Home Comics Op-Ed: Popcorn and Politics – Future of Marvel Cinematic Universe

Op-Ed: Popcorn and Politics – Future of Marvel Cinematic Universe

written by Nick Allen April 9, 2018
Black Panther, Captain America, and Black Widow prepare for battle in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Avengers: Infinity War

Not Everyone Wants Political Themes in Comic Book Movies

To these people, I have news: comics have always been political, especially Marvel. Most superhero films, including the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have simply held back – until now.

Wonder Woman and Black Panther were critical and financial triumphs. Many people also saw them as political in nature.  This is thanks to their overall messages as well as the timeliness of major studio tentpole films about female and black superheroes.  While most fans welcomed these developments (myself included), a vocal contingent did not.  Many of them wondered why political and social meaning had to be attached to superhero movies at all.

To these people, I have more news: don’t expect this trend to end anytime soon, especially with Marvel.

The box office figures illustrate that political notes in superhero movies don’t hurt the studio’s bottom line. In fact, their success is probably thanks in part to the political significance of the films.  I predict that this is only the beginning.

Marvel Is Political, and Always Was

Disney recently purchased 20th Century Fox and, with it, the film rights to the X-Men. While no one outside of the studio knows what’s in store for the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond 2020, it’s not outlandish to think that a certain group of mutants might make an appearance eventually. They’d likely bring political and social commentary with them.

The X-Men comics are perhaps the most politically and socially charged in Marvel’s canon. They were first written in the 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.  Since then, their predominant theme of prejudice has served as an allegory for minority groups and their struggles. In the decades since, the allegory has been adapted and expanded with the times.  It’s not difficult to see similarities between Marvel’s mutants and the experiences of the LGBT community.

Fox’s X-Men

Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier plays chess with an imprisoned Magneto, played by Ian McKellen, in 2000's 'X-Men"

Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellen as Magneto in Fox’s ‘X-Men’, two men who view and approach civil rights in two very different ways.

Since Fox’s first X-Men movie back in 2000, and throughout their other films, some political themes have been present. It’s hard to write an X-Men story without them. Magneto is a survivor of Auschwitz, and the movies never lose sight of this. He believes mutant registration will lead to mutant extermination. The movies hammer this point home.

This is pretty much where the commentary begins and ends: with eradication.  It comes via outright government-sponsored genocide and literal concentration camps or a mutant “cure”.

Don’t get me wrong.  These are all good storylines, faithful to the comics and worthy of the media of film. Logan had a healthy dose of politics in it as well.  For the most part, however, this commentary that exists within the context of history or some dystopian near-future.  It’s not our present day.

‘X2: X-Men United’ Is the Most Political of Fox’s Films

(It Opens With an Assassination Attempt on the President)

The X-Men stand in the Oval Office in the Whitehouse in 'X2: X-Men United'

X2 is considered one of the best X-Men movies. It’s also one of the most political.

Possibly the best example of overt, timely commentary comes from X2.  In one scene, Bobby Drake/Iceman “comes out” to his parents as a mutant. The (now disgraced) director, who happens to be bisexual, has agreed that this allegory is fairly obvious. In 2003, this was ahead of its time. It was well-received but not discussed much in the mainstream. Since then, times have changed dramatically.  Imagine if they released X2 in 2018. Imagine Twitter’s reaction.

Since then, Fox has largely steered clear of commentary. They made an entire X-Men film set in the 60s and made no noticeable reference to the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, they chose to focus on the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This seems deliberate to me. Maybe direct references to the movement would’ve been too on-the-nose.  At the same time, it wouldn’t have been out of place.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Future

Marvel has some options. While some critics and fans have caught on to the movies’ formulaic structure, ticket sales aren’t suffering at all. Aside from Black Panther, there isn’t much political or social commentary in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They don’t have to change their approach. Disney could continue making these movies in the exact same way as they always have. They aren’t compelled to make politically or socially relevant films.

Chadwick Boseman as Prince T'Challa addresses the United Nations in "Black Panther".

“Black Panther” is by far the most politically and socially relevant movie in the MCU to date. But don’t expect this to be a one-time thing for Disney and Marvel.

However, we live in politically relevant times. We live in the era of Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, and LGBT rights. Inclusion is something people want to see, along with socially relevant messages in themes in their movies. If Black Panther is any indication, there’s money to be made there. Studios are starting to realize this. They should, and probably will, give the people what they want.

Comic book movies, social justice, and politics are all mainstream now. Politically relevant movies make money. In reality, if Disney wants to go in this direction with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they can do it. They don’t have to shoehorn in messages or commentary. They don’t have to change their characters or stories at all. The X-Men have these themes already written into their DNA.

What do you think about politics in superhero movies? Should the MCU be socially relevant? Or, instead, should Disney steer clear of controversial themes? Tell us in the comments!

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