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Marvel movies with hidden agendas you never noticed

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the course of filmmaking history. As critically lauded as it is ridiculously popular with the mainstream audience, the MCU has continued to knock it out of the park. Even the movies that don't receive nearly unanimous positive reviews or break numerous box office records end up adding to the forward momentum of some of the most popular films in Hollywood.

Still, while the films manage to appeal to just about everyone, there are some very surprising messages buried within the movies if you dig a little bit deeper below the surface. While the movies seem to be about superheroes defeating supervillains in aesthetically pleasing dust-ups, there's often a more thoughtful subtext underneath all that high-flying action. From playing off conspiracy theorists' fears to taking potshots at the Distinguished Competition, there's a lot more to your favorite superhero films than meets the eye. Here are the hidden agendas you never noticed in Marvel movies.

Second Iron Man, Second Amendment

Iron Man 2 is pretty consistently considered one of the weaker films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which may be the reason many critics decided not to delve into the subtext. In the film, Tony Stark gets called up to a congressional hearing where he's asked to surrender the Iron Man suit he designed in the first film. Stark's response is that the armor isn't a weapon, but a high-tech prosthesis, one that can only be used by him.

However, despite Stark's protestations, the hearing echoes some of the arguments surrounding the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Stark argues that his ownership of the armor serves as a deterrent for rival countries to think twice about going to war with America, which should sound familiar to anyone who's heard the argument that owning a gun makes you safer. When Stark gets drunk at a party and begins firing repulsor beams around the house, military man Rhodey climbs into his own suit to stop him. In the MCU, it doesn't take a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun; it takes a good guy in armor to stop a drunk guy in armor.

Captain America: Shadow Government

To most of us, the idea that the government is secretly being run by a shadowy group of people sounds patently absurd. Yet, in the MCU, that's not really that far off from the truth. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap and Black Widow find out that S.H.I.E.L.D. was infiltrated by HYDRA shortly after WWII, and that the sleeper agents have been steering political events for decades. Even the senator that tried to get Tony Stark to surrender his armor in Iron Man 2 is revealed to have been a secret HYDRA agent.

The climax of the film revolves around HYDRA's master plan, a weapon that will preemptively kill every single person that's likely to threaten their plans for world domination. It's a plot straight out of a conspiracy theorist's mad ravings, but it's actually a viable plan in the MCU — or it would have been, anyway, if Cap and friends didn't put a stop to it.

The Avengers: Age of Innocent Bystanders

Marvel criticizing DC Comics as an inferior publishing company goes all the way back to the original Marvel Bullpen Bulletins from the '60s. Still, while the Bullpens might have hyped up a rivalry between the two companies, surely the filmmakers behind the MCU wouldn't be so childish as to mock their superhero movie rivals in the actual films, right?

Not so fast. As Kate Erbland laid out for The Dissolve, much of The Avengers: Age of Ultron is structured to criticize the filmmaking choices of the DC Extended Universe at the time. Contrasting the climactic, civilian casualty-filled battle in 2013's DC outing Man of Steel against Age of Ultron, Erbland writes that Ultron "never lets anyone forget what its heroes are fighting for, and how that looks so different from Man of Steel. The Avengers want to save you. The DC heroes would like you to get out of the way."

God of Thunder (and also maybe anti-colonialism)

While many fans will remember Thor: Ragnarok as the Marvel movie that introduced Jeff Goldblum's inimitable Grandmaster to the MCU, the film's constant jokes and engaging characters hide a surprisingly thoughtful message. Angie Han, writing for Mashable, points out that Ragnarok also makes a statement on the necessity of tearing down colonialist structures. "The story of Asgard has echoes all around our own world," she notes. "The 'free world' built on the subjugation and slaughter of others; the sanitization of our past and current misdeeds; the younger generation raised on patriotic half-truths."

Part of Thor's journey in Ragnarok is learning to accept that his family's wealth and power was the direct result of centuries of conquest — and the only solution he can offer is to tear it all down. Even the Grandmaster serves as a metaphor for a different kind of colonialism, one that Thor has to actively thwart before he goes to stop Hela from destroying all of Asgard.

