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Marvel’s War on Terror

When the Norse god Loki threatens earth in the 2012 film The Avengers, the “playboy billionaire genius” Tony Stark confronts him in a Manhattan penthouse. Overlooking the cityscape, Stark warns Loki that if earth’s most powerful superheroes “can’t protect the earth, you can be damned sure we’ll avenge it.” And so are born the Avengers, the central heroes of the stratospherically successful film series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. We have now reached a full decade of the MCU, which has introduced us to a bench of heroes we didn’t know we . . . wanted. A raccoon, a laconic tree, a guy with wings, a guy with a bow, a couple that make themselves tiny. As if to beat us over the head with their Marvelousness, the latest tentpole film was literally called Captain Marvel. The appeal is clear. The films are bright, light, and generally well-executed romps with a kind of built-in Saturday morning, “tune in next week” hook that keeps us coming back.

On one level, analyzing the MCU is a mistake. The specific plot points of any given film are mostly techno- or magical babble. Honestly, none of them matter. It’s all just setup for superheroes to interact with one another. On another level, though, the structures of the films and the dynamics of our nearly two-decade-long love affair with superheroes might actually be a prolonged response to 9/11 and the War on Terror.

Saving cities—or the earth, or the universe itself—moments before destruction is something of the MCU’s forte. In Dr. Strange, Stephen Strange relives a moment over and over again to stop a violent attack. This might be seen as a metaphor for the Marvel series itself. In its own way, the MCU continually relives 9/11—and the political movement that quickly followed it—even as the War on Terror has faded as a unifying force in American political life.

In The Avengers opening, Loki launches an attack on a secret military base. Nick Fury, the director of shield, the deepest of Deep State military and intelligence agency, immediately considers it an act of war and activates the Avengers program. Like the Iraq invasion, Fury had long promoted the program and used the attack as a pretext to launch it.

The electorate and the new regimes in the Democratic and Republican parties have largely banished the neoconservative hawks who led the charge into Iraq from the scene. But what if the drama and moral simplicity—ahem—clarity of the Bush-era Freedom Agenda didn’t so much leave our culture as become enshrined in our most successful pop culture franchise? I’m not saying Captain America would vote Republican. Rather, the basic assumptions of the MCU’s heroes correspond with the neoconservative dogmas of the early 2000s. They both share a belief in individual heroism, moral clarity, spreading liberalism, and above all confronting evil with power.

Mugged by Fantasy

The conviction that evil exists as a permanent force in the world and must be confronted by superhuman power—particularly a shock-and-awe display embellished with cheap moralism rather than a serious strategy—is essential to both the classic superhero format and the neoconservative worldview. Reality doesn’t so much mug you in the MCU as blow up your city or throw you through a wall.

After 9/11, the Bush White House and neoconservative hawks fixated on extraordinary threats to American national security. The White House’s greatest fear was the “nexus” of rogue regimes providing weapons of mass destruction to terrorist cells. In the MCU, each villain is basically a James Spader–voiced walking nexus: a loan operator with a maniacal plan and the destructive capacity of a nuke.

George W. Bush warned that deterrence “means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend.” To put it mildly, there is no containing Thanos. You can’t deter Loki. There is no peace dividend to be had when the Kree Empire exists. As Nick Fury tells Thor, “last year, Earth had a visit from another planet that had a grudge match that leveled a small town. We learned that not only we are not alone, but we are hopelessly, hilariously outgunned.” The MCU is brimming with “enemies without precedent.” When Thanos, able to “destroy life on a scale hitherto undreamt of,” comes a-calling, he must be confronted with superpower. The Avengers cannot wait for the smoking gun—which might be in the form of ashy evaporations.

In the MCU, the only reasonable reaction to superpowered threats is superheroic and unilateral action. Even the wokest heroes like Black Panther happily go on destructive secret missions across international borders and maintain enormous spy networks. But hey, sometimes massive surveillance is necessary—and no one questions it when the fate of the world is on the line. The Avengers find Loki by turning “every wirelessly accessible camera on the planet” into “eyes and ears for us.” In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a similar plot device was a serious moral dilemma for the non-MCU Batman. But none of the Avengers bats an eyelid. Instead, they complain about its inefficiency.

