Popular culture franchises frequently center able-bodied cishet white male fans and characters. Recently, some companies have tried to shift this hegemonic trend by championing discourses about social justice and diversity. I argue that media producers’ attempts to appear politically progressive is a trend that stretches long before our current moment and often depends upon remediating their own texts. Such self-presentation allows companies to seem politically engaged. One example of this comes from Marvel Comics, which has consistently presented itself as a force for social justice.
This political ethos is visible in the way Marvel presents its own history. Captain America Comics #1, a 1941 comic published before the United States entered World War II, garnered controversy for its cover image of the patriotic hero punching Adolf Hitler. Artist Jack Kirby received death threats from American Nazis after publication. The cover represented genuine political courage, which is in part why Marvel has since made it one of their most iconic images. The cover art has been reproduced throughout Marvel’s products, perhaps most visibly in the 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger.
Marvel has consistently portrayed its most famous creator, Stan Lee, as a social justice champion who created art out of an anti-racist spirit. Upon his death in 2018, Marvel reprinted Lee’s “Stan’s Soapbox” editorials in new comics. This includes a November 1968 column in which Lee argued “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today […] we must fill our hearts with tolerance.” That same year saw the release of Black Panther, for which Lee was celebrated as a trailblazing co-creator of the groundbreaking character. It is vital to Marvel’s brand that Lee is not (just) a talented writer, but also an agent of change.
The company’s social justice image allows it to both benefit from a simple narrative of improvements in American identity politics and to ignore its many political failings – such as American comics industry’s exploitative treatment of its workers. Companies like Marvel do reflect and promote genuine social good, but it’s important to keep in mind what they ultimately are: culture industries.