One of the most prevalent and consistent themes in books about the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany is the belief foreign powers held that it was most important to not act rashly and judge Adolf Hitler and his peers prematurely. This is particularly prominent in Erik Larson’s work In the Garden of Beasts, which details the story of William Dodd, the exhausted ambassador to Germany during the rise of Hitler, who resigned specifically because the American government refused to believe his claims that Germany was ramping up for European invasion and brutalizing its Jewish citizenry. Neither Roosevelt nor his administration ever explicitly told Dodd that he needed to be patient, per se, but the implication was there: despite what you have seen with your own eyes, you must trust that eventually the Nazis will calm down and be more civil and everything will be okay, we know this because the Nazis keep telling us so.
This is eerily similar to what Marvel Comics is communicating to fans and critics about its new event Secret Empire, in which the Nazi-connected organization HYDRA takes over in large part because of the betrayal of the Jewish-created all-American superhero Captain America. Be patient, Marvel asks readers, don’t judge us for what we are doing now and have done in the past, don’t judge us for our leadership’s connections to the Trump regime, just wait and see and trust that what we are doing is right for you.
Marvel and its employees are not Nazis. This much should be clear. But however much the company claims otherwise, it is both benefitting from and exacerbating the disturbingly 1934-esque political climate our society finds itself in. Worse, Marvel and its employees continue to attempt to diminish criticisms of its actions, and its role in this political climate, by utilizing techniques the Dodds of the world know all too well. A close examination of Marvel’s behavior in regards to the politic of its current event Secret Empire shows how crafty corporations– particularly those with clear connections to the current administration, as is the case with Marvel– maneuver themselves so they appear apolitical while also enabling the state.
The public battle over Secret Empire began long before the event did. Marvel via some of its writers and editors initially attempted to stamp down the original controversy– the revelation that Captain America has long been an agent of the Nazi-connected secret society HYDRA– by claiming fans were entitled and that we should sympathize with the corporation and its benefactors over fan concerns about an insensitive and sensational plot development. Critics who questioned Marvel’s decision to make a character most associated with liberty and righteousness a fascist were harassed by representatives of the company and in some instances remarks by disenfranchised critics were even deliberately manipulated by a writer at Marvel to make it seem as though they were endorsing death threats. Like Germany’s explanation that their seizure of the Rhineland was in self-defense, Marvel’s attempts to make themselves victims in the outcry over the Captain America reveal was not only crass and manipulative, but also a harbinger of the bolder actions they would take later down the line.
After Marvel found itself embroiled in yet another major controversy, this time over remarks that could be construed as blaming diverse characters for the company’s recent sales struggles, news broke out that the company was also asking retailers and publications to “submit” to HYDRA takeovers and adopt the iconography of the villainous organization. Prior Marvel events like the original Civil War may have asked fans and critics “Which side are you on?” but not only was that event theoretically about two sides who are both right and wrong, it gave consumers, retailers and critics a choice in allegiance. But the Secret Empire marketing centered on the lack of choice, indicating that there was no escape from fascism and wouldn’t it be more fun to just submit, anyway?
When this marketing did not go over the way Marvel wanted it to, and when reaction to the early glimpses people got at Secret Empire did not exactly meet with critical enthusiasm, Marvel issued a statement asking everyone to just be “patient” and not judge the event or its marketing until the end. This was especially baffling, since the build up to Secret Empire had now been going on for a year, which is a pretty fair amount of time to form a judgment on anything by anyone’s standards. It only seemed to further indicate that Marvel wanted fans and critics to submit to a uniform belief about the event, its writer and the company publishing it.
What Marvel wants from fans and critics is silence and assimilation. It does not want fans to look too closely at the product they are being asked to spend as much as $200 consuming. It does not want fans and retailers to adopt the iconography of anyone except its villains. It does not want fans to judge a product that has been developing in front of them for a year. It does not want them to call the villains of the event Nazis, even though the villains have a longstanding, intimate relationship with Nazis. It does not want anyone to view the event as inherently political despite the ICE-like raids on Inhumans and the portrayal of an America sliding into fascism. And it certainly does not want you to think about writer Nick Spencer’s past as a politician who did things like openly call for the destruction of services for the poor and the dismantling of Human Services to better fund police activity.
And if you reject these requests from Marvel, it wants you to go the way of William Dodd. The company would very much like you to be brushed aside by the industry for “overreacting,” for not being patient and tolerant of intolerance. The last thing Marvel wants is scrutiny, particularly if it involves examining what benefits its Trump-affiliated billionaire CEO Ike Perlmutter might get from running a company that creates products that could be argued train consumers to submit to fascism.
As extreme as that may sound, all of the tactics Marvel uses to shut down criticism of its products are tactics fascists have utilized to cast doubt on their critics– the framing of opponents as the true villains, the adamant claims that their activities will yield positive results despite “temporary” nastiness, the consistent and aggressive harassment of anyone who speaks up. Marvel wants you to silence your qualms, to trust them when they say they are not doing the things you think they are doing, to simply give in to the program and see if you do not like the new status quo in the end. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
This is why how Marvel markets this event, and how it responds to criticisms about that marketing, matters more than how the book eventually ends. Even if Secret Empire has a “happy” ending, some kind of ultimate triumph of the beleaguered rebels opposing HYDRA’s domination that also somehow brings a return of original heroes, that does not erase the fascist behavior Marvel has utilized against critics. No matter how much Nick Spencer giddily drags fans for not guessing how he will make things good again in the Marvel U, it won’t erase the very real, completely nonfictional demands for silence and submission Marvel has made in the real world, where actual people are being told by the government to do the same thing when it comes to dangerous, oppressive policies like the AHCA. Whether Marvel intends it or not, they are preparing you for silence and subservience, asking you to submit to the water rising to a boil around you without thinking about it or questioning it. Which means it’s not just your right to call Marvel out for their tasteless marketing and bullying rhetoric, it’s your duty.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover