The latest Marvel blockbuster “Eternals” is causing quite a stir for its problematic portrayal of the Hiroshima bombing and has reignited critiques of Marvel’s collaboration with the Pentagon, showing how military propaganda is entrenched in our pop culture.
The Eternals features a group of superhumans living on Earth throughout centuries, and sometimes influencing the course of history. Marvel Studios decided to make one of the movie’s protagonists responsible for the atomic bombings of Japan. The movie apparently shows one of the Eternals, Phastos, at the ruins of Hiroshima and yelling “what have I done!?”
Others recalled the long and fruitful relationship between Marvel Studios and the Pentagon. The mockery even prompted Marvel director James Gunn to lash out at critics on Twitter, saying that his films didn't have to “get approved by the military” and when approval is required, the military is “pretty loose” about it.
But in fact, the military reading, approving, and adjusting screenplays is a common practice in Hollywood. Producers agree to this to be able to borrow military equipment and personnel for shoots, which saves millions of dollars in props and CGI. The military only lends its equipment to movies whose scripts do not besmirch the military. A representative of the Pentagon’s liaison office said that military approval is only given if the movie depicts the military accurately. But, “any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to [the Pentagon].”
The process of approval includes several stages. First, Pentagon officials read the script, and almost always the military expects some corrections to be made to its portrayal. If the filmmakers stick with their story, the assistance is not granted. For instance, the Pentagon n famously refused to support Independence Day — because the protagonist was dating a stripper. The Pentagon also refused to lend equipment to the hit Marvel crossover the Avengers. The reason? Apparently, the military wasn’t certain where Marvel's fictional secret service S.H.I.E.L.D. fits into the Pentagon’s hierarchy.
But very often the proposed changes are accepted, because many movies simply are not financially feasible without military assistance. When Ridley Scott, the director of “Black Hawk Down,” was asked if he could have made the film without assistance said, “Yeah. We just would have had to call it ‘Huey Down.’”
Sometimes the military would change the movies specifically to target younger audiences. In his book Operation Hollywood, David Robb mentions the incident with the film “The Right Stuff.” Upon military review, the producers received a letter saying “the obscene language used seems to guarantee an ‘R’ rating. If distributed as an ‘R’, it cuts down on the teenage audience, which is a prime one to the military services when our recruiting bills are considered.” The screenplay was changed.
If the movie receives an approval, production gets a military minder, who oversees the portrayal of the military throughout principal photography. The minders have unlimited power vis-à-vis military equipment. As one of them said to David Robb: “If they don’t do what I say, I take my toys and go away.”
Even after the film is shot, the military tries to keep the final say. In Clint Eastwood’s film “Heartbreak Ridge,” the final cut included a scene where an American soldier shoots a defenseless and injured Cuban soldier. The Pentagon objected to showcasing this war crime and blocked the movie in its overseas theaters and even prevented Eastwood from using the film as a fundraiser to the Marine Corps’ charity Toys for Tots.
The blockbusters Iron Man I and II that launched the Marvel cinematic franchise had to get approved by the Pentagon because they used $1 billion worth of military equipment, as the lead character is the head of an arms manufacturing company.
Why would the Pentagon spend taxpayer dollars and soldiers’ time to help Hollywood with military equipment? Recruitment. The most recent example of the tight Marvel-Pentagon collaboration is 2019 Captain Marvel. Task and Purpose described it as a “dream recruitment tool” for the Air Force. Even the first trailer closely resembles real-life military ads with their narrative of transformations after joining the military. Todd Fleming, chief of the Community and Public Outreach Division at Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, said that the Air Force’s “partnership with ‘Capt Marvel’ […] highlighted the importance of the Air Force to our national defense.” As the blockbuster rolled out to the silver screen, Air Force ran a parallel recruitment campaign that resulted in the most female applicants in five years.
Aside from working with the military, Marvel tried to work with arms manufacturers through its comics branch. In 2017 Marvel teamed up with Northrop Grumman, the fifth-largest weapons manufacturer in the world, to create a tandem comic book series called Northrop Grumman Elite Nexus. The series, however, was cancelled hours after announcement, as angry fans thought it was morally dubious for Marvel to collaborate with war profiteers.
Marvel’s relationship with the Pentagon exposes a rich history of military propaganda in Hollywood. Famously, when Top Gun was released in 1986, the Navy set up recruitment booths at theaters.
And it’s not just the Pentagon that pushes its narrative in mainstream movies. The CIA kept a tight watch over the production of the Zero Dark Thirty and its depiction of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which led some to call the film “pro-torture.” The CIA also pressured the filmmakers to remove scenes that could cast the agency in a negative light, such a scene where a dog is used to torture a suspect.
Many argue that the security services and military’s involvement with Hollywood is unethical — as it pushes propaganda on Americans and wastes taxpayer money. The military is opaque on the details, but it says that it doesn’t generate any profit from working with filmmakers.
“When you know the government is looking over your shoulder while you’re typing, that’s a very bad situation,” David Robb said in his Mother Jones interview. Robb explained that Congress and the Screenwriters Guild seem apathetic to the issue of Pentagon propaganda, even though Robb and others claim it violates the FirstAmendment because the government is favoring one kind of speech over another. “This is a holdover from the Cold War, and it should be abolished. Or at least Congress, which has oversight over the Pentagon, should really look into what’s going on,” Robb said.
Robb is optimistic about what it would take to change Hollywood’s toxic relationship with the Pentagon. “I think that if just 50 people wrote their congressman and asked, ‘what’s going on here?’, I think it wouldn’t take much,” he said.
Most Americans are unaware of the Pentagon's hand in their pop-culture. But the backlash against the Eternals, now the worst-rated Marvel Cinematic Universe film, might once again put Hollywood’s problematic relationship with the Pentagon in the spotlight of critics and viewers.