Marvel-ous Purpose - Part Two - The MCU as 'Philosophy in Action'.

In his acclaimed 2002 work ‘On Film’, Stephen Mulhall brought film theory, aesthetics and philosophy together in order to form a deeply original text that has become a staple of examining films for their philosophically and socially meaningful residue. Mulhall isolates film as a mode of philosophy through the category of ‘action’, as ‘philosophy in action’. In discussion of his project, Mulhall states:

“I do not look to these films as handy or popular illustrations of views and arguments properly developed by philosophers; I see them rather as themselves reflecting on and evaluating such views and arguments, as thinking seriously and systematically about them in just the same ways that philosophers do. Such films are not philosophy’s raw material, are not a source for its ornamentation; they are philosophical exercises, philosophy in action – film as philosophising.”

Film is rarely utilised as a source of philosophical enquiry, something that Mulhall admits, and television is used even rarer still. Yet through popular film, and now cinematic television, we get a glimpse of how our public philosophies manifest themselves into narratives - spread by active, moving, light onto a screen as if butter slid across a face of toast. On the screen we encounter ourselves, our norms, our popular narratives, our logics, and our values – all through a happenstance of light, colour and sound. In this way, film and television has always held a deep-seated reflective relation to the aesthetic, philosophical, and even political; useful as a mirror to observe our cultural and epistemological milieu.

This, for example, has been one of many of the qualities that make up the project of Slavoj Zizek, one of the most prominent philosophers of the contemporary era. Zizek exposes film as a materialised distilled cultural syrup of ‘ideology’, whereby the spectator of a given popular film may reflectively prod and critique a certain social ‘false unconsciousness’, in a Marxist-Psychoanalytic frame or tone.[1] Film has always been there for us to explore philosophical undertones and outputs, allowing us to gaze onto ourselves and our socio-cultural constructions; this option has just been rarely executed until the contemporary era.

Part of this may be explained by the recent synthesis of classical political and social theory with cultural analysis. One manner in which this synthesis has become typical is through the framework of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. Focussing on exposing capitalist ideology embedded within the phenomenon of mass-culture, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss much of modern film as part of the ‘culture industry’, in which the production of mass-entertainment cannot be separated from the total socio-political relations of the capitalist mode of production and how mass-culture in contemporary capitalism goes some way to reproduce the very ideological conditions for the reproduction of capitalism itself, as opposed to the enrichment of creativity.[2]

Throughout their ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’, Adorno and Horkheimer utilise Hollywood film as an exemplar of the culture industry. For instance, they state that: “Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are nothing but business is used as an ideology to legitimize the rubbish they intentionally produce”[3], that film is inherently a mass-product as the thing itself[4], or to quote a passage:

 “The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline. The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen. This purpose has been furthered by mechanical reproduction since the lightning takeover by the sound film. Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies. The sound film, far surpassing the theatre of illusion, leaves no room for imagination or reflection on the part of the audience, who is unable to respond within the structure of the film, yet deviate from its precise detail without losing the thread of the story; hence the film forces its victims to equate it directly with reality.”[5]

Indeed, Mulhall’s claim to film as ‘philosophy in action’ would fall into the trap that Adorno and Horkheimer lay out here; that in film we dupe ourselves into finding within it the discourses of reality, and ultimately fall prey to the capitalist ideological edifice of the culture industry.

 Nonetheless, as connected to the critique of film and mass-culture that critical theory broadly provides, to engage with the discourses that film contribute to – perhaps unconsciously – is not to abandon critical thinking about film by any stretch. Critical theory, of the manner that Adorno and Horkheimer provide, allows us to observe the ruminations of ideology and the manner in which capitalist mass-culture seems to have become the apotheosis of modernity. This is thus an important framework to cling to if the aim of enquiry is to dissect and investigate how culture is plugged into the reproduction of the dominant political-economic system. However, discarding the manner in which the content of film may inform our understanding of discourses within reality – something I do not think nor claim that Critical Theory postulates totally, only inferentially – is akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed, critical analysis can take place on the contents of film in order to expose not only its ideological undercurrents, but the manner in which film acts as a mirror for our mass-political and philosophical dialogues of the day.

