Marvin the Martian is truly dangerous.
This makes him unique among Looney Tunes villains. One of the hallmarks of these cartoon antagonists – like Yosemite Sam, or Sylvester the cat, or Elmer Fudd, or Wile E. Coyote – is that they’re inept. They’re not as smart as our hero, and their stupidity ensures their defeat, no matter how much firepower they have.
As a consequence, our heroes, like Bugs or the Roadrunner, never really seem that worried. They’re coolly and casually outwitting these nasty characters. Brains triumph over brawn, and it’s satisfying to watch these puffed-up nimrods fall all over themselves and eventually blow themselves up.
As a result of World War II, the golden era of Bugs Bunny, we felt a comfortable certainty about the United States’ place in the larger world. We had helped to decisively end a global conflict – at least, this is the narrative we told ourselves. We had used The Bomb, and we had triumphed. Russia had sacrificed many more lives than we had while fighting the Nazis, but we allowed ourselves a certain tone of national celebration as victors in the Great War.
Our position would grow rapidly less certain. We would face decades of silent tension with Russia, nukes pointed at each other, cushioned by a buffer of lies, spies, and subterfuge. The paranoia of McCarthyism ate the nation up from the inside. We began to suspect our own people, and to doubt our national identity – not only because of the internal disruptions of communism and antiwar protest, but because we began to realize that “victory” against Russia might only be possible if we were comfortable destroying the planet.
This new atmosphere of fear, uncertainty, and political ambiguity was not lost on Chuck Jones or Warner Brothers. These moods are all over Marvin the Martian’s appearances, and the classic WB cartoons that feature him span the Cold War precisely, from 1948 to the 1980s.
Bugs Bunny first encounters Marvin in Haredevil Hare, produced in 1948, just after the beginning of the Cold War. The feature opens with Bugs drafted into an experimental mission to the moon – and he’s terrified to go. The government has to drag him physically, then tempt him into the rocket with carrots.
This is already a far cry from the pure patriotism of earlier WB cartoons. The government, instead of being an unambiguous purveyor of heroic purpose, is threatening and alien. They employ big machines and send us on missions; we know not where. Bugs seems genuinely frightened – a new mood for the bunny – and as a result, we’re somewhat frightened too.
Bugs arrives on the moon and attempts to claim it in the name of Earth...but Marvin arrives at the same time, to claim it in the name of Mars.
The Space Race, here, is prefigured by nearly a decade, and the terror of the Cold War is embodied in Marvin. In his paper "Oh, You Thing from Another World, You": How Warner Bros. Animators Responded to the Cold War,” cultural historian Michael Birdwell makes the point elegantly:
“Marvin is a denizen of the red planet, who wears a red shirt and sports a green helmet reminiscent of the expansionist Roman Empire. A faceless creature from Mars, Marvin reflected the perceptions of the Soviet Union many Americans held: that it was a country bent on global domination. Marvin wants more.”
Mars is the planet of the war god, and Marvin is faceless and technologically nefarious, like the Soviet threat – from our perspective, a nation of spies, already infiltrating our own borders. Beneath Marvin’s helmet is a blank darkness with two blinking eyes, because the threat of communism could be anyone, anywhere, even here at home.
And in keeping with the creeping fear that began to pervade the nation under the threat of nuclear holocaust, Bugs’ fear begins to creep in, too. Upon encountering Marvin on the moon, he first acts nonchalant, like he does with all his other nemeses. But during the course of their amiable cross-species conversation, Marvin remarks offhandedly that his massively oversized weapon is being calibrated to blow up the Earth.
It takes a moment for the reality of the situation to sink in for Bugs. At first he remarks, “oh, nice day for it!” and wanders away, commenting on how brainy Marvin seems, how he’s likely to “get ahead in the moon.” To emphasize the insanity, we need a famous WB double-take: Bugs goes back and asks him again, then wanders off again. Only this second time does reality begin to assert itself. Bugs freaks out and starts to twitch.
