The military, as a whole, needs to be depicted as fairly useless in superhero movies. After all, why would we need a Norse god or a Hulk to fight our battles if the armed forces were equipped to do so themselves? More often than not, tanks and military aircraft exist in these films solely to be destroyed as a demonstration of the overwhelming power of our hero’s enemies. Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen are used as a toughness measuring stick: If the villain dispatches a military patrol with his bare hands, he’s tough. If he can sink an aircraft carrier, it’s time to call in the Avengers.
Each of these heroes, however, has a backstory that led to a life of fighting crime. There aren’t many backgrounds one can hail from that instills the level of discipline and combat skill needed to wage war against alien invaders or robot assassins, so often, heroes hail from one of the branches of the military.
As a Marine veteran, I can’t help but be a little proud when a superhero on my television set talks about his days in the Marine Corps—even if that hero is a man like The Punisher in the Netflix series “Daredevil.” The Punisher’s backstory is specifically that of a special forces Marine that lost his family to gang violence. His military training is highlighted through his use of various weapon systems that serve in place of superpowers. Of course, Frank Castle (the Punisher’s real name) is seen by many as a murderer—including other heroes. While watching the Netflix series with my wife, she pointed out that, in Marvel movies and TV shows, soldiers are always depicted as clean-cut and honorable, while Marines usually seem dark, troubled, or even unstable.
As a card-carrying superhero nerd, I immediately tried to counter her statement, but couldn’t. Captain America and Falcon are both former soldiers who continue to fight the good fight. Luke Cage and the Punisher were both Marines. One went on to serve time in prison and become a fugitive from the law while the other went on to…serve time in prison and become a fugitive from the law.
OK, maybe she had a point.
In 2011, Superman (DC Comics) dropped the iconic slogan, “Truth, justice and the American way,” because it was no longer culturally popular to be rooting for the home team. Anti-American sentiment is so commonplace in American culture now that Superman became a citizen of Earth in an effort to maintain fans that saw America as a warmonger. It was a political choice made by the DC team. For the first time in our nation’s short life, we stopped being Rocky and started being Ivan Drago in the eyes of our own people.
So what gives? Why do the powers that be at Marvel picture soldiers as Boy Scouts and Marines as antiheroes? I could argue that it’s because Kevin Feige has it out for my brothers and sisters in blue, or I could postulate about the politics of Marvel and its parent company Disney, but I don’t think it has anything to do with politics. I think Marvel’s depictions of the military represent our culture’s general misunderstanding of American service members, as well as their fears.
Marvel’s cinematic universe has made such a science out of targeting specific demographics with content that I have them to thank for half the marketing papers I wrote in grad school. Daredevil was designed to appeal to a more liberal mindset (pro-bono lawyer that defends the poor), Jessica Jones targets empowered women and victims of abuse, Luke Cage reflects the plight of minorities in the city, and so forth. The real magic at Marvel isn’t who they target with their content, however, it’s how.
Although each Marvel property is designed to attract a different demographic, it’s always done in a manner that will not alienate other groups that want to watch. No movie or show is so heavy-handed in its delivery of demographic-specific content that it would drive away those outside it. It’s targeted marketing with an underlying current of acceptance of all viewers. Marvel never tries to gain a viewer at the expense of losing another.
So if Marvel is so scientific and intentional about their representations of varied groups in the U.S., there must be reasoning behind their depictions of the Army and Marines. That reason, I believe, is psychological rather than political. My argument can best be summed up in two of Marvel’s most popular characters on screen.
Captain America represents what we want America’s veterans to be. Clean-cut, God-loving, polite, and idealistic. He’s the soldier America thanks for his service as he gets off the plane. He represents the best of our military, and the best of America. We’re rooting for him to succeed, and we’re proud to call him our own. Although he occasionally carries a sidearm, Cap’s iconic weapon is a red, white, and blue shield.
The Punisher is what we’re afraid our veterans can be. His five o’clock shadow and old, baggy coat reminds us of the vets we see asking for change at intersections. His dark demeanor was born out of the hardships he’s endured and the loss he’s felt. His cold, calculated method of killing his enemies represents bringing the war home, and unlike Captain America’s defensive shield, the Punisher carries guns. Lots of guns.
America’s love affair with its veterans doesn’t run as deep as many people hope. People slap their “support the troops” ribbons on the back of their minivan and thank their loved ones that served on Veterans Day. These gestures are meaningful and heartfelt, and I certainly don’t mean to discredit them, but it’s easy to thank our Captain Americas. It’s harder to deal with our Punishers. The problem is, most veterans are both.
The depictions of Marvel’s military superheroes aren’t meant to be seen as a difference between the Army and Marines, in my opinion. Instead, they’re the two sides of the same veteran coin. When I trim my beard, put on my clichéd green drab hat and shake hands with people at the grocery store, it’s the Captain America in me that smiles and expresses my sincere gratitude to a public I am proud to have served.
But when I’m in my basement at night, alone with a bottle of vodka, it’s the Punisher in me that doesn’t know how to feel anything other than anger that I can’t bring back the young private first class that ended his life under my charge, or the corporal from my shop that died in a car accident on the way home from his Purple Heart ceremony, or any of the other young Marines I knew and lost along the way.
None of us are Captain America. None of us are the Punisher. But all of us that put on our dress uniform and smiled when a child called us a hero had a little Captain in us. And all of us that felt the weight of regret after losing a friend has had glimpses of the Punisher.
Or maybe Kevin Feige just thinks Marines are mean as hell. I’m cool with that too.
Images courtesy of Netflix and DC Comics