The most annoying thing for someone who pretends to be an expert on textual analysis is seeing people analyze a piece of media by ignoring large parts of the content being presented, or even by inserting their own preconceived interpretation of the material that doesn’t actually fit with the ideas and symbols presented by the text itself. This has become a pathological problem for the discourse around Marvel movies, especially as they have become such a commercial juggernaut that they are now at the center of global consumerist culture.
These days is easy to see people boldly claiming that the movies are pure Pentagon propaganda, which is hyperbolic to the point of absurdity, especially given Hollywood’s historically fraught relationship with the US government and military. Others go in the opposite direction, worshiping superhero fiction as some sort of modern religion, which is silly. It’s also annoying to see some folks demanding that popular entertainment should become a series of moral parables for people to understand and follow, especially as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been gradually moving away from such a black and white worldview.
All those forced analyses are the result of superficial critiques, and any serious review of the themes of the franchise would reveal something that’s slightly more interesting. It would also explain why these movies have become so popular. The actual reality is that these films deal with themes that are central to the current global zeitgeist.
Disney’s Marvel movies actually present a critique of American imperialism, although such a critique is neither totally negative nor pure glorification, which makes sense given how the movies are supposed to make money both inside the United States, and in the rest of the world, and the most people around the world aren’t exactly fans of the USA and their endless wars.
This criticism isn’t single-minded, which should be obvious given how the show has been written by a lot of people, and also that there have been three major changes in direction over the course of its run, but the central themes have always been the same, and at the center of this cinematic TV show is the idea of raw individual power.
The first Iron Man film released in 2008 is a movie about someone with massive amounts of individual power. Tony Stark is a extremely smart billionaire with access to a massive arsenal of weapons. This is not a novel idea, superhero fiction has always been about individual power going as far back as Superman, which was a response to (the worst interpretations of) the ideology of Friedrich Nietzsche. Jerry Siegel took the idea of a human with absolute power, but who uses that power to help others, rather than just themselves.
Iron Man is an echo of that superhuman idea, someone who realizes that he has massive power to hurt people, but instead decides to use that power to help others. Obviously this is not an unproblematic idea, especially as these early movies read as some sort of libertarian critique of American interventionism, where a single individual is the one to make unilateral moral decisions about how to use that power.
That first film was in a way the perfect film for the Obama era since it was clearly reacting to the horrors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while not completely giving up on the idea of American intervention. That first Iron Man film was selling the idea that, even though these previous wars had been terrible, it was still possible to find a way to intervene in the world in a positive fashion. In retrospective this seems like a misguided message since Obama’s policies were also pretty bad. But those movies weren’t purely about interventionism since their conflicts were actually about Tony Stark dealing with antagonists created by himself or his father, ultimately not really helping anyone… wait that actually fits very well with the history of US interventions.
All the early MCU movies deal with basically the same framework: A guy with parental issues needs to find the confidence to use the enormous amounts of power he has randomly acquired in order to save himself and the people around him. Sometimes the power is inherited, such as in the case of Tony Stark and Thor, while in others it’s completely random such as with Hulk. Only in the case of Captain America there is the idea that the hero actually earned his power. Either way, the formula worked every time.
But then a strange thing happened, as The Avengers became one of the top grossing movies of all time thanks to its gargantuan box office in the United States, while also gaining even more money from outside of that godforsaken country. There was something in that movie that resonated with audiences all around the world, and it wasn’t just that it had a lot of superheroes in bright costumes. And it wasn’t that the movie was amazing, because it really wasn’t.
My impression is that that inside the United States the movie was seen as some sort of post-9/11 fantasy in which a group of heroes save New York City from catastrophe. But from my perspective the movie was actually about a group of people that hated each other joining forces in order to fight against an invasion by an overwhelming foreign power that was searching for weapons of mass destruction, that were allegedly somewhere on Earth. There was also a weird Guardian Council in charge of the whole operation who wanted to use nukes against the invaders or something.
The Avengers actually works better as a metaphor for the war in Iraq, and possibly other wars, with the heroes representing the fractured forces in the Middle East joining forces in order to expel the Great Satan. Which would be weird for a movie company that was just recently been acquired by a major US corporation like Disney. Although it makes some sense considering how Joss Whedon is (allegedly) a huge leftist, but that’s just a theory.
The next Marvel movies kept exploring the same themes of American interventionism, individual power, and parental issues. And I would argue that these themes have their ultimate representation in Thanos.
Sometimes these themes are pretty blatant, like in The Winter Soldier where it’s revealed that the US government has been taken over by Nazis that are trying to create a program of mass surveillance and drone assassination, which is not just a reference to Operation Paperclip, but also implies that US policies in the real world, such as mass surveillance and drone strikes, are fascist in nature.
HYDRA created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once the purification process is complete, HYDRA’s New World Order will arise.
This isn’t even subtle, this “New World Order” created by Hydra is very much the same as the one that exists in our world, in which the chaos created by American foreign policy led to the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, and targeted assassinations of enemies of America. The montage where all this is revealed even includes references to people like Julian Assange, who is currently being imprisoned and tortured for reporting US war crimes in the Middle East.
The Guardians of the Galaxy movies elevated the Marvel formula in many ways, mostly by being self-ware. The daddy issues are more overt than ever, and the movies even comment on how childish the whole universe is, but not as a form of mockery, but rather as a form of validation. This is evident during the climax of the first Guardians film in which there is a confrontation between a overtly self-serious and dogmatic fundamentalist, and a manchild.
The interesting thing about this scene is that both sides are equally silly, but the difference is that “Ronan the Accuser” takes his quasi-mythical fanaticism completely seriously. On the other hand, Chris Pratt’s character is obsessed with his Hollywood-inspired childhood fantasies, but he is aware that this is all just a fantasy and a distraction, and yet those fantasies completely deflate the threat presented by Ronan. This contrast exposes how all extremist ideologies are ultimately just very silly.
The next Avengers movie isn’t that interesting outside of being a clusterfuck of ideas and characters. The titular character in Age of Ultron is just a reflection of the worst qualities of Tony Stark, such as his paranoia and his arrogance.
It was actually the next movie by the Russo brothers that moved the universe forward by giving up on the idea of government oversight, and starting to move away from any sort of black and white morality. Captain America: Civil War set the stage for an universe where antagonists can have slightly more complicated motivations than resentment, revenge, and world domination.
Some of the following movies even made the themes of imperialism and colonialism completely explicit. Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther openly talk about imperial conquest and colonization, and explain how the crimes of the past shape our present and future. Even Captain Marvel has a main character who defects from her fascist imperialist military in order to help the refugees she had been previously fighting.
Thanos is a pure representation of imperialism and tyranny, a single individual who has absolute power over the lives of everyone else, ruling over an ever-expanding empire with the mission of bringing balance and order to a chaotic universe, while claiming to be completely righteous. When most people around the world see Thanos, what we see is the United States of America.
The latest entry in this universe is actually a TV show, so the MCU finally dropped the pretense of being a series of movies, rather than just a really long television series that’s displayed on a big screen. Actually that’s another reason why its so successful, you get all the benefits of a TV series, but with really good special effects and set design.
WandaVision returned to the core theme of Marvel and superhero fiction, which is an individual with massive amounts of power, which is also happens to be the core theme of our modern world, which has become completely obsessed with this idea of a single individual who can change the world. It also completely embraces the idea of ambiguous morality, as the Scarlet Witch cannot be judged as simply good nor evil.