If I’d been able, in the nineties, to see into the future, it’s hard to know what about the late 2010s would have surprised me more: that millions would have voted Donald Trump into the White House, or that millions would line up to see films about Captain America. In the nineties, while Trump’s Atlantic City casinos were going bankrupt, Marvel, the publisher responsible for Captain America, was also flailing wildly. Comic sales in general had plummeted, and there seemed little hope of making up the revenues with movies. A 1990 Captain America film starring J. D. Salinger’s son went straight to video. (“One of the dumbest movies of all time,” was one critic’s evaluation.) Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996.
Another reason to be surprised by Captain America’s newfound popularity is that Captain America is a stupefyingly inane character. His power? General athleticism. His costume? If a flag were spandex. His motivation? America. Even his rank—“Captain”—is exquisitely calibrated basicness. Decades of service, yet he still isn’t Major America.
Movie producers, like Cap’s superior officers, appear to have sensed his limits. During Marvel’s financial troubles, Columbia, Fox, and New Line raided the publisher’s catalog, buying up film rights to such fan favorites as Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Blade, Deadpool, Ghost Rider, the Punisher, the Men in Black, and Daredevil. Marvel was left with the duds, an irregular assortment of the archaic and obscure whose licenses had reverted or never been sold: Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and Captain America.
And yet, every one of those duds has now headlined a movie grossing more than half a billion dollars. ($520 million dollars for Ant-Man. For Ant-Man!) The Avengers, the tentpole franchise that draws Marvel’s characters together, is comparable only to Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings in its profitability. Its third installment, Avengers: Infinity War broke the first-day advanced-sales record for superhero movies in only six hours. How did this happen?
The history of comic book superheroes is one of brief thunderstorms of creativity, followed by long droughts. A surprising number of the heroes you’ve heard of came from one of two four-year bursts of invention, 1938–41, or 1961–64. These are the moments when the culture called forth new myths, when the doors to the pantheon swung open.
The first moment, indeed the birth of superhero comics, started with Superman (1938). One can sense the longing for inclusion in Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young Jews from Cleveland. Through their hero, who transformed from the journalist Clark Kent, they imagined themselves to be the opposite of the scrawny nerds that society saw them as. Bob Kane (who legally changed his name from Robert Kahn), created Batman in 1939 after getting beat up by a street gang.
The interwar heroes were nearly all of this type: ultra-men, pure of heart and distinguished only by their varying forms of superiority. The Flash was fast, Green Arrow had aim, Hawkman could fly, and Aquaman could swim. Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Human Torch, Plastic Man, Vision, the Spectre, and the Spirit—all from those magic four years—were cast from this mold, too. Only Wonder Woman, a feminist into ropes and chains, created by the polyamorous psychologist William Moulton Marston, broke it.
And then there was Captain America, created by Joe Simon (birth name: Hymie Simon) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg), who were immediately joined by a teenaged Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber). In Cap, one sees not just the Jewish demand for social acceptance, but an attempt to politicize and weaponize it. Captain America debuted in mid 1941, a rare moment when the plight of the Jews and the desires of the most powerful men in Washington aligned neatly. At a time when President Roosevelt was urging a reluctant public toward war, the first issue of Captain America hit the stands, its cover showing the histrionically patriotic Cap punching Hitler in the face.
The convergence between the underdog-defending animus of the Jewish writers and a muscular foreign policy lasted only the length of the war. Shortly after, action comics came under suspicion for their violence and sensationalism. Captain America ceased in 1949, and other action comics saw precipitous sales declines. Marvel’s attempt to revive its hero in the 1950s, in a series called Captain America . . . Commie Smasher, lasted only three issues.
Marvel had lost its cultural purchase. But Stan Lee, working with Jack Kirby, caught the wave of the Zeitgeist again in 1961, with the first issue of Fantastic Four. Whereas Captain America had been given his powers by a benevolent scientist, this quartet was the result of science gone wrong. The Fantastic Four bickered, they bore psychological scars, and they fretted about their inhumanity. Next came the Hulk, another radiation mishap, a scientist whose uncontrollable emotions turned him into a raging monster. These weren’t heroes, at least not in the old sense. They were freaks, or, in the language of The X-Men (1963), mutants.
