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One Marvelous Scene – Military Ads in Marvel Movies

One Marvelous Scene – Military Ads in Marvel Movies

In the first Captain America film there is a spectacular montage where our hero becomes the frontman for a military propaganda campaign. The scene works on multiple levels. First, it’s a clear inversion of the origins of the character who was created to spread a message in favor of joining World War II. The cover of his first issue depicts him punching Adolf Hitler in the face. A moment which is recreated here on stage as well as reproduced in comic books. It’s because of that history and the character’s reputation as a figure of military propaganda that makes this a difficult adaptation. I mean how do you take a character like this, a character who literally has America in his name and turn him into the headliner of a multimedia mega franchise embraced around the globe at a time when the real American military is, well, not embraced around the globe. In other words, how do you de-politicize Captain America? Well, Marvel’s answer is to turn that original context on its head. So, yes, he had an overtly political purpose in real life. So, in this movie we’ll be completely self-aware about that fact and have him participate in self-parody in the most over-the-top way possible. Which is the second reason the sequence works. In its very over-the-topness, we, the audience, recognize it as obvious military propaganda. That’s what makes it so darn funny. Within the context of the story a presentation like this is propaganda but in the context of a modern audience watching it, it isn’t. It’s a joke. We’re laughing at how obvious military propaganda used to be. The joke’s on us though because while we all see this scene for what it is, we’re not nearly as sensitive to the less subtle forms of military influence in our media that’s more common today and indeed in this very franchise. A couple of caveats here. First, before we get too deep into things though, let me just address my use of the word propaganda. The word has an extremely negative connotation. It’s basically an insult in the quickest way to dismiss your opponents but in this video I want to use the term a little more neutrally. Propaganda is information presented in a biased manner and the moments that I’ll be calling military propaganda are the ones that present a one-sided and uncritical look at what it’s like to be in the military. Caveat number two: none of this should be taken as an attack against the work and sacrifice of people in the military. It’s a critique of the fact that their real experiences are rarely portrayed in their totality in American media. All clear? Okay! Oh, and one last thing! A bunch of other video essayists are also dropping videos today with the title: “One Marvelous Scene” So make sure to check them all out in the playlist in the description! I’ll be talking about quite a bit more than one scene in this video but I felt that the best way to contextualize the propaganda montage in Captain America was to use it as a lens to look at the rest of the MCU. Alright, so let’s talk about the let’s call it interesting relationship these movies have had with the American military. Very first scene of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has Tony Stark driving with the American military through Afghanistan while listening to a AC/DC’s Back in Black. The music is awesome. The vehicles are awesome. Tony is awesome. The military is awesome. Contextually through everything that the camera and the music is telling us that’s what we’re supposed to feel. Now, obviously, this is a superhero action movie. I don’t expect it to be The Hurt Locker but let’s ask what’s not being shown in this scene or throughout the film. We don’t see the American military doing anything morally compromising. We don’t see the use of drones, civilian casualties or the use of torture. It’s the enemy who attacked them in the first scene and not the other way around. And even more than that we don’t see any character question military decisions or allude to any topic that is uncomfortable for the military. And that’s because Marvel partnered with the Pentagon in the production of Iron Man, which is nothing new in Hollywood. Another YouTube channel, Pop Culture Detective, has a great video about all of this that I highly recommend you check out. The basic idea is that movie studios will work with the Pentagon in order to get access to military equipment but in exchange, the Pentagon gets final script approval giving them enormous power to make sure that military isn’t presented in an overtly negative way. The result is a decades-long stream of hyper-masculine blockbuster films that are uncritical of the American military of which Ironman is merely one. The director, of this movie Jon Favreau, actually got into an argument with Phil Strub, the Department of Defense’s chief Hollywood liaison during the filming of Iron Man. Favreau wanted to have a military character say the line, “People would kill themselves for the opportunities I have.” But Strub objected. They didn’t want any mention of military suicide which is an enormous issue that the military is currently dealing with. Eventually They agreed to change the line to “People would walk over hot coals for the opportunities I have.” But the line was eventually entirely cut from the finished film. Now, this is just one small example of the military exerting its influence on Hollywood, but that influence is wide-reaching. Shaping scenes from movies as disparate as the Transformers films to Meet The Parents. Marvel has partnered with the Pentagon on a bunch of its films in the last decade including all three Iron Man movies and all three Captain America movies. Military propaganda is extremely effective in the first Captain America movie. It’s basically prophetic. Steve spots an Uncle Sam poster. Then he becomes an Uncle Sam poster. He stars in a commercial with a cast of diverse soldiers, then he leads an actual group of diverse soldiers into battle, which is then itself recycled into propaganda. Early in the film, Steve watches an enlistment ad which promotes the values of self-sacrifice and of everyone doing their part to win the war. “Every able-bodied young man is lining up to serve his country.” “Even little Timmy is doing his part.” And later he’ll echo those same sentiments. “Come on. There are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do any less than them.” In fact, we could even say that these values are the cornerstones of his character. He embodies the messages that these propaganda reels are trying to sell. We want to believe that these enlistment ads are at least partially based on reality. But more often than not in this film, they are completely fictitious until they’re not! They create the reality they promote. It helps to shape Steve into the person he is and he is a good person. Propaganda may be faked this film seems to say but it is effective and useful. Okay, but what about the sequels “Why? Where are we going?” “The future.” The conflicts