As a long-withstanding fan of the Marvel films, I have endured the absolute privilege of watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films when young, as well as growing up, to see how the films have garnered a wider-reaching impact. When considering the politics of Marvel, it is easy to fall into the camp of how they are merely fantasy/sci-fi/comic book films and thus not seriously affiliated with global issues.
However, following the release of Black Panther, the first major black superhero film arguably since Blade, this began to suddenly uproot this earlier snub and quickly replaced it with the melting ice caps of ‘political correctness is ruining everything.’ Yet Black Panther has now received six Academy Award nominations, the most any Marvel film has ever received so… there’s the tea.
But if you thought that was the first time a Marvel film has integrated a political stance, let me enlighten you.
Through the Captain America franchise alone we witness the external threat becoming frequently internal: with Captain America: The First Avenger temporally positioning itself within World War I fighting Red Skull and the German forces, through to Captain America: Winter Soldier where the enemy manifests itself within the government and invokes the political anxiety of being under a surveillance state, and finally Captain America: Civil War where the distortion of peace is focalised between the heroes themselves. This Russian doll effect is not a coincidence, for in each film, respectively, the notion of ‘doing the right thing’ becomes ever more complicated for the hero/heroes when even the governing forces of ‘good’ become unreliable.
Even connotations of imperialism materialise in the Marvel films you may not expect to, such as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 where Starlord (Chris Pratt) fighting his own father, Ego (Kurt Russell), boils down to the conflict of him wanting to carve an entire planet in his own making.
This all certainly comes into fruition in Avengers: Infinity War, in which the tyrannical titan – or Eternal if we want to be pedantic – Thanos (Josh Brolin) is hell-bent on eradicating half of the universe’s population for (as it always seems to be) ‘the greater good’. What is most conflicting about Thanos’ agenda is how there are clear flaws to his plan, such as the obvious: ‘what happens when the population builds back up again?’ Yet, he is so beseeched upon collecting the infinity stones, he even sacrifices his own family in order to achieve ‘the perfect balance.’ Do any other tyrannical figures, perhaps within our own world today, come to mind when thinking of obscene and repressive plans that make no sense?
An important fact that sometimes goes amiss is how the creators of these remarkable characters, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, were all immigrants from Europe, whose families travelled to America seeking work and a better life post-World War II. It’s no secret that there is a specific formula to Marvel films with regard to storytelling: the unlikely hero facing insurmountable odds when discovering they are capable of power, whilst facing an ongoing battle with the antagonist but always ends up winning the day. Yet with the background of Lee, Kirby and Ditko in mind, this very formula enacts as their overarching core value: it goes beyond mere altruistic sentiment or good prevailing over evil to the trials and labours one must face in order to succeed. That anybody from anywhere can achieve greatness when they are hardworking and have their moral compass in the right place. That I think is the principal message to take away from these films.
The MCU films incontrovertibly have something to say with regard to politics amongst the action. However, they do not push an agenda for audiences to digest. Rather, they give the audience something to think about if they should choose to look deeper. Marvel still has room for growth, especially regarding women and not white-washing ethnicities. But with new films and franchises planned for the next decade, hopefully the MCU will continue to explore different ways these stories reflect upon humanity and resonate with audiences.