James Gunn clarifies Marvel’s relationship with the Pentagon

Caution: We discuss SPOILERS for Eternals

Marvel‘s latest offering, Eternals, has caused some controversy over the character Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry) taking responsibility for the United States dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the close of the Second World War. The criticism over the scene has only been amplified by claims that Marvel’s scripts are “approved” by the Department of Defense, something denied by director James Gunn.

The dropping of nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed up to 225,000 people in the initial blasts, with 205,000 being civilians. A debate has raged ever since over whether the attack was “necessary” to ensure the Japanese surrender and whether the bombings constituted a war crime. The lasting effects of burns and radiation killed or severely affected many more people, with survivors still alive today.

One of the people critical of the claims in Eternals is podcaster Jesse Hawken, tweeting that the scene was “even more amazing once you factor in that Marvel scripts are all approved in advance by the Pentagon.”

Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn responded to that claim, calling the idea “nonsense.”

Gunn later clarified his comments by saying that movies that utilize military assets needed approval but not all Marvel films were pre-approved, and none of his own films have been so.

The military’s involvement with Marvel

While Gunn’s comments are accurate — not all Marvel movies are pre-approved by the military — Marvel has a long history of either promoting the military or having the Pentagon actively involved at some level, making his outrage at the suggestion somewhat misplaced.

On 2003’s Hulk, the military provided access to their bases and loaned production vehicles such as tanks and helicopters in exchange for extensive script changes. These changes included removing references to the military conducting human experiments and lines of dialogue that talked about Operation Ranch Hand, where the U.S. dropped millions of gallons of herbicides on Vietnam to try and starve the population.

Likewise, the first two Iron Man movies had massive involvement from the U.S. Air Force, including the loan of a billion dollars worth of aircraft. Again. The D.o.D. wanted full approval of the scripts, which led to a confrontation between director Jon Favreau and the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison Phil Strub. A Production Assistance Agreement signed between Marvel and the Pentagon showed that the military saw the movie as the perfect opportunity to promote recruitment.

The author of National Security Cinema said 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.”

The army was actively involved in Captain America and Thor before the relationship was temporarily severed during the making of 2012’s The Avengers. Marvel rewrote parts of the script to please the D.o.D. in exchange for access to White Sands Missile Range and soldiers to serve as extras in the climactic battle scene. However, the story where S.H.I.E.L.D. decided to nuke New York without army approval angered the Pentagon, and they withdrew from the production. However, it did lead to one fantastic comment from Phil Strub to Danger Room:

We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it. To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything.

Resumption of the Marvel-military relationship

Marvel’s relationship with the military looked like it would resume with Age of Ultron in 2015. However, no script was provided to the D.o.D., and it went nowhere.

And then came Captain Marvel. The U.S. Air Force provided full support to Captain Marvel and started promoting the film before production had even begun. Star Brie Larson visited Nellis Air Force Base in 2018 and even flew in an F-16. The movie had full access to the base, aircraft and used servicemen and women as extras. Alongside the film, the Air Force launched a new recruitment campaign with the tag line “Every Hero Has an Origin Story,” with the commercials running in numerous theaters alongside the movie.

The involvement drew fresh criticism for Marvel and the Pentagon, with some commentators suggesting that it amounted to propaganda and was inappropriate in the age of #MeToo as the movie’s attempt “to recruit women ignores a grim record on sexual assault.”

Since then, the Pentagon has been actively involved with WandaVision, which also created a backlash. Earlier this year, The Guardian newspaper asked, “Is WandaVision … Pentagon propaganda?” in an article by political strategist and podcaster Akin Olla.

“The American public is effectively paying Hollywood to create propaganda that aims to sugarcoat the crimes of its military and intelligence apparatuses,” Olla wrote in the article. “Funding that could be used for disaster relief and healthcare is being used to recruit young people to die and kill in other countries for the sake of corporate interests.”

The military’s involvement doesn’t end at movies; there’s also criticism leveled at video games, music videos, and even professional sports. The Pentagon pays $53 million for pro-militaries message such as salutes to soldiers and veterans. Critics have argued that their involvement may not even be legal, since it might infringe on freedom of expression and is of dubious morality as it using franchises popular with young people to recruit; the practice has been banned on educational premises.

In 2016, the website Spy Culture created a list of 410 D.o.D.-sponsored movies, a number that has undoubtedly grown since. They included movies that many would expect, such as the James Bond films Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies, alongside more surprising titles like The Silence of the Lambs and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

So while James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies may not have approval from the Pentagon, it’s far from stupid to suggest that Marvel doesn’t regularly utilize the military for hardware and access. In turn, the Pentagon sees the movies as an excellent recruitment tool and an opportunity to present themselves positively. That is, after all, what the military-entertainment complex is all about.

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