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Reaching a New Audience: Strengthening the US Air Force through the Marvel Cinematic Universe

  • Published
  • By Frank Martinez

Iron Man and Captain Marvel, featuring iconic scenes with Air Force assets and characters, are the most effective electronic US Air Force publicity and recruiting tools due to these films’ diverse characters and stories with broad demographic appeal as evidenced by critical acclaim and exceptional box office receipts. Based on these findings, this commentary offers recommendations for the service to further capitalize on the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and bolster diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives by increasing support for films that prominently feature diverse characters with a US Air Force background.

Introduction

In a 2011 Entertainment Weekly interview, legendary director Steven Spielberg claimed, “the most amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie . . . brings a whole set of unique experiences. Now, through careful manipulation and good storytelling, you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time.”1 These unique experiences generate a broad diversity of thought that creates the distinctive culture of the United States, one that permeates the modern world. American cinema is a quintessential example of US culture, and Hollywood films reach and bring audiences together like no other medium.

The US Air Force has a long history of assisting Hollywood films, starting with the Academy Award-winning classic Wings in 1927.2 The fruitful relationship between the service and the film industry continues even today, but the Air Force has not taken full advantage of the incredibly impactful current cinematic environment. Modern films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe have proven to be impressive mediums for the service to garner favorable public opinion.

While the US Air Force has provided support to many Marvel films, it must further capitalize on a favorable US film industry environment by providing direct funding, support, and experience to movies that prominently feature Air Force characters. The service needs to increase the diversity of its recruiting, and films provide a far-reaching and powerful medium to show disparate parts of society the breadth of opportunities available in the Air Force.

Diversity and Inclusion Program

The recent history of the Air Force’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion provides context into why the service should bring cinema to the forefront of its D&I strategy. In June 2020, amid widespread public concern about racial inequality and injustice, the Air Force directed a review of racial disparity and created a diversity and inclusion task force.3 The results of the review, released in December 2020, confirmed that “racial disparity exists for Black/African American Airmen and space professionals in the areas of military discipline and career developmental opportunities.”4

The findings led to the creation of the Department of the Air Force Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which “is charged with identifying and changing policies and procedures, removing barriers and other practices that may have an unfair effect upon underrepresented Airmen and Guardians.”5 Since its establishment, the office has introduced initiatives throughout the sub-organizations of the Department, making D&I a crucial part of the service’s present and future.

While the D&I office was created due to disparities within the current force, the Air Force also seeks to improve D&I through accessions that more accurately represent US demographics. JoAnne S. Bass, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, offers sound reasoning for such an outcome. “Our Air Force is on the right side of history. We are creating not only historic moments . . . we are focused on setting a foundation for all Americans to see themselves in this great institution.”6

The ultimate goal of D&I is to ensure all Americans, even those not in the Air Force, know that the strength of the service lies in a diversity of thought that strengthens teamwork and innovation. The Air Force’s current D&I efforts have made great strides fostering an environment that values every member regardless of their background. But the service should emphasize to the American public that the institution needs people from every demographic to create an even more potent force through the diversity of thought.

Movies are a compelling way for Americans to visualize themselves as members of the Air Force. “The military sustained regular and occasionally deep ties to the commercial American film industry, using its technical expertise, infrastructures, and talent to help achieve military goals.”7 An analysis of the impressive outcomes of the most successful movie franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in particular the movies in that franchise that feature the US Air Force, demonstrates that the service should vigorously increase its investment in the film industry.8 “In just a decade, Marvel Studios has redefined the franchise movie. Its 23 films [of the Infinity Saga] have grossed some $17 billion—more than any other movie studio . . . and receive an average of 64 nominations and awards per movie.”9 This investment will yield a return in attracting talented people from across society.

