Martin Scorsese recently incurred the wrath of fans for saying that Marvel films are not cinema. This was fine by me: I’ve never been a fan of Marvel. I’ve watched Marvel movies. I remember sitting through Guardians of the Galaxy one rainy evening while a friend excitedly asked for my thoughts. “It was bad,” was all I could muster. While Scorsese’s opinions are interesting and worth discussion, my distaste for Marvel comes from an altogether different source: military propaganda.
Picture this: a country where various branches of the military and intelligence agencies have offices that liaise with filmmakers. These offices request radical changes to scripts, expunging anything that might be critical or reflect poorly on them. In exchange, films and television shows are granted permission to use locations and equipment. The government is promptly accused of censorship, and leaders of the Western world denounce the actions of this nation, loudly. This is the type of action taken by countries some leaders have deemed the enemies of freedom: China, North Korea, Iran. However, the truth is, the above also accurately describes the relationship between the Pentagon and Hollywood.
The Department of Defense regularly pairs up with productions across the United States. Every branch of the armed forces, including the Coast Guard, has its own liaison office. According to Phil Strub, the Director of Entertainment Media at the Defense Department, “the number of productions—including documentaries and even game shows—that receive some form of military assistance annually are too many to quantify.” Does a film about the military have to co-operate with the DoD in order to be made? No—of course not. As Steven Rose of The Guardian explains, “many of the best Hollywood war movies have been made without the forces: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, MASH, Catch-22, Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove, Three Kings.” But collaborating can be cheaper: “the use of official hardware […] saved the filmmakers [of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen] millions of dollars in props, locations, and special effects.”
Unsurprisingly, all of this is on the military’s terms. As Rose explains, “the script must be submitted for approval, a military consultant will be on hand during the shoot, and the finished product has to be screened for Pentagon chiefs before its release.” According to Strub, “our desire is that the military are portrayed as good people trying to do the right thing […] that’s probably our single most important imperative.” This is not an empty threat—the DoD will pull out of a production if they are not satisfied.
Changes to scripts range from editing lines to the introduction of new characters. As Tom Secker and Matthew Alford, the co-authors of National Security Cinema, state in a Medium article, the DoD “is not quite an official censor, since decisions on scripts are made voluntarily by producers, but it represents a major and scarcely acknowledged pressure on the kind of narratives and images we see on the big and small screens.” The DoD has been documented to go to great lengths to prevent even unassisted productions from espousing undesirable narratives. According to journalist Nicolas Shou, author of Spooked, the CIA established a front company to outbid Marlon Brando for the rights to a picture about the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Ronald Reagan’s government helped facilitate the sale of arms to the Khomeini government in order to fun the Nicaraguan Contras.
Where does Marvel fit in to this? Well, at least six Marvel movies have received support from the DoD; Iron Man, Hulk (2003), Iron Man 2, Captain America, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Captain Marvel. Tom Secker argues that; “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 […] 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.”
"it represents a major and scarcely acknowledged pressure on the kind of narratives and images we see on the big and small screens.”
In Hulk (2003), script notes obtained through Freedom of Information suggested “pretty radical” script changes, including changing the Hulk’s codename from “Ranch Hand” to “Angry Man”. Operation Ranch Hand refers to the campaign in which the U.S. dropped millions of gallons of herbicide over Vietnam, including the now-infamous Agent Orange.
That said, the relationship between the studio and the DoD has not always been completely amicable. Despite rewrites made to The Avengers, the DoD withdrew support over concern with S.H.I.E.L.D. As Strub explains, “we couldn't reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it.”
Captain Marvel represents a renewal of this relationship. According to James Barber of Military.com, the United States Air Force gave the film “unprecedented support.” In fact, Captain Marvel is described as a “recruiting win for the Air Force […] kids all over the world are watching, and loving, a movie in which Air Force pilots help save the planet. Someone at the Pentagon is smiling.”
"Art has the ability to reach out, to birth emotions, to move. Art influences. Anybody who endeavors to make a career and life out of it should acknowledge this power."
Calling a film like Captain Marvel 'military propaganda' should not be seen as being countercultural or contrarian just for the sake of it. As Rebecca Keegan of the L.A. Times noted, “entertainment - including movies, TV shoes and video games - is key to shaping the public perception of what it means to be a soldier.” Furthermore, according to historian Lawrence H. Suid, “Hollywood feature films have served as the most significant medium to argue for the military.” Most Americans have no experience with war or with being a soldier. Some may have heard stories from family members or friends, but the media is the influence shaping the perceptions of most.
So, what does it mean when the DoD influences a movie that makes over a billion dollars? Why should we care when our government is reluctant to permit even the smallest criticism of the military in mass media? I went into filmmaking because I love art, and to me, film seemed the artiest of them all: it combines visual images, music, acting, and so much more. Art has the ability to reach out, to birth emotions, to move. Art influences. Anybody who endeavors to make a career and life out of it should acknowledge this power.
The United States is not a small country whose actions are of little consequence, and Hollywood is not a small, local industry whose films rarely reach beyond national borders. The United States is arguably the most powerful and influential country on the planet, and American films and media are consumed and revered the world-over.
Augusto Boal spoke of theatre as a weapon; I find it no hyperbole to describe film in similar terms. The United States has no cultural memory of the horrors and atrocities of violence—there has been no war on American soil for over 100 years. Making movies that help spur recruitment and present the Army, Navy or C.I.A as moral actors whose bad deeds are the exclusive trespasses of bad apples helps to promote the myth of American exceptionalism. That, in and of itself, is an act of violence.
Art is a responsibility. Yes, it is a joy, it is an outlet, it is one of the many amazing things that makes us human: but it is a responsibility nonetheless. And it is on us, as future directors, set-decorators, camera-operators or just film-consumers to recognize this, and to utilize it. Stop playing the game. We need to do our best to minimize harm, to speak out against it and to mobilise others. Film is a weapon. Use it wisely.