Are All the MCU’s Male Avengers Trapped Inside the Restrictive Male Box?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) relies on a critically acclaimed balance between character-driven arcs and unfortunate intergalactic threats to build an interweaving saga just as humanly relevant as it is superhumanly manifested. However, that doesn’t mean the landscape fires successfully on all fronts.

Marvel Studios MCU
Marvel Studios’ ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ | Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Avengers: Infinity War

When considering the Marvel landscape, the approach to humor often resorts to a need to assert physical superiority — as defined by cultural standards of masculinity — witnessed between Thor and Star-Lord’s dynamic. No one can forget Star-Lord deepening his voice to assert his place as captain; funny, yet obedient to “the box.”

Or, sometimes it’s about asserting intellectual dominance and societal value — as seen by Doctor Strange and Iron Man’s relationship. In short, much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is attune to what has been described as the “male box:” a “rigid set of expectations, perceptions, and behaviors of what is manly behavior,” as explained by Richmond College

Unfortunately, men are socialized to fit within these criteria to be seen as “real men” — men don’t cry, men seek revenge rather than wallow. Men bring their fists to the table when challenged to do so. And, under this hegemonic account of masculinity, avoidance of said behaviors is seen as a “violation,” which places you squarely outside the small box — the small box all men are taught to fit within, taught to desire as if the box is an elite, private club. And, the MCU, on most accounts, places its main heroes within this box, failing to defy a social structure in need of dismantling.

The rejection of “feminine” qualities among male heroes in the MCU 

From Tony Stark to Doctor Strange and Hawkeye, the men in the MCU are fearless, as bravery falls under the umbrella of “dominant masculinity” — an inherently “exclusive” and “strong” account of what it means to be a man. 

Dominant masculinity rejects socially-deemed feminine qualities — hesitance, fear, risk-aversion, emotional openness, vulnerability, etc. And, though gender may be socially defined, its set of norms and expectations are no less tangible — no less “real” as a result. In short, all the male heroes jump into the fray; all the greatest heroes take to the frontlines, as seen in Infinity War when Captain America and Black Panther go rushing toward a horde of arachnid-like alien without a smidge of doubt.

Unlike a male Slytherin in Harry Potter — who would allow others to take the front lines — as they concocted a cunning plan to win from the shadows, the male heroes in the MCU must fight with fists; intelligence is only masculine when asserted in tandem with bravery. 

MCU villains can be deceptive and cunning, choosing to find alternate ways to win in place of physical combat. Yet, such choices inherently place them outside the very restrictive male box (think Loki). A villain then becomes lesser by default — by both society’s and the MCU’s standard of what it means to be a true man. Such differences in character imply — from the get-go — that the villain will never win, for they didn’t obey the box that allows a man to claim superiority over another.

Given Disney’s far-reaching platform and a reputation designed for money-making, it is the perfect studio to take on the challenge — to confront and subvert this hegemonic and restrictive account of masculinity, merely augmenting and obeying socialized definitions of gender that limit creative expression. Life often imitates art just as frequently as art imitates life, and if an art form with such power for persuasion stands up against the box, maybe the box will begin to break…slowly.

Will the MCU fix this with ‘The Eternals’: Why introducing a gay character is not a solution

Unfortunately, a gay character, according to a socially-illustrated male box, is already stepping outside the restrictions. Part of being a “true man” — according to this age-old defined and rigid cage — comes down to asserting dominance over women — being the dominant player in a sexual dynamic. 

Thus, introducing a gay character in The Eternals may help the MCU diversify its heroes, but it won’t help the landscape fight an issue that must be combated via straight supers. However, if the existing straight Avengers see the character as an equal — just as “man” as they are — it will be a solid start.

Yet, to really solve the problem presented, a straight hero must take a leap — or stick a toe or two — outside the box; that is, if the writers can manage to shake the shackles they’ve grown so accustomed to wearing that they may have forgotten they exist.