This can be seen even as far as ‘superhero’ culture is concerned. Let us take one illustration in particular, that of the late Mark Fisher. In his ‘Capitalist Realism’ Fisher highlights how mass-culture and ideology ultimately limit our very capability to imagine a life without capitalism, to the point at which any alternative aside from the capitalist mode of production has become simply unimaginable.[6] Remaining within a critical tradition, Fisher outlines in his unfinished work ‘Acid Communism’ the nub of the problematique within Critical Theory, and especially Adorno’s frame, i.e. that “we are invited to endlessly examine the wounds of a damaged life under capital; the idea of a world beyond capital is despatched into a utopian beyond. Art only marks our distance from this utopia”.[7] Fisher repudiates the notion that to engage with contemporary mass-culture, even to amass a body of critique against the capitalist culture industry, is to somehow be absorbed into its schema.

Throughout his exceptionally inciteful body of work, Fisher carefully analyses and investigates illustrations of mass-culture, art, music and film in order to critically locate within their contents those intellectual relations to the major philosophical, political and social dialogues of the time. One such of these illustrations are his reflections on ‘Batman Begins’ (Nolan, 2005), whereby Fisher surveys the representation of finance capital, psychoanalytical forms of paternalism, incoherencies of representing capitalism, postmodern reflexivity, and the ethics of distinguishing justice from revenge.[8] Fisher not only makes the case for, but indeed demonstrates in practice, that although film is embedded into the fabric of capitalist productive and reproductive relations, its contents may provide some insight reflexively into the intellectual dialogues of the day, tapping into certain socio-political or even philosophical themes that lend themselves to critical analysis.

Although often being cited for its underlying socio-political and philosophical themes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has tended to limit these themes to undertones, never quite overtly bringing the philosophical dilemmas it plays out between its lycra wearing characters to the clear surface, but keeping it present in murky depths alone.[9] The MCU officially came to the fore with the film ‘Iron Man’(Jon Favreau: 2008), before disseminating more than twenty other films over the course of three ‘phases’ since, and with a ‘fourth phase’ to have begun by the summer of 2021. Throughout these twenty-plus films, philosophical and political undertones have been present, without a doubt. Before going on to discuss Loki, I would like to give but two illustrations of this.

 Captain America: Civil War’ (J. Russo and A. Russo: 2016) saw a feud between the super-group assemblage, ‘The Avengers’, concerning a conflict of ethical frameworks towards legislative restriction over the group. Here, Tony Stark (Iron Man) took an increasingly Utilitarian stance supporting restriction and Steve Rogers (Captain America) a firm deontological attitude as an extension of his mistrust of government agencies and immovable will for ‘choice’. The latter is, quite frankly, unsurprising, especially considering Rogers’ ‘superpower’ is materially and ideologically twofold: (1) in his physical abilities, and (2) that he is, ontologically, American values made manifest. Interestingly, arriving in print in 1941, Captain America gains his superpower status at the precise moment the US entered into the process of becoming a political superpower itself, illustrating the case as to how US normative power internationally and Captain America are manifestations of one and the same phenomenon.

Returning to the conflict of ethical frameworks in the film, perhaps this could even be transferred into political theory? Whereby the divide in the super-group imitates the division between Classical Liberals – pro minimal state and negative liberty on the one hand, i.e., the American Liberalism of Steve Rogers – and Modern Liberals on the other - pro state-intervention and positive liberty, i.e., the late-stage socially liberal capitalism of Tony Stark. Here we see the ideological, political, and philosophical syrup lying within the very composition of the film.

