Nolan Gray is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a professional city planner.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a massive mythos with the Big Apple at its center. Here’s what Spider-Man, Iron Man, and other superheroes say about their city.
If the Marvel Universe has anything to say about cities, it’s that superheroes can’t move past New York.
When Captain Marvel hits U.S. theaters on Friday, it’ll be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) 21st movie in a little over 11 years. More than half of those are either set in New York City or heavily featuring it. With 11 fully fledged TV shows on top of that, the series is a massive mythos with the Big Apple at its center.
New York City isn’t just another setting, though. Partly a function of Marvel’s roots, and partly a reflection of the city’s cultural preeminence, most of MCU’s superheroes are themselves a function of New York City. In a nod to its host city’s rich diversity, Marvel heroes are much more than generic New Yorkers. Often, they represent and belong to one of its specific neighborhoods: Spider-Man and Forest Hills, Captain America and Brooklyn Heights, Luke Cage and Harlem. Even those heroes who aren’t of New York City, including Thor and Hulk, are regularly forced back inside for pivotal moments, like thwarting an alien invasion in Midtown or protecting the Infinity Stones in Washington Square Park. With such a visceral connection to the city, Marvel’s superheroes have a lot to teach viewers about New York, and New York has a lot to offer anyone trying to understand the superheroes, too.
Spider-Man and Queens: Your Friendly Outer Borough Superhero
Spider-Man is the most conspicuously “New York” superhero. Viewers are constantly reminded that Peter Parker is from Queens, and one of his key powers—web-slinging—would be almost meaningless without Manhattan’s skyscrapers. But to understand why Peter Parker is so relatable, you must remember his status as a “Queens boy.” For all the focus on Manhattan, Queens comes closer to capturing the spirit of New York City, with a large population of migrants and upwardly mobile middle-class families. Peter isn’t rich, or famous, or a super soldier: He’s a good kid from the suburbs out to prove himself in the big city.
That theme is weaved into every element of Spider-Man’s MCU presence. Peter is constantly kept at arms length from the key MCU conflicts: Tony Stark, the embodiment of Midtown, tries to distance him from the larger conflicts, with Spider-Man never fully admitted into the Avengers. Instead, key scenes in Spider-Man: Homecoming nearly all take place in the outer boroughs, including saving the Staten Island Ferry and defeating Vulture in Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Peter Parker is a bit of an outsider in Manhattan—despite having the strongest New York bona fides—and that’s precisely Queens.
Stark Industries in East Midtown: The Original HQ2
After his mansion is destroyed at the end of Iron Man 2, Tony Stark moves Stark Industries from Los Angeles to New York City in what we can safely assume was some kind of Amazon HQ2-scenario—helipad and all. At the start of The Avengers, we see the brand new Stark Tower emerging in East Midtown. With the Avengers forming and Stark Industries undoubtedly growing, Stark, like thousands of other businesses, needed to be where the talent was—superhero or otherwise.
It’s appropriate that Stark and the Avengers are in East Midtown, one of the New York’s most globalized, outward-facing neighborhoods. But Stark is never truly “of” the city. Almost as soon as he arrives, he’s gone, relocating to a converted Stark Industries warehouse in Upstate New York, taking New York City out of the crosshairs. Perhaps he’s pursuing some of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tantalizing upstate subsidies? Capturing the spirit of Midtown, the constant churn of residents and businesses plods along, but the skyline is forever changed by Stark’s ego.
Doctor Strange and Greenwich Village: Preservation for Whomst?
A neurosurgeon on the other side of an existential crisis and newly-obsessed with Eastern wisdom, Doctor Strange is too perfectly of the Village: clearly quite wealthy, but insistent on maintaining a bohemian affect. Once a haven for artists and activists like Bob Dylan and Jane Jacobs, the Village today is one of New York’s most exclusive neighborhoods. It’s suggested that Doctor Strange lost all his money after the accident that destroyed his hands, but one shudders to imagine his rent.
His base of operations—the Sanctum Sanctorum—is located at 177A Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. A squat, four-story building, it captures some of the eclecticism of the Village. And you can rest assured that the anachronistic temple is under the strictest historic preservation rules that the neighborhood has to offer, as Greenwich Village was one of the city’s first neighborhoods to be designated as a historic district. Intentionally or otherwise, this geographical subtext jives with the film’s third-act focus on literally preserving the New York sanctorum from destruction.
Daredevil and Hell’s Kitchen: Fighting Gotham’s Demons
Hell’s Kitchen receives some Marvel recognition, too. Raised by a working-class, Irish Catholic boxer, Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil, grows up to be a defense attorney by day, crime-fighting vigilante by night. Crime fighting notwithstanding, it’s a “moving on up” story shared by many of New York’s second- and third-generation residents. It’s also an echo of Hell’s Kitchen’s evolution from one of New York’s poorest, most dangerous areas into a posh residential neighborhood west of Midtown. Daredevil captures New York as a place that’s made a remarkable comeback.
Curiously, the series also taps into the paranoia about real estate development that permeates political rhetoric in New York City. The show’s antagonist, Wilson Fisk, is a developer who unsubtly invokes Donald Trump. The first season bares teeth at Fisk’s efforts to build in the relatively underdeveloped parts of the Hell’s Kitchen. His stooges, depicted conspiring on construction sites, are mostly Chinese and Russian—two groups commonly blamed for driving up rents in the city. More so than any other entry to the MCU, Daredevil understands the political anxieties that make New Yorkers tick, for better or worse.
A universe as expansive as Marvel requires New York City. After all, the Big Apple offers what the franchise needs: a shared ethos—best captured by the state’s motto Excelsior, “Ever Upward”—pursued from every conceivable walk of life. The standard superhero formula is kept fresh by the Big Apple’s diversity across a few dozen iterations, allowing heroes as diverse as Harlem’s Luke Cage and Queens’ Peter Parker to explore what justice means in the context of their neighborhood. What Marvel understands is that there isn’t one answer to the question of what it means to be a New Yorker, nor is there one answer to the question of what it means to be a superhero—and that’s why the relationship works.