Watch: Video Essay Dissects Marvel Universe's Over-the-Top Symbolism

iron man captain america symbolism video essay why is cinema no film school
Is Tony Stark Jesus? Is Captain America Satan? So much symbolism.

In this video, Why is Cinema (a notoriously satirical video essayist) manages to cogently examine the symbolism of the Marvel Comics universe while taking on the somewhat ridiculous tone of the movies themselves.  Movies are full of symbolism. I know, I know; I was as shocked as you. But it's true! And not just in art movies! What Culture defines symbolism as: an underlying and often distinct theme...usually buried very subtly under the main narrative of a story or conversation in order to reinforce the main themes and add a certain layer of depth that would be missing otherwise. If that's symbolism, then the MCU is full of it, and in this video, Cameron Carpenter of Why is Cinema dissects the symbolism inherent in both the Iron Man and Captain America franchises, as well in the latest addition, the cross-over Captain America Civil War.

Okay, Repo Man is not part of the Marvel franchise, though I think you could make an argument that it should be. And when he's not seeming to making fun of the conventions of the video essay (which are, as a genre, usually thoughtful audio/visual meditations on the various elements of cinema), partly by narrating his video in the breathless voice of a severely anxious person who stopped in the middle of a Fun Run to record a voice-over, Carpenter makes some real points. 

Superhero Movies are Metaphors

With their gleeful lack of any pretense of realism, superhero movies get to do what other films don't, or wouldn't, or couldn't, and in the process manage to get past the gates of our credulity. As Carpenter says, "While the Iron Man films provide a scathing commentary for an America fueled by a military slow to adopt the moral and ethical responsibilities of omnipotent technology, the symbolism carefully placed throughout the films takes on a different, more nuanced meaning."

Delivering this sort of urgent critical theory In the context of Ironman,  Carpenter intentionally sounds like a spouter of pretentious gobbledygook himself, but I'd argue that he also makes a salient point. In the Iron Man franchise, Carpenter finds a Jesus figure in the form of Tony Stark (a point that has been made before, and in relatively the same tone.) It's sort of how The Dark Knight was seen as a paean to the ethos of neoconservatism. Was it? I don't know. I don't think so. But maybe! 

iron man captain america symbolism video essay why is cinema no film school

Nevertheless, one could make an argument that because we don't expect it, and because it appears and sounds so ham-handed and quasi-ridiculous, superhero movies can engage in a more effective symbolism than other films (because paradoxically, by being radically unsubtle, the films manage to achieve a sort of subtlety. Discuss.) Conversely, Carpenter portrays the character of Captain America/Steve Rogers as having "Satanic" (read: hedonistic/individualist) tendencies, and this argument has been explored elsewhere, too. Because on the internet, everything that can happen, will

Symbolism Functions as Counter-narrative 

Half the fun (sometimes most of the fun, and on occasion a different percentage of the fun, but still the fun) in talking about film is dissecting the messages therein. First, what are they, and second, were they placed there consciously? And who, if anyone, cares? One of the best examples of symbolism as counter-narrative in relatively recent big-budget filmmaking can be found in the intentional (I think) subversive crypto-satire all over Starship TroopersPaul Verhoeven's 1997 seeming-ode to neofascism.

Though pilloried upon release, the movie has, in recent years, been anointed by The Atlantic as "One of the Most Misunderstood Movies Ever." Audiences and reviewers at the time were caught unawares; they took the film at its word, rather than seeing that by making the antagonists into giant bugs rather than, say, immigrants or minorities, Verhoeven was satirizing a troubling aesthetic cinematic fetishism of the blonde-haired/blue-eyed archetype, an example of what Susan Sontag called "Fascinating Fascism". See? By linking Starship Troopers to Susan Sontag, I've managed to make myself look ridiculous (but also, maybe I'm right) and to point out the brilliance inherent in Carpenter's approach: a sideways and ironic jab at the truth. 

While tweaking the conventions and pretensions of cultural and cinematic criticism, Carpenter makes real points about the role and intentionality of symbolism in pop culture. Therefore, and in conclusion, why so serious     

Can't get enough of superhero movies? Check out our ranking of this year's Comic Con trailers.

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