What Marvel Movies Say About Western Civilization (and Why it's Wrong)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally finished its story. Obviously, they will continue to make Marvel movies, because Marvel movies make money. Lots of money. But the story they started with Iron Man back in 2008--that they are now calling The Infinity Saga--which they have been building for over ten years, is definitely concluded. The importance of this story for our culture cannot be overestimated. I and many in my generation have loved and followed these characters for all of the past eleven years. They have been our inspirations, our myths, and the way we've made sense of the world we live in. Given that, I think it makes sense to look over the whole series of movies and analyze it as one complete story. What are it's general themes? What does it say or want to say about the world we live in and what being a hero looks in our time and place?
This is very personal to me because I have always been the biggest fan of Marvel movies. I'd been a fan of Iron Man and interconnected superhero stories back when they were only comics and before any of my friends had heard of heard of them. So from day one when Iron Man first premiered I've been first in line to gather my friends for a midnight screening of the next Marvel film. For me, these stories did define my growing up and shaped what kind of man I wanted to be.
Believe it or not, finding the overarching theme in the Infinity Saga is incredibly easy. From day one the Marvel movies depicted a recurring theme that became more and more obvious as the series moved on.
Spoilers for... pretty much every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe below.
The Infinity Saga is about men and women who discover their power and privileges are built on evil. These men and women become heroes by renouncing the source of their privilege and battling the evil their heritage has caused. The movies are very clear that this story is a statement not just about the heroes, but about us, America, The White Male Patriarchy, and Western Civilization itself.
Every single Marvel hero comes from a family or organization which is built on evil and oppression. In Iron Man, Tony Stark's fortune was built on his father's war profiteering, which Tony also continued. In The Incredible Hulk Bruce Banner discovers that the military that's been funding his work wants to use it as a weapon. In Thor Ragnarok Thor's kingdom of Asgard and the Nine Realms is revealed to have been build by his father Odin through bloody conquest. Black Widow was a former Russian agent with "red in her ledger" from all the people she's killed. In Doctor Strange, Doctor Strange built his life on self-centered pursuits, and he discovers his spiritual mentor gained much of her power from the dark arts. In Ant Man, Henry Pym's fortune was also built with SHIELD during the cold war. In the Gaurdians of the Galaxy films, Peter Quill got his powers from his evil father's world-conquering scheme and spent most of his life as a self-centered smuggler and womanizer, Gamora got her abilities from her abusive father Thanos, and Rocket was the result of an illegal experiment. Black Panther discovers that his father murdered his uncle and refused to help oppressed people around the world. Captain America got his powers from a US Military experiment and spends his trilogy discovering that the country he loves and serves and the intelligence community he works for has been taken over by fascist terrorists, and ultimately, Cap's story is a gradual disillusionment with the country he loves which drives him to change his values and what he fights for and why. At the beginning of Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is fighting as a warrior for the evil alien Kree race thinking they're the good guys.
Nearly every Marvel hero has a moment where they realize their life is built on evil and renounces it. Tony Stark sees his weapons being used by terrorists and stops making weapons entirely. Thor admits his father was wrong and destroys Asgard to prevent further imperialism. Bruce Banner goes into hiding to keep from being turned into a weapon by the military. Black Widow leaves the Russian program to join SHIELD. Doctor Strange renounces his old ways to become a sorcerer. Henry Pym has to destroy his old company in order to save the world. Peter Quill renounces his father, his old life, and becomes a hero--as do the other Guardians of the Galaxy. Captain America is, once again, the most extensive. Captain America discovers the American institution of SHIELD is so corrupt that it can't be reformed and has to be destroyed, which he does. He then turns against his country entirely when they ask him to sign over his rights as a superhero to their regulation--becoming a fugitive. Spider-Man might be the exception to this rule--partly because we never see his origin in story. But even he has to eventually distance himself from Tony Stark's influence in order to be the hero he needs to be at the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both Carol Danvers and her mentor both realize that the Kree empire are evil and betray them in order to save the alien Kree they now realize are innocent.
In Marvel, the foundational institutions of the heroes's lives can't be reformed but have to be gutted and replaced or at least abandoned. Thor destroys Asgard. Captain America destroys SHIELD. Bruce Banner escapes the military. Captain Marvel turns on the Kree. Tony Stark's Stark Industries has to be completely changed from a weapons company into something totally new: an energy company. That's like Disney shutting down its film division and starting over as a university.
And these are not simply fictional institutions that merely exist in comic book movies. These institutions are fundamental American and Western institutions. Business (Iron Man, Ant-Man), The Military (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Avengers), Western science (Doctor Strange), the intelligence community (Captain America: Winter Soldier). The critique in these movies are of these institutions writ large, not simply of the fictional ones. Later Marvel films become especially explicit about this. Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War were very intentional explorations of the United States's War on Terror after 9-11. In Captain Marvel, the Kree not-so-subtly represent the patriarchy that gaslights women from realizing and achieving their full potential. Iron Man 3 bait-and-switches the villain, making you think it is the foreign terrorist The Mandarin, when really it is the evil white male CEO. It's a plot twist that cleverly hits home the message that the enemy doesn't come from without to destroy our institutions. Our institutions and the leaders we trust are the actual threat. Or, as Tony Stark puts it at the beginning of the movie: "We create our own demons".
