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Local News

New Book, Panel at Duke University Explore the Politics of the Marvel Film Phenomenon

Credit: iStock

By Joe Killian, NC Policy Watch

Like so many things, for good or ill, it started on Twitter.

A host of political scientists from across the country had just seen 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and were discussing it online.

Then, much of the world was doing the same.

Upon release, the film — a climactic point in the phenomenally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe of interconnected superhero films — had a worldwide opening that brought in more than $1 billion. It would go on to become the then-highest grossing film of all time, making nearly $2.8 billion worldwide.

But this group of scholars wasn’t quibbling over potential holes in the film’s complex time-travel plot or sparring over whether The Hulk could single-handedly defeat Thanos.

They were talking about “that scene” — a moment in the film’s final battle in which nearly every prominent female character in the Marvel Films world comes together on screen to support each other as they battle the film’s Big Bad. Many fans, and even people involved in making the movie, thought it was a clumsy quasi-feminist statement — even for a film franchise not always subtle in its messaging.

“Marvel was clearly trying to make a statement with how inclusive and ‘gender equality’ they were being,” said Lilly Goren, professor of Political Science and Global Studies at Carroll University in Wisconsin. “And everybody thought it was incredibly corny. So a number of us were commenting on that and about how, at the same time, that End Game made over a billion dollars in five days, which many of us thought was kind of mind boggling and strange.”

Given the film’s total worldwide grosses, it’s estimated more than 100 million people ultimately saw the film — more than the number of Americans who voted in their local and state elections, and far more than were taking political science courses. Those audience members were obviously being presented with political and social ideas by these films — from the eye-rollingly simplistic to the surprisingly complex and nuanced.

“What impact was that having?” some of the political scientists wondered.

“And somebody in that mix said, ‘Hey, anybody want to write a book about the politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?’”

Dr. Lilly Goren

That book, co-edited by Goren and Duke University Political Science Professor Dr. Nicholas Carnes, was published in December. It brings together more than 25 leading scholars who contributed essays on everything from the and global politics of Black Panther (2018), second-wave feminism in Captain Marvel (2019) and the complex and shifting depictions of the role of government and corporations in the Captain AmericaAvengers and Iron Man films.

On Wednesday evening, Goren and Carnes will be part of a panel discussion on the book at Duke that will include NPR TV critic and professor at Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center, Eric Deggans, and Tom DeFalco, a writer and former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.

The event kicks off at 5 p.m. in the Holsti-Anderson Room (Room 153) at Rubenstein Library, on Duke’s West Campus at 411 Chapel Hill Drive in Durham. Parking is available at the Bryan Center garage on Science Drive.

The politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been a frequent target for conservative critics. Infamously, Lt. Governor Mark Robinson — who is Black — once made comments about the Black Panther film that were condemned as anti-Semitic.

Dr. Nicholas Carnes

“It is absolutely AMAZING to me that people who know so little about their true history and REFUSE to acknowledge the pure sorry state of their current condition can get so excited about a fictional ‘hero’ created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by satanic Marxist,” Robinson said wrote in a Facebook post.

“How can this trash, that was only created to pull the shekels out of your Schvartze pockets, invoke any pride?” Robinson wrote.

But the film, about the ruler of a technologically advanced African nation that was never conquered by outside colonial interests, was widely embraced by both Black audiences in America and African fans. The comics character on which the movie was based debuted in Marvel comics in 1966, when the publisher was intentionally wading into current political and social conversations.

The film took that tradition and expanded it, giving a global film audience a look at discussions of race, colonialism, isolationism versus globalism, and thorny issues of how marginalized people should deal with their history of oppression and its legacy. Essays in the book explore those issues and how the Marvel movies handle them.

But Marvel’s history of political and social comment goes back much further. The cover of Captain America #1 depicted the titular patriotic hero giving Adolph Hitler a knockout punch.

“That was 1941,” said Carnes. “He’s punching Hitler in the face and the US has not yet gone to war. That’s the amazing thing about that cover. It wasn’t like we’re in the war and this is supporting the war effort. That was issue advocacy. They were saying, ‘Why is the U.S. sitting out this conflict? We should be punching Hitler in the face!’”

Two years before that cover, American supporters of Hitler and fascism in Europe held a rally at Madison Square Garden. Billed as a “Pro American Rally,” it drew more than 20,000 people. From today’s perspective, it’s easy to see Captain America punching Hitler as a pop Americana, but at the time it was revolutionary art for which its creators received threats and anti-Semitic attacks that make Robinson’s criticisms of the Black Panther film seem tame.

The Captain America films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe make comedic reference to that cover and go on to tackle modern issues of government overreach, America’s and the Western world’s place in a global community, and whether heroism comes from military might or character.

One essay in the book took on the Herculean political science task of cataloging all of the appearances of the U.S. government in its various forms in the Marvel films and whether the depiction is positive, negative, neither or both.

Beyond the politics of the stories, the book delves into the politics of how the movies themselves are made and marketed — including the difficult needle Marvel’s owner Disney continues to thread in foreign markets. For maximum marketability, some of the stories and characters have changed in ways small and large as they make their way to the screen. The sexuality of LGBTQ characters is frequently diminished or entirely eliminated, while straight characters roll around in bed together. Stories set in politically fraught places like Tibet are instead moved to Nepal or changed to fictional cities in fictional countries.

“If one of the movies had been set in Tibet, it might not have been able to be released in China,” Carnes said. “And so we also see politics creeping in and constraining, where in order to maximize audience, they really have to say, ‘Well, we can’t do things that we worry are too divisive or too overt, that are gonna get us into real world politics.’ Which I think Disney gets pulled into increasingly whether they like it or not.”

Bringing together so many scholars from so many disciplines made for revelations even for Carnes and Goren, who are themselves political scientists.

“I do a lot of work and popular culture,” Goren said. “But I had not wrangled the sort of MCU into any kind of like, anything more than I saw these movies and enjoyed them. And I could see these things coming through it. But I hadn’t really thought deeply about a lot of what our authors presented to us.”

One example, Goren said, is an essay in the book that examines The Avengers as a group of disparate outsiders who form a chosen family.

“It’s this great chapter that just talks all about this understanding of ‘found family’ and support system within our concepts of what it means to be family,” Goren said. “And it was just like, “Yes, that’s, that’s exactly it. I had seen it, but I hadn’t put it into that context. But this is what she studies in political theory, and so it was really amazing for her to sort of take this on and apply it across different MCU properties because it’s so present across them all.”

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the highest grossing film franchise of all time — bigger than Star WarsThe Lord of the Rings films and even the long-running James Bond franchise. The impact of pop culture that widely consumed is worth examining more deeply, Goren and Carnes said.

“These messages about family or about gender and women’s place in the world, about government and philosophy, these are messages that we’re getting sort of passively in the background in what we’re consuming as entertainment,” Carnes said. “So I think this book is a contribution in really thinking about those messages.”