What better way to celebrate the beginning of summer than with an Avengers movie marathon? For future reference, the 8 films (9 counting The Winter Soldier, still in theaters) require a good 3 days to watch. You now know what I did with my most recent weekend…
Last summer when I did my LARC project on superheroes, I read an interesting essay (though it didn’t directly apply to my research topic at the time) on the concept of globalization in some recent superhero films. Anthony Peter Spanakos explores the connections among superheroes, postcolonial theory, and the U.S. military-industrial complex (MIC) in The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), and Avatar (2009). His essay, “Exceptional Recognition: The U.S. Global Dilemma in The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Avatar,” kept coming back to me as I rewatched all of the Avengers films, from Iron Man to Thor: The Dark World (2013). Spanakos offers a key insight into these and many other post-9/11 superhero films: that is, superheroes possess a very unusual kind of patriotism that runs counter to official government forces.
Spanakos takes an interest in how the superhero (rather than the government representatives in superhero stories) functions as a model of proper recognition between dominant global powers and former colonial or “Third World” countries and peoples. Superheroes achieve this, Spanakos states, “by showing the global superpower’s tendency to both exploit and colonize the other, while identifying an authentic patriotism with recognition of the other” (15). This “authentic patriotism” reacts against a government apparently dominated by the MIC, which ignores human rights and individual liberties in the name of “patriotism” and for the sake of eliminating any and all potential threats to the MIC-government and its official brand of patriotism. Therefore, Spanakos proposes, “the heroic struggle is to offer an alternative patriotism by defending what is just against official versions and representatives” (15).
As Spanakos notes, the real enemy in most of the Avengers films (he only examines the 3 released prior to 2011) is the MIC, often embodied in a particular supervillain and/or a group of supporting characters: Obadiah Stane/Ironmonger (Iron Man); General Ross and Emil Blonsky/The Abomination (The Incredible Hulk); Justin Hammer and Senator Stern (Iron Man 2); Agent Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. (Thor – this scenario gets really interesting!); Red Skull and HYDRA (Captain America: The First Avenger); and – again – S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Avengers. Against these representatives of the MIC and corrupt versions of official patriotism, the superheroes and their allies must redefine patriotism to defend justice and civil liberties in the name of the individual. Superheroes themselves may not need protection from the MIC, but non-superheroes do, as they lack the individual agency and special status of the superhero. The superhero’s defiance of the MIC’s domination results in a “counter-patriotism” (Spanakos 22) that sets superheroes against the official government as the true defenders of humanity and human rights and liberties.
Keeping the concept of counter-patriotism in mind, I’ll now examine – as briefly and concisely as possible – each of the “Phase One” (2008-2012) Avengers films to illustrate how each embodies a specific concern or fear about the role the MIC-government plays in individuals’ lives today. I’ll conclude by offering some thoughts on how this theme continues to shape the “Phase Two” films released so far: Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), as well as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show.
Iron Man (2008)
Iron Man revolves around Tony Stark’s realization that Stark Industries (SI) has become complicit in dealing weapons “under the table” to terrorist groups, namely the fictional Ten Rings. After being captured by the Ten Rings, who demand that Tony build them the Jericho missile he has just demonstrated to U.S. military officials, Tony is determined to use the Iron Man suit (which he created in captivity instead of building the Jericho) to destroy all SI weapons that have fallen into the wrong hands. Tony also shuts down all weapons production at SI, causing a panic as the company is the U.S. military’s primary weapons contractor.
Meanwhile, Tony discovers that Obadiah Stane, his father’s partner and the functioning head of SI (Tony has previously been too busy being a billionaire playboy), is responsible for the underhand weapons dealing and the attempt on Tony’s life by the Ten Rings in Afghanistan. Stane has no morals, readily morphing into the supervillain Ironmonger when he steals the arc reactor technology Tony has developed to power the Iron Man suit.
Iron Man confronts the post-9/11 fear that corrupt economic and political figures will fail to protect us from the greatest threats – which happen to be these corrupt figures themselves. This also means that the conventional villains, such as those explicitly labeled “terrorists” by the MIC’s representatives, acquire a different representation in these films. Rather than depict the Ten Rings as all-out evil terrorists, for instance, Iron Man represents them, particularly their leader, as intelligent and devoted fighters who are victimized by Stane and the MIC as much as Tony or any other U.S. citizen. Stane visits a Ten Rings camp only to disable their leader, kill all of his men, and steal the prototype Iron Man suit they have recovered from the desert where Tony escaped.
