As New York Comic Con kicked off its celebrations, fans prepared for the revelry and the pantheons of the geek world got ready to accommodate. There were the expected bits - the panels and interviews, the signings, the amazing cosplay and the hunt for free merchandise - and then there were the unfortunate moments where you couldn't help but wonder what everyone involved was thinking. That honor fell to Marvel this year, as the arguable leaders of the geek world right now announced then quickly cancelled a comics partnership with defense contractor Northrop Grumman.
The collaboration was set to feature a comics cross-over between The Avengers and a newly created "Northrop Grumman Elite Nexus" team from the contractors - something Marvel claimed was part of an initiative to encourage interest in the STEM fields to a wider audience. In their statement detailing the cancellations, Marvel said:
The activation with Northrop Grumman at New York Comic Con was meant to focus on aerospace technology and exploration in a positive way. However, as the spirit of that intent has not come across, we will not be proceeding with this partnership including this weekend’s event programming. Marvel and Northrop Grumman continue to be committed to elevating, and introducing, STEM to a broad audience.
Northrop Grumman is billed as "a leading global security company providing innovative systems, products and solutions to government and commercial customers," and was named the fifth largest defense contractor in the world in 2015, and have major contracts with the US government, providing everything from aerial drones to laser weapon systems. Suffice to say, this didn't go over well with fans, who questioned why the company would partner with the military-industrial complex and package it as an adventure for kids. Many also brought up the obvious irony of Marvel - the home of Tony Stark, who famously stopped selling his own weapons to the military - making this decision. Given recent world events, such as the mass shooting in Las Vegas (which caused Marvel to cancel their panel and episode screening of their upcoming Netflix series The Punisher), it's understandable why this would be seen as a step too far for the company.
It's interesting that Marvel took the steps to cancel this partnership here, because they're not newbies at collaborating with the defense industry. Like basically any major Hollywood production that uses military equipment or locations, Marvel has previously had strong relations with the United States Department of Defense, and that's always been a relationship with a very specific power dynamic.
While the military and Pentagon's involvement in Hollywood has always been reasonably well known, many didn't see the full scope of it until very recently, after Bath University's Dr Matthew Alford made a Freedom of Information request to the Hollywood-based Department of Defense Entertainment Liaison Office. Phil Strub, entertainment liaison at the Department of Defense, is the sole person with the power to greenlight or deny any movie's right to co-operation with military forces and tools. This can range from access to a Navy ship or use of NAVY Seals as extras or advisors. His job is to make the military look good through the power of Hollywood, and the industry has always been very willing to accommodate his requests.
Originally, Strub denied Pentagon support to Man of Steel because he felt the script depicted the military in a "cartoony" manner. Screenwriter David S. Goyer later made script changes and the Pentagon approval was given. Films that show the military in an unflattering light can and have been denied Pentagon support, with major hits like Platoon and Argo being among them. The papers also revealed military input on TV series like Hawaii Five-O and, surprisingly, American Idol.
This can raise thorny issues about the possibility of government propaganda in film. Taxpayer-subsidized access to Pentagon equipment and resources has become a crucial part of mega-budget blockbuster film-making, and getting hold of such hardware comes with a price. As you can imagine, this doesn't lead to especially critical readings of the military in such films. Peter Berg's Navy SEAL drama Lone Survivor was given Pentagon approval and allowed to film on official Air Force bases. As Berg notes about the collaboration, "The idea of a good old-fashioned combat yarn, in which the politics are very clear - we support these men - was more appealing to them." If the movie had been an unsavoury portrait of the SEALs, the chances are it never would have been made, or at the very least it would have been a more difficult and costly venture to produce.
There are various reasons why directors choose to enter this kind of potentially messy relationship, but the main one is the simple matter of cost. Getting help from the Pentagon can drastically slash a film's budget. According to Business Insider, "For Man of Steel, using military efforts cost less than $1 million on a movie with a production budget of $225 million." Productions with Pentagon approval can also avoid having to pay minimum rates for SAG union members and don't have to pay residuals. It's a mutually beneficial deal for both Hollywood and the Pentagon: The former gets cost efficient and realistic technical dazzle, while the latter gets the kind of publicity boost most government groups can only dream of.
Deals like this may make good financial sense but they open up endless questions over possible censorship of the arts at the hand of the government and the role of entertainment in propagandizing the image of the Pentagon. How does something like this interfere with a story showing the military in a darker or more unflattering light, particularly if it involves historical truths? What about the ways this uncritical promotion of a multi-billion dollar a year government agency can act as a recruitment tool to audiences? If a studio won't greenlight a film that shows the military industrial complex in a darker way because they fear an inability to get Pentagon backing, what does that say about the media we make and way we make it? And what about the questions of a taxpayer funded department lending its resources to a movie production?
Marvel can’t say they were totally unaware of the ramifications of a cute comic team-up with a defense contractor because they’ve been making these deals for a long time. It’s the norm of Hollywood to team up with the Pentagon for optimum results, although it’s up to the rest of us to question exactly what it means when the entertainment we love has such a tight relationship with, and willingness to adhere to, government involvement.