How Marvel Films Reflect to Modern Sociopolitical & Cultural Events

Superheroes were invented during the 1930s by the creators of comic books and they began as the reprinting of newspaper comic strips. However, during the 21st century, they still establish an unquestionable part of our popular culture. You can say that numerous events took place in the first decade of the new millennium: the war on Terror, the 9/11 attacks, a long-term global financial crisis, the creation of the internet and social networks that introduced us in a new way of communicating and the first African Ameri-can in the White House. But at the same time, for the Hollywood film industry a numer-ous “spectacular superhero narratives” to borrow Geoff King’s term been released and had impressive box office success. As a consequence, this decade will be also be remembered as the “superhero decade”. To be more specific, more than thirty films were released from superhero industries like Dark Horse Comics, Marvel and DC. According to, the revival of the superhero genre has sur-passed all the expectations since it resulted in the list of the top five highest opening weekend box office grosses in film history. Avatar (2009), by the time of February 2010, had the position of the highest grossing movie of all time with $2 billion in admissions receipts worldwide.

The Dark Knight follows with $1 billion during the year of 2008 and Spiderman 3 reached nearly $900 million, in 2007. These statistics of commercial success confirms the global popularity of the superhero films and the focus of the industry to produce more. When it comes to Hollywood and films, the most valuable factor is the economic one. These film industries do not risk hundreds of millions unless they make a profit. Both film and television invested in superhero movies and series in earlier decades. Among many others, these had a remarkable box office results and ratings. This made me question, that there must be additional reasons for the abundance of superhero narratives in the first decade of the 21st century. As you can tell from the research question, the main purpose of this report is to examine the films against the particular sociocultural circumstances in order to discern the main issues which are raised in them.

During the last two decades, more than forty-five superhero movies were produced. In order to make my research more dedicated my report will focus on the films created by Marvel Entertainment that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Disney Company. The reason of this selection and focus on Marvel, is not only because of the limited words that the Extended Essay can have but also because of my personal interest in Marvel superheroes since I was a young boy. However, it seems that the superhero fans have the same opinion as me. Since DC comics presented “Superman “ in 1997 there were produced 77 films combined from DC and Marvel. From the 48 movies, Marvel produced, grossed more than $15 billion while DC totaling just under $6.7 billion world-wide. The Hulk (2003), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010) are the films in which I will analyze within my essay. The films are fantasies of self-preservation and all of them share the same consistent enemy: the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). Not to mention, the MIC gave initial life and meaning to the protagonists the superheroes. These Hollywood blockbusters present superheroes that strug-gle to finding one’s authentic self and recognize their true identity. This essay will examine this exceptional recognition and once the films are analyzed, it will reflect the so-ciopolitical and cultural events that can be associated with these particular films.

The Hulk has the strength and physical vulnerability that seemed to be limited by his potential for rage is. It is widely accepted that he is an ontological exception that has no origin since he was not “created” by God, as much as a genesis. He was completely created by scientists, who worked for the US Military Industrial Complex (USMIC). Banner’s natural being was transformed by USMIC who interfered with the natural world in order to create a miracle. Since the Hulk was created, the USMIC wants to control him. However, Hulk, like other superheroes, can hardly be reined in and, for this reason, can-not be restrained and controlled by the state, “which is nominally sovereign over a given territory”. On the other hand, the state is very demanding when it comes to nonsuper 1 heroes. Nonsuperheroes are obedient to authority and they recognize the state as a supreme power. Hulk presents two sovereigns. The first one capable of having the power to decide the state of exception, where the law is indefinitely “suspended” without being abrogated (Giorgio Agamben), is Bruce Banner (portrayed by Eric Bana 2003 and Ed 2Norton 2008) by the incarnation of Hulk. Specifically, Hulk has some amazing charac-teristics such as superhuman size and form, ability to traverse by jumping huge swathes of territory, impenetrable skin to resist shells of ammunition and of course an infinite amount of strength. However, there are times that Bruce can threaten to suspend the 3normal laws of nature even when he is in human form.