Tony demonstrates Spanakos’s counter-patriotism as he defeats Stane, destroys the remnants of SI’s weapons manufacturing (a nice side effect of the fight between Iron Man and Ironmonger), and declares to the world, “I am Iron Man.” Already a symbol of justice and hope, Tony/Iron Man steps forward as an individual who will not stay silent in the face of corrupt government and the “zero accountability” of the MIC. He also takes personal responsibility for SI’s role in fueling terrorism by destroying all illegally sold weapons and preventing further production.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Spanakos does an excellent job in pointing out how TIH represents the MIC’s potential to illegally and immorally intervene on non-U.S. soil to further the MIC’s interests. Bruce Banner is seemingly safe from the MIC, hidden away in a favela (shantytown; see Spanakos 18) of Rio de Janeiro, until an accidental drop of his blood in the bottling plant where he works lands him on the MIC’s radar. General Ross leads a military team into Brazil to capture Banner and bring him back to the U.S. for experimentation in the re-creation of a lost super-soldier serum. (I hear Captain America on the distant horizon.)
General Ross has no regard for Banner’s humanity or individuality – Banner is a scientific object, a rogue experiment to be caught and sent back to the lab. Banner has no civil rights – no rights of any kind – to the general. Emil Blonsky, a specialist General Ross brings in to help track and capture Banner, similarly disregards Banner’s humanity but seems to recognize him as an individual of some sort; Blonsky develops a rivalry with Banner-as-Hulk, becoming addicted to the enhancement serums administered to help him match the Hulk. Eventually, the addiction leads Blonsky to become the supervillain The Abomination – revealing another political fear at work in TIH: that the MIC is capable of creating monsters (literally in this case) in its pursuit of containing the “rogue” individual.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Fear of the MIC’s attitude toward the individual continues to structure IM2, which tracks the U.S. government’s efforts, embodied by Senator Stern, to force Tony to hand over the Iron Man suit. The government is adamant that Iron Man is a weapon – and, as it is a “weapon” not under their direct control, they fear Iron Man and Tony. Tony’s counter-patriotism is not a threat to the American population, as Senator Stern claims – Tony has only ever wanted to protect the American people from any and all threats, whether it be terrorists, Stark Industries, or the government. Hence, Tony is a very real threat to the existing government structure and the MIC.
Justin Hammer, the government’s new primary weapons contractor, seeks not only to acquire Tony’s former position as primary contractor but also to usurp the place he holds as Iron Man. Hammer “weaponizes” an Iron Man suit Tony’s friend Colonel James Rhodes (“Rhody”) has acquired, making the altered suit the centerpiece of his exhibition at the Stark Expo. Hammer represents all that is shifty and distasteful about the MIC, not least of which is his patronizing attitude toward Ivan Vanko/Whiplash. Rhody eventually takes the suit back to become the superhero War Machine, engaging in counter-patriotism alongside Tony rather than the official yet inauthentic patriotism of Senator Stern and Justin Hammer.
This is where things get really interesting (if they weren’t before). Up to this point in the Avengers films, Agent Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. have appeared as “good guy” figures assisting Tony Stark. In Thor, however, Coulson plays the villain when he confiscates all of Jane Foster’s research following Thor’s arrival in Puente Antiguo, New Mexico. When Thor tries to reclaim Mjolnir from the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility built around the hammer’s crash site, Coulson detains Thor for interrogation. Thor’s counter-patriotism (though he is Asgardian) appears in his willingness to sacrifice himself for Jane and her friends, Sif and the Warriors Three (who have come to Earth to take Thor home to Asgard), and the people of Puente Antiguo. Only at this point does Thor regain his powers, which Odin took from him as punishment for unjustly invading Jotunheim. (Hmmm…just as Coulson unjustly invades Jane Foster’s lab to steal her research…)
Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D., meanwhile, are too busy getting in Thor’s way (or trying to) to be of any help in this film’s superheroics. It’s so interesting to see Coulson as the “bad guy” because we know from the Iron Man films that S.H.I.E.L.D. is an organization meant to aid in the superheroic mission. However, its affinity to the U.S. government limits its ability to help Thor, who is initially believed to be a terrorist and therefore an enemy of the U.S. government/MIC. Perhaps this is where S.H.I.E.L.D.’s trouble began…
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Now, back to the 1940s. The U.S. military is a good force in this film, but then it’s World War II, before the advent of the MIC and its Cold War intrusions into global military politics. Red Skull and HYDRA, however, indicate the future of the U.S. MIC – an aggressive, destructive military organization bent on protecting its own interests rather than individuals and their liberties.