Thus came a second flood of characters, nearly all introduced by Marvel between 1961 and 1964, and often tracing their origins to scientific accidents. They marked, in various ways, the tensions that would define the sixties. Spider-Man was angsty, Daredevil was disabled, Doctor Strange was weird, the Hulk and the Thing were monstrous, Black Widow was a Soviet defector, and the X-Men were victims of discrimination. There were squarer heroes, too—Thor (a Norse god), Ant-Man and Wasp (shrinking insectoids), Hawkeye (an archer), and Nick Fury (a soldier/spy)—but Marvel’s entire milieu had a defiant air. In 1965, when Esquire asked college radicals to name revolutionary icons, they ranked Spider-Man and the Hulk alongside Bob Dylan and Che Guevara.
Marvel revived Captain America in 1964 (he’d been frozen in ice, Lee explained), though now as a brooding figure, haunted by the death of his sidekick Bucky and struggling to find his place in the sixties. “How much longer can I continue to live a life not truly my own? A life with no roots?” he wonders in an early issue. In 1969, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper transformed Hollywood with Easy Rider, a countercultural film about two cocaine traffickers, one called “Captain America” (Fonda), motorcycling across the country. The next year, in the comics, Cap quit the Avengers and made his own cross-country motorcycle trip, to “find himself.”
Perhaps fearing the genie he’d unbottled, Stan Lee veered right and introduced Iron Man (1963), a confident playboy billionaire who battled communists (in the first issue, he fought a Ho Chi Minh stand-in). On the face of it, he was a counterweight to the freaks, mutants, and basket cases. But even Iron Man—a man encased in a robot—carried transgressive potential. A year after the superhero’s debut, the poet Amiri Baraka imagined himself looking out on the world through the eye-slits of a hostile, animate metal suit. “It has no feeling,” Baraka wrote. “It burns the thing inside it. And that thing screams.” In 1970, the heavy metal band Black Sabbath had a hit with its song “Iron Man” (“Nobody wants him, he just stares at the world”).
Marvel’s heroes are back again, but with little of the subversive aura that once surrounded them. The Avengers today are led by Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, Marvel’s most conservative characters. A billionaire technologist, the crown prince of an absolute monarchy, and a rabidly nationalistic off-the-books soldier: It’s as if Elon Musk, Mohammed bin Salman, and Oliver North formed a superhero team.
And what are the Avengers avenging, precisely? In the ’60s, when the group was formed, it was clear enough. “Let me spell it out to you! We’re supposed to avenge injustice,” explained Hawkeye in Avengers #18. Yet injustice is a word barely heard in the Marvel movies—only Black Panther explores the theme. The other films are obsessed with a different word: protection.
The word comes up in the conclusion of Iron Man’s rousing speech in The Avengers, a line featured prominently in the trailer. “If we can’t protect the earth, you can be damn well sure we’ll avenge it,” he declares, resolutely. It’s a little confusing, though. If the Avengers fail to protect the earth, isn’t avenging beside the point? The confusion at this key, mission-defining moment is telling. To avenge is to right a wrong. Yet that’s not what the Avengers, in the films, do. Their actual mission is to suppress threats. So, when they have to use avenge in a sentence, they short-circuit.
You can see it in the Thor movies. Thor, played winningly by human protein shake Chris Hemsworth, is the son of Odin, who is the emperor of the Nine Realms and the king of Asgard, a very Teutonic planet. Odin’s empire was built by conquest. “Odin and I drowned entire civilizations in blood and tears,” his daughter explains. Yet after conquering the Nine Realms, Odin ceased his Asgardian Lebensraum campaign and set about ruling his new domain, seeking “to foster peace, to protect life.” “It was Asgard and its warriors that brought peace to the universe,” he boasts.
Thor, Odin’s heir (and after Odin’s death in the third film, the king) is Asgard’s prime bringer of peace, essentially running the Nine Realms’ counterinsurgency operations singlehandedly. When a rebellion erupts on one of the conquered worlds, Thor confronts its champion and knocks his head off with a hammer, after which the cowed insurgents bow to him. “The peace is nearly won,” he announces with satisfaction. Still, that peace proves fragile, and the next movie finds the Nine Realms yet again “completely in chaos,” with the “enemies of Asgard assembling, plotting our demise.” Thor’s brother Loki weakly suggests respecting the freedom of the other eight realms. “The freedom to be massacred,” Thor curtly responds.
Like Thor, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, is the heir to his father’s empire—in this case Stark Industries, the “largest tech conglomerate on earth.” Tony’s father, Howard Stark, was the “father of the military-industrial age,” and Stark Industries under both the father and son made advanced weapons (“ensuring freedom and protecting America and her interests around the globe,” a Stark promoter explains). When it emerges that the firm has been covertly selling those weapons to terrorists in Afghanistan, Tony has his “eyes opened” and stops dealing arms. Instead, he fashions a series of flying, high-tech suits and sets out to “protect the people” himself. “It’s working, we’re safe, America is secure,” Tony beams at a congressional hearing. “I’ve successfully privatized world peace.”
