Marvel Comics, or rather, Marvel Entertainment as the corporation now has expanded into various companies responsible for diverse media enterprises, started out as one of many American comic book publishers.
The many story arcs, story backgrounds, locations, family trees and so forth developed originally by Marvel‘s artists are by now complicated and span hundreds of comic book years, locations, planets and kingdoms; hence, the present description of that realm or universe is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, MCU. After all, “eight out of the twenty-five highest grossing films of all time are MCU movies, as many as the DC Comics, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park franchises combined …”
And the MCU is big. Really big. In fact, with every new comic book, every movie, Disney+ or Netflix series episode it grows. A universe that lives on thematic, historical, political and mythical story arcs, and related lore. (William Faulkner’s “Satoris” family tree is impressive, but in comparison, here looks microscopical.)
The collection of the essays in The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be on any number of topics, so big and “American” are its aspects. However, the focus here is on the political prospects of the MCU. For example questions of how democracy, participation, and anything that will (or should) ensure the correct workings of some fundamentals of American ideals and legislative are described or supported. How are America’s enemies identified and what measures are taken to either destroy or support such a system? Actually, there are many more aspects researched here, but the overall theme is politics and – due to the huge audiences that consume MCU products – it is a perfect vehicle to raise questions about the nation’s (or any nation’s) political system.
Generally, political theory and the various legal and philosophical origins of the American constitution (usually a dry, and at times tough enterprise to convey) are discussed. And by giving certain aspects and impulses names, faces, superheroes and their respective antagonists who want to either support or sabotage the basics of a free society, such a project is facilitated massively. As comic books are a product of popular culture, they naturally are influenced by political discourse. Both large subject areas, of course, interact and influence each other.
And naturally, the MCU “… moreover, is itself a project of contemporary politics and society. Many of its stories seem to be direct responses to the pressures and problems of the day” remind us editors Nicholas Carnes and Lilly J. Goren. “Racial injustice, environmental catastrophe, and political misinformation aren’t just contemporary social ills, they’re also key thematic elements of recent MCU blockbusters… .”
All over the world probably thousands of people who watched at least a single MCU film actually will have changed their way of looking at politics, the role of their government and their own meaning in society and may have changed their lives (in a way). Furthermore, various new inputs may have been created by individuals, on a communal basis, maybe in the workplace or the way to treat fellow citizens, the environment or approach parliamentary discussions and read political speeches or programs with greater awareness. Popular culture is a powerful carrier of ideas.
Assembled in this huge volume, however, are not only sociologists or scholars of democracy. As the first twenty-three Marvel films (until 2019), and additional eight MCU-related Marvel Television shows are under inspection here, a very mixed team went to work to complete the four chapters and altogether 25 texts. The contributors are scholars of the humanities, identity politics, mass communication, sociology, philosophy, film studies, civil-military relations, and other fields, although clearly the team of political science specialists outnumbers the others. While chapter one has the focus on the early Marvel stories, and the political and social issues applied, the next section deals with the representation of the main themes as depicted in the Golden Age of Comics, and how, for example, the military and power structures are presented decades later in different media.
The texts of chapter three deal with diversity and representation, and explores sexuality, gender themes, for example, as related to Black Widow, Jessica Jones, Captain Marvel, or Agent Peggy Carter at different times. The concluding chapter four in a brief solitary text considers lessons learned so far and the (current and future) meaning of the MCU.
The critical approach of the texts assembled here is mandatory. As the compilation’s goal is “… to shed light on the complex interactions between contemporary politics, the business of filmmaking, and the popular culture phenomenon that is the MCU.” Even though finding outstanding texts here is not easy, as all contributors really did a good job, maybe Christopher J. Galdiere’s “Captain America vs. James Madison,” Lilly J. Goren’s “Nostalgia, Nationalism, and Marvel Superheroes” and Elizabeth Barringer’s “Democratic Monstrosity: Marvel’s Avengers and Extraordinary Politics” deserve special attention.
So what do audiences anticipate when consuming MCU products, how will themes and plots shape and promote political agendas, or personal agendas and are there really lessons to learn from the movies or can future crowds still expect that by the end of the film the superheros not only will have saved Earth one more time and restored the status quo? Many suggestions, answers and assumptions can be found right here. This is excellent academic research, and as an extra, it does what comic books (and related media) always did: it will entertain you.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2023
Nicholas Carnes and Lilly J. Goren (eds.) The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Politics and Popular Culture Series) University Press of Kansas, 2022, 456 p.