Cap and his Howling Commandos similarly suggest the future of the superhero: an elite task force outside of conventional armed forces (the Howling Commandos represent an amalgam of several Allied military forces), a unit whose sole purpose is to eliminate the true, most dire threats against all people and their continued freedom.
The Avengers (2012)
When Cap wakes up 70 years later after being frozen in ice, the world has changed with the advent of a different politics of national and global leadership. The enemy resting below the Avengers’ feet isn’t Loki – he’s easy to see and relatively easy to fight. S.H.I.E.L.D. and its plans to use HYDRA technology to build weapons of mass destruction, however, are a serious threat that the Avengers uncover but have no time to fight. They are outraged – Cap especially – that Director Fury has agreed to make these weapons. Even more worrisome in this film is the World Security Council’s decision to drop a nuclear bomb on New York City because they think the Avengers might fail to stop Loki and his invading alien army.
Yes, The Avengers is mostly about the Avengers fighting Loki – but there is a bigger and more terrifying enemy hidden right at home within S.H.I.E.L.D. as Phase One draws to a close…
Phase Two films
Concerns over the MIC continue to play a crucial role in the post-Avengers Marvel films. Iron Man 3 features War Machine’s “rebranding” into the ill-fated Iron Patriot, whom the supervillain The Mandarin appropriates in an attempt to gain control over the war on terrorism – and play both sides to his own advantage. The U.S. government’s past comes back to haunt it, and corrupt public figures abound. Thank goodness the MIC largely keeps its nose out of Thor: The Dark World, as its interference would be extremely unwelcome as Thor, Jane, and their allies fight to keep the Dark Elves from returning the universe to a state of total darkness. (“State of total darkness” – that would be a good allegorical pun, though, right?)
Fears about the MIC hit a high point in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new technology threatens to create a state of fear rather than freedom: “Project Insight” launches 4 helicarriers, like the one seen in The Avengers, that can target and eliminate any “threat” anywhere in the world. (Cap is on that threat list, so I’m guessing Project Insight’s threat assessment system is a little off.) The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. simultaneously reveal that HYDRA has infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. from the agency’s inception – that certainly explains the threat assessment inaccuracy! TWS also depicts HYDRA’s use of the Winter Soldier – actually Sergeant James “Bucky” Barnes, Cap’s best friend presumed dead during a mission in The First Avenger. They’ve wiped Bucky’s memories, creating a dark version of Captain America to inspire terror and wreak chaos since WWII.
Post-Winter Soldier, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continue to fight HYDRA, and I bet that Avengers 2: Age of Ultron will have at least something to do with the MIC again in 2015. So let the counter-patriotism of Marvel superheroes and their allies continue!
*On a gender studies note, I also just have to say how impressed I am by the Marvel-ous women of the Avengers films. Since Black Widow appeared in 2010, the Avengers films have steadily increased the presence and strength of their female characters. In Iron Man 3, for instance, have you ever noticed that not one of the women injected with Extremis suffers the explosive rejection of the serum? Only male characters do. Plus, Pepper gets her own superpowers, saves Tony twice, and defeats The Mandarin without any help – Tony’s sitting on the sidelines, stunned and not a little scared, I think, by his tough girlfriend. Then there’s the adorable Darcy-Ian romance in Thor: The Dark World, which plays on rom-com stereotypes to switch the gendered romance roles of Darcy and Ian. Not to mention Frigga’s powerful presence and noble sacrifice, which the funeral scene conveys with enormous respect for Asgard’s fallen queen. Then The Winter Soldier gives us 3 extremely powerful, butt-kicking women: Black Widow, Maria Hill, and Agent 13; we also get Peggy Carter back, albeit briefly and with not a dry eye in the audience. What’s great about this is a lot of these examples are historically ways that women were marginalized through narrative detail, creating cinematic “micro-aggressions” of a sort that undermined women’s presence as a whole within the film. Whether intentional or just a sign of the times, it’s wonderful to see the best superhero films out there today being so respectful and inclusive toward female characters at a detailed level. If only everyone else in superhero-world could treat their female characters the way the Avengers films are treating their awesome women…