Chapter 4: Class warfare and galactic genocide
The critic and author Noah Berlatsky, in a piece for the LA Times last year, noted that Marvel Comics – once a struggling company that is now owned by the Walt Disney corporation – was in the businesses of putting out corporate fantasies. As such, the MCU could identify issues with the Status Quo and our current consumerist society, but never present real solutions, he argued.
Berlatsky noted that while the films of the MCU and the Disney-owned Star Wars could still be entertaining and occasionally thoughtful, they still rarely advocate for a total overthrow of a system that benefits its parent company’s financial interests, whether from a political standpoint, or in terms of wider societal issues such as climate change.
He cited the main villain of Killmonger, played by Michael B Jordan, in 2018’s Black Panther, and his efforts to otherthrow white supremacy worldwide by giving the fictional kingdom of Wakanda’s incredible technological and energy resources to black people around the world.
Berlatsky writes, “The film agrees with Killmonger that racism and imperialism are a scourge, but it takes care to present him as ruthless and misguided, most egregiously when he coldly murders his girlfriend.”
“Revolutionaries may identify real problems in comic book films, but they aren’t to be trusted to remedy them. Better to leave that to the forces of order, which in this case means the Black Panther, a hereditary monarch.”
A similar approach to the nuanced villainy of Killmonger is seen in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. This time, villainy is prismed in the blue collar form of Adrian Toomes, a radically reimagined approach to the classic Spider-man villain, the Vulture.
Here Toomes, played by Michael Keaton, is a resourceful man who has invested heavily in creating an honest livelihood for himself and a number of other able colleagues by cleaning up the alien artifacts left behind in the Avengers’ first major battle in New York.
With his family’s livelihood at stake, the government revokes his contract to collect ‘exotic materials’ in the city, favouring instead to give the job to Iron-Man. As one of Toomes’ associates, who later goes on to become the villainous Shocker notes, “So now the arsehole’s who made this mess are being paid to clear it up.”
Having been left behind in the Avenger’s world in his attempts at trying to do the right thing by his family and colleagues, the Vulture switches his resources to the profitable emerging economy of Supervillainy instead. Only now, he takes the alien materials for himself, repurposing them with his colleagues into amazing new weapons for sale.
In many ways, Toomes is the living embodiment of an American Dream that has somehow lost his way.
In the MCU, everything has a cost.
Much like Toomes, the MCU’s Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland, is the first lower class, lower income Avenger, striving to get by and support his one single guardian in the world, the redoubtable May Parker, played by Marisa Tomei.
Even in attending a seemingly specialised science school in his native Queens, Spider-Man is shown to be a dumpster diver who collects old tech and makes his costume out of some modified swimming goggles and fabric. The film shows his ingenuity and wide knowledge of modern pop culture are as much a part of his skill set power as those abilities obtained by a radioactive spider-bite.
Despite a rocky start, Parker proves himself to Iron-Man and earns a spot on the Avengers for bringing Toomes to justice with nothing but his homemade costume and smarts.
While Iron-Man and Spider-man are firm allies by the end of the movie, the circumstances that created the Vulture and his supervillain associates remain unaddressed. Moral compasses aside, the Vulture and Spider-Man, have much more in common than the billionaire Tony Stark does to Peter Parker.
Iron-Man may have a special Iron-Spider suit ready for Peter Parker, but once again, the real world problems that plight both reality and the MCU remain out of the purview of the Avengers.
- Adrian Toomes: “Peter, you are young. You don’t know how the world works…”
- Peter Parker: “Yeah, but I understand that selling weapons to criminals is wrong…”
- Adrian Toomes: “How do you think your buddy Stark paid for that tower, or any of his little toys?
- “Those people Pete. Those people up there, the rich and the powerful. They do whatever they want. Guys like us, you and me, they don’t care about us. We build their roads and we fight all their wars, and everything, but they don’t care about us. We have to pick up after them and eat their table scraps. That’s how it is. I know you know what I am talking about.”
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
The main aim of the MCU in its current form has been to create an epic showdown where the now divided Avengers will reform for this summer’s Avengers: Endgame.
Here the remainder of the Avengers will try to bring down the mad intergalactic Titan Thanos, after he successfully assembled the six magical stones in Avengers: Infinity War. In doing so, he eliminated half of all sentient life across the universe.
Compared to the story themes of Black Panther, or even Spider-Man: Homecoming, the intergalactic exploits of the Avengers, even with the titular heroes of the aforementioned movies involved, should arguably be free of any political subtext.
Yet even Thanos, performed in motion capture by Josh Brolin, a gigantic purple space being capable of punching out the Incredible Hulk, couches his own mania in socioeconomics.
- “Thanos: Where do you think he brought you?”
- Dr Strange: “Let me guess, your home.”
- Thanos: “It was, and it was beautiful. Titan was like most planets, too many mouths, not enough to go around. When we faced extinction, I offered a solution.”
- Dr Strange: “Genocide?”
- Thanos: “But random, dispassionate, fair to rich and poor alike. They called me a mad man, and what I predicted came to pass.”
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
In the inevitable one-on-one showdown between Iron-Man of Earth and Thanos of Titan, the latter reveals that he has long been aware of the work and ways of Tony Stark, even across the galaxy. He notes that the superhero isn’t the only one “cursed with knowledge.”
In true MCU style, the pathos from the battle is less about heroic sacrifice, and more that you are watching two beings that although not a physical match, are mirror images of what happens when power is left unchecked and cut free of oversight and compassion.
These are both superbeings yes, but the two men understand that despite their moral differences on the value of collective life, they are driven by a need to save their respective worlds, and the indignation that they may be both inadequate for the complexity of the task.
In the world of the Avengers, intergalactic threats tend to come and go, but you cannot always punch politics and its complexities into an easily manageable form.
Although, we share several political similarities and issues with the cinematic world of Captain America and Iron-Man, real life is yet to give us a magical gauntlet to rewrite society’s problems.
Somehow we have to find a ways forward. But in times like this, when the path forward is uncertain, and the challenges ahead seem insurmountable, it still may be best to dwell on the words of a hero such as Captain America – even if he is a fugitive.
- Tony Stark: “We’re the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day. But that up there, that’s the endgame. How are you guys planning on beating that?”
- Captain America: “Together”
- Tony Stark: “We’ll lose.”
- Captain America: “Then we’ll do that together too.”
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)