From the opening scene A man of steel back in 2008, the military-industrial complex was sewn into the fabric of the Marvel film universe. Captain America, the Hulk, the War Machine, and Captain Marvel are involved to some extent. But the portrayal has always leaned toward the positive because of Hollywood’s long-standing partnership with the U.S. military. This week What if…? uses the freedom offered by animation to obscure the theme a bit and show us how easily a war job could overwhelm the narrative.
This time the difference is that Eric Killmonger is apparently deployed on a secret mission with the Ten Rings and ultimately saves Tony Stark’s life. So Tony is never injured and forced to build an Iron Man suit, instead continuing his war profiteering – albeit now with a new BFF on his side. Instead of becoming someone who digs into his work (and builds literal armor to protect himself), Tony is kidnapped instead, and Killmonger is ready to steer him in the direction of demolishing Wakanda.
This draws Wakanda into the narrative long before it was her mainline debut in 2006 Captain America: Civil War. The country’s isolationist policy has been used as a retcon for why we’ve never heard a peek from Wakanda before, but it quickly comes to the fore here, instead of all the stories that emerged from the initial attack on Stark: clashes with Obadiah Stane and Tony’s palladium poisoning in the first two Iron Man films. and then the later attack on Sokovia Age of Ultron and the scheme of revenge of Baron Earth in Civil war. General Ross even shows up here, casting doubt on whether the events are from The amazing Hulk it even continued to happen in the same way. Instead of getting to know Wakand through a UN peace conference, instead, they are a country defending itself from a horde of mechanical forces.
The episode quickly shows how much the MCU depended on Tony Stark’s participation, though not in the sense of good George Bailey It’s a wonderful life way. In Civil war,, Vision points out that the power shown since Iron Man’s debut calls for a challenge. Here we end up in a big conflict anyway, showing that the aggressive energy that created the heroic age of the MCU already existed, fueled by advanced technology. Without superheroes to raise a banner, the military becomes the beneficiary of all that power.
However, the military is a system as much as the people, and throughout the episode there is a strange feeling that responsibility is not in the hands of any person, not even Eric Killmonger. We’re clearly shown where he pulls the strings, but characters like Tony Stark and General Ross are too willing to pull them. But even they do not feel complete control over what is happening. The conflict only escalates quickly and disproportionately during the half-hour duration of the episode, perhaps a victim of the show’s need for accelerated storytelling.
It is no coincidence that the war started by the MCU was a conflict in Afghanistan, although it is a coincidence that this episode aired only a month after the US brought its involvement in the mess. It’s been a way of life for so long that it’s easy to feel like you’ve been carried away by the whole thing, especially if you were born after 9/11. This episode reinforces the role of the MCU as escapism during this era, a place where we could go beyond this ugly terrestrial conflict and resolve space issues. By removing the hero from the equation, MCU becomes a dark mirror of the way of thinking in which we have lived for two decades.
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