He rushes back to Marvin, grabs what Marvin calls the “Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator” (a clear reference to nuclear weaponry), and shouts at him, “You can’t do thaaaaaat! All the people I know are on the Earth!” Bugs, maybe for the first time ever, sounds genuinely frightened for those he loves. It’s very easy to draw a direct line from his frantic lament to those classic images of people cowering under their desks and building fallout shelters in their backyards. All the people we know, indeed: the nuclear threat was universal.
Motivated by this fear, Bugs then engages in a battle-of-wits with Marvin and his deputy (a large green Martian dog). But the end of the cartoon is ambiguous: instead of achieving clear triumph and superiority, Bugs detonates an explosive that blows up Marvin’s ship...and most of the moon along with it. In the very last shot, both he and Marvin are dangling from the thin, remaining crescent, and he screams at NASA over the radio: “GET ME OUT OF HERE!”
This world is too dangerous. He wants off.
This is a pattern repeated in just about every classic Marvin The Martian cartoon, as Michael Birdwell points out. In The Hasty Hare, Marvin comes to Earth to collect an “Earth creature” (Bugs, of course). Bugs first mistakes him for a trick-or-treater, but once he sees Marvin’s saucer, he twitches, unable to process this new, extra-terrestrial reality. Indeed, The Hasty Hare has a thread of insanity running through the whole episode: Bugs is captured and placed in a straight jacket, where he briefly imitates an unglued mental patient. Then, at the very end, when Bugs drags half the solar system back to earth behind his rogue saucer, the scientist he encounters as he pulls up to the Shalomar Observatory begins to twitch in the same way. The universe is impossibly out of alignment, and the only sane reaction is to crack up.
Hasty Hare debuted in 1952, the year after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of stealing nuclear and military secrets for the Soviet Union from the United States, and the year before they were both executed in the electric chair. It must have seemed like a mad world: two apparently normal American citizens were passing incredibly destructive secrets to America’s mortal enemy. Why would this happen? Hence, Hasty Hare’s preoccupations with kidnapping, mutiny (at one point, Bugs accuses Marvin’s dog-lieutenant of being mutinous) and insanity. The anxiety of the era builds.
Nobody in the Looney Tunes universe, though, embodies anxiety quite like the neurotic, raw-nerve Daffy Duck. At some point, the overconfident Bugs became an inadequate symbol for our confused national character. Thence arrived: Duck Dodgers in the 24½ᵗʰ Century.
Duck Dodgers is a pure symphonic farce of mutually assured destruction. Daffy, the spastic, rage-filled egomaniac of the Looney Tunes universe, is sent on a mission by Earth’s sci-fi era space command (capped by an enormous surveilling eyeball) to claim the last galactic supply of the Shaving Cream Atom, from the mysterious Planet X. Marvin, once again, arrives at the same time to claim the same planet.
In the following few minutes, Daffy and Marvin deploy a truly staggering arsenal of escalating weapons and byzantine communications technologies in an effort to one-up each other to death. In the final scene, each is sequestered in their respective rocket ship, and each rocket ship is surrounded by an embedded array of explosives controlled by the other character. Predictably, they both detonate all the bombs at the same time.
After the explosion, Marvin and Daffy are perched on a tiny rock– all that’s left of Planet X. Daffy repeats his line from the beginning of the episode: “There just ain’t room on this planet for the two of us!” and boots Marvin off. As Marvin dangles from Porky, who’s dangling from the rock, Daffy exclaims “I claim this planet in the name of Earth!” and Porky rolls his eyes, and intones: “big deal.” Fade to black.
It would be difficult to imagine a more damning satire of American-Soviet nuclear relations. Both sides are following their obsessive program of global domination, and at the end, there’s nothing left of the planet to fight over. This winner of this war gets the ultimate booby prize.