in the Captain America sequels are much more morally ambiguous than those in the original. Here Steve Rogers navigates the politics of the 21st century dealing with issues like government surveillance and Winter Soldier and the role of unilateral action in civil war. A civil war largely takes place outside of America and reduces the importance of the American military in the plot. But in Winter Soldier, Cat fights against the fictional military organization, Shield, to prevent them from spying on civilians instead of fighting against say the NSA. Of all the films in the MCU, Winter Soldier is the most pointedly critical of American policy. Even though it’s sort of by accident, the movie feels extremely topical given that it came out a year after the Edward Snowden leak, but then again it was well into production by that point. So, it’s interesting that the film still received Pentagon support and the reasons for that are nuanced. The military actually pulled their support from the first Avengers film because they felt that Shield’s place in the national security apparatus was a little too vague. It’s a transnational organization so who answers to who exactly? It makes military organizations look shady and the ambiguity in that messaging made the film into something the military did not want to be involved in. But they were back for Winter Soldier and part of the reason is because Shield is revealed to be secretly run by an evil Nazi conspiracy. Thus it could be an ideological enemy that the film could defeat. It pins the angst of government surveillance not on a real American military organization, but on some crazy Nazis for Steve to punch. It’s quite different from the rah-rah America-type of military propaganda Cap dealt with in the original film. Here what is propagandistic about the film is its attempts to side step away from difficult topics pinning the responsibility for them elsewhere. Constructing the film this way also helps minimize the risk of Captain America being seen as a tool of military propaganda. He is consistently positioned against his own country as a way to challenge our ethics and so that it doesn’t feel like he solely belongs to America. So, throughout the Captain America films, there is an attempt to mitigate the risk of the character being read as a champion of imperialism as an obvious propagandistic symbol. But as Marvel’s newer films appeal to different demographics, the way they’ve integrated military messages has also evolved. Black panther is a movie about a competent courageous CIA Agent named Everett K. Ross. In the movie, Ross gets swept up in an adventure in the faraway land of Wakanda, where he helps restore the legitimate ruler of the country. And in the climax of the film he single-handedly takes down several enemy aircraft preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Okay, so, obviously that’s not the main thing the movie is about, but you can understand why the CIA would be so happy with partnering on Black Panther. They promoted the movie regularly and live tweeted about it during the Oscars. They got to be part of one of the biggest movies of the year. They were portrayed heroically and the film reached new demographics that other military-sponsored blockbusters did not. All of this happened while the political conversation around the film centered entirely around the movie’s progressive themes. There’s a similar story with Captain Marvel although the partnership here was much, much closer. The camera glorifies military hardware in a way not seen since the Iron Man movies. The main character and her closest ally are both Air Force pilots. The colors of her costume are taken from a US Air Force t-shirt. The film shot and military bases with military advisers and the Air Force used the opportunity to make an enlistment ad targeted to women. “Every superhero has an origin story.” “We all got our start somewhere.” As a piece of media intended to reach a female audience, Captain Marvel has plenty of fine feminist themes. It’s about overcoming gaslighting, becoming who you want to be and that you don’t have to prove your worth to others. All good things right? On their own, they are, but the issue is that these themes also end up being in service of promoting military enlistment. It says be a fighter pilot specifically because it’s really fun to be a fighter pilot. There’s just one moment in the film that I feel registers partly as a critique of the military. It’s in an early flashback where Carol is sexually objectified by another pilot. It is a tiny acknowledgment of the problem of sexual harassment in the military, but it’s not woven into the story in any way. It’s not an obstacle for Carol and it’s glossed over as quickly as possible. There’s a similar moment in the original Captain America. moves I “Cause I got a few moves I know you’ll like.” In both cases sexism is an isolated incident that is dealt with immediately by the person it is directed against rather than a larger ongoing issue. And given that this very year the Air Force reported that nearly half of female cadets experienced sexual harassment, it’s weird that a Marvel movie would be so eager to tell young women to join the institution. While there isn’t a dancing chorus line or a catchy song, Captain Marvel still feels like the propaganda montage in Captain America. Except instead of being played for a laugh, it’s treated unironically here. Where Marvel was careful to prevent Captain America from being seen as a symbol of the military, Captain Marvel’s feminist messages of empowerment are melded in with the empowerment fantasy of warfare and in doing so the film projects that message to a demographic that it might not otherwise reach. While making military advertising more palatable to those who would otherwise critique it in a movie that didn’t have progressive themes. And I think that’s something to be aware of because while many of the messages in these movies are important and while I’m sure they are sincerely believed in by their creators I also think that maybe these children’s movies shouldn’t also serve as a de-facto marketing arm of the Pentagon as part of a broad decades-old propaganda campaign to maintain the military’s domestic reputation. Maybe? No? So since we were talking about World War 2 and the Air Force today, I’d like to recommend this documentary on Curiosity Stream. It’s called “Bombing War from Guernica to Hiroshima” and it details how the evolution of aerial bombardment completely changed how wars were fought. It’s an angle on covering World War 2 history that I hadn’t been encountered before so give it a look! I want to thank Curiosity Stream for sponsoring this episode. If you don’t know, Curiosity Stream is an excellent documentary streaming service, and it’s got more than 2400 documentaries to choose from plus it’s only $2.99 a month and you can get your first month for free if you go to curiositystream.com/justwrite and use the promo code. justwrite when you sign up. Thanks for watching everyone and thank you to my patrons for supporting this channel! Keep writing everyone!

