The Austrian

Trust Us, We’re Superheroes

Trust Us, We've Superheroes

Since 2008, Marvel Studios, now owned by Disney, has been cranking out at least one big-budget new movie each year, with much success. The movies of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe — which includes the post-2007 Marvel movies about the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Avengers — have combined to gross more than 8.5 billion dollars.

The studio has been careful to loosely connect all the plotlines of these films to construct a single world in which all the films take place. Thus, viewers of the Marvel films over the past seven years have become immersed in a broad, interconnected world of superheroes, supervillains, murderous robots, and interplanetary threats from god-like creatures and seemingly indestructible extra-terrestrials.

Meanwhile, the Marvel world is protected by the shadowy organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), which also serves as coordinating body that brings all of the Avengers together to fight superhuman threats to the human race.

As one might expect, therefore, the Marvel films contain a sizable amount of politics and numerous, sometimes-conflicting messages about the central role of a technological-military-industrial complex in protecting the human race from total and utter destruction.

To their credit, the Marvel films generally avoid heavy-handedness in their moralizing, which is no doubt one reason for their success. They often remain ambiguous about the “lessons” to be learned in each film. In other words, viewers can supply for themselves what message they wish to take away from each film. Nevertheless, one can detect that on the whole, the overall political message contained within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of suspicion toward the “official” institutions of the world’s governments which often fail in their mission, or are corrupted in the face of existential threats. Fortunately for moviegoers, the eponymous superheroes — most of whom display ambiguous motivations and loyalties — must supply the necessary heroics.

At the core of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are three superheroes: Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Captain America, and their relationships with government institutions form the backbone of what might be an ideology behind the Marvel films.

Iron Man: Collaborator Turned Vigilante

The modern era of Marvel Studios began with the success of Iron Man in 2008 which tells the story of Tony Stark, who has inherited a successful weapons-manufacturing business from his father. Stark has become a billionaire playboy thanks to the success of his father’s weapons in killing large numbers of people. However, after Tony sees the effects of his weapons, and the moral ambiguity of the conflicts for which he has been supplying them, Stark loses faith in his arrangement with the US government and turns toward a mission of single-handedly supplying world peace through his new Iron Man superweapon.

By the time of Iron Man 2 (2010), world peace has indeed been established, and Stark is embroiled in a conflict with the United States government which wants the Iron Man suit for itself. Stark declares that the suit is “my property” and refuses to grant governments access to the technology. Eventually, however, competing weapons contractors are able to collude with an Air Force officer to produce similar weapons for nefarious purposes.

The Hulk: Betrayed by the State

Just as Stark had worked closely to supply weapons to the US government before his epiphany, Dr. Bruce Banner, a brilliant scientist in The Incredible Hulk (2008) was convinced by the US government to assist in reviving the “super soldier” program that had existed during World War II. After a botched experiment, Banner is turned into a superweapon himself, the Hulk, rendering him incapable of carrying on normal human relationships. The US government then proceeds to hunt Banner down, claiming he is their “property” while making the Hulk a fugitive who can only live on the margins of society.

Captain America: All-American Super Soldier

Captain America provides the flip side to the disillusionment and betrayal found with the Hulk and Iron Man characters. Unlike the Hulk’s failed experiment, the experiment on Steven Rogers — dramatized in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — is extremely successful, turning Rogers into Captain America, and providing him with the super powers necessary to defeat Hydra, a secret terrorist organization seeking world domination.

Rogers maintains his idealized 1940s-style morals and innocent patriotism to the end, and we discover that the project’s success was largely due to the contributions of Tony Stark’s father. Even after Captain America is accidentally frozen in the Arctic Ocean for sixty years and revived just in time to team up with the other Avengers, Rogers continues to be a loyal agent of the American state.

The Central Lesson of the Marvel Universe: Our Own Weapons May Destroy Us

Although our view of the scientific-military-industrial complex is made complex and interesting through these contrasting views, we are nevertheless faced with the single theme: if the human race faces such intractable foes as Thor’s brother Loki — introduced in Thor (2011) — and an aggressive alien race known as the Chitauri, the human race can’t hope to survive without the assistance of superheroes, and the amazing technical know-how of S.H.I.E.L.D.

And yet, even here, the Marvel movies cast doubt on the purity and competence of the Earth’s defenders throughout the films and especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), in which it is revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D has been infiltrated by Captain America’s old foe Hydra. Thus, mankind’s last best hope for defense turns out to be a fifth column, and it’s up to Captain America (now branded a traitor) to end the S.H.I.E.L.D/ Hydra threat.

This theme of best-laid-plans-gone-awry then continues into 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron when Iron Man, despairing over the threat posed by far-more-powerful alien forces, creates yet another super-weapon — this time an artificial intelligence — that turns against humanity. In the end, only the good-hearted rump of the now-disbanded S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers themselves can intervene to save the day.

For cinematic purposes, this repeated return to the theme of saving the world by the skin of our teeth works extremely well. But what effect, if any, will it have on the ideologies of moviegoers? In the world of these Marvel films, each new attempt to protect the world from all danger leads to just another newer and graver threat that could not be anticipated.

Ultimately, the world’s salvation falls on a group of disparate misfits betrayed by their own attempts at a lasting peace. This is good for keeping a movie franchise going. But maybe there’s a real-life lesson in there somewhere, too.


Ryan McMaken, “Trust Us, We’re Superheroes,” The Austrian 1, no. 4 (July-August 2015): 14–16.

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