The Marvel Cinematic Universe and modern manhood
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most successful media franchises of all time. Avengers: Endgame earned $2.8 billion worldwide, surpassing Titanic become the second highest-grossing film in history, behind only Avatar. With such a large and dedicated fan base, there’s a huge opportunity to present positive messages to its audience – particularly, with how the MCU’s male heroes embody a wholesome view of manhood.
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The media we consume affects how we see the world and ourselves. It can be a good thing when popular media has a healthy message. But it can just as well be harmful. A prime example is the traditional portrayal of masculinity in Western cinema.
How Masculinity Was Represented in Movies in the Early 21st Century
When you think of paragons of manhood, those cinematic icons that men in real life would love to be, which character comes to mind? A popular answer in previous decades (and maybe even today) would be James Bond. Agent 007 is portrayed, in all of his iterations, as the ultimate man.
This is particularly dangerous, because Bond is a terrible model. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to have any friends. What he comes closest to are his allies in the world of espionage, who are always two steps behind him. He always has the latest joke; he was never shown to be outmaneuvered or outmatched by anyone.
Bond’s relationships with women are overtly sexual, overtly violent, or else in a service role, as in the case of Mrs. Moneypenny. He also tends to solve his problems through violence.
Since the 1960s, Bond has served as a model for the cinematic action hero. That’s a problem, because Bond exhibits all the traits of what academics call toxic masculinity.
What is toxic masculinity – and why is it harmful?
Despite its name, toxic masculinity is not the idea that masculinity, per se, is toxic. It is a term used to describe the often harmful societal norms that dictate how men should behave. It’s an ingrained set of beliefs about manhood that harms not just men, but society as a whole.
An example is the assumption that “real men” should be dominant. This is obviously harmful, as it encourages men to dominate interactions with others, while discouraging boys and men from leaning on friends and loved ones in difficult situations.
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Many toxic masculine traits revolve around this idea of avoiding the perception of weakness, defined here as being emotionally vulnerable. Not surprisingly, homophobia and misogyny are natural byproducts of toxic masculinity.
Despite its harmfulness, toxic masculinity is still promoted in many mainstream media. That’s why Marvel’s depictions of manhood — with all of its complexities, flaws, and vulnerabilities — are so refreshing.
How Captain America flips the definition of manhood
Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans in 11 Marvel films, could be considered the anti-James Bond. Like 007, he represents the pinnacle of manhood, and yet he subverts toxic masculinity at every turn — and he’s rewarded for it.
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Steve is selected to become Captain America due to his healthy masculinity. In the 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, he has a close bond with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), he respects Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as a soldier and as a woman, and he displays a willingness to make sacrifices for the greater good. He is rewarded for these traits by being accepted into the super-soldier program.
He continues to portray healthy masculinity in 2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Steve develops close friendships with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and defers to their judgment throughout the film. He is also willing to rescue Bucky, now the brainwashed assassin known as the Winter Soldier, and shows physical and emotional vulnerability in the process.
With Steve’s characterization, Marvel sent a clear message that modern masculinity includes close friendships (with men and women), emotional intelligence and the will to act as a team.
Iron Man’s journey away from toxic masculinity
While Steve Rogers begins his arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by displaying a healthy form of masculinity, Tony Stark had to work to get there.
Played by Robert Downey Jr., Tony is featured in 2008 Iron Man like a drunken, womanizing nuisance who bulldozes anyone who tries to tell him what to do. He’s a billionaire and genius who reluctantly relies on his personal assistant to help him run his life. He is blatantly misogynistic and, clearly, emotionally immature.
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In short, Tony Stark starts off as a poster boy for toxic masculinity, to the detriment of his own well-being. He drinks to suppress his emotions and, despite his social status, he is almost always alone. In iron man 2, Tony is literally dying and chooses to suffer in silence rather than reach out to those who care about him.
Fortunately, Tony is increasingly surrounded by people who refuse to accept his self-destructive behavior. We see him gradually take his toxic traits into account, film by film.
In 2012 The Avengers, Tony stopped treating women as disposable. However, he still drinks and finds it difficult to work in a team. At the time of 2019 Avengers: Endgamehe’s married, is a devoted father, and can rely on his teammates to help save the universe, all without losing his ingenuity and smirk.
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Tony’s journey ranges from toxic masculinity to true heroism. It shows audiences that men can change their behavior and become healthier, happier people.
Examples of healthy masculinity — and the journey to get there — are peppered throughout the MCU, creating a new paradigm of masculinity in the public’s collective consciousness.
Why The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s View Of Masculinity Matters
Our popular films play an important role in shaping our expectations. When the dominant portrayal of heroism is a stoic, lonely man who treats women as objects to be won, it sends the message that we should expect men to exhibit these traits in real life. It sets a harmful norm for boys and men, and we all suffer the consequences.
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This is why representations of healthy masculinity – which includes friendship, teamwork and respect for others – are so important. They help reframe expectations of male behavior.
This is especially impactful in a blockbuster movie franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose heroes are so popular with kids. It sends the message to a new generation that, yes, real men have vulnerabilities. Real men can count on their friends for support. Real men respect women. And real men can work well with others.