Marvel Cinematic Universe

As of December 2021, the MCU consisted of 27 films that “can be grouped in different sagas that can be, in turn, classified on behalf of their narrative importance within the context of the anthology.”10 The Infinity Saga of the MCU includes 23 movies across three phases, beginning with Iron Man and concluding with the defeat of Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. Additionally, the Infinity Saga has an epilogue in the form of Spider-Man: Far From Home.

The genius of the films within the Infinity Saga is that “each character maintains its independent headline; but, nonetheless, what happens in one of the narratives affects all the superheroes sharing said universe.”11 Such a setup allows audiences to become intimately familiar with the significant characters of the MCU, while the overall plot continues forward and the characters unite in the end. For the Infinity Saga, the MCU framework relies on the stories of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Guardians of the Galaxy.12 The current phase four of the MCU, beginning with Black Widow, seems to be taking a similar approach while also using television series to expand upon the superheroes that will prominently feature now and in future Marvel productions. The box-office-shattering success of Spider-Man: No Way Home, with $1.18 billion in revenue in less than two weeks suggests the continued popularity of the Marvel films.13

The MCU is a wildly successful global phenomenon, and its carefully curated set of movies serves as an excellent way for the US Air Force to reach a diverse audience. It is difficult to understate the global impact of the MCU, but its true worth lies in its broad demographic appeal. “More than any other movie franchise, the MCU draws a large, diverse, and frequent audience for its storytelling.”14 Research on demographic data on the viewers of MCU films showed “high rates of viewership mean that both men and women of color account for a bigger portion of the MCU audience than the population in general.”15 Consequently, Marvel films are effective vehicles for reaching underrepresented groups because they continually draw diverse audiences regardless of the movie. Two Marvel films that the Air Force supported stand above the others in illustrating how impactful the MCU can be in achieving superior D&I outcomes: Iron Man and Captain Marvel.

Iron Man

Released on May 4, 2008, Iron Man set the stage for the MCU.16 The film is one of the most influential superhero film releases in modern history because it serves as the foundation of the MCU.17 One film critic observed that while Iron Man did not invent the superhero, “it did invent the modern superhero movie as we know it. Taken together, the film was a watershed: It opened the door to a new kind of superhero, and spawned a collection of interconnected films for those heroes to appear in.”18

The Air Force provided two days of filming at Edwards Air Force Base, a static C-17, 150 extras, uniforms, F-22s for filming, and two HH-60 helicopters in exchange for the production company adhering to a DoD-approved script.19 These assets formed the basis of some of the service’s most memorable scenes in the film. One of the most iconic scenes in the movie is Iron Man’s mid-air battle with two F-22s. Iron Man ultimately destroys the F-22s (the “Air Force” has to blame the losses on a training accident), and the scene cements the status of Iron Man as a superhero capable of taking on the most advanced weapon system the military has to offer.20 Notwithstanding the Air Force “loss,” it is a classic scene that jumpstarts the popularity of the MCU.

The second notable part of Iron Man for the service is the introduction of US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel (eventually promoted to Colonel) James Rupert “Rhodey” Rhodes. In Iron Man, Rhodey—a fighter pilot and US Air Force Academy graduate—holds a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.21 Rhodey, a highly successful Air Force officer from an underrepresented service demographic, is an exemplary role model for people from different backgrounds. As Tony Stark’s best friend, the service liaison to Stark Industries, and a future member of the Avengers known as War Machine, Rhodey’s inclusion in the MCU at the very beginning is crucial to helping a variety of individuals see themselves as members of the Air Force.

The US Air Force has had a significant positive impact on Iron Man and the MCU as a whole. Tom Secker, the author of National Security Cinema and an expert on US military-Hollywood relations, states that “without the Pentagon’s support, it is possible that the Marvel Universe wouldn’t have become the world’s biggest film franchise. The first two Iron Man films benefited from large-scale production assistance from the USAF.”22 The Air Force enabled Iron Man to convey that the service is a microcosm of society with highly skilled, diverse people. Moreover, the service was fortunate to be a part of the groundwork of an enduring pop-culture phenomenon, which gave it an advantage when negotiating with Hollywood on future movies such as Captain Marvel that could communicate the same message.

