Rethinking Cold War Imagination Through Literature


Well, this is famous:

Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?

Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.

Of all the things to brag about in the Marvel universe you really should not lead with: genius superhero. The job market is well saturated with geniuses, green monsters and stretchy guys who have no problem throwing together a rocket or a time machine if the occasion calls for it. It all seems unnecessary. One should appreciate that folk heroes for most of human history were not geniuses, empiricists or inventors but cunning and brave warriors who often owed their abilities to the gods of the heavens or nobility in their blood. The 20th century saw the rise of sci-fi and alien superheroes but it was Marvel who took things a step further. The company introduced an entirely new pantheon of heroes. Most of them were the flawed geniuses who drew their powers directly from their remarkable inventions or radioactive happenstance.

How did this happen? Why does the Marvel movie one watches seem so entrenched in what one might call make-belief or science fiction?

To understand one must rewind to 1959 when the atomic bomb tests (read more here) began. Just 14 years earlier, at the close of World War II, America dropped two of these on Japan. It was the unveiling of civilization's off switch- a terrifying invention that could render one's enemies extinct. In one irradiated fell-swoop, subsequent innovation in nuclear weapons occurs amidst the backdrop of the Cold War. The rivalry wherein the United States moves to limit the Soviet Union's proliferation of totalitarian communism. The US expands its geopolitical influence while touting the mission of liberal democracy. But in practice, both powers launch invasions across the world. Foment revolutions and frequently prop-up regimes that violently suppress opposition. All of this in a sense remains secondary to the technological rivalry between the Soviet Union in the U.S nuclear arms race. Each missile test, rocket launch: Space Race becomes a show of force. When the Soviet Union launches the first-ever satellite, Sputnik in 1957, Americans panic. John F. Kennedy, 35th U.S. President win votes capitalizing on paranoia about a so-called ‘missile gap’ the unfounded idea that Soviet weaponry has radically outpaced American capabilities in 1961. As the dark cloud of nuclear annihilation hangs over the U.S.A; a company known as Atlas comics rebrands itself as Marvel.

Titans such as Stan Lee bring in a new era with a group of characters called the Fantastic Four. The rethinking of war, politics and science here. The genius rocket scientist, Reed Richards finds himself on the front lines of the Cold War space race and he hastily blasts off into space to beat the ‘commies’ but on the mission, Reed and his crew are exposed to cosmic rays that endow them with superpowers. In this era, it makes a lot of sense to cast a scientist as a hero. For the youth, the US Government and increasingly, American society reconceptualize science as the most important aspect of national defence. America(ns) needs upcoming scientific minds to develop stronger nuclear weapons and a capable missile defence system. The sentiment might is also captured in architecture.

The year following Sputnik, the USA launch National Defense Education Act which pours a billion dollars into supporting science at schools and universities. The saving grace, the righteous heroes will emerge not from the ranks of valiant infantry like Marvel's World War II staple Captain America but rather from the classrooms and laboratories of erudite students. Stan Lee and his colleagues seem acutely aware of this cultural shift. He follows up the fantastic four with a new character: the atomic scientist Bruce Banner. Banner insists he's a scientist, not a man of action in what seems a subtle nod to the obsolescence of that very dichotomy. For Banner’s scientific genius exposure to his gamma-ray bomb that turns him into the Hulk. Many of the big names of Marvel in the early 60s followed this same trajectory. We see the gifted young Peter Parker attend an exhibit on nuclear science where a radioactive spider bites him and turns him into a spider-man. And of course, the brilliant and charming arms and ammunition manufacturer, Tony Stark simply invents his power suit to defeat his Vietnamese Communist captors and become Iron Man.

Lest there remain any doubt concerning how exactly an American should harness the fruits of technological innovation all of these heroes hone their powers fighting communists. Iron Man, for instance, takes on the Crimson Dynamo with the Soviet femme fatale, Black Widow. The Hulk discovers his lab partner, Igor is a spy passing atomic secrets to the giant-headed Soviet scientist called The Gargoyle. And Spider-man's first real villain is the Chameleon who is working for the Soviets. He is a spy who can shape-shift to resemble other people and embed himself into American society.

A clear reflection of societal fears about Soviet espionage gave politicians’ undemocratic witch-hunts for communist sympathizers and jingoistic American propaganda. It's quite easy to deride American cold war fears as the unthinking reactions of an ignorant populace but these were grave times. Soviet agents were embedded in federal agencies and universities. The Communist party and front organizations functioned as the domestic arm of a hostile foreign government and the world came very close to nuclear war. Upon reflection Stan Lee said, post-1960 comics when communism was the big bugaboo here in America almost all our villains were communists and no matter what the problem was in Society at the time, it sort of would show itself in our books.

If Marvel shows signs of obsession with science and technology it is because many of its heroes were born out of a culture that could scarcely focus on much else. Marvel's footing in the real world made the heroes icons who dispatched genuine threats and gallantly explored the scientific possibility.