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The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Toxic Masculinity


Recently, Marvel has been giving us great content with strong female leads. In Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) we got the first female led movie, Captain Marvel, and recently Marvel Studios put out the widely anticipated series WandaVision. Over the next few years Marvel is expected to put out movies and shows centered on Black Widow, She-Hulk, and Ms. Marvel–all of whom are powerful female superheroes. But this is not how it has always been, nor is it representative of Marvel’s typical projects. Often, MCU movies feature a male lead or a predominantly male cast suffering from arrogance, narcissism, inflated egos, and a lack of accountability. Even worse, sometimes these bad traits are rewarded. These toxic traits don’t only affect the characterization of the male heroes; these traits also affect their treatment of female characters.

Variety/Marvel Studios

The most obvious example of a hero who exhibits traits associated with toxic masculinity is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Tony Stark, or Iron Man, is the face of the Avengers alongside Captain America (Chris Evans). While he is one of the two heads of the “Earth’s mightiest heroes,” he has traits that make him an objectively bad leader. He is one of the most intelligent Avengers, but he is extremely arrogant about it, and this arrogance is the foundation of almost every problem he faces throughout the MCU. His arrogance directly resulted in the creation of Ultron, the villain in Avengers: Age of Ultron, who attempted to cause global extinction by dropping a piece of Sokovia on Earth. In Captain America: Civil War, his arrogance causes a divide in the Avengers that isn’t resolved until the next Avengers movie. However, because he is incredibly intelligent, from the creation of his suits to finding a solution to “the snap” in Avengers: Infinity War, his arrogance goes unchecked.

CNET/Marvel Studios

The treatment of women in the MCU may be the most blatant example of Marvel’s toxic masculinity issue. In the MCU, several issues arise from a hero’s need to “defend a woman’s honor.” In Captain America: Civil War, when Iron Man learns that the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) was responsible for the death of his parents, he breaks the promise he just made to Captain America and almost causes the dissolution of the Avengers. In Avengers: Infinity War, when Star Lord (Chris Pratt) learns that Thanos killed his love interest, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), he reacts in a fit of rage that resulted in Thanos’ escape with the Infinity Stones, allowing him to control-alt-delete half of all life in the universe. Even though this need to defend women’s honor was blatantly obvious to me, neither of the heroes mentioned were ever called out for it or faced any consequences.

But the character who suffers the worst from Marvel’s toxic masculinity is Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). She is a super cool Russian assassin turned even cooler Avengers superhero, but you might forget all that considering how poorly she’s treated by her male colleagues. While working undercover as Tony Stark’s secretary, she is repeatedly flirted with, objectified, and straight up harassed by her boss. On the topic of objectification, her body is often given screentime for no other reason than to objectify it (look up the scene of Bruce Banner falling on top of her at your own risk). And don’t even get me started on how none of the movies she’s in pass the Bechdel Test (which measures women representation in movies by ensuring there are two female characters who have a conversation that is not about men) until Avengers: Infinity War, despite her being one of the Avengers.

CBR/Marvel Studios

This isn’t to say that all of the movies in the MCU have an issue with toxic masculinity; the Ant Man and Black Panther franchises are great examples of MCU movies that do it right. But I do hope that Marvel’s new movies show fans how valuable their female superheroes are, and give us male main characters who are held accountable when their toxic traits lead to conflict.

Isabella Guerrero

UC Riverside '21

A writer learning as I go.
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