Paz Ortiz ’26
On March 9, UChicago Philosophy Professor Robert Pippin held the annual Blanchard W. Means Memorial Lecture. If you, like me, attended it, one of your main takeaways might have been that there are essentially two types of films: those that have some truth to disclose to the audience, and those that don’t.
At face value, one might place Marvel movies—and the broader superhero genre—in the latter category. This was Professor Pippin’s position on the matter, and most of the attendees seemed to agree. This is not a “hot take” by any means. Arguably the most influential and prominent filmmaker alive, Taxi Driver’s Martin Scorsese was quoted in 2019 saying that he wouldn’t call superhero films actual cinema, further elaborating, “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Other prominent Hollywood figures, such as Academy Award winners Jodie Foster and Jane Campion, and Blade Runner’s Ridley Scott have echoed this sentiment. Based on this, it seems that the superhero genre is to the film industry what junk food is to haute cuisine: unsophisticated, without substance, and devoid of meaning.
I am of the opinion that this view falls short when understanding the phenomenon that are superhero flicks, particularly those under the Marvel umbrella. Firstly, I do not think it is possible to produce something without saying anything at all. You could argue that there are truths that are more relevant, or truths that are worth saying more than others, but the bottom line is that every piece of media, no matter how simple or poorly-executed, is an exercise in expression and, consequently, will express something. In the case of Marvel films, the message is often mistaken as inconsequential due to the movies’ lighthearted tone and wacky humor. Nonetheless, under that guise, there is a politically-charged message being sent to the millions of viewers faithfully tuning in for the next installment of their favorite comic book adaptation.
Did you know that one of Marvel Studios’ best friends is the Pentagon (a.k.a. The United States Department of Defense)? After the success of the studio’s first blockbuster, Iron Man, the Pentagon lent one-billion dollars to the studio, establishing a solid partnership and securing future collaboration. As stipulated in the deal, in order to receive military funding, Marvel had to portray the US military in a positive light. Not only that, but the upcoming movies’ pre-production would go through a script proof-reading phase in which the Pentagon could edit and had to ultimately approve the final story before it could move on to production.
This is not exclusive to the MCU. Recent critically-acclaimed films like Top Gun: Maverick had the US military involved in different phases of its production. However, there is something particularly alarming about the role of the military in Marvel movies specifically, considering how commercially and financially successful they are.
Take, for example, Spider-Man: Homecoming, one of my favorite Marvel flicks. In it, Peter Parker is masterfully taken back to the basics, and we are reminded that he is, after all, a working-class teenage outcast trying to do the right thing. Michael Keaton’s villain, the Vulture, is Peter’s narrative foil; like Peter, he has working-class origins, but, when presented with superhuman powers, he uses them to his and his family’s betterment only, not caring about the morality of selling weapons to criminals to support his own.
In the film’s final showdown, when Peter confronts him about his weapon-selling operation, the Vulture turns the question on him, inquiring how he is any different from Tony Stark, who, as far as we know, continues to work for the US government through SHIELD and is, well, a weapons manufacturer and a living weapon of mass destruction himself. The script is not willing to face this truth or, rather, thinks that it shouldn’t have to. After all, aren’t they the “good guys”? Aren’t you rooting for them for a reason?
With this, I don’t mean to say that you should not watch the MCU’s 13th installment of Eternals or Spider-Man 7: Homesickness—I know I probably will. I am painfully aware that Disney is past the point where an organized boycott could even tickle their toes for more than a second. This is more an acknowledgement that the media we consume, more often than not, has a political agenda and is, not so subtly, trying to shove it down our throats. Awareness is resistance, and resistance is power. Furthermore, while the discussion around Marvel Studios has been focused on whether or not their films should be called art, in my opinion, that is a debate that misses the point of why those movies exist in the first place. The real question is whether they have the power to make us more compliant to the capitalist, imperialist, US-centric regime they benefit from.
P.S.: Go watch Matt Reeves’ The Batman.