Marvel, Perpetual War, and State Violence

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most successful film franchises of all time. But that doesn’t mean they should promote state and military violence.

Barbed wire fence at sunset
Photo by Ali Abdul Rahman / Unsplash

After the launch of Disney+, the company's streaming service, I realized I'd never really watched any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films. Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers had all passed me by. Happily, I could now watch them in chronological order. So began nearly three weeks of daily superhero movies.

In the beginning, the first MCU movie, Iron Man, takes a broad anti-weapons and anti-war stance. Tony Stark, the owner of Stark Industries, a weapons manufacturer, is kidnapped and designs an early version of the Iron Man suit to escape. The tropes of the 2000s heavily influence this plot - the 'bad guys' are from the Middle East, assumed to be terrorists, while the 'good guys' are white Americans.

However, during his captivity, Stark sees his weapons causing destruction and death at the hands of the bad guys - not the freedom and liberation of the US military. Back home and in with a desire to remedy this situation, he develops the full Iron Man suit to promote peace (using violent ends, but still its progress).

What is disappointing, though, is Marvel's reliance on the traditional good-vs-evil trope to justify violence. This is a common issue in all films, of course, but seems at odds with the character's (and the film's) motivations. You could view it as a personal flaw in Tony Stark, and therefore an integral part of the storytelling.

As you work through the early Marvel films, you see the same juxtaposition play out repeatedly. Captain America, for example, fights the Nazis (admirable) but then will later verbally denounce violence and murder while perpetuating it himself. Throughout the Iron Man trilogy, as the narrative develops, you see the films repeatedly excuse violence and murder, so long as you are on the 'right' side of the fight.

Far from denouncing violence, by Iron Man 3, Stark has developed a remote army of drone Iron Man suits that can kill the bad guys with indiscriminate ease. The stolen Iron Man suit from the second film now sits comfortably within the US military as War Machine, maiming and killing in the name of US foreign policy.

It's easy to write off these inconsistencies; these are superhero movies; after all, it'd be irrational not to expect some level of violence. However, it does seem at odds with the expressed anti-weapons stance taken by the first Iron Man movie, especially as they pay superficial lip service to the concept throughout the MCU, while also blatantly ignoring it.

The concern I have with this isn't about individual violence. Opportunists frequently love to blame all forms of media (music, films, video games, even books) for violence. Community-level violence isn't influenced by entertainment, but rather, the social and economic circumstances around it. Despite high profile incidents, there has never been an evidence-backed claim that the perpetrator's choice of entertainment was the root cause.

State violence, and justification of war, on the other hand, is a specific issue in the MCU. Each film exposes justifications for the weaponization of law enforcement, the expansion of military force, and violence as a means to peace. It's clear that Marvel didn't create this issue - state violence has been an issue in the US and elsewhere for many years. However, the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement's resurgence, and the subsequent events of police violence show that there are ongoing issues at play.

In any case, these films are entertainment, and the flippancy with which they treat death is, in some ways, trivial. But the impact of weapons and state violence are very much felt by the real people that are unable to defend themselves from it. This is seen across the world, and although it does affect some communities more than others, justifying state violence affects all of us, even if you haven't personally experienced the consequences (yet).

As the MCU has expanded, Marvel has changed as well. The company has shown that it can use its position to create positive change. For example, after the production of Thor: Ragnorok moved to Australia, the firm opted to hire local and indigenous actors to fill some roles, giving some level of support to the communities they operate in. A similar claim can be made of the effort Marvel undertook to ensure Black Panther represented the Black community and African culture.

If the company can act responsibly, why not question their role in the promotion of violence? The MCU is the most successful film franchise in history, owned by one of the world's largest media companies. Millions worldwide see the movies, and the production and storytelling choices they make have an impact.

Since the Second World War, governments around the world have sought to establish Perpetual Wars to justify their large defense budgets, enormous collections of high-cost weaponry, and the control and manipulation of citizens around the world. These so-called wars are not wars in the traditional sense; there is no battle to be won, no concrete enemy to overcome, and no fixed outcome.

Consider The War on Drugs or The War on Terror. Who is the enemy here? How do we know when we've won? What is the goal? These are wars with no end, yet their existence justifies violence, militarization, and murder all for political purposes. Authorities have even used the language of war when discussing the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, the virus should be treated seriously, but with science, not violence and oppression.

Ultimately, war isn't for you or me, but for those in power to meet political ends. It's probably apparent, I take an anti-war stance; the suffering and death caused by this violence - not just to the opposing side, but to those who put themselves at risk in our armies and law enforcement - are not, in my view, justified. However, I'm a realist. Sadly, there are times when war is inevitable and could even be the best worst solution in some situations.

However, we must work to dismantle the business of war. There is nothing noble in developing weapons capable of murder and then selling them to regimes around the world to kill and oppress, all for the sake of making money. This is where organizations like the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) are so vital.

We should value all human life and have empathy for one another. Only when we can consider another's experiences, especially when they differ from our own, can we begin to dismantle oppression and racism. All of us should be equal, but right now, we're not. But we can change this.