Following this, a second instance whereby certain political and philosophical discourses can be identified as being engaged with, in this case rather overtly, concerns ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (J. Russo and A. Russo: 2018) and ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (J. Russo and A. Russo: 2019). Here, the extra-terrestrial titan ‘Thanos’[10] wishes to use the omnipotent assemblage of the six ‘infinity-stones’ in order to dissolve half of all universal life by random choice, ridding it of overpopulation and scarcity of resources – a fate that led his home planet to its downfall. Naturally, the task of the limited manmade assemblage - The Avengers - is to prevent this from happening. Here, there were two major relationships to philosophical and political discourse that are worth discussion, as an illustration of the way in which the MCU tap into these wider dialogues.

The first concerns the ethical relationship between the motivations of Thanos and the argument put forward concerning overpopulation and food scarcity by the Victorian economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus claimed that with continued overpopulation comes an arithmetical ratio of scarcity of produce, and as such war and famine that becomes an existential hazard for all. Malthus claimed that:

“No possible form of society could prevent the almost constant action of misery upon a great part of mankind, if in a state of inequality, and upon all, if all were equal...That population cannot increase without the means of subsistence is a proposition so evident that it needs no illustration. That population does invariably increase where there are the means of subsistence, the history of every people that have ever existed will abundantly prove. And that the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice, the ample portion of these too bitter ingredients in the cup of human life and the continuance of the physical causes that seem to have produced them bear too convincing a testimony.”[11]

This is precisely the ‘misery’ that Thanos wishes to dispel on a universal level. Whereas Malthus claimed that at a certain calculatable point the population of society would reap the nocuous effects of its own growth, leading to scarcity, poverty and mass-death, Thanos provides the millenarian and missionary antinomian solution to the Malthusian prediction – that in simply removing half of all universal life, such a scarcity is avoided and with it the poverty and misery of overpopulation. Needless to say, there are a number of ethical dilemmas here concerning: (a) the consequentialist ‘necessity’ of mass-murder so to avoid universal calamity, (b) the ethics of ‘randomness’, and (c) the ethics connected to the longstanding dialectic between ‘means’ and ‘ends’, to name but a few.

The utilisation of the infinity stones taps into the timely literary theological narrative of a subject seeking to in some way harness the qualities associated with God, a god, a creator-God, the demiurge, ‘the one’, etc., distinguishing themselves as a fabricated, rather than natural or organic, theological entity. These theological qualities are usually considered to be the trinity of: omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence.

There is an obvious relationship to theological and philosophical discourse here. This being said, I would rather direct the reader to a different illustration of the manner in which the MCU may add to and supplement our discourse, beyond a very usual and recurring narrative. This narrative, or at least the character arc of most antagonists that fall prey to a ‘God complex’, can be laid out as such: ‘Person A seeks to gain the power of a God. Person A gains the power of a God. Person A is not an organic God and thus falls prey to either: (1) their misunderstanding of the theological powers they seek, being mortal; (2) their hubris once receiving those powers. Person A experiences a theological fall from grace in which their divine status is torn from them, returning them once again to that of the mere mortal’. This is interesting, but, as I say above, a connection that seems commonplace across all modes of popular culture.

This theological point aside, the second manner in which the narrative of Thanos holds a fascinating relationship to philosophical and political discourse, that is worth discussion, concerns resistance to Emergency Climate Change measures against those who demand radical change. In simple terms, Thanos observes and draws consciousness towards a legitimate concern – the same as Malthus, i.e., overpopulation, scarcity and the mass-suffering the combination of the two would cause universally. Thanos provides a radical solution to this issue, one that we can deem radical as it is to engage with an activity that would begin a new universal era, changing and challenging our epistemological and normative frameworks – known within The MCU as ‘the snap’ or ‘the blip’. For all the ethical questions Thanos poses, The Avenger’s response generates just as many. Knowing that Thanos’ Malthusianism is more than likely to become a correct projection in the long-term, what we do not see in Endgame is a discourse concerning how to avoid the manmade crises of scarcity and overpopulation once Thanos has been defeated. Indeed, the response to Thanos is to simply argue that earth will cross that bridge when such a crisis is present.