Captain Marvel

Released on March 8, 2019, also International Women’s Day, Captain Marvel was a movie destined to promote the US Air Force with the origin story of Captain Marvel as Carol Danvers.23 Danvers, a US Air Force Academy graduate and fighter pilot, befriends Maria Rambeau, another Air Force fighter pilot, and together these female pilots break barriers in an Air Force that prior to this had not allowed women to fly in combat.24

Captain Marvel’s origin story shows Danvers persevering to be the best regardless of obstacles, which conveys a powerful message about the rewards of grit and determination to all underrepresented groups in the service, especially women. The film even features a scene at the academy where she is belittled while running an obstacle course.25 Scenes like this make the connection between the Air Force and the superhero more real, helping the audience connect with the character and the military service. Danvers eventually becomes a Kree warrior and one of the most powerful Avengers, cementing herself as a leader, a critical team member, and a role model in the superhero team.

Having such an impactful character representing the Air Force in the Marvel films is a boon for the service’s D&I initiatives because of the sheer amount of outreach the movie achieved. While Captain Marvel is not the most well-received Marvel movie based on a Metacritic Metascore of 64 (ranked 23 of 34 Marvel Studios films), it did exceptionally well at the box office for a movie based on a superhero not as well-known as the other Avengers.26 According to Time magazine, Captain Marvel ranks at number 8 of the 23 Infinity Saga films with a lifetime domestic gross of $426.8 million and an international gross of $1.128 billion.27

These box office numbers are notable because the only solo superhero movies that beat Captain Marvel were Iron Man 3 and Black Panther.28 The rest of the films at the top focus on multiple members of the Avengers. No movie with US Air Force ties even comes close to the viewership of Captain Marvel, although some could argue films such as Dr. Strangelove and Independence Day have had more cultural impact. Nevertheless, exit surveys showed that Captain Marvel’s opening weekend had a 55 percent male and 45 percent female audience ratio, which is remarkable for a franchise based on comic books that primarily target men.29

Consequently, this highly successful film, starring a superhero from an underrepresented group within the United States, provided the Air Force with an historic opportunity. Captain Marvel allowed the Air Force to reach a whole new audience in its recruitment efforts, and the service took several actions in response. The most successful endeavor was a short advertisement called “Origin Story” that the Air Force produced to accompany (coincide with?) the release of the movie.30 The ad received “173,000 visits, 11 million views of the video itself, and 200 million impressions overall.”31 While it is difficult to attribute improved D&I outcomes to this advertisement campaign alone, the US Air Force Academy class of 2023 had the highest proportion of female applicants ever at 31.2 percent.32

Movies like Captain Marvel reach millions across almost every demographic. One of the most challenging aspects to recruiting is educating people about opportunities. By expanding outreach with movies like Captain Marvel, the Air Force can build a better foundation in underrepresented communities, improving D&I efforts through effective messaging and a positive social media presence. Moreover, the service should be even more proactive when working with Marvel Studios to continue the success found with Captain Marvel.

Improving Diversity and Inclusion through Marvel

The US Air Force cannot afford to miss out on the massive popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Spider-Man: No Way Home exceeding box office records even during a global pandemic, there clearly is still an insatiable appetite for quality superhero cinema. The following is a list of five recommendations that the Air Force can adopt to better capitalize on the generational wonder that is the MCU.

