Captain Marvel opened this weekend to a monster box office haul of $153 million domestically and over $450 million worldwide. Its star Brie Larson heralded it as ‘the biggest feminist movie of all time’ but behind this glossy, progressive veneer lies a troubling connection. Marvel is being used for military PR and recruitment propaganda, and Captain Marvel is merely the latest incarnation of a relationship that goes back decades.
The Comics of War
During World War 2 the US government produced ‘informational comics’ aimed at domestic and Allied audiences, while Marvel and DC started to produce comics aimed specifically at the military. The first ever issue of Captain America came out in March 1941, months before the US joined the war. The front cover featured Cap leaping into action, socking Hitler in the jaw. It is no coincidence that Marvel legend Stan Lee served in US military intelligence during the war, helping to produce propaganda. Meanwhile Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (the creators of Captain America) were members of the Writers War Board, a government-funded propaganda organisation devoted to the US war effort.
From 1986 to 1993 Marvel Comics produced and sold The ‘Nam, a comic that was edited by a Vietnam veteran who came up with the idea for the series. Each month the comic told a loosely-fictionalised version of real events from 20 years earlier, helping rewrite popular perceptions of the Vietnam War.
More recently, from 2005 to 2010 Marvel also went into co-production with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service to produce the first volume of The New Avengers. This comic series was only available to military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was designed to maintain morale among the troops. The first two issues were written by Brian Bendiss, who in 2016 visited CIA headquarters commenting, ‘so I’m completely filled with ideas and stories for the next 10 years.’
The Military and the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Given this background it is no surprise that the Pentagon were intimately involved in helping to adapt Marvel comics into films. On Hulk (2003) they provided access to military bases for filming and loaned numerous tanks, helicopters and other vehicles to the production. In exchange the Pentagon insisted on widespread changes to the script.
A set of script notes from the Marine Corps apologised for the ‘pretty radical’ changes they required of the producers. These included removing dialogue references to military experiments on human subjects, and changing the laboratory where Bruce Banner’s father irradiates himself from a military to a civilian facility. The Pentagon also removed a reference to Operation Ranch Hand, which saw the US drop millions of gallons of herbicides on the Vietnamese countryside in an attempt to starve the Vietcong and the general population.
Indeed, without the Pentagon’s support it is possible that the Marvel Universe wouldn’t have become the world’s biggest film franchise. The first two Iron Man films benefited from large-scale production assistance from the US Air Force, including access to Edwards Air Force base and over a billion dollars worth of planes and equipment as props and set dressing. Some of the most iconic scenes in the films came as a result of military assistance.
This support came at a price – the Pentagon demanded full approval of the scripts, leading to an on-set argument between director Jon Favreau and then DOD Hollywood liaison Phil Strub. As Strub revealed years later, the problematic line in Iron Man had a military character saying that people would ‘kill themselves’ for the opportunities he has. ‘It never got resolved until we were in the middle of filming. Now we’re on the flight lines at Edwards Air Force Base, and there’s 200 people, and [the director] and I are having an argument about this. He’s getting redder and redder in the face and I’m getting just as annoyed.’ In the end the line got changed to people ‘would walk over hot coals’, though the scene didn’t make it into the (DOD-supervised) final cut of the film.
The Production Assistance Agreement signed between Marvel Studios and the Pentagon for Iron Man shows that the Air Force saw the movie as a great opportunity for boosting recruitment. Among the clauses in the contract is one where Marvel agreed to work on ‘mutually beneficial marketing initiatives’ that included ‘encouraging the involvement of recruiters.’ The relationship remained close when it came to the sequel. A DOD-maintained database of support to the entertainment industry notes how on Iron Man 2 the Air Force even had input on the markings on the War Machine character’s suit.
The US military also worked on Captain America (2011), with the Army allowing filming access to Camp Edwards because they felt ‘Captain America is a former Soldier and possesses the values of today’s American Soldier’ and that the film ‘Supports building resiliency.’ Even the producers of Thor (2011) hired a former Navy SEAL to provide on-set advice.