Like the neocons of old, the Avengers disregard collective security when it suits them. Black Widow justified the rogue Avengers’ lack of oversight by reminding viewers that “You need us. Yes, the world is a vulnerable place, and yes, we helped make it that way. But we’re also the ones best qualified to defend it.” It’s an applause line. What matters is the actions of superbeings in a new paradigm. Pace Karl Rove, when superheroes act, they create their own reality. In Thanos’s case, this is quite literally true.

The MCU is also fixated on technologically advanced military hardware. Iron Man and shield reflect this obsession. So too do War Machine and Falcon. Even Hawkeye’s bow-and-arrow is somehow a technological marvel. The heroes are equipped with endlessly new and endlessly necessary weaponry. Shield’s budget for secret wars must be outrageous. When I asked the military historian Bret Devereux to estimate the cost of shield’s helicarriers, he obligingly came up with a very rough estimate of $430 billion per unit. In Winter Soldier they have three of them.

This fixation on military hardware has real-world consequences. Strangely enough, as Newsweek reports, the MCU and Department of Defense have an ongoing relationship. The Pentagon provided equipment, personnel, and locations for several MCU films. For the Pentagon, the Marvel connection raises the military’s cultural cachet and drives recruitment. Granting Disney access to sites and equipment also gives the DOD some discretion over the depiction of U.S. Armed Forces.

It’s not as though the Avengers get to defeat one enemy and then retire, however. Since each film is meant to stand alone and at the same time contribute to the wider cinematic universe, each possesses its own outsize stakes and functions as a trailer for future MCU films. The cycle of crisis is perpetual—at least until the property loses value for Disney. Every defeated villain is followed by another. Loki, the god that failed, is in five movies and counting.

Ultimately, the MCU preserves the one home truth masquerading as an insight: that the world is a dangerous place. Responding to it requires constant vigilance, technological innovation, and superpower.

Two Cheers for Captain America

I’ve painted the neocons and MCU as cynical pessimists here. I’m sure they’d prefer “tough-minded.” But that’s not the full story either of the old neoconservative project or the MCU’s hodgepodge worldview.

When Bush laid out the justification for the War on Terror, he warned it would require patience, resolve, and “firm moral purpose.” Fortunately for the War on Thanos, the Avengers are moral agents. The twin hearts are Iron Man and Captain America. Between them they represent America as the well-founded and rightly ordered regime, a force for good, and a nation marked by ambition, wealth, and technological strength. Captain America evokes World War II, the last good war. First created in 1941 as a Nazi-slugging supersoldier, he explicitly put America’s war aims in moral terms (and punched a lot of America’s enemies, including some questionably drawn Japanese soldiers). Alongside Cap, Tony Stark represents the triumphalism of American wealth and a depoliticized Space Race. Split the difference between Iron Man and Captain America, and you’ll be looking at a perfect neoconservative vision of America in the world.

Steve Rogers, Captain America, is the first Avenger and their unerring conscience. He leads justly and, occasionally, calls the other characters to task. “The price of freedom’s high,” Rogers declares like a movie-star George Bush. “Always has been. It’s a price I’m willing to pay.” Rogers is a Boy Scout: the embodiment of nostalgia for a pre-Vietnam America. He is so untainted by cynicism he’s never even heard of Kurt Cobain.

We learn that the Army chose Rogers for “his heart.” He’s the well-founded superhero, once weak, who now knows “the value of strength, and knows . . . compassion.” At a low point in The Winter Soldier, Captain America puts on his WWII uniform (reclaimed from an exhibit at the Smithsonian). “Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old-fashioned?” someone asks. “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned,” he replies.

Captain America’s emphasis on the priority of ideals over realpolitik reflects the Democratic tradition of liberal internationalist foreign policy exemplified by Scoop Jackson and Pat Moynihan. In the 2000s, neoconservative foreign policy advocates blended Democratic internationalism (which Reagan made standard within the Republican Party) with the post-9/11 security state. This combination of idealism and existential threat motivates the Avengers. And in every installment they are proven correct.

George W. Bush called the enemies of the United States totalitarians “with no place for human dignity.” They seek “to impose a joyless conformity.” Admittedly, if we’re going to the movies, we need the stakes to be high, but the MCU’s major villains are exactly this kind of would-be totalitarian. In The Winter Soldier, hydra states that “humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom.” When Loki announces himself to the world, he does so in Germany. Is submission “not your natural state?” he asks a crowd.

