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The depiction of manhood in cinema has changed drastically in the past 15 years. That can be seen clearly in the most successful media franchise of our time: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is among the most successful media franchises of all time. Avengers: Endgame earned $2.8 billion worldwide, surpassing Titanic to become the second-highest grossing film in history, behind only Avatar. With such a large and devoted fan base comes a huge opportunity to present positive messaging to its audience – in particular, with the way the MCU’s male heroes embody a healthy view of manhood.

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The media we consume affects the way we view the world, and ourselves. That can be a good thing, when a piece of popular media has healthy messaging. But it can just as easily be harmful. One prime example is the traditional depiction of masculinity in Western cinema.

How Masculinity Was Depicted in Film in the Early 21st Century

Halle Berry and Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day (2002)
Halle Berry and Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day (2002)

When thinking about paragons of manliness, those cinematic icons that men in real life wish they could be, what 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.

That’s particularly dangerous, because Bond is a terrible role model. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to have any friends. The closest he comes is his allies in the espionage world, who are always two steps behind him. He always has the last quip; he’s never shown to be outwitted or outdone by anyone.

Bond’s relationships with women are overtly sexual, overtly violent, or else in a service role, such as in the case of Ms. Moneypenny. He also tends to solve his problems with violence.

Since the 1960s, Bond has served as a blueprint for the cinematic action hero. That’s a problem, because Bond exhibits all of the traits of what academics call toxic masculinity.

What Is Toxic Masculinity – and Why Is It Harmful?

Despite its name, toxic masculinity isn’t the idea that masculinity, in itself, is toxic. It’s a term used to describe the often-harmful norms of society that dictate how men should behave. It’s a collection of ingrained beliefs about manhood that harms not only men, but society as a whole.

One example is the assumption that “real men” should be dominant. That’s obviously harmful, because it encourages men to dominate interactions with others, while discouraging boys and men from leaning on their friends and loved ones in difficult situations.

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A lot of toxic masculine traits center around this idea of avoiding the perception of weakness, here defined as being emotionally vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, homophobia and misogyny are natural byproducts of toxic masculinity.

Despite how harmful it can be, toxic masculinity is still promoted in a lot of mainstream media. That’s why Marvel’s depictions of manhood – with all of its complexities, flaws and vulnerabilities – are so refreshing.

How Captain America Subverts the Definition of Manhood

Chris Evans' portrayal of Captain America is the Marvel Cinematic Universe's best example of healthy masculinity.
Captain America is a great example of healthy masculinity in cinema.

Steve Rogers, portrayed by Chris Evans in 11 Marvel films, could be considered the anti-James Bond. Like 007, he represents a pinnacle of manliness, 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 because of his healthy masculinity. In the 2011 film 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’s rewarded for those traits by being accepted for the super-soldier program.

He continues to portray healthy masculinity in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Steve develops close friendships with both Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and defers to their judgment throughout the film. He’s also willing to save Bucky, now the brainwashed assassin known 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 a willingness to act as part of a team.

Iron Man’s Journey Away From Toxic Masculinity

Tony Stark had a long journey in the Marvel Cinematic Universe away from toxic masculinity.
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Marvel’s Iron Man (2008)

While Steve Rogers begins his arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe displaying a healthy form of masculinity, Tony Stark had to put in the work to get there.

Played by Robert Downey Jr., Tony is introduced in 2008’s Iron Man as a womanizing, drunken nuisance who bulldozes anyone who attempts to tell him what to do. He’s a billionaire and a genius who reluctantly relies upon his personal assistant to help run his life. He’s blatantly misogynistic and, clearly, emotionally immature.

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In short, Tony Stark starts out as a poster boy for toxic masculinity, to the detriment of his own well-being. He drinks to repress his emotions, and, despite his social standing, he’s nearly 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.

Luckily, Tony is increasingly surrounded by people who refuse to accept his self-destructive behavior. We watch him gradually reckon with his toxic traits, film by film.

In 2012’s The Avengers, Tony has stopped treating women as disposable. However, he’s still drinking, and struggles to work as part of a team. By the time of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, he’s happily married, a devoted father, and able to rely upon his teammates to help save the universe – all without losing his trademark ingenuity and snark.

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Tony’s journey is one from toxic masculinity to true heroism. He shows the audience 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 manhood in the audience’s collective consciousness.

Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe View of Masculinity Matters

Our popular movies play a large part in shaping our expectations. When the dominant depiction of heroism is a stoic, solitary man who treats women as objects to be won, it sends the message that we should expect men to exhibit those traits in real life. That sets a harmful standard for boys and men, and we all suffer the consequences.

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That’s why portrayals of healthy masculinity – which includes friendship, teamwork, and respect for others – are so important. They help to reframe expectations of male behavior.

This is especially impactful in a blockbuster film franchise like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose heroes are so popular among children. It sends the message to a new generation that, yes, real men have vulnerabilities. Real men can rely on their friends for support. Real men respect women. And real men can work well with others.

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