Things in Marvin-land continue in this vein all the way through to the end of the Cold War. During the Cuban missile crisis, Mad as a Mars Hare showed Bugs Bunny mutating into an enormous neanderthal version of himself. And while peering through his telescope at the planet Earth, Marvin utters the line:
“There is a growing tendency to think of man as a rational, thinking being, which is absurd. There is simply no evidence of any intelligence on the Earth.”
Eventually, the slow disintegration of the USSR, and everyone’s exhaustion with the global deadlock, leaked into Marvin’s animated universe. By 1980, Daffy Duck was confronting Gossamer, a giant beastly sidekick of Marvin’s that, when shaved, turned out to be made entirely of hair with nothing underneath. Spaced Out Bunny, released the same year, began with Bugs intoning, “The trouble with this world is that everybody’s out to get everybody else.” By 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen.
Considering that Marvin’s stories debuted during the height of McCarthyism and communist paranoia, their near-open nose-thumbing at the absurdity of the conflict and the cold maliciousness of the American government (in sending our main characters on their warped and doomed missions of conquest and destruction, almost à la Vietnam) is all the more brazen and impressive. Though Jack Warner of Warner Brothers abetted the Hollywood blacklist and cheered on McCarthy’s witch-hunt, even he had his limits. When criticized over the production of Mission to Moscow, a film depicting Russia’s contributions to World War II, he testified:
“The Warner Brothers interest in the preservation of the American way of life is no new thing to our company. Ever since we began making motion pictures we have fostered American ideals and done what we could to protect them. One of those American principles is the right to gripe and criticize in an effort to improve. The right to gripe is not enjoyed under communist dictatorships. To surrender that privilege under pressure would betray our American standards. We can't fight dictatorships by borrowing dictatorial methods”
It’s possible that this tiny bit of wiggle-room gave Chuck Jones and the rest of the Looney Tunes maestros space to do their zeitgeist-skewering work. Chuck himself is quoted as saying:
"My wise wife, Marian, believes that somebody just as idiotic as Daffy may have his nervous hand on just such a believable lever."
It’s important to watch these cartoons, not just to read about them here. Because even more than the explicit metaphors and direct allusions to nuclear destruction, the mood in these animated works tells us about the mood of the times.
Everything is topsy-turvey, and the music is zany and bombastic simultaneously. Bureaucracies, both on Earth and on Mars, are depicted as massive, stupid, and malicious. References to the empty, brand-obsessed consumerism of the 50s and 60s litter each episode, and the characters run around totally fixated with the importance of their mission, which from the outside always appears unbelievably petty and small (in one cartoon, Daffy is sent on a crucial mission to save the universe’s supply of yo-yo polish. He exclaims “this is even more serious than I’d been led to believe!”)
It’s useful, too, to identify this lens so that we can more thoroughly recognize the lens of our own time. Rick and Morty portrays evil as diffuse and capricious, scattered throughout an absurd and godless universe, instead of being focused around a single conflict. The characters struggle with anxiety and existential emptiness, and numb themselves with drugs. Technology complicates their lives and their relationship with themselves, and creates as many problems as it solves.
In Bojack Horseman, mental illness and addiction are exacerbated and distorted by the crazed funhouse-mirror of media-obsessed culture. The personal histories of the characters always come back to haunt them, and the bizarre and singular lives they lived pre-internet are always intruding on their current social media self-promotion-blitz via the inconvenient mechanisms of trauma and memory. And in Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos resembles a malicious human force or person far less than he resembles the cold, inexorable ecological disaster of climate change.
Once we see these patterns, we can see our times and terrors a little more clearly, and through tracing them, we can perhaps outline the things our civilization desperately needs. When assessed in the aggregate like this, we have a startling ledger of collective anxiety in our popular media. But maybe this bird’s-eye-view is the first step in finding solutions to some of these problems. Maybe someday we’ll get to make a cartoon about a world without fear.