“You know,” Captain America responds, “the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing.” Neoconservatives were often criticized for viewing every attempt at ordinary diplomacy as a second Munich. In every Marvel film, however, it really is 1938.

Occasionally the MCU films attempt a haphazard critique of these assumptions and, in generalities, American foreign policy. The first Iron Man satirizes war profiteering in Iraq (while also blasting Taliban fighters with a prototype of the Iron Man suit). Nick Fury tells Captain America that the nation has “made mistakes along the way, some very recently”—an allusion to the Iraq War. In Captain America: Civil War, a chastened Tony Stark argues that the Avengers “need to be put in check” because “if we can’t accept limitations . . . we are no better than the bad guys.” The Winter Soldier ends with a massive data leak by Edward Snowden in star-spangled Lycra. Nevertheless, the problem is not with extreme power concentrated in the hands of a few heroes. In Age of Ultron, Stark’s mistake was to try to automate and depersonalize global security. The real problems are bad actors, surveillance, and the hydra-cum-shield Deep State.

The onscreen critiques are proven wrong time and again. The threats are real and the Avengers’ unilateral actions are necessary. The MCU’s ambiguity toward the War on Terror mentality is clearest in its treatment of Nick Fury. At times he’s the problematic purveyor of extralegal violence, stealth war—even torture. The MCU’s superheroes, and occasionally villains, question his methods. Yet at the end of the day he’s Samuel L. Jackson, a forward-thinking badass.

My Superhero Problem—and Ours

The idealistic internationalist tradition has a very long history in the United States. The neoconservative articulation of democracy backed by American might and American action remains intuitively popular, even as its proponents are tarnished by their support for the war in Iraq.

It’s tempting to see the world in terms of totalitarian or authoritarian evil opposed by liberal democratic good. It’s equally natural to fall into an assumption of American benevolence and the efficacy of military intervention. The Marvel Cinematic Universe—and a laundry list of action films—naturally draw on this tradition. One can hardly blame them—it’s nearly unavoidable. (Compare them to the dreary and morally ambiguous DC films that nobody really likes.) Superheroes, after all, require clear-cut villains and decisive action. The genre thrives on narrative clarity—when there are twists, they are clearly explained; grey areas are generally lightened. Traditional politics, with its compromises and ambiguities, makes a poor box office draw. These are fundamentally children’s films, and they demand the straightforward moral drama of good versus evil, of climactic battles, of heroic, last-minute victories.

The bold contrasts of the MCU’s moral framework mirror the neoconservatives’ own worldview. This shouldn’t surprise us. Neoconservatives brought a Cold Warrior mindset to the 9/11 era. The main characters in the MCU were also created in the early 1960s, when civil rights and the Soviet Union gave Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby clear-cut and culturally sanctioned battles of good versus evil to work with. To some extent, the MCU now brings superhero narratives and Cold Warrior moralism to the box office.

Years after the political repudiation of the foreign policy failures inspired by such a view, it ironically lives on in our popular culture. In this respect, the MCU is like an inverted Game of Thrones. Instead of undermining the very possibility of righteous action as Game of Thrones does, the MCU dutifully insists on it.

For all its popularity, MCU is almost comically removed from current political trends. Whether it reflects our politics or (however remotely) shapes it, the MCU never has any place for democratic politics or a sense of accountability. There is no consent, no reckoning with virtual gods. Hannah Arendt understood politics as an active citizenry engaged in collective deliberation about the political community. The MCU gives us the bickering of superbeings, a spectator politics suited not to today but to the moment before popular outrage—the moment when we thought that supposed grand conflicts could substitute for the lack of politics. Politicians are either inept or secret members of totalitarian conspiracies. In The Avengers, conventional military forces are ready to nuke Manhattan before the Avengers save it. In Winter Soldier, the “World Security Council” is revealed to be an impotent pawn of hydra. One is reminded of the neoconservative criticism of the administrative state—even with a whiff of “drain the swamp” to it.

We’re storytelling creatures. The Disney Corporation and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are among modern society’s most powerful mythmakers. The MCU films are among the most bankable properties in cinema. In a fracturing culture, the MCU is one of the most widely shared cultural products this side of Harry Potter. To catch a glimpse of themes punted out of American politics more than a decade ago, all we have to do is tune in. But better a dollop of nostalgia than the return of a pseudopolitics whose consequences are still unfolding. That story has yet to be told.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published May 7, 2019.

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