This, without a doubt, can be paralleled to some of the dominant attitudes towards man-made climate change. The environmental crisis that looms in the not-too-distant future is no longer a scenario up for debate by any scientist or academic worthy of the name. Although some may consider this a contentious comment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has consistently and empirically shown that we live in an anthropocentric geological era in which our existence is clearly and measurably having an effect on our global ecology, through a multitude of activities and factors.[12] In the first Working Group Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC, released in August 2021, it quite clearly states that:

“It is unequivocal that human interference has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred…Limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions. Strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 emissions would also limit the warming effect resulting from declining aerosol pollution…Under these contrasting scenarios, discernible differences in trends of global surface temperature would begin to emerge from natural variability within around 20 years, and over longer time periods for many other climate impact-drivers”.[13]

Indeed, from this report it is now abundantly clear that manmade effects on climate change pose an existential threat, and the only manner in which such a threat may be mitigated is if measures are taken. No, the IPCC is not suggesting genocide. Recommended is simply a very clear reduction in hydrocarbon emissions to net-zero as quickly as possible. Nonetheless, this necessity is deemed to be radical because it would require a shift in the way we practice our daily activity.

In the context surrounding ‘The Avengers’ series, in the face of the problem Thanos clearly brings to light, the response is not to defeat Thanos out of the ethical concerns for his genocidal activity and seek to address his Malthusian concerns in an increasingly rational, non-genocidal and reasoned manner. Rather, the decision is only made to engage with the former, to merely ‘cross that bridge’ when the Malthusian point of absolute crisis appears. This would appear to align itself with a number of US concerns, at least as far as mitigating climate change is concerned, socially still divided on the extent to which climate change is manmade, or even if it is to be a topic of concern.[14] Such a position has even begun to seep into the methodological collection of climate change data itself. In the very same IPCC Working Group report referenced above, one can observe that only the North American regions are consistently unable to provide some mode of agreement on the type of climate change observed, collectively as one continent of regions, as far as ‘hot extremes’, ‘heavy precipitation’ and ‘agricultural and ecological drought’ are concerned.[15]

In this regard, the MCU provides a mirror for attitudes towards political and social issues. In this case, we see two issues and the dominant attitudes towards them, revealing their natural underlying Americanisation of supposed universal norms. The first concerns the universal genocide Thanos wishes to undertake. This becomes the chief, dare I even say only, ethical stance the film takes – that zealous, millenarian and missionary genocide should be defended against. This, in our liberal era of norms and values, would be upheld as the moral status quo. The second attitude concerns the total disregard for the affairs that has led to Thanos’ murderous rationale, the real crisis that – as Thanos reveals during ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ on his once thriving yet now deserted and abandoned planet of Titan – concern the effects of overpopulation and environmental crisis that lead to extinction. There is little worry for this by any of the characters during the film, with all epistemological energy focussed on the murderous logic of Thanos. Ironically, perhaps Thanos and his ‘children’ constitute the true ‘Extinction Rebellion’ of the MCU, displaying the presentation of any and all ‘radical solution’ to Malthusian concerns as being unnecessarily immoral. As we see, the infinity stones may be able to take individuals out of existence and bring them back, but could they mitigate crises that are as natural as the fictional stones are? We shall never know.

Therefore, in summary, the ‘Thanos narrative’ across two films comments both consciously and unconsciously on the condition of modern society and its politics. On the one hand connecting to a Victorian ethical discussion concerning overpopulation and surplus; on the other revealing dominant cultural and political attitudes towards our own contemporary planetary ecological crises that can be paralleled to those mechanising the engines of Thanos’ murderous logic. In this way, the MCU engages once again with what Mulhall penned as ‘philosophy in action’.

