When watching a film about Iron Man and Captain America trying to knock each other senseless, viewers probably don’t expect the plot to include commentary on the social issues that afflict modern society. Although superhero movies may seem like they’re all CGI and special effects, many of the recent Marvel films have touched on deeper themes, with issues like racism, mental health and propaganda explored within the plot. Between the alien battles and the talking raccoons, it can be easy to overlook the deeper morals of Marvel movies, but they’re there, hiding beneath every Arc Reactor and Infinity Stone.
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Here are 8 times Marvel addressed real-world social issues:
8 Racism In Black Panther
Black Panther may have been a superhero flick, but it also offered potent commentary on the generational effects of racism. Killmonger, the film’s central villain and a child of Wakanda, was abandoned in America at a young age and endured years of racism without any familial supports. Scarred by the trauma, he steeped in resentment and eventually turned to violence as a way to get back at those who wronged him.
His journey demonstrates to audiences how racism can completely derail people's lives. From a young age, the odds were stacked against Killmonger and as a result, he was pushed to the fringes of society. He was not born a villain, but made into one by the systemic racism of America.
7 Mental Health In Iron Man 3
In Iron Man 3, we see Tony Stark - a man so confident he declared himself a superhero in front of the entire world - dealing with anxiety. Specifically, Stark suffers from panic attacks triggered by his experience in The Avengers. After witnessing the might of the Chitauri army, Tony fears that his Iron Man suits won’t be strong enough to protect the Earth if aliens ever return.
By depicting a larger-than-life hero like Tony Stark struggling with anxiety, Marvel demonstrated that mental health can affect each and every one of us, from nervous high schoolers to genius billionaires. Eventually, Tony resolves his issues by talking to a ten-year-old on the phone for two minutes, which makes for a rather unrealistic conclusion to his struggles with mental health. But choosing to include this story arc in the MCU was a step in the right direction, even if it wasn’t entirely representative of what real-life mental health issues look like.
6 Rape In Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones is one of the few TV shows that offers a realistic portrayal of what it's like to be a rape survivor. In Hollywood, story arcs often conclude after the rapist is caught and put behind bars, but for rape survivors, the story continues beyond when their assaulters are brought to justice (if they're brought to justice - the vast majority of rapists never spend a day in jail). Unfortunately, our culture tends towards placing blame on rape survivors, which feeds into victims feeling as if they somehow brought the assault upon themselves through their interactions with their attacker or their clothing choices. Often, survivors are plagued by shame, self-doubt and PTSD for months, if not years after their assault, and many suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts.
In Jessica Jones, the story begins a year after Jessica escapes from her rapist's clutches, with the show focusing on the long-term psychological trauma of rape. For the entirety of the show, Jessica struggles with self-loathing and guilt, believing herself to be responsible for the things Kilgrave made her do when she was under his control. This echoes the way many rape survivors feel after their assaults. By following Jessica's story for years after her experience with Kilgrave, the show puts a spotlight on the long-term effects of rape and has helped show how important it is to listen to the stories of survivors.
5 Inequality In Spider-Man: Homecoming
Although Spider-Man: Homecoming is best known for its action scenes and dated pop culture references, hidden within the plot is a subtle commentary on inequality. The American Dream is lauded as something anyone can achieve no matter where they start, but the deck is stacked against those in the working classes. Despite the sweat and blood Adrian Toomes (The Vulture) pours into his work, he cannot advance within society, watching the upper classes accumulate wealth as he struggles to provide for his family.
When his salvage company loses its contract to help clean up after the alien invasion of Manhattan, Toomes feels like there is no legal way to earn a living wage and steals alien technology, dealing in illegal weapons and creating a business that brings in a steady income. His main motivation as a villain is not to kill Spider-Man or destroy the world, but to provide a nice house for his family and a good school for his daughter— a life he felt he couldn't achieve legally within the framework of American society.
4 Propaganda In Captain Marvel
In Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers is a pilot from Earth who gains superpowers after an encounter with the Tesseract. The Kree remove her memories and lie to her about a war with a race of alien shapeshifters, using her as a weapon in their quest to wipe out the Skrulls. During the film's final act, Danvers learns that she has been deceived by the Kree and that the Skrulls are homeless refugees, constantly on the run from the Kree and on the verge of extinction.
This story arc explores the harmful effects of propaganda. During times of conflict, supposed "enemies" are frequently dehumanized in the media, and given that fear is an easy emotion to manipulate, governments often purposefully feed into people's anxieties. Captain Marvel shows that there are two sides to every story, and that fear-mongering can put vulnerable populations at risk.
3 The Surveillance State In Captain America: The Winter Soldier
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a government spy organization that gathers huge swathes of information on the public without their knowledge or consent. When Black Widow leaks documents incriminating S.H.I.E.L.D. to the public, their shadowy practices come to light and the organization dissolves.
This story arc closely parallels when Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents to the media, exposing the US government and other international organizations for using surveillance systems to closely monitor citizens. With S.H.I.E.L.D. mirroring the NSA, Captain America: The Winter Soldier offers poignant commentary on the surveillance state and the dangers of allowing government organizations to operate without oversight or accountability.
2 Abusive Parenting In Avengers: Infinity War
Although the MCU had explored the abusive history between Gamora and Thanos in prior films, Avengers: Infinity War took a more in-depth look at the complexity of their relationship. After he murdered half the people on her planet, Thanos took Gamora and forced her to become a deadly assassin. In Avengers: Infinity War, we see a version of reality in which Gamora kills Thanos (which turns out to be fake - *sigh*), and afterward, she collapses to the ground weeping, showing more emotion than we've ever seen from her before. This demonstrates how the abused can house deeply complicated emotions for their abusers, and that, even if the offender deserves no love, relationships are not often what they should be.
In another scene from the film, it is revealed that Thanos actually did love Gamora despite the pain he inflicted upon her. This certainly does not excuse any of his actions, but it shows how abusers are sometimes not even aware that they are abusers. As they inflict pain upon their victims, they often believe themselves to be helping them. This does not make their actions any less harmful, but it can help us to understand the origins of toxic relationships and the steps we can take to end cycles of abuse.
1 Sexism In Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel was the first film in the MCU with a female lead, and it didn’t fail to impress. Following the life of Carol Danvers, the movie highlights the sexism women experience on a daily basis. From men making bigoted remarks about female pilots to a man randomly telling Carol to smile on the streets (which she responds to with an admirable scowl), the derogatory treatment of women is clearly demonstrated throughout the film, and although Carol rises above it, she does not go unaffected. In flashbacks, we see that she still thinks about the men who heckled her at flight school, but she fights back at every turn, defying the people who bet against her, scowling at creeps on the street and showing that women have nothing to prove to men. Plus, the fact that she’s a human fireball and the most powerful hero in the MCU doesn’t hurt. Move over, Thor.