  1. Run a similar “Origin Story” ad campaign with the release of The Marvels in 2023, which would focus on the storylines of Maria and Monica Rambeau.33 Such a campaign would build upon the momentum of the first, promoting Air Force opportunities to underrepresented demographics.
  2. Offer assistance to Marvel Studios in the production of Armor Wars, a planned Disney Plus series about Rhodey as War Machine due for release in 2023.34 The USAF should consider a similar “origin story” approach, highlighting Rhodey’s Air Force background to improve D&I messaging around a career as a USAF officer.
  3. Promote Samuel Wilson, also known as Falcon and the new Captain America, due to his previous career as an Air Force pararescue man. The origin story of a new Captain America is a perfect opportunity to highlight Air Force special operations careers to a diverse audience. There are few superheroes more patriotic than Captain America, so the service has a unique opportunity to build an iconic comic book character into a shining example for US Air Force D&I recruitment efforts.
  4. Use Benjamin Grimm, also known as The Thing in the Fantastic Four, to demonstrate the appeal of an Air Force pilot career. The Fantastic Four is a highly popular group in the Marvel Universe, and the MCU plans to release a reboot of the franchise.35 Grimm was a test pilot and astronaut in the Air Force before becoming The Thing; this is an opportunity for the service to use the rebooted Fantastic Four film to spread D&I messaging through ads and social media.
  5. Propose an original movie to Marvel Studios based on a Marvel character. The best opportunity is with Monica Rambeau who is suspected to be a superhero named Photon or Spectrum in The Marvels. The film, a solo movie about Rambeau, could be an origin story focused on her upbringing as the daughter of trailblazing Air Force fighter pilot and single mother, Maria Rambeau. The film could also highlight Monica Rambeau’s time as an Air Force officer herself. It would be the first of its kind for superhero movies, and a significant D&I public relations win for the service.

These recommendations require the Air Force to offer substantial assistance to Marvel Studios in producing movies and streaming content. The service has worked closely with the film industry in the past. The Strategic Air Command trilogy of films (Strategic Air Command, Bombers B-52, and A Gathering of Eagles) is an example of a key US Air Force–Hollywood relationship.36 This history suggests the service could develop a viable film within the MCU. As shown by the audiences of Iron Man and Captain Marvel and the popularity of the MCU franchise overall, the payoff for the resources invested would be well worth it for positive D&I messaging and recruitment.

Conclusion

Iron Man and Captain Marvel have had profound positive effects on the US Air Force’s D&I efforts through positive public perception and increased diverse accessions. The service should capitalize on the popularity and success of the MCU by proactively investing more resources into future films and streaming content that feature diverse characters with Air Force backgrounds such as Captain Marvel, Maria Rambeau, Monica Rambeau, War Machine, Falcon, and The Thing. The service and the film industry have a long, storied history of mutually beneficial cooperation, especially important today when cinema appeals to a broader array of American society than ever before.

As a recent Air Force researcher noted, “teaming with film producers is a valid way to promote the history of the Air Force, shaping a positive public image and celebrating a heroic and iconic Air Force hero.”37 Superhero movies and media that feature diverse characters will serve as a superior medium in further developing a fighting force that Americans know represents the entire population, yielding a more highly effective and efficient Air Force through constructive discourse, innovation, and teamwork rooted in diversity of thought.

Major Frank Martinez, USAF, holds a master of military operational art and science from Air Command and Staff College.

 

1 Anthony Breznican, “Steven Spielberg: The EW Interview,” Entertainment Weekly (website), December 2, 2011, https://ew.com/article/.

2 Stephen Underhill, “Complete List of Commercial Films Produced with Assistance from the Pentagon,” FOIA Request 13-F-135, February 4, 2013, https://www.academia.edu/.

3 “Department of the Air Force Stands up Diversity and Inclusion Task Force,” Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, July 8, 2020, https://www.af.mil/.

4 Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, “Department of the Air Force Releases Findings of Racial Disparity Review” US Department of Defense News, December 22, 2020, https://www.defense.gov/.

5 “Department of the Air Force Institutes Office of Diversity and Inclusion,” Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, February 2, 2021, https://www.af.mil/.