As with the Thor films, it’s hard to find talk of avenging injustice in Iron Man. Or, at least, you won’t find it coming from Tony. His enemies, however, speak of it constantly. One promises to teach the United States “lessons” for its slaughter of Native Americans, another seeks to avenge “all the lives the Stark family has destroyed,” and a third kidnaps Tony, calling him “the most famous mass murderer in the history of America.” Tony suits up and dispatches all these terrorists, exposing them as bitter, self-serving, and duplicitous in the process. Defending himself, he boasts not of his righteousness but of having delivered “the longest period of uninterrupted peace in years.”
Even Captain America undergoes this justice-to-peacekeeping shift. The first film, set in the 1940s, is a nostalgia bath, harking back to a time when Captain America fought for the oppressed. Chris Evans, with the help of “cosmetic” CGI, plays the first third of the film as a 95-pound asthmatic. After a kindly scientist administers a serum, he inflates into the balloon-animal-with-skin that is the actual Chris Evans. Captain America, once bullied himself, becomes a champion for the picked-upon. Raising a glass, he toasts “to the little guys.”
Yet by the next film, set in the present, those little guys are nowhere in sight. Not fairness but safety is the thing that matters. It’s what Cap brings up time and again, whenever the Avengers’ right to operate as vigilantes is challenged. “The Avengers were formed to make the world a safer place,” he says. “We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.”
Marvel’s first hit, Iron Man, was released in 2008, just as the surge in Iraq was coming to a close. This marked the end of the hot wars of the Bush years and the transition to a cooler state of continuous half-war, characterized less by boots on the ground than by eyes in the sky. The Obama era revealed that the war on terror would be unlike past wars, with beginnings and ends. It was a way of life rather than a discrete event, a chronic condition rather than an acute one. The war was routinized and, with the dramatic surge in the use of drones, mechanized.
To those made uneasy by this, the Marvel movies offer consoling fictions. The threats in the films are not diffuse and vague, as in real life. They’re personal, well-defined, and unambiguously serious. It’s a reality fitted to the rhetoric, a world that actually looks the way politicians describe it. There are terrorists, vengeance-seekers, hostile foreign powers, demented scientists, and aliens, all eager to kill innocents in large numbers. “We live in a world of great threats” (as Iron Man puts it), of “infinite dangers” (Doctor Strange). “Safe is in short supply,” Thor affirms. The message here is much the same as in the TV show Homeland, another fruit of the Obama years.
At the same time, Marvel restores the human element to the security apparatus. The Avengers put forward a fantasy in which the weapons of war aren’t machines but individuals. A world where air strikes are called down not by entering in GPS coordinates but by Thor channeling the power of lightning. A world where policing is handled not by a pilotless drone but by Iron Man, a small aerial vehicle who is nothing but pilot. When the Senate demands Tony Stark relinquish his suit—the “Iron Man weapon,” as the committee calls it—he refuses on humanistic grounds. To turn over the suit, he argues, would be “to turn over myself.” Iron Man’s enemies include a drone army piloted by a rival roboticist and, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a drone army piloted by an artificial intelligence.
Yet even as the films restore a sense of heroism to a war that has become bureaucratic, they also betray profound anxiety about that war. This emerges through a peculiar feature of the Marvel movies. The heroes confront threats of all sorts, but time and again, they fight their doppelgängers. Iron Man takes on other scientists in metal suits. Ant-Man’s enemy is Yellowjacket, who is, like him, a shrinking technological insectoid. Captain America battles serum-enhanced supersoldiers (“What kind of monster would let a German scientist experiment on him to protect his country?” he asks, winking). Often, the heroes simply face their relatives, as when Black Panther fights his cousin, Thor fights his siblings, or Peter Quill, the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, fights his father (while another Guardian, Gamora, fights her sister). The Hulk’s antagonist is the Abomination, a similarly sized creature made with the Hulk’s own blood. And SHIELD, the shadowy governmental organization that runs the Avengers, must face HYDRA, another shadowy governmental organization that has infiltrated it.
What these heroes are fighting, in the end, is themselves. And in doing so, they’re channeling a cultural ambivalence regarding the weapons of today’s wars. Iron Man intervening in global affairs is good, but Iron Monger (the villain of the first film) doing so is bad. The world needs SHIELD but fears HYDRA. It’s as if the films can’t put forth a hero to protect society without immediately imagining how he might threaten it.