100 thoughts on “One Marvelous Scene – Military Ads in Marvel Movies

  1. Thank you for this. I always wondered what it was about these films that I found distasteful and corrupt.

  2. While I agree with the message behind this, I think this is so far the weakest OMS so far.

    My biggest critique is that…it was all over the place. These videos were supposed to be about just that. "One Marvelous Scene". And while the whole video starts with the war propaganda in The First Avenger, it goes a bit too far in delving into everything else. It starts to feel less about that one scene and more a problem you have with the whole of the MCU.

    Plus, they're called "One Marvelous Scene". You used a great scene to talk about a flaw in the movies. While I obviously think that is necessary, as these movies aren't perfect and their flaws need to be addressed, if the original purpose was to sing their praises then maybe you shouldn't start pointing out flaws and leave it on that.

  3. Never underestimate military propaganda. Captain America would have been used this way back in the 1940"s make no mistake.

  4. Well this really didn't fulfill the promise of the One Marvelous Scene concept. It's supposed to celebrate a scene not serve as a screed against military involvement in movies. Bottom line on that is quid pro quo….movie makers want military pax and equipment they have to make some concessions along the way. Courage Under Fire is another movie that had to go elsewhere to film their tank scenes, and it shows badly. Turns out fratricide – both accidental and intentional – isn't something the U.S. Army wants to advertise happens. Go figure. (Great movie btw but not something the Pentagon would/did support)

  5. Its weird because I remember Ross in Black Panther being nothing more than a Joke who needed a teenager to help him do anything.

  6. Weird, my impression after seing Iron Man for the first, and every, time is that it's vastly critical of the US politics on war interference and weapon sales.

  7. Disney is very much a direct product of the military industrial complex, not just influenced by or an occasional partner. Prior to World War II, Disney was just a small cartoon studio with a few dozen animators and not much revenue to speak of. They won the main propaganda contract for the Department of Defense and made dozens of WWII propaganda flix, paid for by Defense. Over 90% of their revenue was from that one contract in 1945. Walt Disney, the man, had such a close relationship with Defense that he managed to get a sweetheart deal to buy an old CIA military base in Florida. You've probably heard of that military base, by its modern name, Disney World.

  8. In captain marvel set on the time when women are doubted to belong in air force same..so it's a good time to use it as a propaganda

  9. It'd be ironic if dude who makes this channel got C level or lower grades in high school but wouldn't surprise me in the least. Excellence is something that rarely is created in school.

  10. the good old days when the government actually had to go out and take up collections from the people rather than just pass laws to steal from them and also print whatever money they want to fund all the things

  11. for a better understanding of how fucked we've been, go to stefan molyneux interviewing dianne west on her two books….i learned more in those few hours than all of what i was forced to read in school

  12. Here's the thing about Captain Marvel "promoting military enlistment". The Skrull reveal and the framing of them as refugees is clearly designed to bring into question military conflicts and such framing. Are they really the bad guys? Are we? Is what has been presented to us the truth or is it a distortion to exploit and torment others? Captain Marvel is almost anti-military in its theming in that regard, trying to draw parallels to conflicts going on right now

  13. Off topic but not quite, I've just been forced into watching Percy Jackson, the first one. Now that is a recruitment brochure.