It would be considered an omission if USMIC is not mentioned. USMIC is the second sovereign which is the implicit enemy. The “bad” guy of the film is obviously Emil Blonsky (portrayed by Tim Roth). The antagonist for Banner is part of the super soldier serum experiment, but he was a soldier even before he transformed into a beast. Consequently, he is already obedient to the USMIC. This reminds us of another Marvel movie: Captain America. Steve Rogers is a superhero who symbolizes patriotism. Steve insisted on taking the serum in order to serve his country in World War II because he was too weak to even join the US forces. On the contrary, Blonsky was a soldier who took part in the experiment based on his ego and his will to avenge Hulk. Both The Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) are films that provoked these types of perversions in patriotism. It is very obvious that this perversion of US patriotism is detected in the life of Banner. Before he was exposed to gamma rays, he lived a simple life of a scientist but he was pushed by more aggressive people like General Ross his potential father- in- law. He was within the US Military Industrial Complex but he was within the edge of their scope. Once he was bombarded with gamma rays he recognizes that the USMIC uses him as a guinea pig. They do not see him as a scientist that was afflicted with an illness and has the will to cure himself. To their mind Banner is a science and military project that will lead to the creation of more powerful weapons.

Traditionally, USMIC does not recognize his humanity as much as their military property. The mis-recognition of Banner and his refusal to cooperate with the state pushed him to find a new identity far away from US jurisdiction. He chooses to live in a favela at Rio de Janeiro. The favela has high rates of crime, murder, and gang activity, but in the mind of Banner is a space of peace and healing. It is the place that Bruce can finally settle down after being on the run in his home country. The irony is that only when the sovereign en-ters, the favela is transformed into a dangerous and anarchical place. Once USMIC in-vades Brazil, the favela was occupied and even though USMIC has no right for both of these, the Brazilian government and the citizens of the favela are unable to resist this supreme power. These actions may be reflections of the invasions of Afghanistan, which began on October 7, 2001, and Iraq, which began on March 20, 2003. Nevertheless, the majority of the film was placed in the US. This helps us realize that the USMIC did not make an exception with Brazil. USMIC could operate within the United States without the permission and regard of the government. Thus, the American belief of the necessity of a government with limited authority, which was set forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, is a reflection in the film that perpetuates such beliefs based on the American Constitution

The US government is trying to take control over the armor and technology of IM. In both the sequels of IM, the US government and the USMIC are presented as the primary enemies of Tony Stark. This may surprise some fans of the film IM2 who watched him fight the Soviet scientist: Ivan Vanko (portrayed by Mickey Rourke). However, what drives the scientist into the incar-nation of the villain was mainly the US-Soviet Cold War that encouraged scientists to military investigations. Secondly, the personal betrayal of Ivan’s father, Anton Vanko, by Howard Stark (Tony’s father) which lead to the commercialism of Anton’s research. What makes Stark politically interesting as a superhero is that he is aware of the exceptionalism that power entails - that it suspends rules (Schmitt The concept of the Political; Agamben State of exception). Iron Man begins with the trip of Stark to Af 5 -ghanistan. He needs to inspect and oversee the weaponry his company provided and created for the US army. Tony Stark is placed at the very epicenter of the USMIC since he is the leading military contractor. The famous arms dealer does not only supply the army with weapons just for the sake of money. Actually, he desires the soldiers to make their missions more safely and more effectively, a thing that makes him also a patriot. A reporter publishes an interview in which Stark announces: “the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace I will start making bricks and beams for baby.

Unfortunately, the time he was abducted in Afghanistan, a no man’s land (like the favelas in TIH), he discovers that his company was selling arms on both sides of the War. This can hardly be seen as a surprise, since the USMIC chooses to insert itself into states wherein there is no supervision or oversight. After the War on Terror, the US government as “sovereign” has the ability to declare a permanent state of exception to transcend the rules of law and intervene the activities of another state, in the name of the public good. The interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were self-authorized by the United States with considerable support within the international community. As the US statesman and retired four-star general In the US Army Colin Powell stated: “ You break it, you own it”. To be clear, this is the famous “Pottery Barn rule” which applies to the 7 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. According to leading statesmen from US, “ If you get yourself involved—if you break a government, if you cause it to come down, by invading or other means, remember that you are now the government. You have a responsibility to take care of the people of that country” The time Tony Stark was kidnapped is regarded as a moment of clarity for him. During his interview, he states: “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend and protect them and I saw that I had become part of a system with zero accountability”. Unlike Bruce Banner who is amazed of he has become, Tony Stark 9is frightened of who he is and of what he is a part. This makes him more aware of the current situation he is in and as a consequence, it encourages him to a shift of identity.

