Acclaimed director and screenwriter Joss Whedon once said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” His film The Avengers (2012) is a well-loved example of Whedon’s ability to make even the most “ham-packed” movie absolutely incredible. This major installment to the “Marvelverse ultra-franchise,” which now spans 8 movies with another on its way to post-production for a 2014 premiere, was met with uproarious acclaim from die-hard fans and professional critics alike. In the words of character Nick Fury, head of the secretive government agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., this film details the events that brought together “a group of remarkable people… to fight the battles that [humanity] never could.” The Black Widow, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Hawkeye form the titular response team in order to save the Earth from an invading alien army. The Avengers, like all other films, is driven by its characters. Though they are vital to the plot, the way that each character is represented also holds an important cultural connotation that does not remain on the screen; instead, this media holds the power to affect day-to-day life for better… or for worse. This superhero film is more than a summer blockbuster–it is a somewhat concerning indicator of what values are deemed “heroic” by US American society and what it truly means to “be a man” while living inside the box of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is the societal expectations placed on men to be muscular, tough, ambitious, strong, aggressive, self-reliant, and stoic (S. Iftkar, S. November 4, 2013). Although this film has produced one feminist icon in the Black Widow, she is still subject to “the Smurfette Principle,” or, that there can only be one heroine per team of men. Aside from her, everything about the Avengers, right down to their name, implies hypermasculinity. Even previous to the film’s release, there was much debate over the Hulk as the embodiment of dangerously unbridled masculinity. This text, although well written and highly enjoyable to watch, represents its “super-secret boy band” in a way that does not challenge the concept of hegemonic masculinity as thoroughly as one might expect from a director like Whedon. By trading on their hypermasculinity, Captain America and Iron Man are able to to make up for their effeminate character flaws as well as physically overpower the film’s villain, who is portrayed throughout the film as less masculine; therefore, despite being a top-notch film in all other aspects, these overarching themes in The Avengers ultimately reinforce the restrictive societal norm that is hegemonic masculinity.
Steve Rogers, alias Captain America, is played by Chris Evans and is the embodiment of the “ideal American” of the 1940s. Besides his impeccably combed hair and broad shoulders, Rogers believes in one God, actively fights the battle against evil, and has an impressive military history. His costume is based on the American flag, and if his superhero name is any indication, it is clear this character is meant to literalize the “land of the free and home of the brave.” Perhaps Captain America is Marvel’s answer to the popularity of Superman, another idealistic American icon in red and blue spandex. Before acting as team leader of the Avengers, Rogers was what Michael Kimmel (2012) would call a “wimp,” lacking both physical and sexual prowess, and if he “were ever to sweep a woman off her feet, he’d probably help her up and make sure she was unhurt” (p. 212). Rogers was then genetically altered to be a “super soldier” by scientific means that do not yet exist outside of comic books. Although his peak physicality and patriotism are meant to pedestal him a male role model, the improbable means through which this was achieved sets an unrealistic expectation that men perceived as wimps in the real world will never be able to reproduce. Part of the reason hegemonic masculinity is so potent is that it can only be “tenuously achieved” and needs to be “continually reclaimed by acts of manhood” (R. Seabrook, October 23, 2013). For Rogers, his virility is consistently affirmed throughout the film through traditionally masculine traits like stoicism and aggressiveness. Although he wears a “spangly” costume and is a half-decent artist, his character still makes up for those more feminine traits by spending most of his screen time boxing, arguing, or beating up “the bad guys.” If being combative is one of the primary aspects of this all-American hero, what that says about what it takes to be a man in society today is quite frankly concerning. Another way in which Rogers is able to defend his masculinity is through his weapon of choice. It seems at first to be less masculine that he carries a shield instead of a sword; however, he is rarely seen using it to defend. Instead, the shield is used to take out enemies from afar like a gun, to knock out opponents like a fist, and even at one point to slice off an enemy soldier’s arm like a knife. As is evidenced by the abundance of commercials depicting “real men” doing the laundry (Tide Laundry, 2011) or loving animals (Alterra Real Estate, 2010), the ultimate symbol of masculinity is being able to subvert the feminine and still uphold the hegemony. One instance in the film that supports the already heavily saturated idea that masculinity equals respect is the scene in which Rogers attempts to give directions to confused and outnumbered city cops during the Battle of New York. Although they are clearly in need of help to evacuate the citizens, when Captain America appears with clear and direct instructions, the police officer takes one look at him and asks, “Why the hell should I take orders from you?” Then, something explodes in the
background and Rogers brutally and unflinchingly takes out four enemy soldiers as they mount the blockade. After a comedic pause, the cop immediately turns around and starts relaying Captain America’s exact orders. While this moment is quite humorous, its implications are much more serious. The police officer still had no idea who Rogers was, but followed his orders without question because this show of masculine strength. Even though Rogers had the populace’s best interest in mind, this scene is constantly replayed in high schools across America with devastating effect. Stereotypical though it may seem, football quarterbacks are often represented in the media as the “alpha male” due to of their unquestionable masculinity and just as often have a group of “lackies” that follow their every order at the expense of others. Unlike an alien invasion in New York, this scenario actually does play out in real life in the form of gender policing. Gender policing is “enforcing normative gender expressions by rewarding those who comply (and punishing those who don’t) with the gender that was assigned to them at birth” (R. Seabrook, October 21, 2013). Most gender policing takes the form of high school bullying, which has been known to leave long lasting impressions on the victim’s sense of self-worth, sometimes with fatal consequences. Ultimately, Steve Rogers is a character who portrays the hypermasculine as heroic, and therefore does not stand against hegemonic masculinity and its repercussions.
If Captain America is what American men should be, Tony Stark alias Iron Man, is what they want to be. The self-titled “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” lives an indulgent life overflowing with women, alcohol, and fast cars; also known as the hypermasculine wet dream. While he doesn’t have “natural” super strength like the some members of his team, what he does have is unparalleled intelligence with which he is able to manufacture high-tech missiles and, of course, the Iron Man suit. One could say that Stark uses all of the above to make up for the fact that his talent is brains and not brawn, but even so, he doesn’t have to flaunt his hypermasculinity, being that the field of engineering has been male-dominated for centuries. Nevertheless, Iron Man has been represented in this way since his creation, and plays a role in the discourse on what it means to be a man in America. By The Avengers, Stark has shut down his weapons department and devoted himself instead to clean energy–which is admittedly strange, given the market has been incredibly feminized in contrast to the non-renewable resources that are familiar today. Perhaps this is a subtle play by Whedon to make the sector more appealing to male audiences. Either way, Stark’s foray into sustainable living still comes second to his improvements to his Iron Man suits, and no matter his smarts, he’s always the first to plunge (often literally) into the fray. Stark is also the most metrosexual of the Avengers, able to trade on his playboy status to make up for his “tight clothing and otherwise too-groomed facial hair” (L. Smalls, August 9, 2012). He is “the unblushing man” (R. Seabrook, October 23, 2013), a jingoistic emblem of American male exceptionalism that is absolutely, hilariously unattainable in real life. Even Robert Downey Jr., the actor who portrays Iron Man and is often teased for having a personality that almost mirrors that of the superhero, cannot attain this “ideal maleness.” Stark’s brand of hegemonic masculinity is based first and foremost on his sexual accomplishment in order to prevent his intelligence from coming across as geeky. Even when he spends time in a monogamous relationship with Pepper Potts, it is heavily implied that he is just as sexually fulfilled as he was when he was single. This reinforces the primary trait of hegemonic masculinity, which is desiring sex from women and simultaneously condemning homosexuality. For example, while the line Iron Man delivers after he is woken from unconsciousness at the end of the film is funny, saying “Please tell me nobody kissed me,”
instead of immediately inquiring about the battle makes it clear that his first priority, as is dictated by the hegemony, is his heterosexuality. This quip additionally removes the possibility of a male character having to do something as feminine as tearing up over a fallen comrade. If Stark had died, it is most likely that the rest of the team would have been shown holding in their emotions and making plans to enact vengeance, just as the text treated the death of Agent Phil Coulson. Sadly, there’s very little chance that modern cinema will ever allow a blockbuster hero to cry. And, if the paradigms of manhood constantly shut off their emotions, so too will the men who look up to them, diminishing each one’s sense of empathy until all that’s left is an iron shell.
