Peace is War: The Dualistic Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

This short essay was inspired by my recent viewing of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. As such it contains some spoilers of these films


   The_Incredible_Hulk_poster.jpg               Last year I watched the 2003 Hulk film. While I reasonably enjoyed it, the film’s mixed reception upon release led, in part, to its not being seen as part of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was thus expecting 2008’s The Incredible Hulk which stars Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt in place of Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, and Sam Elliott, to feel like a major break from the 2003 release. It wasn’t.

The film, for all intents and purposes, is a sequel. It introduces us to Bruce Banner (Norton) where he was left (in Brazil) and depicts him much as he was depicted in the original work: as a soft-spoken man, whose nature makes it near impossible to believe he can experience the burst of anger necessary to transform into the Hulk at all. Dr. Betty Ross (Tyler), meanwhile, is still portrayed as an ex-girlfriend with whom Banner has a relationship of mutual affection. Finally, Ross’s father (Hurt) also reappears in his role as no-nonsense, anti-Hulk US army General.

Yet despite these tonal similarities, does The Incredible Hulk continue The Hulk’s legacy? One could argue that it doesn’t, precisely in that it resolves the initial film’s dilemmas. But The Hulk was the story of a characters’ pain; a pain with loose ends that are perhaps not meant to be neatly knotted up.

But while I am agnostic as to whether The Incredible Hulk is a thematically consistent sequel to its predecessor, I have no doubt that it has kinship to other Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Abomination (Tim Roth), the primary villain of The Incredible Hulk, is a mercenary who is hired by the US army to stop The Hulk, but clearly loves his violent job too much. This character is thus not “evil” but “militaristic” a character trait also displayed by one of the villains of James Cameron’s Avatar.

A surprisingly similar figure is employed in Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe film that followed The Incredible Hulk. That film has two villains: one is an all-brains, no-brawn puppeteer, but the other, Ivan Iron_Man_2_poster.jpgVanko (Mickey Rourke), echoes the path of Abomination in more ways than one. Both are expert soldiers and both become super-villains that resemble their superhero nemeses. The key difference between them is that Abomination’s moral tension comes from his relationship to his militarism, whereas Ivan Vanko’s moral ambiguity is displayed through the non-militaristic parts of his identity (his love for cockatoos, and his past victimization).

By presenting zealous militarism as the leading cause of Abomination’s emergence, it would seem The Incredible Hulk offers an anti-militaristic message. Yet it squanders this possibility, by using Abomination’s rise as an excuse to rehabilitate the rest of the army, who support the Hulk in his battle against Abomination. This is another manner in which The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 resemble each other.

Iron Man 2 exposes the arrogance, danger and misguidedness of the US government and its military. But it simultaneously undermines this message by presenting the alternative to this statist brand of militarism as Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), a billionaire weapons developer. Fear not, Iron Man 2 is not a celebration of private armies either: Stark is appropriately belittled through the portrayal of his larger-than-life arrogant persona. Nonetheless, the fact that the film displays the military and private sector as the two ideological options, rather than presenting a pacifist/leftist alternative, shows the limits of its ideological imagination. This idea is further reinforced through the film’s project of pairing up Iron Man with his near-identical sidekick War Machine (Don Cheadle): a pairing that teams up the moral best the military and the arrogant private sector have to offer.

In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Slavoj Zizek highlights the character of Private Joker (a soldier whose helmet bears both the phrase “born to kill” and a peace sign) as an ideal soldier precisely because he maintains “ironic distance” from the horrors his army carries out. Zizek (as far as I can tell) is arguing that an army cannot function solely with the support of those who see it as flawless; for if the soldiers for such an army had the wool pulled from their eyes, their support would collapse. Soldiers like Private Joker, by contrast, are so valuable because they are able to carry out their duties despite seeing and empathizing with the arguments against their actions. They have become desensitized.

It would seem that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is built upon Private Jokers. The Incredible Hulk warns us of the dangers of zealous militarism, but ultimately allows the military to play a role in solving that problem. Iron Man 2 raises concerns about the weapons industry and the government officials that work with/in rivalry with it, but never entertains the idea of promoting a demilitarized world. These aren’t the only Marvel films this contradiction shows up in. Captain Marvel criticizes imperialist war, while celebrating involvement with the air force. Black Panther offers positive portrayal of the Black/African struggle against racism and colonialism, but also manages to sneak a benevolent CIA agent into the picture.

One can posit various explanations for Marvel’s pattern of reconciling the military and critiques of militarism. Perhaps this approach is innate to the superhero genre: a genre that tells of figures that while rebellious in some ways are in-all law enforcement agents. Perhaps it is a product of the ideology and/or interests of studio heads. Perhaps The Marvel Cinematic Universe mixes-and-matches its politics (sometimes leaving information gaps, much like in the latest Mission Impossible movie) as a way of appealing to multiple audience bases. All of these explanations can and may be true. What’s most important to note, however, is that the “contradiction” in Marvel’s approach may not be a contradiction at all. Sometimes it takes a well-placed critique of an institution to portray it positively.

My goal with this piece is not to show a man behind the curtains. Ideology is everywhere: I do not mean to reduce the Marvel experience to one of militarism. From a merely artistic perspective, however, I can’t help but observe how this ideology limits the development of two potentially memorable character. Both Abomination and Ivan Vanko’s stories raise questions about militarism, but their arcs ultimately allow casual fans to see them as semi-forgettable representations of evil. Again, Marvel’s goal is not to make interesting social-commentaries through its villains: but it seems to understand that making effective films requires dabbling in such commentary along the way.

