I’ll start this column out with a confession: In my youth, I was an honest to god comic book stan. We’re talking hours spent in comic book stores — which should give you a sense of my unbelievably rad seventh grade social life.
But, despite this love for comics, I’ve found that recent superhero movies just don’t do it for me. Somehow, I find it unappealing to constantly watch perfectly sculpted celebrities swooping in to save the world the day in skintight leather and latex. Also, with the notable exceptions of WandaVision and Black Panther, I would venture to say that the vast majority of superhero movies have started to fit into a series of tropes — the tortured anti-hero, the All-American goodie two shoes, blah, blah, blah — that leave them entirely interchangeable.
But, there’s something more nefarious at play. Recently, Marvel’s The Eternals has become the topic of a great deal of online discourse, in part because of a scene where Phastos, a character blessed with the power of invention — and Marvel’s first gay superhero — helps humanity create the atomic bomb. As you can probably imagine, Twitter saw this and lost it.
One podcaster, Jesse Hawkins, tweeted: “The gay Eternal assuming responsibility for the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima is even more amazing once you factor in that Marvel scripts are all approved in advance by the Pentagon.”
In response, James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, leapt to Marvel’s defense, explaining that 1) films using military assets need approval to make sure the military isn’t disparaged and 2) that the military doesn’t really approve any scripts.
So, our question becomes: Who’s telling the truth?
First, we need to note that the Department of Defense has a long history of working with film producers. Essentially, the arrangement is that if a producer wants to feature U.S. military equipment in their film, the department will provide funding and resources in exchange for controlling the military’s image. The practice goes back to the silent era, where the first ever Best Picture winner, Wings (1927) received Pentagon support. Since then, films ranging from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), King Kong (2005), Top Gun (1986) have received support from the Department of Defense. It works, too: following the navy’s rewrite of Top Gun and the general positive portrayal of the military, the navy saw a 500% increase in enlistments. The relationship, which has been persisting since the Cold War, is often termed the military-entertainment complex.
Marvel is but one of many industry tycoons working alongside the Department of Defense, with franchises such as Iron Man, Captain America and Captain Marvel being created in close collaboration with the military. But, also consider: any film, TV show, etc. that’s using U.S. military equipment is required to seek authorization from the Department of Defense. Which, for superhero movies and beyond, means that the vast majority of what you’re consuming has been whitewashed by the military so that pro-war propaganda can weasel its way into your malleable little brain. Pentagon funding aside, let’s consider the basic plot of the vast majority of Marvel movies: an attractive superhero travels to another country or world to fight a horde of faceless CGI monsters. Because, you know, apparently we should think that enemies overseas aren’t people. It seems obvious to me that there’s a degree of subconscious indoctrination taking place.
But, that’s also Hollywood. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when giants of the industry are against portraying stories that would undermine their power and privilege. There are, of course, films that seek to challenge the status-quo, whose careful analysis and artistry portray messages of resistance far better than any other art form. There’s also a bunch of shit-tier propaganda that uncritically accepts the world as it is. Which is not to say that propaganda can’t be artistic, just that it’s hard to create a well-crafted film or TV show that simultaneously beats you over the head with a pro-military message.
So, what do we do? Is it wrong to consume this media? I don’t necessarily think so. As I have pointed out, a great deal of media is propaganda of some sort. And, even when it’s not, I would venture to say that the content you’re consuming is probably being sent out via platforms controlled by billionaires. In the age of late capitalism, there will always be a moral dilemma posed by what you consume. But, in my mind, though we’re all ethically compromised, what truly determines whether your consumption is good or bad is how far you’ll go to question yourself, and whether or not you’ll blindly accept the world as it is.
Mira Kudva Driskell is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]. Portrait of a Gen Z on Fire runs alternate Mondays.