Opinion: Marvel Comics sends a terrible message by partnering with a military contractor

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Anyone who pays attention to the geek-o-sphere will probably know that it has been a rough year for Marvel at large. While the company continues to dominate the box office, their TV and comic divisions have made a series of P.R. blunders that have turned many fans critical of the House of Ideas. From the criticisms of a lack diversity in the Iron Fist show, to turning Captain America into a fascist Hydra overlord of the world, to an artist’s hidden anti-Semitic messages slipping past editorial in X-Men comics, and numerous other debacles, the House of Ideas just doesn’t seem to have a clue.

And apparently, we shouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Fans thought the company was turning things around in the sensitivity department when in light of the events in Las Vegas they pulled this weekend’s Punisher panel at New York Comic Con, but they have turned right around and made a mess of things again at the very same convention. That’s because today Marvel Comics announced a partnership with the arms and defense contracting corporation Northrop Grumman.

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Northrop Grumman is one of the world’s largest military contractors, raking in over $20 billion a year, which for comparison’s sake is over 13 times the worldwide box office of The Avengers. While the extent of the partnership hasn’t been revealed yet, the first part of the baffling team-up was released today: a free, all-ages comic book featuring the Avengers teaming up with an all-new Northrop Grumman-themed team of high-tech heroes called N.G.E.N.s. The book is a recruitment tool for the company to try and get young people interested in working for the weapons manufacturer.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that fans were vocally upset at this development on social media—and they are absolutely right to be. Especially when the comic in question includes ads like this one.

Clearly someone in Marvel’s Custom Content division needs to rewatch the first Iron Man movie. In that film (a modernized version of the character’s comic book origin) billionaire industrialist Tony Stark decides to give up weapons dealing for good after witnessing firsthand the horrors and pain that his company’s products—his own inventions—had wrought. Marvel partnering up with a weapons contractor to help them hire young people seems to be sending a message that’s diametrically opposed to that.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Marvel has used their characters to sell other companies’ products. They famously used to do it for Hostess all the time, and recent comic book ads have seen everyone from Black Panther to Loki being shills for Booking.com. Marvel has even produced several comics over the years that were only distributed on military bases. But this time, it’s clear a line has been crossed.

I’m not going to sit here and claim to be an expert on Northrop Grumman, or how more or less evil they are than other arms dealers. But the fact of the matter is, when Marvel uses their characters in support of the company, they are actively involved in its continuation, and the continuation of the military-industrial complex, an industry that all peace-loving people should hope will someday be unnecessary. 

Those ideals of peace and striving toward nonviolence are ones that nearly every Marvel hero’s ideology lines up with, though they may often fall short. And the foundation that those characters are built on, for better or for worse, is Marvel as a company. If Marvel does things that contradict the messages of their stories, they cheapen those stories. They weaken the effectiveness of those characters.

How hard will it be not to think of this comic the next time you read about Iron Man taking down an evil competitor like Roxxon? Or the next time Captain America defies the orders of his superiors for the greater good? Will knowing that those same characters are being used to bolster the wealth of people who profit from war make it harder for you to accept the message?

Marvel is a company first and foremost, and they are out to make money, and it is their right to do so however they see fit. But if they are going to publish characters who are lauded for their virtues, who are recognized by people of all ages and cultures as representing the best in us all, and who stand for justice and peace, then it is in the company’s best interest to at least attempt to behave in a way that doesn’t stand in opposition to those ideals.

Marvel should kill this partnership quickly. Its fans, and the characters that they are shepherds of, demand much, much better.