6 US Air Force, “Diversity,” US Air Force (website), accessed December 29, 2021, https://www.af.mil/Diversity/.

7 Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson, “The Military’s Cinema Complex,” in Cinema’s Military Industrial Complex, 1st ed., ed. Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), 7, http://www.jstor.org/

8 Justin Hartwig, “Highest-Grossing Movie Franchises,” Investopedia, updated January 22, 2021, https://www.investopedia.com/.

9 Spencer Harrison, Arne Carlsen, and Miha Škerlavaj, “Marvel’s Blockbuster Machine,” Harvard Business Review (July–August 2019), https://hbr.org/.

10 Juan Medina-Contreras and Pedro Sangro-Colón, “Representation of Defense Organizations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008–2019),” Communication & Society 33, no. 4 (September 29, 2020): 21.

11 Medina-Contreras and Sangro-Colón, “Defense Organizations,” 21.

12 Medina-Contreras and Sangro-Colón, 2.

13 Tom Nunan, “‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ $536 Million North American Box Office, $1.18 Billion Worldwide—All In Less Than 2 Weeks,” Forbes, December 30, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/.

14 Bethany Lacina, “Who Watches the MCU? Race, Sex, and the Role of On-Screen Diversity,” draft chap. prepared for New York University edited volume on the politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, July 2020, 20, http://www.bethanylacina.com/.

15 Lacina, “On-Screen Diversity,” 7.

16 Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau (Paramount Pictures, 2008).

17 “Highest-Grossing Movie Franchises and Series Worldwide as of June 2022,” Statistica (website), accessed June 25, 2022, https://www.statista.com/.

18 Andy Crump, “Why Iron Man Was the Most Pivotal Movie of the Last Decade,” Week, May 2, 2018, https://theweek.com/.

19 Redacted U.S. Department of Defense Revocable License Agreement No. SAPA-LA 002-2007 (Los Angeles: Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office, April 13, 2007), http://download999.mediafire.com/.

20 Favreau, Iron Man.

21 Favreau.

22 Tom Secker, “Captain Marvel: The Latest Propaganda Collaboration Between the Military and the MCU,” InsideOver (blog), March 16, 2019, https://www.insideover.com/.

23 Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019).

24 Boden and Fleck, Captain Marvel.

25 Boden and Fleck.

26 “Marvel Studios,” Metacritic, accessed January 1, 2022, https://www.metacritic.com/.

27 Rachel E. Greenspan, “Here Are the Highest-Grossing Marvel Movies Ever,” Time, updated July 21, 2019, https://time.com/.

28 Greenspan, “Marvel Movies.”

29 Brad Brevet, “‘Captain Marvel’ Delivers a Massive $153M Domestic Opening and $455M Worldwide,” Box Office Mojo, March 10, 2019, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/.

30 Air Force Recruiting Service (AFRS), U.S. Air Force: Origin Story, video, (San Antonio, TX: AFRS, June 28, 2019), https://www.youtube.com/.

31 Oriana Pawlyk, “ ‘Captain Marvel’ Effect? Air Force Academy Sees Most Female Applicants in 5 Years,” Military.com, January 5, 2020, https://www.military.com/.

32 Pawlyk, “ ‘Captain Marvel.’ ”

33The Marvels,” Marvel (website), accessed January 2, 2022, https://www.marvel.com/.

34 Rachel Paige, “ ‘Armor Wars’: Don Cheadle Returns as War Machine to Save Tony Stark’s Tech,” Marvel (website), December 10, 2020, https://www.marvel.com/.

35Fantastic Four,” Marvel (website), accessed January 2, 2022, https://www.marvel.com/.

36 John Terino, “Air Force in Fact, Film, and Fiction,” lecture at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, AL, October 27, 2022.

37 Chad A. Balettie, “A Strategy to Increase United States Air Force Pilot Retention and Morale: Legendary Ace Robin Olds on the Silver Screen” (master’s thesis, Air War College, February 16, 2016), 17, https://apps.dtic.mil/.