Instead of expanding upon the already extensively discussed violently hypermasculine character that is Bruce Banner’s “other guy,” it is perhaps more rewarding to look into the dichotomy between Thor and Loki; one the hero, and one the villain. Raised as brothers but operating as binary opposites, these two demigods are perhaps the most unmistakably unalike characters in the Marvelverse. Thor is muscle, sun-tanned skin, and blonde “Fabio-like” locks. He is always blunt about his intentions and would rather be with his love interest or on the front lines bashing opponents with his trusty hammer Mjölnir than talk strategy. However, his masculinity is so unattainable, it isn’t even from this world. On the other side of the coin, Loki is lean bordering on skinny, pale skin, and slick black hair. He often takes the time to set up elaborate ruses, and uses sorcery or long-distance weapons like throwing knives and energy-firing spears to defeat his enemies. Even through all of his villainous vainglory, there’s something about him that falls just short of masculine. Thor is loud, Loki is quiet. Thor is brash, Loki is careful. Following this pattern, one can discern that since Thor is masculine, Loki is feminine. In this way, one could perhaps conclude that this film isn’t merely about good overcoming evil, but also about hegemonic masculinity overpowering hegemonic femininity. And, if this connection is correct, then this film says more about the current state of affairs than is particularly comforting. One might point to the Black Widow as evidence against this, but remember that she does not possess any characteristics of a hegemonically feminine character. She is not shy, she is not passive, she is not weak; rather, she is a well-rounded and realistic portrayal of a woman and is vitally important to the takedown of Loki, or hegemonic femininity. Symbolically, it would have been just fine had it ultimately been the embodiment of gender equality triumphing over the hegemony, but since the film’s portrayal of “effeminate” isn’t just taken down but is rather brutally destroyed by masculinity, the message sent to the viewer is again one of male superiority. It’s a bit strange that Whedon, who is no feminist novice, would allow this patriarchal subtext to become so pivotal to the plot, even for comedic effect. The message here reinforces that hypermasculinity is not to be discouraged, but instead celebrated. It’s a consistent thread that serves to reinforce suspicion and antipathy for men who drift toward the feminine in real life. Again, the image of a quarterback and his lackeys picking on a much “wimpier” classmate comes to mind. This theme isn’t hard to find examples of in the real world. From childhood, the worst thing a man could be called is a “girl” or a “bitch.” Women have been wearing pants since the 1900s, and men have been wearing dresses since never. Men who have naturally high metabolisms buy whey protein and eat past the point of fullness in order to put on even a few extra pounds. Perhaps the most interesting thing about masculinity is that it is based on strength and dominance, yet often withers when touched by even the tiniest shred of something feminine. Despite this, The Avengers portrays hegemonic masculinity as empowering, even essential to the success of the male heroes, and fails to demonstrate achievable ways in which one could overcome gender policing of what is masculine and what is feminine in a male.
Thus, it is clear that although The Avengers is a smart, likeable film with witty writing and a well-rounded and realistic female character, its male leads still reiterate the base ideas of hegemonic masculinity and, in doing so, support a culture of entitlement. While this superhero movie offers much to the industry in terms of its scale, it fails to upend the tropes of masculinity the way it was able to do with the Black Widow. The unattainable hypermasculinity used by both Captain America and Iron Man to make up for their “feminine” character flaws poses an unsettling question about what is expected of the American male, and the battle presented by the villain is not black-and-white good versus evil, but alternatively of the masculine desire to punish those who do not follow the gender rules. It is admittedly not as easy to conduct discourse on the negatives of masculinity due to the fact that America is still unequally balanced against women; however, the difficulty presented by hegemonic masculinity are just as much a feminist problem as the wage gap. Maybe someday, heroes will be able to have these flaws without being stereotyped back into the “man box,” and the oppression of femininity won’t be considered the ultimate test of masculinity. With hope, more discussion on the topic of the hegemony will be able to bring about a better understanding of the discrepancies perpetuated by the media and subsequently produce a means to better the knowledge shared by society as a whole.
Alterra Real Estate. (2010, May 8). Real Men Love Cats [Video file]. Retreived from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHWbR7kJzXM
Iftkar, S. (2013, November 4). Gender: Representations of Men. COMM 101. Lecture conducted from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
Kimmel, M. S. (2012). Whimps, Whiners, and Weekend Warriors. Manhood in America: a Cultural History (3 ed., pp. 189-237). New York: Oxford University Press.
Seabrook, R. (2013, October 21). What’s masculinity got to do with it? WSAC 240. Lecture conducted from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
Seabrook, R. (2013, October 23). Cost of the bargain: Who pays? WSAC 240. Lecture conducted from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
Smalls, L. (2012, August 9). The Avengers and Loki’s Suspicious Masculinity. Message posted to http://ladybrainreviews.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-avengers-and-lokis-suspicious.html
Tide Laundry. (2011, October 11). My Tide TV Commercial – Tide Dad Long Version [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1qW7Po-1KI
Whedon, J. (Director). (2012). The Avengers [Motion picture). United States: Walt Disney Studios.
 This fact is revealed in both the movie Captain America (2011), and in a deleted scene in The Avengers.
 Instead of CPR, the Hulk resuscitates Iron Man by literally roaring in his face.
 Loki is ultimately defeated by the Hulk after being bashed to near-unconsciousness against the floor.