fragile masculinity of the mcu

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, and opinionated about something that makes us very happy…or fills us with indescribable rage. In this edition: a dissection of the fragile masculinity of Marvel movies, the overlooked homoeroticism of superhero stories, and how everyone can do better.)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether you realize it or not, it’s considered one of the biggest pop culture institutions defining modern American manhood. Heroes like Captain America, the Falcon, Iron Man, War Machine, Hawkeye, and Thor are considered red-blooded, hypermasculine American men (despite Thor’s role as a Norse god), and even outer space heroes like Star-Lord and lower-rung Avengers like Ant-Man evoke the ideals of fanboy manhood through snarkiness and Teflon attitude.

But all of this is really just a façade for a bubbling societal fear. These characters are archetypes for the fragile masculinity that affects too many men in America. That fear of not being “masculine” enough leads to misogyny, self-loathing, fear of homosexuality, and, at its most extreme, the deaths of gay and trans people (usually trans women).

I can already feel you getting overwhelmed, so let me scale this discussion back a bit to look at the small picture: Marvel and Disney. How does Marvel and Disney’s beloved MCU perpetuate this idea of fragile masculinity? How does it affect their audience? And, most importantly, what can they do to stop the cycle? Take a journey with me as I pick apart the MCU, its men, and why Marvel and Disney shouldn’t be afraid to show them as the vulnerable, soft-hearted human beings they actually are.

northstar wedding

Marvel in Print Versus the MCU

The Marvel universe is decidedly more diverse in both ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in print than it is in Marvel’s official film canon. As far as sexuality goes, Marvel has been just as responsive to changing tastes. Iceman, one of the original X-Men, was revealed to be gay in Uncanny X-Men (and starred in his own solo series). Another X-Men member, Northstar, got married to his non-powered, non-superhero partner Kyle in Astonishing X-Men. And, interestingly enough, one of Captain America’s best friends from the 1940s is gay. Arnie Roth, whose first appearance was in Captain America #268 in 1982, was Captain America’s (aka Steve Rogers) big brother figure and protector on the mean streets of Brooklyn before Steve became the serum-powered superhero as we know him today. You can read more about the story at Uproxx, but the gist of it is that Arnie is one of the first openly gay characters in the Marvel universe, living with his long-time boyfriend Michael.

But none of the consideration that goes into Marvel’s print stories seem to make its way to the film retellings. There are few black superheroes in leadership roles. Even then, is Nick Fury, who was the only prominent black leader in the MCU until Black Panther, an actual superhero or just a government operative? And would Marvel’s film team have really given us a Black Panther movie if there wasn’t an outcry about the lack of a black superhero film? How come it’s taken approximately 10 years for the MCU to introduce a female superhero film when DC, regardless of what you say about their film franchise, has introduced Wonder Woman from the beginning of the DCEU? And how come no gay superhero has been announced for any point of the MCU’s future phases?

sharon carter

The Superhero Glass Ceiling

Women certainly aren’t given the same weight as men in the MCU. Regardless of whether the woman is a bonafide superhero like Black Widow, a high-powered assistant like Pepper Potts, or a highly competent S.H.I.E.L.D. agent like Peggy Carter, the women of the MCU serve three main functions: to look pretty, hit the bare minimum required of a “strong” female archetype, and (most importantly for the MCU) serve as the love interest for the male superhero. A reward for a job well done, if you will.  At worst, the love interest serves as a blank canvas for the male superhero to throw his emotional baggage onto. This was at its most egregious in Doctor Strange, when awful Stephen Strange releases an ugly spout of vitriol at his sometimes-girlfriend Christine Palmer. Don’t forget, though, that Christine is a doctor in her own right, not to mention a colleague of Strange’s. Yet, her role and her work is treated in a subordinate fashion to Strange’s, who gets to use her as a basis for his character development.

While Strange’s treatment of Christine was anger-inducing, the script’s treatment of Sharon Carter, Peggy’s niece, in Captain America: Civil War, was perhaps the most disgusting. In this film, Peggy finally succumbed to her battle with Alzheimer’s. After Peggy’s funeral, Cap and Sharon immediately launch themselves into a relationship, a relationship that had been annoyingly hinted at since Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

I think you can tell what makes this so disgusting: it’s Peggy’s freaking niece, plus the fact that Peggy wasn’t even cold in the ground yet before Steve decided to put the moves on a woman who, in an alternate universe where he and Peggy stayed together, could have very well been his own granddaughter. It’s a move many reviewers had issues with, including Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, who writes  “Doesn’t Captain American: Civil War go out of its way to ‘define’ Bucky and Steve’s relationship when Cap smooches Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) while Bucky looks on approvingly? Where’s the room for interpretation in that moment? And, leaving aside the vague creepiness of Steve making a move on Peggy’s (very willing) niece, the moment itself wasn’t necessary to the flow of the movie at all.”

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Even Hayley Atwell, who portrayed Peggy in the MCU said that Peggy would be “turning over in her grave.”

What also makes this relationship insidious is that it occurs in a film in which Steve is dealing with two other close relationships, both of which are with men. He’s caught between his allegiance to Bucky, his old childhood friend who had been turned into the Winter Soldier by HYDRA, and his new friendship with Sam, aka The Falcon, who has been by his side since their first meeting in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both of these relationships, as you’ll read about later, have been speculation fodder for Steve’s sexuality.  How interesting that, in this of all the MCU films, Captain America is written to uncharacteristically go after a woman — his former flame’s relative, no less — in such a lecherous fashion. Even without the fragile masculinity overtones, the move is just gross. But when put in the context of gender and sexual studies in the media, it becomes apparent that Marvel wanted to put an end to the Cap-is-queer speculations. However, they only made fans that much louder.

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