Often, the lines blur. “Hey Cap, how do we know the good guys from the bad guys?” one of the Avengers asks, as he tries to sort HYDRA from SHIELD. “If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad,” is Captain America’s less-than-conclusive answer. It’s a quick joke but a meaningful one, because it gets at the central, uncomfortable truth about life in the United States that these movies dance around. The good guys—surveilling everyone’s communications, calling down air strikes, fortifying themselves against the world—look an awful lot like bad guys.
“Are we the good guys? We’re the good guys, right?” one of Ant-Man’s allies nervously asks as they break into a technology firm. The heroes aren’t always sure. Captain America worries that SHIELD, which created the Avengers, has crossed a line—“holding a gun to everyone’s head and calling it protection.” The Avengers start to wonder if they themselves are out of control. “We need to be put in check,” is Tony Stark’s resigned conclusion. He’s got a point, since in the second Avengers film he’d created an artificial intelligence (a “global peacekeeping initiative”) that turned genocidal and destroyed a city. “If we can’t accept limitations,” Tony continues, “then we’re no better than the bad guys.”
Perhaps, but when the State Department insists that the Avengers place themselves under the authority of the United Nations, Captain America refuses. The Avengers may have built a murderbot that nearly eradicated humanity, but the UN is run by politicians, and politicians, Cap insists, have “agendas.”
Other Avengers join Captain America’s cause. When one villain, whose wife, father, and son were killed by Tony Stark’s robot, seeks to avenge their deaths, Cap’s faction turns vigilante to fight him. The villain’s ambition is “to see an empire fall.” Captain America and his teammates become outlaws, in violation of a UN accord, to uphold that empire.
The resulting conflict, told in Captain America: Civil War, is about legitimacy. Who should police the world, and who shouldn’t? It’s the same question posed by all of those doubles, except staged as a contest between the heroes themselves. As Iron Man battles Captain America, you realize how grim this all has become. Tasked with selling fantasies, the best Marvel’s writers can come up with is the hope that power be placed in the least worst hands, and even that isn’t particularly hopeful. We’re left with two exhausted men, fighting each other over whom to mistrust more, the peacekeepers or the government.
At the end, Captain America defeats Iron Man and is vindicated. Better to leave power in the hands of the Avengers, we’re told. “Yes, the world is a vulnerable place,” is how Cap’s teammate Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) puts it. “And, yes, we helped make it that way. But we’re also the ones best qualified to defend it.”
It is a dispiriting conclusion. Fear is omnipresent, public institutions are not to be trusted, and the best we can hope for is benevolent vigilantes to take everything out of our hands.
“It’s really great to know that they’re out there, watching over us,” a civilian gushes in the first Avengers film. It’s a rare moment, because a thing that is striking about the films is how rarely ordinary people speak. They scream, cower, and flee, but rarely do they have anything useful to say. They’re there to be protected, perhaps occasionally to gape in admiration at the Avengers.
Whenever they form a government, though, it proves feckless or worse. The “World Security Council,” a thinly veiled version of the UN’s Security Council, is so unprepared for an alien invasion that throws up its hands and fires a nuclear missile at Manhattan (whereas the Avengers defeat the aliens and save New York). The most prominent elected politician in the Marvel films is Senator Stern, played with oily perfection by the late Garry Shandling. Stern tries to get Tony Stark to relinquish his suit, which seems a reasonable request. Yet Stern is quickly undermined, first by the revelation that he’s corrupt, then by the revelation that he’s a deep-state HYDRA agent hoping to kill millions and bring about a New World Order. In this, he’s in good company. Half the public officials in the Marvel films are secretly working for HYDRA. The Avengers dislike HYDRA, but not out of any sympathy for public governance. “I don’t care about the liberal agenda anymore,” declares Tony Stark. “It’s boring.”
There are societies that function in the Marvel Universe, but they aren’t liberal democracies. They’re Wakanda and Asgard, dynastic monarchies run by Black Panther’s family and Thor’s, respectively. Despite the progressive racial politics of Black Panther, it is ultimately a movie about a king who fights off another male heir to the throne. Howard University historian Daryl Scott has described Wakanda as a “conservative utopia,” a strong state protected by a charismatic aristocrat. The same could be said of Asgard. Thor initially mumbles something about refusing the throne, but at the end of the third film, he takes it.
In Ant-Man, the benevolent scientist Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, offers what is perhaps the purest distillation of the Marvel philosophy. “You can’t destroy power,” he advises. “All you can do is make sure that it’s in the right hands.”