11 Years Of The Marvel Socioeconomic Universe

MCU politics picture

By Neil Merrett.

Regardless of how the latest Avengers movie concludes this summer in their battle to topple a genocidal, if oddly sensitive galactic tyrant, the foremost cinematic superheroes of their age will continue to struggle against their greatest longstanding foe – economic malaise and social inequality.

Chapter 1: Coming of age

It has been 11 years since the Marvel Cinematic Universe – or the MCU as it is known – was launched. This ongoing storytelling device saw a number of top tier and seemingly C-list comic book characters sharing an in-movie world where they can all coexist and interact in lucrative ensemble movies between their solo films.

While it has since grown to include longstanding, and established movie superheroes such as Spider-Man, the MCU was launched relatively under the radar with Iron-Man, a scrappy underdog blockbuster starring a perfectly-cast, washed up actor.  

It is understandable that you may well be sick by this point of the more than twenty interconnected superhero sequels that have been launched over the last decade, but they have undeniably redefined mainstream filmmaking in unpredictable ways – not least in making you stay till the end of ten minutes of end credits.

Another of these ways is the parallel storyline that runs through almost every single film that has subsequently been released by Marvel Studios since 2008’s Iron Man.

This is a tale that charts political angst, unintended suffering and a lurching sentiment towards populism around the MCU as the backdrop for what is ostensibly a hunt for six magic gems that can rewrite reality.  

Each one of the MCU’s summer or winter blockbusters have seemingly occurred parallel to a similar sense of uncertainty and unease in the direction of our very real world politics over the last decade.  As a result, almost all have had something to say about those shifts, whether in some inconsequential or profound way.

  • Ultron: “Down in the real world, we’re faced with ugly choices…..
  • …I’m sorry , I know you mean well, you just didn’t think it through. You want to save the world, but you don’t want it to change.  How is humanity saved if it is not allowed to evolve?”

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014)

With the latest MCU movie set to hit cinemas this month with Avengers: Endgame, arguably the greatest connective thread of these films remains a shared sense of socioeconomic tension that affects all its characters in very different ways. 

Whether originally intended or not, themes of societal and economic isolation, as well as gender and class struggle permeate every movie, as well as some long-form TV spin-offs made exclusively for Netflix that are set in the MCU, albeit in the ghettos and dark alleys of the world deemed too street level for an Avenger.

After the Avengers first reveal themselves to the world in a triumphant battle to save New York from extra-terrestrial invaders, a seemingly minor public sector procurement dispute over a contract to clear up alien debris sets the scenes to transform an earnest, hardworking businessmen and his colleagues towards collective supervillainy.

Powerful street gangs meanwhile decide that armoured men and rage monsters will require increasingly daring and exotic approaches to their trade.

Likewise, a revenge plot dreamed up by long-dead Nazi scientists to build a shadowy immortal assassin sees our own defence apparatus slowly transforming into a fascist quasi-cult that opts to run unchecked surveillance and extra judicial killings.  If these things are done seemingly in the name of protecting society, can they really be such a bad thing for a mainstream cinema audience wanting a peaceful night out?

Even the story of a mythical substance from space that allows a fantastical fictional African kingdom to self-sufficiently isolate itself from a violent, unjust world, asks important questions about how entire races and sections of society must seemingly suffer to allow others to live a blissful life.

  • Prince N’Jobu: “I observed for as long as I could.  Their leaders have been assassinated, communities flooded with drugs and weapons.  They are overly policed and incarcerated.  All over the planet our people suffer because they don’t have the tools to fight back. With Vibranium weapons they could overthrow every country and Wakanada could rule them all….. the right way”

          Black Panther (2018)

Everything has a cost in the MCU – whether a super weapon that can effectively privatise world peace, the very human need to compromise some, or all of our ethical scruples to chase our dreams, or simply trying to give a child a better chance at a better life.  

There is real pathos here in these movies, but it is not always in the tales of heroic sacrifice and bad guy smashing.

BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese, which is a blog about films.