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From 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' to 'Secret Empire': How Marvel Has Embraced Politics in the Age of Donald Trump

by Tom Bacon 5 years ago in superheroes
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It's not the first time Marvel has been political, and they're becoming more influential than ever before.

Captain America shows his true colors! [Credit: Marvel Comics]

I'd love to be a fly on the wall in Marvel's offices. While Marvel's controversial CEO Ike Perlmutter may have become an insider in the Trump Administration, his company is growing increasingly subversive. From the "Secret Empire" comic book arc to the third 'pod' of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel seems willing to make a stand!

It's not the first time the company has been political; this year's Summer event, "Secret Empire", is deliberately titled in honor of a famous arc in which Marvel critiqued Nixon and the Watergate scandal. But now, with Marvel becoming more influential than ever before, and with social media generating more heat than light, it's proving to be controversial.

What's going on?

"Secret Empire"

A shocking moment! [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Let's start with #SecretEmpire: a radical event helmed by Democratic politician-turned-comic-book-writer Nick Spencer. Back in 2015, Nick Spencer was put in charge of Captain America: Sam Wilson, and he immediately took the book in a political direction — much to the ire of Fox News. The villains in the first arc where white nationalists who were tricking immigrants into the country and then executing them; tellingly, they spoke with joy about the future building of the 'Great Wall'. The result was predictable:

Personally, I think gave the best response:

"It's... more than a little weird to see all these outlets describe the bad guys in this comic as mere conservatives. If you find yourself relating to a group of murderers who threaten anyone who crosses the border with death, you've crossed the line from "conservative" into something far more frightening."

With Donald Trump ascendant, it didn't take long for Spencer to up the ante. Last year's Captain America: Steve Rogers #1 set Twitter ablaze when, in a shocking twist, it revealed that Steve Rogers, #CaptainAmerica himself, was an agent of Hydra! The second issue established that Rogers's history had been rewritten by a living Cosmic Cube, making this the ultimate victory of the Red Skull.

The Red Skull leads a populist movement. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

In a particularly turbulent election year, Spencer was using a Left-wing Sam Wilson and an extremist Steve Rogers to explore the question of American self-identity. Many were furious, and Spencer received a whole flurry of death threats. But sales were good, and Marvel is clearly confident in the story, because not only has it continued, its become central to this year's comics.

Civil War II: The Oath continued to develop the theme, with Steve Rogers, agent of #Hydra, effectively taking charge of the Marvel Comics universe. The issue made the comparisons pretty explicit; published just a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President, it features an inauguration scene of sorts, with Steve Rogers sworn in as though he were President, and not just Director of a massively-boosted S.H.I.E.L.D.. Even Rogers's rhetoric was clearly reminiscent of Donald Trump, as he talked about Iron Man and his ilk having failed the everyday men and women of the world, and expressed his desire to burn it all down and build something new.

A deliberate inauguration scene. [Credit: Marvel Comics]

Everything's headed for this year's Summer event, "Secret Empire", in which Steve Rogers's plans will come to a head. Given the political slant of the story so far, it's pretty clear this will be a very controversial arc! Solicits have already teased that Sam Wilson will wind up playing a major role in the resistance against Steve Rogers, continuing Spencer's Left-Right conflict.

'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'

As readers of Captain America: Steve Rogers will know, the book's icon has been a crumbling Captain America logo, with the Hydra insignia revealed behind it. Fans of those comics will find the teasers for the third 'pod' of #AgentsOfSHIELD Season 4 eerily familiar; they close with an image of the classic Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. logo, then digitally flicker over to briefly display the "Agents of Hydra" banner. Both the comics and the TV series are clearly toying with a similar idea.

In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., our heroes have been plunged into a virtual reality known as the Framework. Although this world was created to be one without regrets and without pain, it's turned badly wrong; the Framework is ruled by Hydra, with a version of Ming-Na Wen's Melinda May taking charge. It's an intriguing concept, but to understand it you really have to circle back to Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

A deliberate political allegory. [Credit: Marvel Studios]

Captain America: The Winter Soldier — still widely viewed as the best movie in the #MCU to date — was a political thriller par excellence. A commentary on surveillance states, aerial attacks, and even whistleblowing - with Black Widow playing the Edward Snowden of the movie - it's undeniably the most politically aware of all Marvel's films to date. Hydra is presented as a seductive force that simply desires to make the world safe, at any cost.

The reality of the Framework appears to be one where Hydra triumphed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and as such "Agents of Hydra" has to be understood as a continuation of that political commentary. In "Agents of Hydra", the desire to create a world with less pain, less suffering, and less regrets has created a fascist state of absolute security, one ruled by fear. The reality, you see, is that our regrets are what define us, while the choices we make along the path shape our character. A life without pain is a life without meaning, a life stripped of character.

Aida's masterplan. [Credit: ABC]

In case we're missing it, the episode "Self-Control" - which sets up the "Agents of Hydra" arc - has an LMD of Agent May explicitly spell it out. She rejects the Framework and everything Aida stands for, and gives Simmons and Quake a chance to escape and save their friends.

Pulling the threads together, "Agents of Hydra" presents the desire for security above all as cowardly. In striving for security and safety above all else, in rejecting the pain and regrets of the real world, we strip ourselves of everything that is good about our character. This is made all the more explicit when we see the reality of the Framework, with Agent May a key figure in Hydra, Coulson reduced to teaching Hydra propaganda, and Quake sleeping with Grant Ward.

There are clear thematic ties between "Secret Empire" and "Agent of Hydra", and together the two arcs form a powerful critique of American culture. Both present a world where evil has taken charge, where fear is the mainstay and security is sought above all else. In "Secret Empire", we see a divided America, its self-identity torn in half, struggling to work out just what it means to be American in the modern world. In "Agents of Hydra", we see a stinging critique of our desire for security, a cautionary tale that the pursuit of security is one that can see is lose everything that is good about our very souls.

The strength of Marvel's political critique here is pretty remarkable, all the more so because it's transcending both the comics and the TV shows. In the age of Donald Trump, Marvel is positioning itself as a cultural force to be reckoned with, reminding us that superhero stories aren't shallow. It's a remarkable move on the company's part — all the more so when you consider Marvel's CEO is a Trump insider. I'd be fascinated to hear what Ike Perlmutter makes of all this...

(Sources:; Poll Image Credit: ABC)


About the author

Tom Bacon

A prolific writer and film fan, Tom has a deep love of the superhero genre.

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