Spider-Man: Homecoming's economics lesson

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a complicated movie. It's yet another reboot of a long-running superhero franchise, it ties in heavily with the MCU while retaining its own identity, and it's also about blue-collar resentment. As Tim Grierson argued for Rolling Stone, Homecoming's main villain, the Vulture, represents the film's "attempts to humanize the media-constructed demographic of the alienated middle-aged white guy."

Adrian Toomes, Grierson writes, "is the worst-case scenario of not just the 'angry white voter' but anybody who faces hard times and, rather than rising above them, operates out of a need to hit back." It's a savvy update of Spider-Man's original conception as a superhero that struggled to pay rent and ran into real problems that superheroes like Batman or Superman never would. Spider-Man: Homecoming brings that subtext to the surface by also showing the "wrong" way for a person to react to bad luck and financial misfortune.

Iron Man 3 and the military-industrial complex

Of all the films in the MCU, Iron Man 3 is arguably the least subtle about its hidden meaning. Much of the story revolves around Tony Stark trying to find and stop the Mandarin, a terrorist leading an army of suicide bombers. As it turns out, though, the Mandarin is actually a British actor paid to play a character — and his suicide bombers are veterans whose bodies rejected an experimental procedure meant to give them superpowers. The suicide bombings are all accidents, and the entire Mandarin persona is built around creating a false villain to blame for the explosions.

Weapons manufacturer Aldrich Killian is behind it all, quite literally encouraging a war on terror in order to pump more money into the military-industrial complex, even if that means turning his back on the disabled military veterans who served in the last war on terror. It's one of the most biting criticisms of the Iraq War in popcorn cinema, but most audiences managed to miss it. Maybe they were distracted by that precocious kid in Tennessee?

Black Panther and the African diaspora

Black Panther has a lot to say about the black experience. As Adam Serwer at The Atlantic points out, the villainous Erik Killmonger is a direct product of the disconnect he feels from his heritage. Serwer writes that the opening sequence leaves "Killmonger literally and figuratively an orphan, who sees in his lost homeland a chance to avenge the millions of black people extinguished in The Void, and those who still suffer in its wake."

Serwer observes that the film is heavily about the African-American experience, which by its nature involves a disconnect from one's heritage and cultural history. "When T'Challa goes to the spirit world, he sees his ancestors. When Killmonger goes, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, he sees only his father; the rest of his ancestors have been lost to The Void. He is alone in a way T'Challa can never comprehend."

According to Serwer, these scenes not only offer an understandable motivation for Killmonger's revenge plan, but also catalyze T'Challa's own decision to share Wakandan wealth and knowledge. T'Challa's change of heart reiterates the theme of Pan-African unity continually acknowledged through the movie, even in the costume design.

Captain America's post-9/11 Civil War

Captain America: CIvil War might be best known for bringing together more superheroes onscreen than audiences knew was even possible at the time (before Avengers: Infinity War nearly doubled that count), but the film also manages to sneak in a strong underlying political allegory. The crux of the titular Civil War between Tony Stark's Iron Man and Steve Rogers' Captain America comes down to ideological differences. Stark is on the side of government security, even if that means restricting the Avengers' freedom to act; Rogers is fighting for personal liberty, believing that the government can't be fully trusted to operate entirely ethically one hundred percent of the time.

Their core arguments are strikingly similar to the real-life disagreements that arose following the 9/11 terror attacks. Some argued that personal liberty was a small price to pay to keep people safe; others made the point that rights, once taken away temporarily, are rarely returned in full. While Stark and Rogers' disagreement comes down to a fistfight in a secret Russian research base, it's fitting that neither party walks away completely the victor, either morally or physically. The Russo brothers who directed the film seem to be acknowledging that there may not be a right answer to the real-life debate, but rather an inevitable disagreement that leaves both sides feeling loss.