Marvel's secret formula: How the studio seized on American political anxieties to make itself a blockbuster machine

From "Iron Man" to "Avengers," Marvel built a cinematic empire on channeling our age of partisanship and paranoia

Published June 12, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

"The Avengers"       (Marvel Studios)
"The Avengers" (Marvel Studios)

By now, it’s long past played out: Every blockbuster needs a massive final confrontation that will most likely result in the wrecking of an American city. This trope has become so prevalent and so predictable that a superhero movie hardly seems complete without it. But Marvel is particularly adept at this trick. Marvel’s movies traffic in a more fantastic realm than superhero flicks like Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy — which has a gravity and dark realism that have influenced many other superhero films — but this realm is still fully rooted in our real political world. Ever since the 9/11 echoes of “The Avengers,” Marvel has demonstrated a canny knack for taking the temperature of the zeitgeist. Its movies have learned to echo contemporary political anxieties in a way that makes them far more accessible for mainstream moviegoing audiences than the comic book adaptations of the past.

After 9/11, one of the only ways many people could contextualize what had happened was through the language and imagery of bygone superhero blockbusters. And now, over a decade on, the relationship has flipped: our blockbusters have taken to repeatedly reflecting the events of that day back at us. In fact, superhero movies have become one of the primary cultural vessels through which the consequences of post-9/11 politics are explored. A national trauma once only retrospectively legible through blockbusters has become the language of blockbusters themselves.

In 2007, Marvel jumped directly into the business of making movies based on its own comics by creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A few years later the studio made “The Avengers" -- where New York is ravaged by the final showdown between the Avengers and Loki’s extraterrestrial forces -- in which Park Avenue and the buildings lining it become a battleground. At one point a giant alien crashes through Grand Central Station. It might not be as overwhelming as Bane’s terrorist martial state in “The Dark Knight Rises” or as on-the-nose as the final battle in “Man of Steel,” but it’s still speaking in the same tongue: Here are our heroes in an iconic New York setting, and here it is being destroyed. There’s a nuke racing toward New York in the climax of “The Avengers.” Iron Man saves the city by carrying the nuke into an inter-dimensional portal.

The most recent Marvel blockbuster to capitalize on our age of anxiety was “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which, with a worldwide gross of over $700 million, has almost doubled the revenue of its predecessor, the World War II-set “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Writing and early conceptualization of the sequel date all the way back to 2011, but its tone and subject matter feel directly born out of the Edward Snowden era.

The currency of this “Captain America” universe is information. Captain America is left in the dark during the movie’s opening mission while Black Widow executes her own operation, and he returns angrily to the clandestine, super-powerful government agency S.H.I.E.L.D.  There, commander Nick Fury responds by lecturing him on trust and security (“Last time I trusted someone I lost an eye”), on basically having your gun ready before anyone else can pull a gun on you. In the end, the Black Widow leaks S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets online. “How are we supposed to maintain our security after you’ve laid waste to our intelligence apparatus?” the Black Widow is asked. One of the ultimate heroic acts of the film is one of whistle-blowing.

S.H.I.E.L.D. has long been a crucial element of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as in Marvel comics. In “The Winter Soldier,” it is represented as a flawed and compromised organization, with a few neat parallels to the NSA. The film isn’t shy about the fact that disbanding the agency is the righteous resolution to the story. It also introduces Project Insight: three huge airships that will patrol the world, linked to satellites with the ability to read terrorists’ DNA from inside their caves, and thus giving S.H.I.E.L.D. the ability to “neutralize a lot of threats before they happen.” It’s an accordingly supersize comic book version of drone strikes, and it makes the WWII-vet in the Captain cringe. This doesn’t look like the world he fought to protect. There's also Zola, the evil scientist from Hydra, talking about how his algorithm makes use of the “digital book” of everything people do, from their emails to their voting records, in order to predict potential threats. Villains envision a world of extreme surveillance and bureaucratic order, a sort of dystopian descendent of our own era.

