The Guy Selling the Sticks

The twisting of the film’s political backdrop to deflect real-world blame must be discussed, if we’re to have a complete understanding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man is, after all, one of the many Hollywood films partially funded by The Pentagon. So, a story directly (or even indirectly) critical of America’s role in the Middle East was likely never an option, even in a film that seeks to critique violence in the region. The result is the MCU being built on a shaky political foundation, one that leans, more often than not, towards supporting the American status quo.

Stark stops building weapons because of the missiles that fall through the cracks. His objection, as it pertains to the film’s depiction of war, is his weaponry being sold to “the other side” and used to kill Americans. However, the effects of these weapons when used by Americans to kill anyone else is never called into question. This falls perfectly in line with Department of Defense’s involvement in the film, leasing out locations and equipment insured for $10 million (you can download the D.O.D. Production Assistance Agreement for Iron Man here, obtained by the folks at SpyCulture under the Freedom of Information Act).

A Production Assistance Agreement from the Pentagon locks a film in to a military-approved version of its script. Iron Man wasn’t the only Marvel film to receive military assistance either; Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel, films with their own issues with how they approach military politics, were also made with military input.  

Military-funding is common in American cinema and television — how do you think the Transformers movies got all those tanks? — but it’s rarely mentioned in fan-discussions about Marvel, let alone by western critics increasingly fixated on the Chinese government’s role in shaping the blockbuster landscape. Modern Hollywood isn’t free of American government influence, and neither is the world’s preeminent blockbuster franchise.

A pertinent example of the military’s role in Iron Man comes courtesy of a deleted scene, in which one U.S. soldier tells another that “people would walk over hot coals for the opportunities he has.” This line never made it to the finished film, but its original incarnation was “people would kill themselves for the opportunities he has.” This phrasing was strongly objected to by Phil Strub, the D.O.D.’s chief Hollywood liaison since 1989, in an apparently heated on-set confrontation with the film’s director. On one hand, it’s a minor occurrence. The line didn’t matter in the long run since it was cut from the film, but it’s also emblematic of a larger problem. The mere notion of a U.S. military member mentioning suicide, even in a joking context, was enough for Strub to call for censorship — in the literal government censorship use of the word — presumably, due to the barely-addressed epidemic of veteran suicides.

It isn’t hard to see how Iron Man might have military appeasement on its mind. Thus, the mere implication of America’s ill-decisions in the Middle East was likely a non-starter, even in a film about the misuse of weapons of war.

Is Iron Man Military Propaganda?

In short, yes. It’s designed, with direct influence of the U.S. government and paints a skewed narrative of American foreign policy, one in which the U.S. military neither causes nor exacerbates any of the destruction seen in the film. The blame is passed entirely to industry and to hostile foreign entities, a narrative decision whose ripple effect can be felt throughout the series.

A number of studio films each year have the distinction of military funding, so it’s hardly shocking that a company like Marvel, despite its anti-weapons manufacture flagship character, would tie up with Defense Contractor Northrop Grumman in 2017. A chief complaint to this comic partnership was the ethos of Tony Stark, which fans used to lambast Marvel for its hypocrisy. But this hypocrisy wasn’t new; it had been built into Marvel’s DNA ever since Iron Man hit cinemas. The possibility of military partnership isn’t a bug in the Marvel machine. It’s a feature, and it’s one we haven’t really stopped to grapple with as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown in global influence.

The MCU often sees heroes struggling with power and how to wield it, but its questions of intervention are locked within an invisible framework, one that allows for lip-service to questioning power, yet one that implicitly comes down on the side of power itself, forever protecting the American status quo in the larger Marvel narrative.

The closest thing to a counter-example comes from the other side of the globe. A story like Yeon Sang-ho’s Psychokinesis, the 2018 Korean superhero dramedy, wouldn’t fly in the MCU. Yeon’s film features a working-class father gaining powers and fighting off police violence against the poor; in the process, the film seeks to hold real-world power structure accountable, rather than using metaphorical villains that let real ones off the hook (Metaphors don’t quite work as intended when the real issues being alluded to are also present in the narrative, but remain unaddressed).

Time and time again, Marvel’s villains have been adjacent to real-world structures, but they are never the structures themselves, despite embodying their flaws. In this film, Iron Man isn’t tackling an unjust system. He’s simply fighting a few bad apples. The film’s big-bad, Obadiah Stane, isn’t framed as evil for selling lethal weapons, period, but for selling these weapons to America’s enemies. In the world of Iron Man, one created in part to appease the D.O.D., civilian casualties and unjust interventions are never framed as American problems.

The cinematic language we’ve grown used to speaking over the last decade is, essentially, incomplete, until we decode this fundamentally propagandist aspect of some of our most beloved blockbusters. Filling the gaps with our own conversations and critiques becomes vital when such vast swathes of our culture claim to speak truth to power, but ultimately take its side.

This same problem exists at the core of American politics, wherein many who (rightly) speak out against war and human rights abuses under a given administration tend to fall asleep at the wheel when their “side” is in power, committing equally heinous war crimes while deporting families. It’s no wonder, then, that all Marvel needs to do is make its villains seem like the greater of two evils, so that its heroes — Black Panther aside — can serve contemporary definitions of order.

It would be easy enough to ignore the series’ latent propaganda, were it not so influential on the stories being told.

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