The opening salvo of the Avengers series features Tony Stark, an irreverent playboy genius who, having spent his life training that genius on the making of money, weapons and clever quips, is suddenly forced to reap what he’s sown. During a trip to showcase his most recent brainchild and the movie’s first pyrotechnics display, Tony is kidnapped and told to make this weapon for the enemy. Bluster and prowess have taken him off American soil, where they brought him so much success, and landed him in a violent reality he helped create. The course of the story — the story that launched now over a decade of marvelous Marvel movies (to be clear, I also think the X-Men series is wonderful, and we’re on decade three of that) — tracks Tony’s change of heart, initiated because his literal heart is threatened and forced to evolve.
If this hammer-you-over-the-head-with-the-message is not enough for you, fret not, for the Marvel universe is full of thinly veiled metaphors for questions of violence, heroism, the ethical limits of technology, the line between good and evil, etc. etc. Comic books (not all and not always, calm down, graphic novel geeks, I’m on your side) have a tendency to flatten and essentialize in pursuit of a, wide appeal (they were born in the US as a pulp genre) and b, message.
For example, if you didn’t notice, X-Men is largely about otherness, about the persecution of divergence. Obviously, to some (particularly those looking for it. Ahem, me.) X-Men is about Jews. (I’m like that kid in The Sixth Sense, but instead of dead people, I see Jewish people). A “race” of people capable of hiding in plain sight is persecuted for their perceived threat to the rest of the population. To others, X-Men is an indictment of US multiculturalism really being a bid to assimilate into an exclusively Anglo-Saxon version of American identity. To others, in my current favorite rendition caught in an interview with Sana Amanat on podcast Unladylike, it’s about reframing difference as an asset rather than a handicap. However you read it — because in this long list of three examples I’ve clearly left many out — the exaggerated, fantastical otherness of these others makes their symbolism unignorable. At the very least, they beg to be interpreted. Comics embrace camp; they do not fear hitting a stereotype so spot on that it resembles a high school creative writing class. The key is that they know they’re doing it, and they use that.
This kind of legibility is not only the root of a lot of the comic and comment contained in the recent films but also allows us to see how they quite blatantly reflect what we’re currently most scared of, particularly when considering threats to and from the US and its military. That showcase trip by Tony Stark is a pretty clear presentation of the military-industrial complex and a reflection on the image of US foreign policy.
It opens with a slight twist on Machiavelli’s assertion that it’s better to be feared than loved, limiting love to its lesser cousin, respect, and then demonstrating a power to destroy meant to convey biblical proportions. (The weapon is called Jericho). Here, Tony taps ethical questions we’ve had since we dropped two atomic bombs after WWII, after those two bombs were meant to obliterate not just the people they landed on but the nerve of people they might. This is a historical reference. The scene contains other references to public (mostly liberal) opinions about US military actions abroad. Choose your own adventure as to what recent events you think this statement alludes to: “Find an excuse to let one of these off the chain, and I personally guarantee you the bad guys won’t even want to come out of their caves.”
Tony talks about opinions on what weapons are for, how often they should be used. He advocates for their one-time use and says, “That’s how Dad did it. That’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.” Except, as the movie(s) will go on to point out, maybe not. What our hero has to turn away from is precisely this attitude. When he shows his partner his heart and decides to alter the direction of his company, it turns out the bad guy is within. The old man, the old guard, wants to preserve the military industrial complex. His drive is towards using ingenuity to make weapons of outsized destructive capabilities and, hold your breath for another historical reference that haunts us today in new renditions, the money he’s making by dealing arms to the country’s enemy. (Still waiting for a biopic where Jeff Bridges plays Ronald Reagan.)
I’d like to do a study of all the Avengers movies’ bad guys and weapons to track what it is we’re scared of and who we believe to be the enemy, particularly as these films frequently feature an enemy within, constantly bring up relationships with the military (which even the Pentagon has mixed feelings about) and repeatedly question the ethics of violence. But, one dissertation is enough for me for the time being, so I’ll settle for more questions and a quick reading of Spiderman: Far from Home.
— Spoiler alert —
Again, we have an enemy within, a disenchanted genius scorned by a martyred hero. Feel free to jump all over the symbolism of that. It’s fecund. But, after listening to a recent episode of Wait What’s podcast Should This Exist, in which they discussed unintended consequences in the spread of drone technology, I began to consider what monsters the current relationship of technology, weapons and politics creates. Mysterio’s ultimate artillery is a combination of the ability to harness people’s discontent (the motivated force of dismissed former Stark employees) and the leveraging of fake news into mass hysteria. He uses drones to project a hologram of a threatening force and, as they are weaponized, the fantasy monster becomes quite real. It has deadly consequences. In fact, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s character points out, the fantasy wouldn’t be effective unless it did. Spiderman is only able to defeat this enemy by using his sixth sense (not the same as my sixth sense; fewer Jews more “Peter tingle”) to see through it. I leave it to you then. What does this sound like? The same thing that whips our fear into a frenzy aims to have us think that it is destined to be our savior. It projects a threat, it makes that threat real, all in the service of making itself seem like the only thing uniquely equipped to rescue us. What does the Marvel universe think we’re scared of now?