Now we have discussed that film broadly, and the MCU specifically, engages with philosophical and even political discourse as ‘philosophy in action’, what I would like to do is to investigate an exact illustration of precisely this. Of the twenty-six films and sixteen television programmes Marvel have created to date, ‘Loki’ stands out as being immediately different to the rest in that it taps into philosophical discourse rather overtly, featuring the god of mischief undertake a journey through the very fabric of temporality as a process of confused subjectivation in which ‘the self’ is encountered in a nomadic, sporadic and dare I even say schizoanalytic, deleuzoguttarian, form. In this vein, the remainder of this discussion will focus its attention on a ‘close reading’ of ‘Loki’ and the differing ways in which it can be interpreted as ‘philosophy in action’.

[1] To explore this, see: Slavoj Zizek (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso; The Perverts Guide to Cinema (2006) [Sydney Film Festival, DVD], Sophie Fiennes (Dir.), Vienna: Mischief Films, London: Amoeba Films; The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012) [Toronto International Film Festival, DVD] Sophie Fiennes (Dir.), New York: Zeitgeist Films, London: P Guide Productions Ltd; Matthew Flisfeder (2012) The Symbolic, The Sublime and Slavoj Zizek’s Theory of Film, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (2016) Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso, pp.120-167; Theodor W. Adorno (1991) The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, London: Routledge. 

[3] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (2016) Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso, p. 121.

[4] Theodor W. Adorno (1991) The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, London: Routledge, p. 155.

[5] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (2016) Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso, p. 126.

[6] Mark Fisher (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books.

[7] Mark Fisher (2018) “Acid Communism (Unfinished Introduction)”, in Darren Ambrose (Ed.), K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), London: Repeater Books, pp.753-770, p. 755.

[8] Mark Fisher (2018) “Gothic Oedipus: Subjectivity and Capitalism in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins”, in Darren Ambrose (Ed.), K-Punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), London: Repeater Books, pp. 139-146.

[9] For texts that examine this connection, see: Marc DiPaolo (2011) War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc.; Ramzi Fawaz (2016) The New Mutants: Superheroes and The Radical Imagination of American Comics, New York: NYU Press; Miriam Kent (2021) Women in Marvel Films, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; Terence McSweeney (2019) Avengers Assemble!: Critical Perspectives on The Marvel Cinematic Universe, New York: Columbia University Press; Ross Griffin (2018) Imperial Benevolence: US Foreign Policy and Popular Culture Since 9/11, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 168-187; Hagley, Annika, and Michael Harrison (2014) ‘Fighting the Battles We Never Could: ‘The Avengers’ and Post-September 11 American Political Identities’, PS: Political Science and Politics, 47(1), pp. 120–124.

[10] The coincidental relationship between ‘Thanos’ and the Greek god or spirit of Death ‘Thanatos’ has not escaped notice.

[11] Thomas Malthus (1998) [1789] An Essay on the Principle of Population: as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, e-book, Originally Printed for London: J. Johnson, London: Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project, p. 11.

[12] For a thorough illustration, see the most recent IPCC report: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2015) AR5 – Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report, Geneva: IPCC.

[13] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021) Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis – Summary for Policymakers, [IPCC AR6 WGI], Working Group I Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva: IPCC, pp.5, 36, 40.

[14] Throughout the discourse surrounding the implementation of a potential ‘Green New Deal’ in the US, the very notion of the climate emergency was routinely debated, leading to a divided electorate (often, as per, along partisan lines) on the topic of not which actions to take so to mitigate crisis, but whether the climate crisis was itself a “hoax invented by China”, something similar, or not. See: Justin Worland (July 8th 2019) ‘Donald Trump Called Climate Change a Hoax. Now He's Awkwardly Boasting About Fighting It’, TIME, donald-trump-climate-change-hoax-event/ (Accessed 11th August 2021); Louise Boyle (6th October 2020) ‘Half of Fox News viewers believe climate crisis is caused by natural changes, not human activity’, The Independent, (Accessed 11th August 2021).

[15] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021) Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis – Summary for Policymakers, [IPCC AR6 WGI], Working Group I Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Geneva: IPCC, p 12.

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