The second “Captain America” followed the almost nostalgic Americana of the first installation of the franchise with a movie that was fully engaged with questions of how information and security have been entangled in our national discourse in a post-9/11 world. Just in case we missed the point, a Project Insight airship crashes into the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, and in one of the film’s final sequences, Captain America lies unconscious on the banks of the Potomac, the burning tower in the distance.

Released last year, the third “Iron Man” movie traffics in similarly modern political themes, but chooses a different central topic. The thin line between “hero” and “villain” has been thoroughly explored in the comic book world,  but “Iron Man 3” approaches this subject in a way that is very much specific to the age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. “We create our own demons,” Stark’s voice-over intones in the movie’s first moments. What follows is a story of his hubristic pre-Iron Man days, and how this comes back to haunt him in the present tense. For the first half of the movie, it seems that the major villain is the Mandarin, a terrorist of vague nationality who releases videos that are an inescapable echo of real terrorists like bin Laden.

Of course, the phrase “we create our own demons” could be applied to the United States’ strong-arming foreign policy in the Middle East. But the phrase also foreshadows how “Iron Man 3” offers up a meta-commentary on how we define who is a hero and who is a villain in our highly mediated lives. We’re first introduced to the Mandarin through one of his grainy manifesto videos. He’s able to take over every channel and broadcast at random moments, spouting threatening “lessons” and taking responsibility for various explosions around the world. “Some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher,” the Mandarin intones. A minute later, he follows it up, closing this broadcast with a warning: “You know who I am, you don’t know where I am, and you’ll never see me coming.” Seen only through his videos, the Mandarin — of course — becomes a fixation of the 24-hour news cycle.

After the Mandarin’s first broadcast, the film’s fictional president gives a press conference introducing Iron Patriot, the rebranded identity of Colonel Rhodes, who used to go by War Machine. Bill Maher and Joan Rivers have cameos, the latter remarking on how blunt the Iron Patriot’s new shtick is. We catch glimpses of how superheroes and their nemeses are picked apart by the media in the pseudo-real world of the Marvel Universe, in the same way real-life celebrities are. This is a world in which even superheroes have to consider notions of “brand management.”

“Iron Man 3” has its own big reveal: turns out the Mandarin is indeed just a projection. In reality, the Mandarin is portrayed by a drunk British actor, hired by the movie’s real villain Aldritch Killian to cover up explosions that weren’t political statements but product-testing gone disastrously wrong. “You simply rule from behind the scenes,” he explains to a captive Stark as the movie approaches its climactic final act. “Because, the second you give evil a face — a bin Laden, a Gadhafi, a Mandarin — you hand the people a target.” In this shadowy, diffuse world, you can’t put a single face on evil.

It also seems telling, then, that “Iron Man 3” shows very little of Stark actually being Iron Man. He’s plagued by panic attacks and haunted by memories of what he saw in New York during “The Avengers.” After one of the film’s big action sequences aboard Air Force One, we find out out that we were watching an empty suit that Stark was controlling from far away. The movie’s big finale takes place on a boat, where Killian is about to murder the president for a purely symbolic purpose he concocted to cover his actual, business-related machinations. Stark is accompanied by a whole host of automated Iron Man suits, many of which he jumps in and out of at will. Images of the hero and villain are the same — just projections.

It’s a kind of world, one of uncertainty and malleability, in which security begins to look preferable to freedom, with all the walking fictions that come with it. The cross-referentiality and interconnectedness of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe allow these movies to be in constant conversation with each other. There’s a larger story line that is constantly expanding alongside our own political narrative — and the more Marvel fleshes out its world on-screen, the more its movies can make it look like our own.

By Ryan Leas

Ryan Leas (@RyanLeas) is a freelance writer based in New York. He has also written for, Stereogum, and the Village Voice's music blog Sound of the City.


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