ANALYSIS – On Friday morning, Marvel Entertainment, the giant known for characters like Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men, announced it would be partnering with defense giant Northrop Grumman.
The news, delivered in a cryptic tweet, promised more details would come at a 3 p.m. Saturday presentation at the New York Comic Con. But just after midnight on Saturday morning, Marvel announced the event was cancelled.
In a statement to pop-culture site Polygon.com, Marvel said “The activation with Northrop Grumman at New York Comic Con was meant to focus on aerospace technology and exploration in a positive way.
“However, as the spirit of that intent has not come across, we will not be proceeding with this partnership including this weekend’s event programming. Marvel and Northrop Grumman continue to be committed to elevating, and introducing, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] to a broad audience.”
So ... what just happened?
It’s a strange story, one that is illustrative of how the defense industry is seen outside of its own bubble ― but also a warning of teaming with a partner from an industry you aren’t familiar with, as there were certain currents related to Marvel publishing that may have made this blowup predictable.
The event was going to unveil a new comic, commissioned by Marvel’s marketing arm, which would feature a team of Northrop Grumman-themed heroes, targeted at encouraging young people to go into STEM fields. It would also have kicked off a video series called “Real Science,” explaining the science behind the technologies used by various Marvel heroes.
But Marvel was flooded with responses to the tweeted announcement, the vast majority of them negative. Many comparisons were made between this event and the movie version of Iron Man, a billionaire CEO of a weapons company who, after seeing the effects his weapons have on innocents, turns his company away from developing weapons.
The Twitter comics community featured talk of an organized protest against “war profiteers” at the event, and there was speculation that some of the writers and artists associated with the company were opposed to teaming with the defense industry.
To those in the defense industry, these types of events are de rigueur. All major defense firms spend money to encourage STEM growth, and for the marketers at Northrop this likely seemed like a creative way to get that message across. Several Northrop employees online expressed bewilderment and frustration that what they thought was a cool way to reach young adults turned into such a disaster.
But the reality is that for many Americans, they hear the name Northrop Grumman and simply think of bombers and drones. While the company prides itself on high-tech innovations, it also drew in more than $20 billion in defense profits in fiscal year 2016, and for large numbers of Americans, defense contractors are simply war profiteers making a buck off of killing people abroad.
To be fair, there is some dissonance here. Marvel fans have no problem rooting on the X-Men, who famously fly around in a modified SR-71 Blackbird; one of the characters has a pet dragon literally named “Lockheed.”
Iron Man may have renounced his defense industry profits, but he still flies around in an up-armored robotic suit and at one point served as U.S. secretary of defense. And anyone who read Marvel in the ‘90s, including comics written by Fabien Nicieza, who was the author of the Northrop comic, got used to seeing hilariously-over-the-top-weaponized characters like Cable.
Still, the defense industry has had STEM-themed team-ups before without problems. Northrop’s mistake, in this case, may also have been one more of timing.
Introducing the concept at Comic Con, when the most enthusiastic (and, in many cases, reactive) of fans, probably wasn’t a great idea. It would have been easy to introduce the concept instead around a STEM celebration, at a major science event, or some other location where the audience would be more familiar with Northrop’s reputation as an advanced technology company, rather than a weapons merchant.
The company also picked an awkward time to team with Marvel in particular, as the entertainment giant’s comic arm is going through a period of intense fan and retailer angst, with sales dropping on even some of the company’s marquee books.
“Sales are down and they’re facing criticism from the right for what they believe is a liberal agenda, and from the left for a protracted storyline where Captain America was seemingly a Nazi sleeper agent,” explained Jesse Farrell, a retailer with the Somerville, Massachusetts- based Hub Comics.
On top of that, Marvel Entertainment, the parent company for the comic publishing arm, was already facing pushback for a decision to cancel a screening of its new Punisher TV show, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings.
In other words, fans may have been poised to jump down Marvel’s throat for any reason, and the Northrop deal provided the proverbial spark.
Marvel maintains a special projects arm for corporate packages such as the one Northrop commissioned, and will likely have to return the money that the defense giant put forth. The fact Marvel changed course so quickly on a corporate partnership is notable to Farrell.
“Cynically, I think it means this licensing deal was relatively small scale. They wouldn’t have reversed had there been more money in it,” he added. “The backlash against Marvel’s planned project with Northrop Grumman was immediate and I have never seen them reverse themselves ― or do anything, for that matter―as fast as they just did.”
So are there lessons to be learned here? Probably ones about timing and remembering that the famous warning about the “military-industrial complex” still rings through the ages.
At the same time, the industry needs to not take the wrong lessons here and avoid doing public outreach in the future. If the defense industry wants to convince people it isn’t all evil, doing reach-out on STEM is an effort worthy of continuation.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.