  14. Propaganda is art with it's end goal already decided.
    Art is free flow and is made along the way even if you have an idea of what you want and what you want will often change during the creative process.

  15. I've watched a ton of your videos. This has got to be one of my favorites. Thank you for shedding light on a largely unrecognized topic.

  16. Sure propaganda in marvel movies is bad but it doesn’t really ruin my movie experience, plus why wouldn’t u want your military to look like this shining eagle of justice? 😂

  17. They sure love to promote intersectional participation in warcrimes lately. "If you're a woman, join the airforce today and drop your very own missile on a Pakistani village!"

  18. I wish people would stop calling Black Panther a "progressive movie"… it is a movie about nationalism. Progressive like it because it depicts black nationalism, but Wakanda is not "progressive"… Wakanda is what white nationalist want for themselves.

  19. Very important video. The propaganda machine is disgusting and it needs to be kept far away from children and teenagers, if not outright completely banned/shunned.

  20. Huh, I just noticed that Captain Marvel did have a lot of propaganda.

    I guess didn't notice before because I don't live in the USA and for me that was just the job she had in her former life.

    I just kinda thought of her as "cool pilot" instead of "military pilot"

  21. I don't think Winter Soldier side steps the issue but rather directly confronts it. Fury and the other good Shield Agents believed that what they were doing was right to help protect people. But that abuse of power could easily be cooped by those with much darker motives.

    It's commenting on how the ends don't justify the means because those means could be turned against you. There are lots of examples of government programs that started off with good intentions which were then destroyed by self serving politicians.

    Such as social security which was suppose to act as a savings bank for people's retirement plans until some politicians saw all that unused money which they could spend on their own pet projects and figured they would just pay the fund back later with tax money. Except now we have a crisis because people are coming to collect but all the money has been spent. And for those who need that money to get by it can be life and death as they can't afford heating in winter, medication of increasing health issues, and even struggle to put food on the table.

  22. "To start off, I have nothing against the military."

    Proceeds on a 15 minute-long tirade against them

  23. I just started watching all of the MCU (I know, I'm very late) and all this military crap in (almost?) every single movie was really jarring and overt to me. I really wonder how people do not notice it, how they're portrayed in such a ridiculous 'can do no wrong and are the heroes at the end of the day and always' positive light. It seems to me like if you're even slightly sensitive to any of the issues with the military in general and the American military specifically, the military-industrial complex and the neocolonialism/neo-imperialism America and their military has unleashed on the world for decades now etc etc, the military propaganda would be so obvious. But then again, I'm not American, so maybe I vastly underestimate how saturated American culture really is with military propaganda.

  24. This is a fantastic critique of the movies, especially of the differences between captain America movie and captain marvel movie.

  25. I don't really get this? I thought the goal of this series was to celebrate the MCU for all its best scenes, but here you just went on a 15-minute rant about military propaganda. I understand the issue you're grappling with here, but I don't think you understand what the theme of this series is.

  26. Thank you for shedding light on subtle military bias in media and the overlooked pain and real shit that goes on in the military as a whole

  27. I don't know about the whole sexual harassment ad for the military. I'm aware of and have experienced sexual harassment in a male dominated environment (not the military) and don't get me wrong. I would either just grit my teeth and take it, or fire back a comment making it clear I thought they were being childish. I didn't report it because I didn't feel like it would be taken seriously.

    My point in this is that I actually really like how Captain Marvel portrays the women dealing with harassment, not as an ad for the military, but as an example of how to deal with this kind of stuff. Captain Marvel doesn't let these comments get to her, or at the very least doesn't show it. She just gives a look that says "What's your problem?" and moves on with her life). Most times when I've seen sexual harassment in media, we see the woman crying later trying to deal with the emotions of it, and that's fine showing the emotional toll of harassment, and then she composes herself and goes back to the situation and proves the guys wrong. I am so sick and tired of that message because that's not how life works. A woman is more often than not going to be unable to do equal work as the men in physically demanding professions, so she either needs to accept her own level, or find a different way to do her job that balances it out.

