Radical plots in our comics? Marvel goes there

This past weekend, Marvel Studios released the second trailer for Captain America: Civil War. Fans rejoiced at the unexpected cameo of Spider-Man and other favorite heroes. While many remained initially concerned that the film would water down the critical politics of the comic series, it seems that they will actually embrace much of the original content.

Marvel has often used its fictional universe as an allegory for real-life politics. It has previously tackled topics such as racism, class hegemony, LGBTQI issues, and other social movements. While its films haven’t always hit their mark, Marvel continues to try and address controversial politics in a way that engages readers and resonates with audiences of all different backgrounds.

Civil War reflects on post 9/11 society

Civil War, one of Marvel’s highest grossing comics series of all times, took on the tough task of challenging paradigms of power and accountability. The upcoming film undoubtedly strays from the original comic, but still embodies some of the core political themes of police brutality, government surveillance, and the criminal justice system. The comic version of Civil War is triggered by a sequence of mishaps; the Hulk’s deadly rampage in Las Vegas, the attack on Manhattan in “Secret Wars,” and a culmination of other superhuman related episodes. Within the series’ plot, it is an incident in Stamford, Connecticut, by a group of amateur superheroes, that triggers the eventual split of the Marvel universe. The “heroes” botch the capturing of super villains in an attempt to garner better ratings for a reality TV show. The mistake results in an explosion that destroys several city blocks, including an elementary school, and causes the death of over 600 civilians. This tragedy helps push the Superhuman Registration Act through Congress, a legislative bill which is then passed into law, requiring super-powered individuals to register  with the government. The measure proves unpopular within the superhuman community, as it mandates that all masked heroes must reveal their identity to the public and “register” themselves with  S.H.I.E.L.D.

The enactment of SRA causes a rift amongst superhumans, forcing several heroes to pick sides. As the leader of the oppositional movement, Captain America leads several superhumans underground in a counter-culture revolution against the government. Luke Cage, Daredevil, Cable, and Black Panther are among the few who join the Anti-Registration movement. Captain America argues that the bill functioned on the basis of presumed criminality. Cap’s viewpoints are not only ethically inclined but stem from having lived through several historical wars (as he significantly older than most of the other Avengers). He notes that the violation of superhuman privacy sets precedent for more aggressive government surveillance on a larger scale. It is noteworthy to point out that Civil War came out following passage of the post-9/11 Patriot Act, when the U.S. government began to take excessive steps in ensuring the ‘safety’ of American citizens.

Iron Man,on the other hand, leads the “pro-registration” team under S.H.I.E.L.D., with the assistance of Black Widow, Dr Reed, Hank Pym (Ant Man), She-Hulk and other ‘registered’ superheroes. (While Peter Parker [Spiderman] is originally on the ‘pro-registration’ side, he eventually switches over after realizing that superhumans were being locked away indefinitely.) The ‘negative zone‘ is specifically designed to jail powerful superhumans and is not legally acknowledged by the system, which allows Stark and other S.H.I.E.L.D. members to individually determine the length of prisoners’ sentences. This is a morbid reflection of our own ‘criminal justice system’ and the way in which prisons, like Guantanamo Bay, are established in violation of constitutional laws.

X-Men tackles race and class hegemony

The X-Men were written as remaining neutral during the the bloodshed of the Civil War series. They are not without their own political parallels in real life, however. For years, many fans speculated that early X-Men material was inspired by the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement. Magneto and Charles Xavier were said to have been modeled after political figureheads, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2013, Stan Lee confirmed that he had written X-Men as a commentary on the racism in the United States at the time. The binary relationship between both characters is depicted in the friendship of Magneto and Xavier. When Lee was asked about Magneto’s role as an antagonist, he said: “[I] did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants.” The original X-Men movie series (2000-2006) directorially paid very little homage to the suggested parallels to civil rights movement. The newer X-Men films, however, (First Class and Days of Future Past) have taken a more conscious effort at giving viewers a glimpse into the complicated past that triggered Magneto’s extremist behaviors. This was the first of many steps director Joss Whedon has taken in developing deeper connections between the cultural dynamics and historical elements within the X-Men series.

Beyond the obvious allegory, X-Men also explores issues of poverty and race within the spectrum of marginalized populations. Morlocks, a group of mutant characters introduced in Uncanny X-Men, were created by writer Chris Claremont and and artist Paul Smith. They were based on the subterranean race of H. G. Wellsnovel The Time Machine, and introduced as socially-displaced outcasts. The Morlocks are depicted as being physically disfigured, and/or unable to hide their mutations. They chose to live underground in order to escape the constant prejudice and discrimination that they are forced to confront on the surface. While this is seemingly a voluntary choice, the reality of their displacement has left them to live in unsanitized spaces with few resources. In reading the series, it becomes apparent that the Morlocks are a reflection of disenfranchised communities, and a message about how both class (poverty) and mutations (race) are intertwined forms of social disparity.

The Black Panther answers the demand for diversity

As a response to the public demand for diversity and representation in the media, this July will mark the return of a major superhero motion picture starring a black male lead. Production studios have attempted to execute similar projects in the past; firstly with the disastrous rendition of Spawn, and more recently with the successful release of the Blade trilogy. The Black Panther, however, stands as the pinnacle of black excellence for every avid young geek. T’Challa is not only powerful and skilled, but rules over the technologically advanced [fictional] nation of Wakanda; a setting that contradicts images of stereotypically impoverished African countries. His ability to be both diplomatic and effective strays away from caricatures of previous black comic characters before him. He was originally debuted in 1966 as part of the Fantastic Four series but was eventually featured in his own independent material. This proved not only to be a commercial success; it also serves as an allegory for the black nationalist, or anti-colonialist, movement.

The Black Panther tackles themes of resistance and revolution, from T’Challa’s fight with Ku Klux Klan to his dismantling of Wakanda’s secret police force, the Hatut Zeraze. Readers continue to uncover embedded critiques of the white-colonialist power structure. Black Panther continues to serve as platform for men of color as it was recently announced that National Book Award and Macarthur Genius Fellowship winner, Ta-Nehisi Coates, was contracted to write an eleven-issue series. Coates has become well known for his scathing commentary on diversity and representation in the media. When speaking of the Black Panther, Coates emphasizes the trailblazer’s legacy: “There has not been a black super hero in comics books quite like him before, he is tremendously radical.”

The film’s announcement comes at the heels of a public outcry for more overall diversity in cinema. The studios have since committed to ensuring they address these demands by bringing in a variety of black writers and cast members. Ryan Coogler, an African American filmmaker who wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed Rocky sequel Creed (2015), was recruited to direct the movie. Coogler was a coveted contender and made his directorial debut with the 2003 the award-winning Fruitvale Station (2003). T’Challa will be featured in Captain America: Civil War, and played by actor Chadwick Boseman. So far, the reaction to the casting has been mostly positive and Black Panther fans await further developments on the pre-production process. 


Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias was a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities.