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Gorr the God-Butcher and the Problem of Evil

drawing of Thor battling silhouettes in storm

This article contains spoilers for the film Thor: Love and Thunder (also known as Thor 4).

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has long been criticized for its “villain problem” — with a few notable exceptions (like Thor’s Loki, Black Panther’s Killmonger, and Thanos from the Avengers series),

the antagonists of most Marvel films are generally unremarkable “bad guys” whose narratival existence seems to be justified mostly by giving the heroes something to punch.

But the latest movie in the MCU — Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder — breaks this pattern by introducing Gorr the God-Butcher, played by Christian Bale.

Because, unlike Ronan’s fanaticism (in Guardians of the Galaxy) or Yon-Rogg’s toxic masculinity (in Captain Marvel), Gorr the God-Butcher’s divine bloodthirstiness might actually be justified.

The film opens by introducing Gorr before he gains his god-killing powers. Destitute and starving, he stumbles through a desert wasteland, carrying his young daughter while praying to his god, Rapu, for help. When the deity fails to appear, Gorr’s daughter dies. As Gorr prepares for his own death, an oasis suddenly appears nearby where Gorr discovers Rapu celebrating the defeat of a would-be assassin. Gorr confronts Rapu, pleading for the answers and assistance long-promised by Gorr’s faith, but Rapu just laughs and ridicules the man, telling him that Gorr’s people are irrelevant and that the gods don’t actually care about anyone — they just expect to be worshiped. Enraged, Gorr picks up the dead assassin’s weapon and murders Rapu, vowing to avenge his daughter by cleansing the universe of the gods.

Although the movie never explains what kind of god Rapu is (as Zeus is the god of lightning and Thor is the god of thunder), Gorr clearly expects him to be both extremely powerful and benevolent to his worshipers.

This means that the opening scene of Love and Thunder portrays Gorr’s painful confrontation with what philosophers and theologians often refer to as the Problem of Evil.

Basically, many theistic traditions hold that God is both omnipotent (or “all-powerful,” able to perform all logically-possible actions) and morally perfect (or “all-good,” maximally loving and kind). But the existence of evil poses a problem for this view of the divine: if God is omnipotent, then God would be able to prevent any evil action or event from occurring; if God is morally perfect, then God would want to prevent that evil — so why, then, does evil exist? As the 18th-century British philosopher David Hume puts it (ostensibly quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus): “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?”

Responses to this problem generally take two forms:

the defender of a classical theistic picture might offer a nuanced definition of either the divine properties or the concept of “evil” such that God could be properly omnipotent and omnibenevolent while still allowing evil to exist.

For example, it might be the case that God is all-powerful and morally perfect, but that evil exists necessarily, either on its own or as a consequence of something else (“creaturely free will” or “the possibility of genuine growth” are common suggestions) — it would then not be logically possible for God to fully prevent evil (no more so than God could make a triangle have four sides). Sometimes, theodicies — the technical term for purported solutions to the Problem of Evil — suggest that “evil” is a misnomer because what appears evil to individuals in the short-term can only be fully appreciated from a broad perspective over the grand picture of reality (as it is sometimes put, “God has a plan” or “God’s ways are not our ways”).

But such explanations were no comfort to Gorr: he became the God-Butcher precisely because the plans of the gods, at best, required the death of his daughter (at worst, they hadn’t considered her plight at all).

In this way, Gorr’s reaction is akin to (though considerably more violent than) that of Ivan Karamazov from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: in the famous chapter “Rebellion,” Ivan tells his brother Alyosha that he has lost his faith in God, not because he believes God does not exist, but because he no longer cares to worship someone so numb to the pains of the world. After listing a series of terrible stories about tortured children (and imagining that one day all tears might be wiped away by God’s harmonious plan granting tickets to heaven), Ivan cries, “I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’!…It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

Gorr went one step further, returning his ticket while removing Rapu’s head.

To be fair, the picture of God in classical theism is considerably different from the gods that Gorr kills in the MCU. While beings like Thor and Odin are extremely powerful, they are still limited by space and time, by material needs (like hunger and sleep), and by mortality (just on a much longer scale). St. Anselm of Canterbury described God as “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived” — certainly “Rapu who cannot be beheaded” is conceivable, which means that the actual Rapu we see die in Thor 4 fails Anselm’s definition.

But notice how the most extreme picture of omnipotent (and omnibenevolent) divinity only sharpens the Problem of Evil: maybe Rapu was very powerful, but he was clearly not all-powerful (or else he, by definition, would not have been defeated). If fans think that Gorr’s actions might be justifiable, then it’s worth thinking more about the implications that has for theodicies in the non-fictional world.

Wanda Maximoff and the Metaphysics of Responsibility

photograph of Dr. Strange movie display

This article contains spoilers for the Disney+ series Wandavision and the films Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

In the latest entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, the titular hero squares off against a former ally in a race across universes. After losing the love of her life (twice) at the end of Avengers: Infinity War and watching almost everyone else miraculously resurrected at the climax of Avengers: Endgame, Wanda Maximoff retreated to a small town in New Jersey to mourn. As shown in the Disney+ series Wandavision, she instead ends up (mostly accidentally) trapping the town inside a painful illusion wherein she could pretend that her beloved Vision was still alive; her powerful magic even creates two children (Billy and Tommy) to complete the couple’s happy life of domestic bliss — until everything unravels, that is, and Wanda is again forced to say goodbye to the people she loves.

Last March, I wrote about Wanda’s journey through grief and love for the Post;

at that point, MCU fans had a number of reasons to be hopeful for a genuine Maximoff family reunion. Now, the newest Doctor Strange film has buried those chances firmly under the rubble of Mount Wundagore.

In brief, Wandavision ends by revealing Wanda as a being of immense (and ominous) power known as the “Scarlet Witch” — she frees the town of her illusion, apologizes for the harm she caused, and escapes with a mysterious spellbook called the Darkhold, seemingly intending to somehow use it to reconnect with Billy and Tommy. But from her first scene in Multiverse of Madness, it’s clear that Wanda Maximoff is no longer sorry for what she plans to do: namely, absorb an innocent teenager’s soul and travel to a different universe (where Billy and Tommy are still alive) to kill and replace her counterpart, then live out her days as a mother to the alternate versions of her children. Moreover, Wanda is fully comfortable with killing anyone who tries to stop her — something she does in spades before the story’s end (including to most of the film’s celebrity cameos). Ultimately, it turns out that the Darkhold is a thoroughly evil book which taints whoever reads it with darkness and madness — by searching its pages for a spell to save her children, Wanda was also unknowingly corrupting her once-heroic soul. After Doctor Strange and his allies manage to cut through the Darkhold’s influence, Wanda sacrifices her own life to destroy the demonic book and spare the multiverse from the threat of the Scarlet Witch.

So, here’s where we can ask a more philosophical question:

Wanda brutally murders dozens of people in her quest to save her children, but — if she was under the influence of the Darkhold’s power — was she responsible for her actions?

One common idea (connected to the philosophical idea of “libertarian free will”) is that for an agent to be fully responsible for some action, they must be fully free or in control of the choice to perform the action — as it is often put, the responsible person must have been “able to do otherwise than they actually did” (more technically, they must satisfy the “Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” or PAP). If I were to cast a spell that hypnotically forces you to transfer your life savings into my bank account, you would not have the power to do otherwise, so you would not be free and I would be responsible for the money transfer.

On the other hand, some philosophers believe that a strong commitment to PAP is scientifically untenable: if our actions are ultimately rooted in the material interactions of molecules in our brains (as opposed to something like an immaterial soul), and if those material conditions necessarily obey regular laws of physics, then it seems like no one can ever satisfy PAP (because you will only ever do what the material conditions of the universe dictate). On this view (typically called “determinism”), notions like “free will” and “moral responsibility” are often written off as mere intuitions or illusions that, though sometimes useful in certain conversations, shouldn’t ultimately be taken too seriously.

The middle ground between these views is an interesting position called “compatibilism” which argues that determinism (as described in the preceding paragraph) actually is compatible with a robust sense of freedom and moral responsibility, but not one that requires PAP.

Instead, compatibilists argue that a person is free (and therefore responsible) for a choice if that choice aligns with their dispositions (like wanting or believing certain things). Often, compatibilists will frame responsibility for determined-but-free choices as a matter of “getting what you want” (even if you couldn’t have “gotten” anything else).

For example, suppose that you want to sit in a particular chair and read a book, so you enter a room, close the door, sit in your chair, and read the book — unbeknownst to you, the door locks after you close it, but that doesn’t matter, because you just want to sit and read — are you responsible for the choice to stay in the room? The compatibilist will easily say yes: you’re satisfying your desire, so the fact that you couldn’t have chosen otherwise (violating PAP, thanks to the locked door) is unimportant.

So, what does this mean for Wanda?

Admittedly, the MCU has given only sparse explanations about the metaphysical nature of the Darkhold (so we have to engage in a bit of speculation here), but the film does make clear that the demonic book exerts some kind of influence on (and extracts a price from) its readers. Which means that we can ask two questions:

1. Was Wanda “able to do otherwise than she actually did” while under the Darkhold’s influence?

2. Regardless of the Darkhold’s influence, did Wanda want to do what she did?

If the answer to (1) is “No,” then Wanda’s condition fails to satisfy PAP — just like how Wanda-838 (the actual mother to Billy and Tommy from the Illuminati’s universe) isn’t responsible for the actions that Wanda-616 (from the standard MCU reality) performs while dreamwalking across the multiverse, Wanda-616 would be similarly at the mercy of the Darkhold. If the answer to (2) is also “No,” the compatibilists will also be able to recognize that Wanda wasn’t responsible for her murderous choices, even though she couldn’t have done otherwise.

One of the most interesting things about this whole conversation, though, is that it’s actually not clear that the answer to (2) is “No.” While the movie takes pains to signpost the dangerous nature of the Darkhold (most notably by implicating it in the deaths of multiple versions of Stephen Strange), Wanda repeatedly suggests that her (understandable) desire to find her children is fully her own. If this is the case, then the Darkhold’s influence might have provoked her to act in extreme ways (to say the least), but the compatibilist might not be able to draw a sharp line between Wanda’s dispositions and the book’s suggestions.

However, though Wanda fans might balk at the notion that she authentically “broke bad” and is responsible for murdering whole armies of sorcerers and superheroes, this narrative might make Wanda’s decision to destroy both the Darkhold and herself at the film’s end all the more impressive.

It remains to be seen whether Wanda Maximoff’s tenure in the MCU has come to an end (the movie notoriously avoids offering conclusive proof of her death), just as it is unclear how her character might handle questions of guilt and responsibility, should she return. (For what it’s worth, I’m still hoping that the MCU will grant her a happy ending!) One thing, though, is certain: having grossed nearly a billion dollars in its first month, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness proves that Marvel Studios is all-but-determined to continuing making MCU films — and audiences will absolutely choose to keep watching them.

Justice and Retributivism in ‘Moon Knight’

photograph of 'Moon Knight' comic cover featuring an illustration of a superhero in a jump pose with a black suit and cape

This article contains spoilers for the Disney+ series Moon Knight.

In Disney’s Moon Knight, two Egyptian Gods advocate for two very different models of justice. Their avatars, of whom the titular character is one, are the humans tasked with doing the Gods’ bidding. Konshu is the beaked God of vengeance who manipulates his avatars to punish wrongdoers. His form of justice depends on the concept of desert — people should be punished for the choices that they make after, and only after, they have made them. Throughout the series, the main antagonist, Harrow (who was, himself, once Konshu’s avatar) attempts to release the banished alligator God Ammit. Ammit has the power to see into the future; she knows the bad actions that people will perform and instructs her avatars to punish these future wrongdoers preemptively, before anyone is harmed by the bad decisions.

As is so often the case with Marvel villains, the mission shared by Harrow and Ammit is complicated.

The struggle involved between the two Gods is not a battle between good and evil (neither of them fit cleanly into either of those categories). Instead, it is a conflict between competing ideologies. Ammit and Harrow want to bring about a better world. The best possible world, they argue, is a world in which the free will of humans is never allowed to actually culminate in the kinds of actions that cause pain and suffering. If people were prevented from committing murders, starting wars, and perpetrating hate, there would be no victims. The reasoning here is grounded in consequences; the kinds of experiences that people have in their lives are ultimately what matters. If we can minimize the kinds of really bad experiences that are caused by other people, we should.

Nevertheless, viewers are encouraged to think of Konshu’s vision of justice as superior; Mark and Steven spend six episodes trying to prevent Harrowing from reviving Ammit. The virtue of Konshu’s conception of justice is that it takes the value of the exercise of free will seriously. The concept of reward is inextricably linked to the concept of praise and the concept of blame is similarly linked to the concept of punishment. People are only deserving of praise and blame when they act freely; free will is a necessary condition for praise or blame to be apt. A person is only praiseworthy for an action if they freely choose to perform it, and the same is true with blame. Ammit’s form of justice doesn’t respect this connection, and the conclusion the viewer is invited to draw is that the God therefore misses something central about what it is that fundamentally justifies punishment.

The suggestion is that retributivism — the view that those who have chosen to do bad things should “get what they deserve” — is the theory of punishment that we should adopt in light of the extent to which it emphasizes the importance of free will.

But it isn’t that simple, in the MCU or in the real world. Later episodes of the series explore the theme of mitigating circumstances, and the viewer is left to wonder: are all circumstances mitigating? In episode 5, Marc and Steven travel to an afterlife and, at the same time, through their own memories. As viewers have likely suspected, Marc has dissociative identity disorder, and Steven is a personality he created to protect him from the abuse that he suffered at the hands of his mother. In childhood, Marc and his little brother Randall went to play in a cave together and rising waters resulted in Randall’s drowning. Marc’s mother never stops blaming him for the death and takes it out on him until the day that she dies. It is clear that Marc has carried a significant sense of guilt along with him all of his life. Steven assures him, “it wasn’t your fault, you were just a child!”

The actions that young Marc took might appear to be chosen freely; he went to the cave with his brother despite the fact that he knew doing so was dangerous. Yet it does seem that Steven is correct to suggest that the inexperience of youth undermines full moral responsibility. The same is true with at least some forms of mental illness. If the trauma of Marc’s past has fractured his psyche, is he really responsible for anything that he does, either as Marc or as Steven?

The kinds of factors that contribute to who a person becomes are largely outside of their control.

No one can choose their genetics, where they are born, who their parents are, the social conditions and norms that govern who it is deemed “acceptable” for them to be, whether they are raised in conditions of economic uncertainty, and so on.

Many factors of who we are end up being largely a matter, not of free will, but of luck. If this is the case, it is far from clear that, as viewers, we should be cheering for Konshu’s model of justice to win in the end. Anger and resentment are common sentiments in response to wrongdoing, but retributive attitudes about justice often create barriers to experiencing emotions that are even more important — forgiveness, compassion and empathy. Existence on the planet is not one giant battle between good and evil; explanations for behavior are considerably messier and more complicated.

Moon Knight’s story has only just begun, and the philosophical themes promise to be rich. With any luck, they’ll motivate us to think more critically about justice in the real world. Even if we could see into the future, there are good arguments against pursuing Ammit’s strategy — it seems unfair to punish someone to prevent them from doing something wrong (the metaphysics of time are kind of sketchy there, too). Konshu’s strategy — a heavily retributivist strategy — closely resembles the one we actually follow in the United States; we incarcerate more people than any country in the world. Our commitment to giving wrongdoers “what they deserve” may stand in the way of more nuanced moral thought.

Meaning-as-Use and the Punisher’s New Logo

photograph of man in dark parking garage with Punisher jacket

Recently, Marvel Comics announced plans to publish a new limited-series story about Frank “The Punisher” Castle, the infamous anti-villain who regularly guns down “bad guys” in his ultra-violent vigilante war on crime; set to premiere in March 2022, early looks at the comic’s first issue have revealed that the story will see Castle adopt a new logo, trading in the iconic (and controversial) skull that he’s sported since his introduction in the mid-70s. While some Marvel properties (like Spider-Man or the X-Men) could fill a catalog with their periodic redesigns, the Punisher’s look has remained roughly unchanged for almost fifty years.

From a business perspective, rebranding is always a risky move: while savvy designers can capture the benefits of adopting a trendy new symbol or replacing an out-of-date slogan, such opportunities must be balanced against the potential loss of a product’s identifiability in the marketplace. Sometimes this is intentional, as in so-called “rehabilitative” rebrands that seek to wash negative publicity from a company’s image: possible examples might include Facebook’s recent adoption of the name “Meta” and Google’s shift to “Alphabet, Inc.” But consider how when The Gap changed its simple blue logo after twenty years the company faced such a powerful backlash that it ditched the attempted rebrand after just one week; when Tropicana traded pictures of oranges (the fruit) for simple orange patches (of the color) on its orange juice boxes, it saw a 20% drop in sales within just one month. Similar stories abound from a wide variety of industries: British Airways removing the Union flag, Pizza Hut removing the word ‘pizza,’ and Radio Shack removing the word ‘radio’ from their logos were all expensive, failed attempts to re-present these companies to consumers in new ways. (As an intentional contrast, IHOP’s temporary over-the-top rebrand to “the International House of Burgers” was a clever, and effective, marketing gimmick.)

So, why is Marvel changing the Punisher’s iconic skull logo (one of its most well-known character emblems)?

Although it looks like the new series will offer an in-universe explanation for Castle’s rebrand, the wider answer has more to do with how the Punisher’s logo has been adopted in our non-fictional universe. For years, like the character himself, the Punisher’s skull emblem has been sported by numerous groups also associated with the violent use of firearms: most notably, police officers and military servicemembers (notably, Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL whose biography was adapted into the Oscar-winning film American Sniper, was a Punisher fan who frequently wore the logo). Recent years have seen a variety of alt-right groups deploy variations of the skull symbol in their messaging and iconography, including sometimes in specific opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, and multiple protests and riots (including the attempted insurrection in Washington D.C. last January) saw participants wearing Frank Castle’s emblem. In short, the simple long-toothed skull has taken on new meaning in the 21st century — a meaning that Marvel Comics might understandably want to separate from their character.

Plenty of philosophers of logic and language have explored the ways in which symbols mean things in different contexts, and the field of semiotics is specifically devoted to exploring the mechanics of signification — a field that can, at times, grow dizzyingly complex as theorists attempt to capture the many different ways that symbols and signs arise in daily life. But the case of the Punisher’s skull shows at least one crucial element of symbolization: the meaning of some sign is inextricably bound up in how that symbol is used. Famously codified by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (in §43 of his Philosophical Investigations), the meaning-as-use theory grounds the proper interpretation of a symbol firmly within the “form of life” in which it appears. So, while the skull logo might have initially been intended by its creator to symbolize the fictional vigilante Frank Castle, it now identifies violent militia groups and other real-world political ideologies far more frequently and publicly — its use has changed and so, too, has its meaning. Marvel has attempted to bring legal action against producers of unauthorized merchandise using the skull symbol, and Gerry Conway, the Punisher’s creator, has explicitly attempted to wrest the symbol’s meaning back from control of the alt-right, but the social nature of a symbol’s meaning has all but prevented such attempts at re-re-definition. Consequently, Marvel might have little choice but to give Frank Castle a new logo.

For another example of how symbols change over time, consider the relatively recent shift in meaning for the hand gesture made by touching the pointer finger and thumb of one hand together while stretching out the other three fingers simultaneously: whereas, for many years, the movement has been a handy way to mean the word “okay,” white supremacists have recently been using the same gesture to symbolize the racist idea of “white power.” To the degree that the racist usage has become more common, the meaning of the symbol has become far more ambiguous — leaving many people reluctant to flash the hand gesture, lest they unintentionally communicate some white supremacist idea. The point here is that the individual person’s intentions are not the only thing that matters for understanding a symbol: the cultural context (or, to Wittgenstein, “form of life”) of the sign is at least as, if not more, important.

So, amid calls to stop selling Punisher-related merchandise (and with speculation abounding that the character might be re-introduced to the wildly lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe), it makes sense that Marvel would want to avoid further political controversy and simply give the Punisher a fresh look. But what a vaguely-Wittgensteinian look at the skull logo suggests is that it’s been years since it was simply “the Punisher’s look” at all.

On Climate Refugees and Captain America

image of faded Captain America shield

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for all six episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier on Disney+.

After the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the 2018 entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that ended with the villainous Thanos snapping his fingers to magically erase half of all life in the universe, the internet lit up to debate the (im)morality of his actions. According to the movie, the character’s motivations were, arguably, altruistic (because after seeing his own planet succumb to resource depletion and overpopulation, the “Mad Titan” reportedly wanted to prevent similar sufferings elsewhere). In this way, Thanos joined Black Panther’s Eric Killmonger, Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Adrian “The Vulture” Toomes, and Captain America: Civil War’s Baron Zemo in the ranks of “MCU Bad Guys who might be making some Good Points.” Of course, however defensible or understandable their philosophies might be, the murderous brutality exhibited by each antagonist has consistently kept the MCU’s moral dichotomy more-or-less clear; just as superhero comics have been called “moral pornography” for their oversimplified and exaggerated depictions of good and evil, superhero movies are rarely different.

Although it isn’t, strictly speaking, a movie, the latest MCU story — The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a limited-series on the Disney+ streaming service — follows basically this same vein, featuring an enemy whose message is far more sympathetic than her methods. In brief, the six-episode miniseries focuses on Avengers characters Sam “Falcon” Wilson and Bucky “Winter Soldier” Barnes as they work to smooth out the geopolitical chaos provoked by their team’s defeat of Thanos in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. Although the Avengers were able to undo Thanos’ Snap and bring the people killed in Infinity War back to life, it took them five years to do so and, in the meantime, the world soldiered on. During the period between movies (now referred to in-universe as the “Blip”), humanity had done its best to rally together in the anarchy that followed half the globe’s sudden disappearance; the equally sudden return of all those missing people a half-decade later, although joyful in many ways, once again upset the fragile balances built during the Blip. As the series opens, the international Global Repatriation Council has taken charge of the situation and is in the process of essentially “resetting” Earth back to the way it was before the Snap; against this, Karli Morgenthau leads a team of insurgents called the Flag Smashers in an attempt to salvage the more unified way of life they had created in the Blip.

A key thread in the series is the upcoming GRC vote to deport refugees displaced by Thanos’ Snap back to wherever they lived before the Blip. From the perspective of the Council, this would solve many problems: as one character insists in a later episode, imagine a situation where someone was killed by the Snap, returns to life five years later, and discovers that someone else has moved into their house in the interim — who is the house’s rightful owner? In order to simplify these kinds of murky questions, the series sees the GRC poised to forcibly displace thousands of people, many of whom had managed to forge better lives for themselves after the Snap. As Sam explains at one point: “For five years, people have been welcomed into countries that had kept them out using barbed wire. There were houses and jobs. Folks were happy to have people around to help them rebuild. It wasn’t just one community coming together, it was the entire world coming together.” In short, although Karli and the Flag Smashers are initially described as just wanting a “world that’s unified without borders,” their actual goals are more focused on the often-ignored needs of the world’s refugees — particularly those who would be demonstrably harmed by simply “going back to the way things were” before the Blip.

Granted, the Flag Smashers are also revealed to have acquired Captain-America-esque strength and stamina (after double-crossing a Madripoorian crime boss) and they use their newfound superpowers to kill more than a few GRC agents in their crusade to stop the vote — no matter how sympathetic the cause, comic book logic (not to mention corporate incentives and, at times, outright propaganda) demands that Karli and her friends ultimately play a “Bad Guy” role for the MCU (even as one of their own is savagely executed in broad daylight by John Walker, an enraged American agent). Still, the show ends with Sam — as the new Captain America — chastising the rescued GRC leadership for effectively ignoring the refugees, giving at least some credence to the (at that point, mostly dead) Flag Smashers and their message.

Indeed, it’s hard not to sympathize with a group of people who, through no fault of their own (and as an explicit consequence of others’ recklessness) are displaced from their homes and forced into poverty. In a similar way, real-world philosopher Rebecca Buxton has argued that we should attend more carefully to the needs of real-world refugees forced to flee their homes as a result of climate change. Although rising global temperatures make for much less exciting action sequences than a purple-skinned alien fighting the Hulk, their threat is significant and their result is roughly the same: recent years have seen as many as 20 million people become climate refugees for one reason or another. Buxton points out, though, that these displaced citizens are predominantly not from those nations most responsible for the carbon emissions and other pollutants contributing to climate change; for example, the nation of Tuvalu was projected to become the first carbon-neutral state, but is now facing submersion as sea levels rise. Consequently, although debates about climate refugees tend to focus on compensation for certain, specific harms, Buxton instead contends that refugees are owed reparations (which can only be paid by those who actually bear responsibility for the damages). Although this burden of proof is more difficult to satisfy, Buxton argues convincingly that it is possible, at least in principle, to identify specifically who owes who what before leaving it to policymakers to work out the applications for specific cases.

So, if you enjoyed The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and found yourself agreeing with the new Captain America that Karli and her friends should not simply be written off as “terrorists,” it might be prudent to consider some of the real-world counterparts of the refugees that the Flag Smashers were trying to help.

(It might also be wise to consider how Buxton’s defense of reparations might relate to the story of Isaiah Bradley and the other ways that the miniseries engages with race and racism in America, though I’ll leave that topic for a different article.)

Military Propaganda and Empowerment in Captain Marvel

Photograph of a Captain Marvel poster above a movie theatre entrance; the poster shows Brie Larson as Captain Marvel standing with a star and flashing lights behind her

Captain Marvel, Marvel’s newest superhero flick, had a very successful opening weekend at the box office, despite backlash from Internet trolls and diehard comic book fans leading up to the release. Most of the negative responses have been what one might expect for Marvel’s first female-led project; many complained that Brie Larson sported stoic expression in the film’s poster, or that the feminist slant of the promotional material ended up “isolating the audience” (a baffling statement, as though the film was only meant to be viewed by men). Despite these complaints, the film has received overwhelmingly positive responses from female viewers.

This is hardly surprising, as film was clearly marketed as another fissure in the glass ceiling. It’s premiere date was set for International Women’s day, and Brie Larson even went so far as to call the project “the biggest feminist movie of all time.” In interviews, Larson expressed her hope that Captain Marvel will inspire a generation of young girls to pursue careers as pilots, saying, “I really do hope that it inspires girls and women – that if that’s the path that they want to take, that they know that it’s available to them.”

But the film has received negative responses from a more progressive quarter as well. Some critics have called the film military propaganda for the U.S. Air Force, denouncing it as little more than a flashy and expensive recruitment ad targeted at women. This reading has been bolstered by the film’s marketing strategy. Ads for the Air Force played before many screenings of the film, specifically linking the heroic character of Captain Marvel (who is herself a former Air Force pilot) to real members of the armed forces. In one, a female pilot proclaims that “Every superhero has an origin story. We all got our start somewhere. For us, it was the U.S. Air Force.” Real army pilots were included in press tours and other promotional materials, and were also used as extras on set. Dr. Roger Stahl, a professor of communications at the University of Georgia, said of the film in an interview with Los Angeles Magazine, “[The military is] killing a few birds with one stone with Captain Marvel. They’re recruiting, they’re rehabilitating the image of the Air Force, and they’re appealing to an elusive but desirable demographic.”

Modern propaganda is much harder to spot (and therefore much more insidious) than blatantly biased World War II posters and idealized statues of dictators from autocratic nations. It’s also especially damning when used as a label, which is why the army has tried desperately to distance itself from it. Phil Strub, a former navy officer who currently works as a liaison between the DOD (Department of Defense) and Hollywood, often consults on blockbuster films like Captain Marvel. When asked if military-sponsored films should be classified as propaganda in an interview with Outline, he rather defensively said,

“I associate [the word propaganda] with something that is not truthful. Something that is put together deliberately to mislead, to brainwash people, to twist the real. They whip [true and false] together in a smorgasbord. That’s propaganda. And maybe you’d accuse me of being too pro-military but to me, the movies we work with, they’re morale-improvement. We don’t say, ‘OK! Let’s see what we can do to exploit this opportunity!’ We’re not trying to brainwash people! We’re out to present the clearest, truest view.”;

The military’s official stance on Captain Marvel falls pretty closely in line with Strub’s viewpoint. The Air Force has denied that the film is a subversive attempt to boost enlistment, but claims that they worked with the production solely to ensure the military was given as “accurate and authentic” a portrayal as possible.

