While the Marvel Cinematic Universe may ostensibly tell stories about magical beings and superpowered humans battling against cosmic odds as the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, it turns out the films also tackle some serious social issues and real-world problems.
While the political messages debated and dissected in Marvel movies have long been a point of debate among fans and critics - with some celebrating the films' subtle and quasi-subversive themes and others deriding it all as propaganda - it's impossible to ignore the way in which the MCU has turned to governmental policies and social inequity for narrative inspiration.
As the French philosopher Albert Camus wrote, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth," and this even holds true when it comes to big budget action blockbusters. Whether it's the way in which Avengers: Endgame addresses climate change and genocide or how the Iron Man movies tackle everything from war profiteering to alcoholism to PTSD, the MCU has never shied away from raising questions and inspiring critical analysis of real-world issues.
- Photo: Iron Man / Paramount Pictures
Tony Stark's entire arc revolves around him becoming an increasingly better person after decades of being a self-absorbed playboy and arms manufacturer, profiting off his involvement with the military-industrial complex. His starting point, before his abduction, shows Tony trying to sell the Jericho missile to the US military for use in Afghanistan. In his pitch, he tells the top brass, "Find an excuse to let one of these off the chain, and I personally guarantee you the bad guys won't even want to come out of their caves."
After discovering the real-world consequences of his war profiteering - namely, that weapons his company made were being sold to terrorists and being used in mass genocides - Tony's perspective changes and his aim becomes a drive to help, partially fueled by the horrors for which he himself was responsible. This is not a lesson his rival, Justin Hammer, has learned in Iron Man 2. Hammer is like a poor man's Tony Stark, and tries to use his own robotic creations for military contracts. The plan ends up failing spectacularly.
But there is one through-line across both films: There will always be someone looking to make money off war and suffering. And in the real world, you'll rarely find a man in Tony Stark's position who's willing to put his foot down and demand change.
- Photo: Captain America: Civil War / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
In the first act of Civil War, the Avengers find themselves in Lagos, Nigeria, in an effort to stop terrorists from swiping a biological weapon from a lab. In the ensuing conflict, Scarlet Witch telekinetically redirects an explosion that would have wiped out her comrades, but inadvertently takes out a number of Wakandan humanitarian workers. It leads to public outrage over the Avengers operating without permission on a global scale - not to mention severe guilt for Scarlet Witch.
The conflict, however, mirrors the real-world debate over interventionism and America serving as a world police force, operating with semi-legal jurisdiction in countries across the world under the pretense of protecting global peace. The debate over American interventionism has raged for decades, with arguments for and against isolationism and increased oversight, all of which play out to different degrees in Civil War, and it adds a uniquely distinct realism to the drama. It's not about good guys versus bad guys, but rather nuanced political philosophy.
The events in Lagos lead to a call for the Avengers to be overseen by a panel of United Nations politicians who will control the authorization of future operations. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers find themselves divided, with Stark arguing that oversight is important for transparency, while Rogers argues that politicians with potential ulterior motives shouldn't dictate when or how the Avengers save the world.
This, too, reflects the long-fought argument over government oversight of organizations, such as the Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization, and the question of whether or not those organizations' efforts are impacted by the politicians who may or may not dictate their objectives.
- Photo: Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
The Winter Soldier may be the most subversive and politically charged film in the whole of the MCU. One of the primary elements of the story involves S.H.I.E.L.D. building a trio of heavy-duty helicarriers linked up to spy satellites that can eliminate threats to America with surgical precision from the sky. Everyone can be located and targeted for termination remotely at any time. This obviously does not sit well with Steve Rogers or Nick Fury.
S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Secretary of Internal Security Alexander Pierce is led to believe that Cap has secretly been in league with a mysterious rogue assassin known as the Winter Soldier, and he is forced to go on the run while avoiding security cameras and surveillance tech. Throughout the movie, the real threat is the inevitable overreach of technological infrastructure and the creation of a surveillance state - which many argue has already become a reality in countless countries across the globe.
Additionally, The Winter Soldier serves as a fierce condemnation of the corruption and creeping influence of fascism in the halls of government in the real world. This is evident in the shocking reveal that Hydra (the MCU's quasi-Third Reich analog) has installed operatives into the highest levels of Washington, DC - including Senator Stern and Alexander Pierce himself, who is revealed to be behind the Winter Soldier's actions.
- Photo: Black Panther / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Wakanda is a small but wildly technologically advanced African nation that has long managed to hide the truth of its scientific advances through a staunch governmental policy of isolationism (and also a hyper-advanced cloaking shield that literally hides the country under a hologram dome).
Wakanda's rationale for isolating itself from the world is understandable, as the possession of potent natural resources like vibranium has always been like a dinner bell for hungry colonialists throughout history. However, it also serves as a point of conflict between King T'Challa (AKA Black Panther) and his rival for the throne, Eric Killmonger, who wants to expand Wakanda's influence over the world.
Ultimately, T'Challa realizes that Wakanda has a moral imperative to reveal the nation's true capabilities and offer help to other countries in the form of international outreach initiatives that could provide lifesaving technologies to people and countries in need. It's the same debate that has raged in America for generations with regard to our intervention in world events and geopolitical affairs.