Of course, its also possible that on some occasions Marvel’s filmmakers don’t even feel the need to dabble. I came across the idea that Mickey Rourke had been a big proponent of making his character “complex,” for instance, by promoting the cockatoo detail. This worries me as to how empty the character would have been had Rourke not spoken up.

When I don’t enjoy Marvel films I tend to attribute that to either my disinterest in action, or my sense that there are too many of them, and as such, some of them feel too similar to one another. As I write this, I wonder if there’s something else at play. Perhaps what makes cinematic fighting enjoyable is its distance from reality: that it is something playful and not a mere representation of the cruel violence our world faces. Marvel repeatedly portrays its violence as analogous to or consistent with the objectives of real life military institutions. Perhaps this is why I start these films enticed by the colourful glow of figures like Iron Man and the Hulk, and turn off the films left with the forgettable image of explosions emitting from dull, gray sidewalks.


Hulk (2003)

Written by: James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman

Directed by Ang Lee

Hulk_movie.jpgTwo of the key motifs in Ang Lee’s 2003 adaptation of Hulk are Frankenstein, and the Star Warsian idea that anger is but a sub-emotion of fear. Superficially perhaps, these ideas do not sound like much: Hulk is green, Frankenstein’s monster is green, “big deal.” However these motifs set up Hulk to be a superhero film like no other.

A common recipe for superhero films is giving their hero(es) sass, arrogance, a pinch of situational comedy and, of course, a healthy does of action scenes. The incredible thing about Hulk is it succeeds as movie not by slightly re-tinkering this formula (à la Deadpool) but by discarding it entirely (granted, Hulk predates the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe). This approach may explain why the film did not do well at the box office. Indeed, the scenes of pre-Hulk adult Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) are a little slow. Nonetheless, Hulk’s uniqueness is ultimately a rewarding experience. With Marvel movies now coming out at a one-after-another rate, its easy to become cynical about superhero movies and feel like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Hulk, however, truly feels like a standalone idea for a story: one that simply happens to feature a mutated, superpowered individual.

Hulk features five main characters, each with a unique motive and a different relationship to Bruce Banner, a young scientist who becomes the film’s titular hero/monster. The most unequivocal villain is Glenn Talbot (Josh Luas). His lack of complexity, however, is well juxtaposed with his ultimate pettiness as an adversary. He’s a Draco Malfoy-esque bully, and is ultimately subject to a comic-book-homage gag (director Ang Lee occasionally framed the scenes to resemble comic book panels). Yet another adversary is General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot), a character who can be heartless, but because he acts in the roles of soldier and protective father, he comes across less as evil than as set in his cold ways, adding a level of mystery and tension whenever he speaks.

The film’s third adversary, meanwhile, is its most compelling and confusing. Nick Nolte stars as a janitor whose behaviour at times mirrors the cold protectiveness of the General, at times is purely sinister, at times is radical and at times is purely affectionate. In so far as The Hulk is Frankenstein, Nolte is Victor. His character’s psychology is too all-over-the-place ever to be fully coherent, but in the context of the film it works: perhaps because we are implicitly seeing him through the monster (Hulk)’s eyes, and not through his own.

The main cast is completed by Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). She is introduced as Bruce Banner’s still-friends-ex-love-interest. In most superhero films, the story would no doubt follow Bruce Banner’s attempt to achieve self-actualization and win her back. The Hulk, however, avoids this predictable path, for a subtler relationship of affection. Betty and Bruce empathize with and act on behalf of one another throughout the movie, despite a constant spectre that their relationship could be further damaged by Banner’s angry side.

Through these five characters The Hulk sets up a series of compelling emotional clashes that I found far preferable to the dearth of action scenes the film omitted. Where the film does use action, it does so to advance its dramatic message. We see The Hulk in action just long enough to see what he can do: enough to show why the General dehumanizes him, and enough to see why pain inevitably claws at his and Betty’s understanding relationship. The film’s action-emotion balance is also, again, at the heart of its themes. Frankenstein is a story of two misfit characters, doctor and monster, who despite being individually sympathetic figures end up pitted against one another. The monster’s story is made specifically tragic because he is largely a victim ,not of his actions, but of how his appearance leads him to be perceived. This is a problem that ultimately pushes him in a more violent direction. This is the story of Hulk a hero who unequivocally does not want to be a hero, as it seems his superpowers can only lead to him being perceived as a super-villain.

Meanwhile, the anger-is-fear motif, also factors into this Frankensteinian story. The emergence of Hulk is a cruel cycle, in which a character terrified of the angry part of himself, is made to feel vulnerable to the world, and as such, lets his anger and self-loathing grow stronger. This motif does come at some costs. When we first see Banner get angry it feels awkwardly sudden (up to this point he is a sad-eyed mild mannered character, who is never described as angry, only “emotionally removed”). This is not to say, the motif was not overall effective, however, the script and or direction should probably have been tinkered to either show Hulk’s anger earlier in the film, or to make it more clear that it’s a sudden consequence of his being mutated.

Thematically, in short, Lee’s Hulk is a good piece: it would translate well as a short story, stripped of all the (already limited) graphic action scenes it boasts. The film, however, is also strong visually, combing simple but colourful, Americana backdrops (in contrast to the generic urbanity of many superhero films), intentionally unrealistic animations of molecular biological reactions and, of course, the comic book panels (which, though sometimes an afterthought, do help nail home the film’s commitment to emphasizing character presence over chaotic action scenes). I realize some viewers and critics felt it lacked “Hulk smashes,” but I can’t help but feel such cravings got in the way of their appreciating the far stronger blow of Bruce Banner’s Frankensteinian pain.