War. What is it good for? As it turns out, everything.
There is a scene about halfway through Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, the 14th film in Disney’s Avengers series, wherein the title character – currently in the midst of learning magic and sorcery from a tribe of superpowerful mystics based in Hong Kong – has come to learn that the Earth is under threat from an evil space deity who is constantly trying to destroy it. Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, turns to his compatriots and, in a fit of refusal, explains that when he started learning magic, he only sought to cure his injured hands. He didn’t sign up, he continues, to be a soldier in some sort of mystical war.
But drafted he is, and the good Doctor proceeds to become a general in said war, doing magical battles with evil wizards. By the end of the film, Doctor Strange is a full-fledged comic book superhero, ready to do battle at a moment’s notice. He is no longer a doctor, but a supernatural marine.
The iconography of Doctor Strange is unique for this series – the mind-bending visuals are first-rate – and many critics have praised the film for its visual elements. But the weaknesses of the film are readily seen; it too much resembles several other tales of superhero origins as already seen more than once in this very franchise. Many have observed that the story arc, the main character, and the general themes of Doctor Strange are lifted more or less wholesale from 2008’s Iron Man. They are both about cocky brilliant experts who, thanks to an accident, find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, having to tap into their talents to cure themselves.
But there is a crucial difference between Doctor Strange and Iron Man that reveals an insidious and distressing message about war. Iron Man was about a military man, fond of weapons, who didn’t care about the impact his products were having on the world. When he learned that his company’s missiles were being used in underground terrorist operations, he had a change of heart, and built his Iron Man suit as a means of disarming the world. He sought to fight for peace.
Doctor Strange, meanwhile, grants far less moral initiative to its protagonist. Stephen Strange takes no initiative in his choice to fight evil. He is merely swept up in a chaotic universe of constant conflict. He is essentially drafted. And, after 14 films in this series, we begin to see something horrible about the world in which these Marvel superheroes operate: There will always be war.
Looking back over the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we see that they are all about war. Iron Man was about how one’s money-minded actions can lead to an unintended war (surely a comment on America’s conflicts in the Middle East). Captain America: The First Avenger took place during World War II. Thor was about how starting war (with Frost Giants) can lead to the downfall of a kingdom by ambitious usurpers (a comment on the George W. Bush administration perhaps?). The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron were heavily colored by themes of how the lead superhero characters are largely and directly responsible for creating the villains they fight. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – “soldier” is in the title – is about how the echoes of WWII have continued to leave a wartime imprint on the minds of the people, and that is what has lead to a modern ethos of mistrust and preemptive war (the actual politics of The Winter Soldier are certainly muddled at best). Even the Guardians of the Galaxy were enlisted by the military to fly fighter jets.
Ever since Iron Man, one can note, this series has turned more and more – very gradually, almost unnoticeably – toward a world of perpetual war. There has been one film already to have the word “war” in the title, and another upcoming film will be called The Infinity War. Given this gradual militarization of this series, that phrase is beginning to sound downright Orwellian.
To be fair, constant fighting is the milieu of the superhero. Superhero comics, after all, operate in a world of moral absolutism; there are Good Guys and there are Bad Guys, and they exist to fistfight one another. We go back to see the heroes – unshaken in their resolve – repeatedly best their counterparts. There are many strays from this narrative to be sure, but this scenario is the baseline reading for almost all superhero comics. In the world of comic books, we can take comfort in the fights because we know that the good guys are definitely good, and the bad guys are definitely bad (The Dark World, dark dimensions, evil aliens, secret Nazis).
But that moral absolutism has given rise to a very dangerous concept within the MCU: The constant, necessary war. These heroes are no longer fighting for peace. They are not standing up for what is just or acceptable. They are not fighting for an endgame. They simply fight. They follow no government, nor any other interests beyond their own. There are no ending conditions. There is no stalemate. Bellum omnium contra omnes.
What’s going to happen within the MCU following Doctor Strange? Most assuredly, he will team up with other characters in the universe to fight off some new giant alien threat. Then a new character will be added to the mix, and they too will be recruited to fight another threat, likely provoked by animosity over the last defeat. The series is building up an unstoppable military force that will only grow and grow. Given their number, and how big their conflagrations have been – and notably how their fights only tend to create more evil – we can no longer see these characters as custodians or bouncers or bodyguards. The Avengers are Earth’s privatized marines.
In terms of anticipating exciting superhero mayhem, this is a first-rate strategy, and given the way these films have been succeeding at the box office, audiences assuredly approve. In terms of the way military might actually functions, however, the MCU is tracing an arc of a slow swelling stratocracy. There is no self-awareness to the series in this regard; these films are not a tragedy about how these superheroes are slowly wearing down to resolve of the world until the people live in fear, and the military “Good Guys” rule over them all. These films are very pro-war, pro-military, and pro-perpetual-conflict.
This may all be a comment on the world we live in. In the 1990s, during a notorious time of peace, superheroes were seen as somewhat ridiculous. Amidst the X-Men cartoons were shows like The Tick and Darkwing Duck which revealed that superheroes were driven by idiocy and ego. Batman films were either noir deconstructionist parables about the freakishness of superheroes (Batman Returns) or the near-sexual fetishization of superheroes (Batman Forever).
In the wake of 9/11, however (and yes, that seems to be the cultural turning point), we sought moral absolutism again. The world became dark and complicated, and thoughts of military-based vengeance began to enter the national discourse. We needed an imaginary world were good and evil were more clearly delineated, and the military was equal to the task of the new world of perpetual conflict. It’s astonishing how many mainstream Hollywood blockbusters released since 9/11 – even the light, kid-friendly ones – have been about war and vengeance. Enter the Marvel movies, a morally cleaned-up, colorful, nostalgic version of the world wherein the good guys would win in a world that constantly required them, i.e. a world that was never going to see the end to war.
The Marvel movies have revealed how the public has come to think of the world: That it is a world devoid of peace. The possibility of a blissful, non-war state is now seen as a naive dream, and our biggest fantasies are about being part of an ever-growing group of vigilantes who have the power – o, the power – to fight without end. Constant war means constant victory.
That can be an inspiring feeling, winning battle after battle. But when there’s no endgame in sight, what will those victories really mean?
Top Image: Disney
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.