Let’s make a list of Marvel movies that address the connection between the military and the profits that flow from it, shall we? In the 2008 movie “The Incredible Hulk,” the villains include a scientist who pushes ethical boundaries in the hopes of developing new medicines. In “Iron Man,” released that same year, the rivalry between Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) increased when Tony decides to get Stark Industries out of the very lucrative weapons business. The action in “Iron Man 2” is driven by an intellectual property dispute, and by the rush of other companies to get the military business Stark Industries abandoned. In “Iron Man 3,” the problem is now that Stark has rejected an investment opportunity, and done so in terms insulting to an inventor. And these are just the obvious villains driven by business deals.
And the movies are awfully cynical about the possibility of innovating our way out of the more destructive aspects of competition, or patching over the damage with charity. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the Iron Man suit appears in graffiti, painted over with dollar signs: Stark has become a symbol of money run amok, to the point that people even reject his peacekeeping efforts. Tony’s efforts to design a better security system are what give rise to a vengeful artificial intelligence. The same pessimism about innovation shows up again in “Ant-Man,” released last weekend: Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has tried to keep the secret of his greatest discovery to keep it from being weaponized, but his mentee has gone ahead and reverse-engineered the particle anyway. When there are massive amounts of money to be made, principle doesn’t count for much.
Then, there’s the way that Hydra has evolved over the course of the Marvel movies. While the organization started as a straight-up Nazi operation in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” by “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Hydra had reinvented itself as straight-up agents of chaos who had infiltrated the American security apparatus in order to convince Americans to give up their civil liberties. But when that plan went awry, Hydra went in for another makeover and emerged as an even purer manifestation of turmoil: global capitalists. In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a Hydra facility is carrying out human experimentation, presumably for profit. And by “Ant-Man,” former S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho and Hydra embed Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) is toppling governments for fun and profit. “They’re not what they were,” declares a character who stands to profit from Carson’s provocations. “They’re doing some interesting work.”
It’s not just capitalists; commodities play a big role in Marvel movies, too.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” introduced us to black-marketer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has the misfortune to have smuggled a large amount of Vibranium, an extremely precious metal, out of Wakanda, a country that could be charitably described as protectionist (officials brand people caught stealing). Klaue’s commitment to trade in illegally-obtained goods works out poorly for him, and for the world at large. Ultron (voiced by James Spader), the mentally unstable robot designed by Tony Stark as a part of a peace-keeping program, yanks off one of Klaue’s arms in the course of a rather forceful negotiation over the Vibranium (as compensation, he does make Klaue a billionaire). And then, making full use of globalization, Ultron hops over to South Korea to force a scientist who specializes in not-particularly-regulated 3D-flesh-printing techniques to make him a new body out of the metal. It’s only luck that the new body turns out to be a superhero rather than a supervillain.
Supply and demand show up again as motivations in “Ant-Man.” Rogue scientist Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) develops a molecule that will power fighting suits that allow private armies to shrink soldiers and blow them back up again. Selling the suits, he explains, is just a way to set up a market for his particle: “They don’t run on diesel,” Cross remarks of the weapons themselves. “If they want the fuel, they’ll have to come to me.”
The Collector’s (Benicio del Toro) pursuit of the Infinity Stones, introduced in “Thor: The Dark World,” is yet another suggestion that there’s something awfully risky about leaving valuable objects to be protected (or acquired) privately, rather than through some sort of centralized plan. In “Guardians of the Galaxy,” thief Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his band of companions become heroes once they stop treating another one of the gems as if it’s an opportunity for profit and begin to act as if it’s the sort of thing that should be protected rather than purchased and sold.
Marvel doesn’t exactly make a dandy case for government regulation, though. S.H.I.E.L.D., the one agency that has the firepower and technical expertise to corral the sorts of artifacts and commodities that bounce around Marvel movies, turned out to be corrupted by Hydra in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” A purified version of S.H.I.E.L.D. is only beginning to reassert itself in “Age of Ultron.” The powers that be in Asgard, Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) otherworldly hometown, don’t seem to be such great shakes at controlling artifacts and rogue actors either.
Thanos (Josh Brolin), the big blue meanie teased in multiple Marvel movies, may have declared that he’s going to track down the Infinity Stones himself, presumably to stick them in a metal glove that even Liberace might deem tacky. But it’s hard to see him as menacing for reasons that extend beyond Brolin’s facial prostheses simply because Marvel’s spent so much time suggesting that those pesky little things are hard to pin down. Maybe the intergalactic free market has an upside after all.