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Marvel cancels comic book deal with Northrop Grumman after Twitter backlash

Marvel Comics, the entertainment empire behind the X-Men, the Avengers and the Incredible Hulk, has canceled a planned advertising partnership with defense contractor Northrop Grumman following a wave of negative attention on Twitter.

Marvel teased the partnership Friday morning in a tweet that promised more details in a presentation the following day at the New York Comic-Con festival. A retro-style comic book cover temporarily posted on Marvel’s website featured a team of “Northrop Grumman Elite Nexus” super heroes fighting alongside Marvel’s popular Avengers superheroes. The cover was quickly scrubbed from the company’s website, but not before it went viral on Twitter.

Twitter users ridiculed Marvel, accusing it of partnering with “death merchants.” Some pointed out that the Marvel character Iron Man, alias Tony Stark, had been the billionaire CEO of a company that built advanced weaponry but had turned his back on the weapons business after seeing its effects. Angry fans called out specific Marvel executives, and at least one suggested publicly protesting the issue at Marvel’s Comic-Con booth.

The company soon tweeted that it would no longer be holding the event and later issued a statement explaining that the partnership had been canceled entirely.

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“The activation with Northrop Grumman at New York Comic-Con was meant to focus on aerospace technology and exploration in a positive way,” Marvel spokesman Jeff Klein said in a statement. “However, as the spirit of that intent has not come across, we will not be proceeding with this partnership, including this weekend’s event programming.”

A Northrop Grumman spokesman said that Marvel, not Northrop, had backed out of the partnership. “This was part of our broader effort to reach new audiences and bring attention to the value of science and technology,” Northrop Grumman spokesman Tim Paynter said in an email. “We are disappointed that Marvel chose not to proceed with the partnership.”

For Marvel, it’s been a week of unfortunate missteps leading up to what should have been a successful promotional event. The company had to pull its presentation of its new “Punisher” series with Netflix, a blood-spattered revenge story featuring a gun-toting armed vigilante, after the promotion coincided with the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history in Las Vegas last week.

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For Northrop Grumman, the experience illustrates the limits of defense contractors’ efforts to distance themselves from the violent nature of what many of their products are intended to be used for. As far back as the 1930s, the term “merchants of death” was used by journalists and politicians to refer to companies that supplied the military. President Dwight D. Eisenhower later coined the term “military industrial complex” in his 1961 farewell address, when he warned of the dangers of leaving the industry’s influence unchecked.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal, for example, has been a major driver of Northrop Grumman’s business since the company’s inception. The company’s predecessor, Northrop Corporation, developed the B-2 long-range stealth bomber, which would probably be among the U.S. military’s first options to deliver a thermonuclear warhead to a foreign country in the event of nuclear war.

The company is working to develop the U.S. military’s B-21 Raider, an opportunity it advertised during last year’s Super Bowl. And it is in the throes of an advertising blitz for a $100 billion opportunity to replace the Pentagon’s stock of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, which make up the ground-based leg of the U.S. nuclear counterattack capability.

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“Northrop Grumman is a very capable company, but the bottom line is they make products that kill people,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant with the nonprofit Lexington Institute. “And that’s a hard sell in popular culture.”

The partnership with Marvel was likely an attempt to highlight the softer side of Northrop’s work and brand it as multifaceted technology company. Outside of its weapons development business Northrop holds large information technology and cybersecurity contracts with civilian agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example. The company has recently become involved in so-called precision medicine initiatives to better understand diseases through complex data analysis, work that it has been keen to promote.

Marvel’s statement on the matter implied that the purpose of the partnership was “elevating, and introducing STEM to a broad audience.” It is unclear exactly how the company planned to do that. A Northrop Grumman spokesman did not respond to a request to release the full advertising materials it had planned to use in the promotion.

Some industry observers saw the advertising spot as an attempt to appeal to a new market outside the traditional classified beltway networks.

“It’s clearly an attempt to use pop culture to attract a talented demographic,” said Chris Taylor, chief executive of government contracting market research firm Govini. “In this case, the effort failed, but I would imagine we’ll see more of these attempts.”