‘They will never let a Black man be Captain America’ — the words of Isaiah Bradley, a new character addition to the Marvel Universe, serving a greater purpose than just a storyline for Marvel but a political statement far different than anything we’ve seen before. In a politically fierce and racially tense climate like today, the release of Marvel’s spin-off TV show The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has delved into politically hot topics most other TV shows shy away from. But the question arises: does politics belong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

‘Marvel-lous’ propaganda

Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has a devout cult following. It’s highly unlikely that fans watch these movies for political statements. Politics and superheroes already seem like a bad combination. Certainly, politicians in capes is a setup for a punchline rather than a plotline.

And yet, Marvel is no stranger to politics. In fact, films like Captain Marvel and Captain America are bursting at the seams with American propaganda, however oblivious the fans may be.

State propaganda is often associated with impoverished, distant countries and autocratic rulers. But the reality is that Marvel films like Captain America and Iron Man are awash with it. So much so, that the Pentagon approves scripts, giving Marvel access to military-only equipment in return. It can be hard to believe that a country that prides itself so much on being ‘The Land of the Free’ still finds ways to influence the public through mass media.

Case studies

Take Iron Man. According to Spy Culture ‘the evidence for the US military’s involvement in the Iron Man franchise is overwhelming’. The Pentagon has had its own Entertainment Liaison Office since 1948. It often requests access to and changes scripts in exchange for locations. The Air Force has aided the production of the first Iron Man film numerous times through script research and dialogue assistance, on-location filming at Edwards Air Force Base, and even giving filming access to the F-22, C-17 aircraft and HH-60 helicopter.

The Captain America trilogy had assistance from the Department of Defence as well as other military organisations. Captain America: The First Avenger not only had technical advisers from the US but also Britain, including Billy Budd, a former British Royal Marine Commando. The film also credited the British Ministry of Defence.

Perhaps the most obvious case of propaganda in Marvel films was Captain Marvel, which grossed an extraordinary $1.128 billion worldwide in 2019. Firstly, the film’s protagonist Carol Danvers is a former US Air Force Pilot. Also, several scenes were shot in a US military base. The Department of Defence even promoted the film by tweeting, ‘Fifty airmen from the @144thFW served as extras in the new #CaptainMarvel film’ — Department of Defence (March 9, 2019).

Of course, Marvel is not the only franchise the DoD subsidises. There are hundreds of films and franchises endorsing the department in return for access to locations. But with its latest film release Avengers: Endgame grossing $2.798 bilion globally, perhaps it is time for people to be more aware of Marvel and its ties to the government.

Breaking new ground?

Marvel’s most recent release The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, is different. It’s not a subtle nod to the American government but an insight into how America treats its black population.

In the TV show, Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) is revealed to be a super soldier like Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Bradley was created by the US Government but this was never disclosed to the public. Instead, it’s Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) who exposes the secret. Bradley’s character mirrors the real-life tragedy of the Tuskegee experiments in 1932. The goal was to ‘observe the natural history of untreated syphilis’ in the black population. However, these African-American men were not told that they were infectious. They were never treated. And they remained under the impression that they were receiving treatment for ‘bad blood’ — an umbrella term that encompassed a wide range of ailments, including anaemia.

Another interesting arc of this story is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) who becomes the new Captain America. This is revealed at the end of Avengers: Endgame when Steve Rogers passes him the shield.  A shield that symbolises American hopes, dreams and values. Yet this symbol has never treated Wilson and his family with the same ideals it supposedly stands for. This is why Isaiah Bradley says to Sam: ‘if they did [let a black man be Captain America] no self-respecting black man would ever want to’. This is a hard-hitting narrative by Marvel; one that echoes a real-life message about the ongoing oppression of African-Americans.

The shield embodies the core of America. But America is a country that continues to ignore and whitewash the history of its black communities. Sam Wilson struggles with the shield in a way Steve Rogers never had to. Raising the question: what does it mean for a black man to carry the shield?

Despite the importance of the message, the show has received backlash. Some social media users argued that the message was performative, pointing out that there were few scenes that explored the theme of race. The scenes that were there (as when Wilson and Barnes receive different treatment during a police encounter), resolved themselves quickly and were not referenced again.

It’s clear that Marvel and politics have a long history. We may not become indoctrinated puppets of the state by watching Captain Marvel, but considering how much we spend on the franchise it’s an important factor to consider. Marvel tackling controversial affairs is refreshing. It captures the tension in society today while remaining true to the plot. Giving audiences the opportunity to reflect and debate the themes of the show is a positive.

Marvel has the potential to explore more politics through current affairs in upcoming productions. Perhaps this will pave the way for younger audiences to be exposed to a wider set of political issues that need a fresh pair of eyes.

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