taking cues from the U.S. government, it’s a practice that’s gone back decades, and in projects that have long preceded Marvel’s. The MCU treads the line between propaganda and pragmatism more often than most, as many of its heroes either work closely with the military or end up in their crosshairs at one point. It all began with Iron Man, Marvel’s first step towards an interconnected universe — but even as the saga continues to expand, its partnership with the U.S. government is getting harder to ignore.

Marvel’s history with the U.S. military

Iron Man was built on the military industrial complex, but it never outright condemned it.

Paramount Pictures

Iron Man was a fitting curtain-raiser for the franchise that followed, as the world’s first superhero is also born from a world of war. For a time, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) profits from America’s military adventurism, particularly when it comes to the War on Terror. Though he eventually elects to save the world on his own terms, Iron Man set the tone for Marvel’s ongoing relationship with the military, and its timid approach to addressing American imperialism.

Iron Man issued an interesting challenge to the military industrial complex, but its sequels made quick work of undoing all that in favor of some good old-fashioned exceptionalism. As Tony Stark progresses as a character, he grows more and more protective over the tech that powers his suits and extends his life. Naturally, he doesn’t want it falling into the wrong hands, as his first adversary, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), had been selling Stark tech to both “good” guys and “bad.” Stark thinks he can use his own discernment to assess the threats facing the world — but how does that make him any different from the forces he once partnered with?

The Iron Man films are never very interested in unpacking that, choosing instead to pit Stark against personifications of industrialism like Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). Marvel would continue to use one very evil individual to avoid an outright condemnation of real-world powers; while it worked fine in the early stages of the MCU, later stories would end up suffering for it.

When it works to Marvel’s advantage

Captain America: The Winter Soldier set a high bar, and the MCU hasn’t topped it since.

Marvel Studios

The MCU is arguably at its best when it’s tackling its thorny topics through the genre lens. The Winter Soldier is both one of the strongest examples of this, and one of the strongest MCU projects, full stop. In his first outing, Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) was the face of the fight against fascism; he was also walking, talking propaganda. The Winter Soldier cleverly addresses that icky truth by subverting his role on the world stage. When Steve suddenly finds himself plucked from an idyllic nation united by war, he’s forced to question whether that nation is still on the right side of history.

The Winter Soldier is built on the premise that America has been poisoned from the inside out, only instead of Nazi turncoats bringing their expertise to the U.S. — a concept lifted from Operation Paperclip — it was the Nazi-adjacent HYDRA that infiltrated the government at the end of World War II. S.H.I.E.L.D. bears the brunt of this corruption, which allows Cap and his trusty team to raze the organization to the ground. This absolves real-world organizations from sharing any blame, but when a huge chunk of your production is bankrolled by the powers that be, a hefty allusion to a secret society is better than nothing at all.

The mixed bag of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

The truth of Isaiah Bradley is the closest Marvel has come to addressing real systemic issues — if only The Falcon and the Winter Soldier hadn’t dropped the ball.

Marvel Studios

The Winter Soldier strikes the perfect balance between timely, practical politics and speculative fantasy. Unfortunately, the MCU would not achieve the same tone again. The Winter Soldier’s spiritual sequel, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, struggled to unpack racial politics and a loaded refugee story alongside its continuing “does America truly have a problem?” thread.

In some ways, the series hits the target: the introduction of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), a Black supersoldier who gained his powers in a Tuskegee-inspired experiment, puts a face to the systemic violence America has enacted against people of color throughout history. There’s also something to be said for Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie) adoption of the Captain America mantle. Not since Iron Man have we seen a hero work to reconcile his identity with a system he knows is flawed, and discussion of race adds even more nuance to his dilemma.

But other elements of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were total failures. Whatever statements the series wants to make about the repeated failings of entrenched bureaucracy, it’s lost with the introduction of several distracting antagonists. John Walker (Wyatt Russell) is a fitting foil to Sam, as he strives for the same mantle yet exhibits the nation’s absolute worst practices. His hasty redemption in the finale is nothing short of nauseating; paired with Sam’s own listless condemnation of the powers that be, it makes The Falcon and the Winter Soldier one of the MCU’s biggest fumbles.

The MCU is well known for pulling its punches, but that wasn’t always the case. And it shouldn’t have to be the case with the next politically-charged series, Secret Invasion nor the upcoming Captain America: Brave New World. Government oversight doesn’t have to get in the way of telling a good story, and all Marvel has to do is look into its past to see that.

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