From an arms dealer and producer who kills people, including American soldiers, he shuts down his weaponry company. In other words, Stark no longer supports the USMIC and its declaration of states of exception. In both Iron Man films, the USMIC (through a personification of Stane throughout IM) and the US government are formally trying to put an end to Stark’s control over his company, his property rights, and his personal liberty by using their power. To be more precise, they control stockbrokers as well as they privately encourage James Rhodes (portrayed by Don Cheadle) to steal the Iron Man suit. When Tony Stark appeared in front of the Congress in IM2, he was asked to commercialize his Iron suit with the US government and the MIC. Be that as it may, the sovereign could not declare this as a state of exception event though it could strip away Stark’s US values such as property rights and liberty. After all, it would seem like a counter-patriotism gesture, considering that the real enemy is not the former Soviet scientist, as much as those who will benefit from facilitating the warfare and provoke the bellicose patriotism. In Vanko’s defense, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is the one that hired him. He is considered as one of the leading weaponry producers and his decision of employing Vanko is based on his ego and his will of besting Tony Stark. Hammer is not concerned about Vanko’s violence or source of motivation and has given clearance to the scientist to build a new army of ro-botic warriors. As soon as Vanko’s army is ready, he is out of reach of his “boss”, not be-cause of who Vanko is, but the aim of the MIC. MIC’s nature is to transform violence into power and then into authority, a concept very likely to happen in a state of exception. Stark through the personification of Iron Man is pointing the viewer to the issue and to the idea that the events of 9/11 generated an ongoing condition of lawlessness in which the US could act as a sovereign without any respect to values that the states were firstly constituted with.


The US government has invaded and occupied two countries, not to mention the countries where the US has already a military presence. That proves the interest of US to bellicosely pursuit lands that placed in “grey areas”.

Military actions are presented 10and justified by the US as necessities for the greater good. Since the fall of the govern-ment of Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, a lot of scandals emerged. At the same time, military contracts were limited with the US companies. Moreover, Blackwater, a pri-vate military force, was working for the US in order to help the US Army to reduce the financial, legal and human cost. Still, more and more people were wondering who over-sights a private armed force (such as Blackwater) and what laws does it need to operate under. The situation worsened when scandals emerged from a prison in Iraq. Specifical-ly, evidence of torture was published, actions that were previously denied to be used in the war in Iraq. Nonetheless, it was presented as a necessity for a secured victory in the war against insurgents. Long after the invasion, it was clear that Hussein’s government did not have under their possession weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, the evidence for such possessions was not especially reliable. There is a chance that US misrecognized the situation or maybe the MIC drag the government into a conflict with another sovereign (Iraq). The films that were previously analyzed, presented such cases. Superheroes rejected the narratives of the USMIC and struggled to find patriotism and after all the recognition comes. Notably, both Iron Man and Hulk did live for at least a short amount of time at the moral and physical territory of the other sovereign. They encountered both the views of the sovereigns and as a result, they can be more authentic and logical heroes. More than that, the filmmaker’s point to grey areas: areas in which the rules are not clear or it does not seem to be right or wrong.

Along with the state of ex-ception a US dilemma is identified and reflected. When the US engages in another sov-ereign, as the most powerful country, it must ensure the global security and act for the greater good. However, the supreme power needs to understand and recognize the sit-uation they are invading before it exerts its force. In the past years, it was considered more acceptable to give more attention to the force, while the recognition was neglected. The four analyzed movies were therefore trying to address the matter of USMIC and its ability to shape patriotism as much as the government misrecognizes people and situa-tions, that lead to the state of exceptions wherein people are abrogated from US values.

01 April 2020
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