I am not the first person to notice this about Marvel films. An article a few years back pointed out the difference between Marvel and DC movies was that Marvel had a cynical view of Western institutions and DC had a positive one. In Marvel movies the villains are created by the heroes and Western institutions. In DC, the threats are external threats that want to destroy those institutions. (I would link to that article but I can't find it. If someone else can find that article and send it to me I will add the link to it.) And Marvel movies are not the only movies to make this case. Alyssa Wilkinson wrote a piece on Mad Max: Fury Road where she identifies the modern trend for dystopia films to see our institutions as the problem and the only solution as being individuals divorced from our institutions.
"As with many of its pop cultural cousins — think of 'The Hunger Games' — 'Mad Max' gives a thoroughly postmodern answer. Oppression, we believe, is not countered and defeated by a stronger alternative religion. There’s no better regime. In our dystopias, institutions are just bad.
Rather, our stories are about individual people banding together in hopeless defiance of towering tyrants, whether they’re political or religious. There isn’t a Valhalla or a good government. We’d better find meaning where we can, and where that usually happens is in small, humanizing interactions between individuals, not within institutional structures. That might look like Max choosing to take care of others, or it might look like former sex slaves and regime hacks discovering their humanity in small acts of kindness."
However, Marvel does not lay this equally at the feet at all institutions, but specifically at Western institutions. Black Panther is the only Marvel hero not based in the West and he's the only one who's powers and privileges aren't the result of evil. Black Panther's powers come from the his country's honorable cultural traditions that have turned the kingdom into the most technologically and socially advanced society in the world. (Black Panther makes sure to let us know that the women in Wakanda occupy equal positions to men in political, military, and STEM.) The movie portrays whatever flaws the country as ones that need reform, not renunciation. When Black Panther calls out his ancestors, he reprimands them for not doing enough to impact the world; he chastises them for being too indifferent to the suffering going on around them that they can alleviate. At the end of the movie, he reforms Wakanda by opening up cultural centers in America that expand Wakanda's influence across the globe. This is a direct contrast to Iron Man, where Tony Stark decides he's had too big an impact on the world and dedicates himself to getting rid of the Stark Industries technological footprint in foreign countries. Captain Marvel also avoids the moral compromise of Western Civilization because she was brainwashed into doing everything bad she did by the white male patriarchy of her world. In fact, when she gets her memories she finds she was always an admirable woman blazing trails for women in real life, and got her powers from the heroic efforts of her female mentor and her own heroic sacrifice.
If Black Panther and Captain Marvel both represent alternatives to Western Civilization, it makes their moral and power superiority to their white male counterparts commentaries on Western Civilization too. Black Panther and Captain Marvel are constantly living noble lives while Captain America, Iron Man and Thor constantly bicker amongst themselves. Black Panther rises above his need for vengeance in Civil War while Tony Stark and Captain America let themselves tear the Avengers apart. While The Avengers struggle with their flaws, Captain Marvel's only flaw is her lack of confidence imposed on her by her captors. While the Avengers lose at the end of Infinity War, Captain Marvel informs everyone that she's been saving the galaxy all by herself for the past several years on her own. The movies also subtly retcon the achievements The Avengers do have and give them to Black Panther and Captain Marvel.Captain Marvel was written to be the true inspiration for The Avengers rather than Captain America, and Black Panther was written to have science that outclasses any contributions Iron Man ever made. Even Thor decides he was never really cut out to be king in the first place, and gives the throne over to Valkerye, a black woman, who is more of a "natural leader" than he ever was.
Here's the thing: Black Panther got it right and the other Marvel movies got it wrong. I'm glad Black Panther portrayed Black Panther's heritage as both admirable and flawed. I just wish they had done that with the other Marvel heroes too. Not just because it's personal to me because those heroes represent my cultural heritage but because it's more accurate. Western civilization and it's institutions have done many terrible things and also many amazingly good things. Western-developed Capitalism single-handedly raised more people out of poverty than probably any other anti-poverty program the world has ever known. America's military saved the world from the nazis and held back communism. The West invented human rights and abolition of slavery, and because it was the dominant player on the world stage during the 20th century, it was able to enshrine that in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Of course, The West has done horrible things too, like slavery and colonialism. That's my point: the history of The West is both. Just like every other culture in the history of the world. By Marvel making Western heritage and Institutions out to be merely bad, it is less complex, less profound, and less interesting than the world we actually live in.
Don't get me wrong: I am still a huge fan of Marvel movies and think they have have had an overwhelmingly positive impact on our culture. Marvel movies have taught a generation to want to be heroes, that good and evil exists and needs to be fought, to value freedom over security, that morality and sacrifice and a willingness to admit when we're wrong are what separate a hero and a bully, that sometimes we need old fashioned values, that black people and women are equally capable of being noble heroes, and that redemption is available to anyone who wants it. It's just a shame that it didn't also teach us how to have a nuanced view of our culture and heritage. If it did, maybe our politics today would be a little bit better. None of that takes away from the fact that these characters and these stories are worthy myths for our time and place. It just means, like anything else in our cultural heritage, we become better when we recognize both where it's right and where it's wrong.
That's true for The West. And it's true for Marvel movies