However, the relationship broke down during filming of The Avengers (2012), even though the producers rewrote parts of the film to suit the Pentagon’s demands, ‘including strengthening connection of legacy Army to today’s Soldiers’. The Army provided access to White Sands Missile Range and ‘a company of soldiers for the climactic battle scene’, but there was a problem.
In The Avengers S.H.I.E.L.D. decide to nuke New York city in order to repel an alien invasion – without consulting the military first. This caused a falling out between Marvel Studios and the Pentagon, leading the military to withdraw from the movie during production. As Strub explained, ‘We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it. To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything.’
Captain Marvel – The Rebirth of the Military-Marvel Relationship
Aside from minor National Guard support to The Winter Soldier (2014) the Pentagon hasn’t worked on any Marvel films since that falling out. The producers of Age of Ultron (2015) did have discussions with the US Navy about ‘showcasing DOD next-generation weapons systems’ but they never provided the script for the Pentagon to review, so the military had nothing to do with the film.
As such, Captain Marvel represents the rebirth of this long-standing relationship and an effort to reboot not just the Marvel universe, but also its connections with the Pentagon. Just like on the Iron Man films, the US Air Force provided full support to Captain Marvel.
The frosty relationship between Marvel Studios and the Pentagon thawed during the Air Force’s recent Entertainment Industry Leader tours. In 2016 around 40 Hollywood figures went on a tour of an Air Force base in Alaska, including Jeffrey Bell, executive producer of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In 2017 the Air Force’s industry leader tour visited Space Command, and this time the Hollywood bigwigs included Captain Marvel co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and producer Mary Livanos. Marvel Studios producer Jonathan Schwartz also went on the Space Command tour, which Air Force documents state was designed to ‘project and protect the image of the United States Air Force within the global entertainment environment.’
In early 2018 Boden, Fleck and the film’s star Brie Larson visited Nellis AFB to meet with airmen, conduct research, look at F-15s and Larson was even allowed to fly in an F-16. The Air Force started promoting Captain Marvel even before filming had begun, posting pictures of Larson with former 57th Wing commander Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt on social media. This led to full production assistance, including access to Edwards AFB for filming in April 2018, talks with military historians, as well as military aircraft and dozens of airmen as background extras.
Air Force promotional support continued after the film had wrapped, through numerous social media posts as well as two flyovers on the day of the premiere – one at Disneyland, one at the premiere itself. The event also included real airmen and airwomen being interviewed on the red carpet as part of the build-up to the release of the film.
They evidently see the Captain Marvel character – a female superhero who joins the Air Force – as a recruitment-boosting tool. Alongside the release of the film the Air Force has launched a new recruitment campaign with the tagline ‘Every Hero Has an Origin Story’. Video ads for the campaign are being shown in over 3,600 movie theaters, clearly aimed at encouraging recruitment from women. As noted by the military site Task and Purpose, The Captain Marvel trailers and other promotional materials visually resemble military recruitment ads, in what appears to be a coordinated cross-branding exercise.
This has echoes of the classic military-sponsored film Top Gun, which is widely recognised as having increased military recruitment and polished the Pentagon’s reputation. The DOD’s database of support to Hollywood productions comments that Top Gun ‘completed rehabilitation of the military’s image, which had been savaged by the Vietnam war.’ The Pentagon is probably hoping that Captain Marvel can do the same in the wake of seemingly never-ending wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite the Pentagon’s best efforts the backlash has already begun, with some commentators suggesting that Captain Marvel’s feminist credentials are a trojan horse for militarism. This not only whitewashes real wars but also helps cover up the military’s systemic problems with sexual harassment and sexual assault, with more than 1 in 25 servicewomen reporting being sexual assaulted (let alone the others who don’t report what happens to them). The Pentagon using Hollywood to encourage women to sign up and portray military life as an exciting, movie-like experience strikes some observers as horribly cynical.