    My father was a marine, and he told me a story from boot camp. There were a few female cadets, and during physical workouts the women were allowed to do a less demanding version (or something similar to this, I can't remember the exact details). One of the women elected to try and workout to the men's level. And of course they made their comments, and she wasn't actually able to meet the demands. HOWEVER, the men respected her because she tried to match their demands every time, even though she kept failing. So, when I see Captain Marvel brush off the harassment, not letting it affect her and keep pushing forward, that to me is the ultimate example of how to handle that kind of situation. And my guess, if my own experience and my father's are anything to go by, I'm guessing that's how women in the military who have managed to gain respect got there

  28. Okay, I get it. You're a progressive fucktard who wants to politicise fun superhero movies. I truly hate people like you. I'm a labor voter but boy I hate people like you.

  29. The Hurt Locker is just as inaccurate as any other war movie, as veterans have pointed out. I know you just used it as an example, but just wanted to point that out

  30. The whole time I was listening to thos, something was nagging me, and I think I discovered what it is. The general tone of this v-essay, particularly the captain marvel critique, implies that joining the military or the military being portrayed in a positive light, is somehow… bad? I can't help but wonder if your own political bias may be showing through here. In my own experience, the various branches of the military are great organizations full of great people, doing largley thankless jobs, and yes I know that positive outlook would be my own bias showing through.

  31. Duuuude, that closing montage after your final thesis was incredible!! I've never seen such a masterfully crafted and clever bit in a YouTube video. Nicely done.

  32. I just want to point out that in Iron Man the military looks really cool at the beginning because it's from Tony's perspective when he's been raised in a house where his father worked in the military, and where Tony now makes weapons. There are little stabs at the American military within the 1st movie after Tony realizes that what he's doing (a.k.a funding and aiding the military) is wrong, and later when the military is shown to be trigger happy and ready to blow Tony out of the sky without being able to first verify who/what he is

  33. Fun fact: if you saw Captain Marvel on an Air Force base, there was a special message from Brie Larson at the beginning where she thanked the Air Force. It was extra weird.

  34. Unfortunately, identity politics is the last line of defense for a lot of these nefarious institutions. They use it to deflect.

  35. This was a great idea not only does it give us a chance to experience other creators that we wouldn't normally try, but it also showcases so many reasons we love these movies and why they are so successful.

  36. I remember in The Avengers, Thor tells us that Loki doesn't respond to torture. Nick Fury responds with, " I've met a lot of men like that, until the pain starts." Captain America says nothing.

    How does the CIA fell about that again?

  37. Where did you get the idea these are "children's movies"

    I think you gave away your real bias with that line.

  38. I'd argue that while they did their absolute best to depropagandize Captain America as an imperialist symbol, they did their absolute best to highlight the military in the other superhero movies. Hulk had the Army take him down. The Army was called in to contain Thor and his kind. Who do you call when gods and monsters rampage through America? The Military.

    There was a cutscene in the Avengers where humvees with machine guns rolled in to take out the flying aliens, but funding got cut so did that scene. So glad someone else pointed out the CIA hero protecting the rightful leader of Wakanda. That kind of story was just delicious. Everything is propaganda.

  39. 4:40 pop culture detective. Yeeeeeah! Jonathan McIntosh aka Anita Sarkessian's bf and collab/con, the guy who whines about "toxic masculinity". I wouldn't lean to heavy for sourcing for valid materials and arguments from that guy, given his past work and history.

  40. ppl arpund the globe hates "america" because of the globalistic agenda its politic and military action causes.

    while the marvel fixed the captican ameircans "american pride porblem " because of thry want to market the movie globally.

    tho, tbh, no one would really hate america if america just not fuck with other country. and the patriotism will still be appreciated by everyone in their own countries.

  41. Complains about shield replacing the nsa but evidently doesn’t understand recontextualizing which is essential to get themes or messages across to people with out invoking real life so people think about what you are showing more seriously

  42. I can’t believe I am standing for the boring shit that is captain marvel but you don’t think the Kree military ending up for being the bad guys critique of the military? Like really it seems like you started from hypothesis before looking at the evidence

  43. This got boring fast.  I didn't realize it was going to be you jerking to fantasies about the American military

  44. Those are instances of sexism either.  It's not sexist to hit on a woman.  It may be inappropriate and unprofessional, it may get you deservedly fired, but it isn't sexist.

  45. Ok, just to be clear, your message here is that women shouldn't be encouraged to join the army because they can get raped? Honest curiousity here, I might have not understood what you're saying.

  46. The thing I find interesting about Captain Marvel is that the whole gaslighting angle involves an imperialist power and their paramilitary wing that's called "Star Force". It's a very weird set of mixed messages.

  47. "In both cases sexism is dealt with immediately by the person it's directed against."

    I thought that was the point.

  48. What none of you americans with a guilty conscience will ever admit is that marvel movies should be remembered, if they even should be remembered at all , just like Rambo movies. Also, militarism is no doubt in decay if they need all of this propaganda in franchise movies.

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