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Marvel’s Shady Relationship With the Pentagon and the U.S. Military, Explained

Marvel’s Shady Relationship With the Pentagon and the U.S. Military, Explained

While artistically driven at its core, the film industry becomes less and less a conduit for artistry and more like business in the truest capitalistic sense as the days move forward. Box office numbers get bigger and bigger every year, with budgets of films matching suit with the demand for an increase in scale. With that, partnerships get bigger.

The make and model of cars being whipped around by action heroes are carefully picked out, or the infamy of directors like Michael Bay for their product placement in film are just a few examples. However, it seems we’ve come to a point where financial ties may be reaching outside the private sector.


Marvel Got in at the Ground Level

To fully understand the relationship in question, let’s time travel back to 2008. Marvel Studios has just premiered their debut MCU entry Iron Man to critical and financial success with a sequel already lined up and in development. Now, where things get interesting is when one looks at the logistics of shooting this film.

Do a little digging, and you’ll find that the Pentagon lent the studio almost $1 billion worth of military equipment for both friends. Gotta help fill out Tony Stark’s armory somehow, right? It doesn’t take an expert in advertisement to sense what both camps were and still are hoping to gain from this partnership. If the United States military can be painted in any positive light (like, say, developing the flagship hero of this franchise), that can then be spun into a successful yet unconventional avenue for recruitment.

A Little More Than a Helping Hand

Tony Stark’s first flight is just the tip of the iceberg in regard to the studio’s relations to our national defense system. Military involvement, especially in the screenwriting process, tends to border on collaborative rather than a simple proofread. See, standard policy states that in order for your film to receive any sort of military funding or equipment, it must first be read by the Pentagon, the same way that Marvel and Disney let Chinese censors go through their scripts to get Chinese distribution.

Related: Starship Troopers: The Perfect Military Satire

While a liaison from the Pentagon stated that military assistance in film production is given to those “who portray the military accurately,” a reasonable justification, that statement was then followed up by saying that the Pentagon does not recognize any negative depiction or criticism as “accurate.” Other than Marvel’s The Avengers, which depicted the false US Government organization S.H.I.E.L.D, Marvel Studios has been able to keep their relationship pretty clean.

The Pentagon as Script Collaborators

Although the relationship is strong, it’s not the first time cinema has seen military assistance is not uncommon. After all, the head of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, William Brady, wrote to President Wilson in 1917, “The motion picture can be made the most wonderful system for spreading the National Propaganda at little or no cost.”

Films like Black Hawk Down were said to require heavy oversight and financial assistance. When asked if the film could’ve been made without it, director Ridley Scott said, “We would have had to call it ‘Huey Down.'” However, there are instances where the involvement becomes external.

Author David Robb, in his book Operation Hollywood, stated that the film The Right Stuff received a little more than marketing suggestions from the military. A letter to the producers was quoted as saying, “the obscene language used seems to guarantee an ‘R’ rating. If distributed as an ‘R,’ it cuts down on the teenage audience, which is a prime one to the military services when our recruiting bills are considered.” The screenplay was then promptly changed. More recently, this can be seen in the military involvement with Top Gun: Maverick.

Related: How Top Gun: Maverick Works as Military Propaganda

With all that established, let’s look at what the specific relationship between Marvel and the Pentagon means for not only recruitment and marketing, but also the state of filmmaking with government involvement. As a multi-billion dollar franchise, and one of the biggest box office dominators for almost two decades, the MCU has a lot to say about the state of the film industry in 2022. Contributing in some years almost a quarter of total box office revenue, they definitely have their fair say in not only trends in filmmaking, but in culture. For them to forward this notion that one of the country’s most powerful institutions (the military-industrial complex) does not need their decisions questioned, much less criticized, is one that definitely raises eyebrows.

Pentagon Assistance or Overreach in the MCU?

The relationship between the Pentagon and some of our most beloved superheroes also raises a lot of questions regarding the First Amendment, especially within the context of propaganda. For most audiences, this issue was not something at the forefront of discourse until the release of Marvel’s Eternals, when a controversial rewrite of the Hiroshima tragedy put the issue more at the forefront of audiences’ minds. The historical inaccuracy and arguable insensitivity finally brought the issue to the attention of general moviegoers, some decade after the relationship began.

While Marvel is far from the first film franchise to bend the production knee to the military (and America is hardly the only country), it’s important to note the seeds planted for this relationship within their source material as well: comic books. Marvel Comics’ Ultimates run sees this in its response to the 9/11 tragedy. Most recently, military aviation supplier Northrup Gunman was unveiled as a partner at New York Comic Con this past year, to a negative response that led the company to promptly end the partnership before any progress could be made.

In today’s climate, it’s hard to say whether this questionable partnership will change in the near future. Ironically enough, while Marvel’s relationship with the public sector has been at its most profitable over the last few years, recruitment for the military on the whole has been down drastically in recent years. While they may outfit our favorite heroes, there’s a lot to discuss in terms of the ethics of this assisted armory and its effect on American culture.