Content warning: Mentions of sexual violence.
Under the reign of Marvel and DC, the superhero genre has been transformed into a cultural centrepoint of contemporary society, with films captivating global audiences and regularly breaking box office records. But success and influence is underpinned by insidious commercial and propagandist links to the US military.
Superman’s iconic motto, ‘Truth, justice, and the American way’, was first conceived as a source of comfort during a struggling war effort in a 1942 Superman radio program. Just about every superhero born in the comicbook Golden Era (1938-56) has fought Nazis, reflecting and inspiring the social perspectives of soldiers and those on the homefront. Marvel’s patriotic frontrunner Captain America even went as far as to sock Hilter in the jaw in his first issue in 1941. Over at DC, a star-spangled Wonder Woman joined the scene a few months later as the US entered the War. With an ensemble of heroes donning bright costumes, Uncle Sam was no longer the sole figurehead for the red, white and blue.
In his 1928 book Propaganda, Edward Bernays described propaganda as “the modern instrument by which they [organisations like the military] can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.” However during WWII, the manipulative connotations we commonly associate with the term ‘propaganda’ took off as quickly as comic book heroes did. In their 1984 book Managing Public Relations, Grunig & Hunt’s more cynical view that propaganda “spread[s] the faith” of organisations through “incomplete, distorted or half-true information” defines government communication tactics during wartime. The Allied forces won both World Wars with the help of such efforts, producing posters pointing directly to men of drafting age and stating “We want YOU” to fight for their country and become a hero.
Nowadays, superheroes in popular culture have moved away from compadres saving the world to good old entertainment. But the US Air Force saw a 31.2 per cent increase of female applicants for the 2023 class after advertisements appeared in American cinemas before the MCU’s first female-led film Captain Marvel (2019). As the highest percentage in the previous five years, we must question if the citizens of an American world are being ‘drafted’ once more. Entertainment companies strike up contracts to obtain access to military equipment and locations with the Entertainment Media Unit within the Department of Defense (DoD) at the Pentagon. In return, the Department proofreads and edits scripts with two goals: to “accurately” represent military stories and to ensure that sensitive information remains undisclosed.
The MCU’s deal with the DoD began in 2008 with the Iron Man trilogy and continued with Captain America’s three movies before being restrengthened with Captain Marvel. A close examination of the Disney+ series’ WandaVision (2021) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) also indicate links to the Pentagon. This essentially means the American taxpayer’s money funds the Military-Entertainment Complex.
Although there can be honour in individual military service, rarely are countries without innocent blood on their hands in the battlefield of international conflict. For example, the destructive influence of the US military in the Middle East mirrors how the Avengers left the Sokovia in ruins in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), or that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman disappeared during the Holocaust (and every other conflict besides WWI). Likewise, premiering a mere few days after Senator Martha McSally testified against the supervisor who raped her, Captain Marvel (2019)’s release was tone-deaf to the larger systematic issue of sexual abuse in the U.S Air Force. Isn’t there something to be said about having great power? Great responsibility?
The global reach of these films means pro-American sentiment often lands in our own backyard. The establishment of the Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) in 1951 only solidified Australia’s position as a proud cheerleader for America. The US has since strengthened its presence with Australia’s military bases as a means to combat the threat of China and “enable improved war-fighting readiness,” according to the Biden Administration’s Global Posture Review released last November. Likewise, in his speech commemorating the belated anniversary of the ANZUS treaty last Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison celebrated the newly established AUKUS alliance and Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarine technology (the aftermath of a botched deal with France that will likely cost taxpayers in excess of $5 billion). Meanwhile, the University of Sydney’s own United States Studies Centre’s new CEO is straight from George Bush’s warmongering administration, who stated in his address that his focus was on “agenda-shaping” US-Australian relations amongst young people.
Considering America’s military power and the endless international conflicts in the daily news cycle, it’s no coincidence that superhero franchises remain an insidious cultural arm of the US military. Enjoy them all you want, but remember, history is always watching.