We should also understand that Captain Marvel isn’t the first big-budget film (or even the first Marvel film) the government has had a hand in. Iron Man, the very first movie in the Marvel cinematic universe, was backed and largely shaped by input from the DOD. The 1986 film Top Gun was also used to rehabilitate the public’s view of the military in the wake of Vietnam, boosting recruitment numbers by a considerable amount. However, almost none of these films have faced backlash to the same degree that Captain Marvel currently is. This might be because the recruitment is specifically targeted at women now, which not only indicates how the demographics of our armed forces are shifting but how much more of the population is being targeted by these efforts and implicated in warfare.

However, it’s pertinent to ask if the actual message of the movie itself conflicts with its purpose. As Elena Levin points out, the Skrulls, an ostensibly villainous race of shape shifters that Captain Marvel is pitted against in the first half of the film, are eventually revealed to be

“a refugee group being hounded across the galaxy by the military of a fascist hegemony […] that denies them their basic dignity […] The movie doesn’t just show the galaxy from the Skrull point of view, it asks viewers to identify with them. Like the Skrull, people conceal themselves in order to survive in an oppressive world. When they defend themselves, the oppressors call it war.”

Captain Marvel eventually joins the Skrulls and protects them from the Kree, the fascist hegemony she was brainwashed by in the beginning of the film.

There are some flaws in the movie’s anti-war message, though. Dr. Lawson, a defector from the Kree, professes that her aim is to end all wars, not win them. And yet Lawson, it seems, can only do this from within the United States military, which she works for as a research scientist after leaving her home planet. Despite this, the film ultimately sympathizes with those disenfranchised by imperialism, and Lawson’s goal (strange as her methods may be) is still portrayed as a pacifist one.

The conflict between message and purpose raises a number of interesting questions. Is it possible for a movie to be military propaganda and also advocate against war, or does the recruitment goal render the anti-war message hollow? Is the goal of the propaganda merely to inspire positive emotions associated with the Air Force (which it certainly does; the colors of Captain Marvel’s uniform are chosen because of their association with the Air Force), so therefore it doesn’t matter if it’s wrapped up in an anti-war package? Furthermore, is it ethical for us to feel empowered by this movie?

On the one hand, something about the film smacks of white feminism, namely in it’s disregard of the horrific experiences women of color from other nations have had with the U.S. military. This goes beyond general statements on the evils of imperialism, which the film certainly offers. Dr. Elizabeth Mesok, a researcher who studies gender in the military, said of the film, “If we’re going to talk about women’s equality and women’s empowerment but we’re going to divorce it from a conversation about the rights of Afghan women and the safety and security and wellbeing Iraqi women or women in Yemen, then that’s not a conversation that I think is politically fulfilling.” It might be compared to what what Sarah Banet-Weiser calls “empowerment feminism,” of the kind of feminism that encourages self-confidence and success under a capitalist system to the detriment of economic or political autonomy, which ultimately reinforces rather than dismantles patriarchal and white supremacist values. In that sense, we might hesitate before surrendering to the emotional high of the film.

On the other hand, the emotions elicited by the film are potent and may be understood separately from the pro-military message. There’s a wonderful moment near the end where Captain Marvel goes up against her former mentor, played by Jude Law, without giving in to the rules he tried to impose on her in the beginning of the film. He encouraged her to be emotionless and fight within the restrictions he provided her with, but she ultimately realizes that she has nothing to prove to him and triumphs over him her own way. It might be pointless to dismiss such genuinely uplifting moments as irredeemably tainted by their association with propaganda, and acknowledge their value for female audiences who may come away with no more interest in the Air Force than they went in with.

Like all films, we have to view this one with a critical eye, and understand both its actual purpose, how it’s meant to influence us unconsciously, and what we might consciously chose to take away from it.