(A shortened version of this article was published in The Independent UK on 11/27/15)
The trailer for Captain America: Civil War premiered this week and geeks all over the internet exploded with excitement. This is the 13th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and there are at least 10 more on the way to the big screen. Over the last decade the Marvel films have been a massive box office success for Marvel Studios and their parent corporation, The Walt Disney Company. It’s safe to say that superheroes have gone mainstream in a big way. Comic book stories are no longer the exclusive domain of geek subcultures.
Part of that success lies in the appeal of an old-fashioned tale of good versus evil. Part of it is the spectacle of some of the best special effects in the business. The scenes of conflict and destruction in these films are viscerally exciting, no doubt, and certainly get the adrenaline pumping. But there is something else at work here, something that has drawn self-described geeks and nerds to comic books for nearly a century, and that is an idealization of the aggressive hypermasculine superhero archetype.
Let’s return to the new Captain America trailer, one scene in particular generated a sense of palpable excitement among fans. The last 10 seconds feature a protracted fight scene in which beloved superheroes Iron Man and Captain America are shown beating the crap out of each other.
A staple of the superhero genre is the tendency to concoct these elaborate scenarios in which the iconic “good guys” end up having to fight each other for some reason or another. This is often framed as a way to resolve their interpersonal issues before they can go beat up the “bad guys” and save the world. Look no further than Hulk’s rampaging brawl with Iron Man in the second Avengers film, or Batman’s upcoming cinematic showdown with Superman. They’re the blockbuster versions of kids arguing in the schoolyard about which superhero would win in a fight. The ultimate macho pissing contest. Who’s the toughest tough guy of them all? This is evidenced by the showcasing of fights between Thor and Iron Man, Bucky Barnes and Captain America, and so on and so forth. Heck, now we even have Kirk and Spock throwing punches at each other on the bridge of the Enterprise in the rebooted Star Trek movie, Starfleet protocols be damned.
How do superheroes make friends? By punching each other in the face! How do superheroes resolve conflicts big and small? By punching each other in the face! Who gets the girl? Whose plan will be followed? Who is in charge? How is trust built among teammates? Face-punching can accomplish all this and more!
It is essentially male bonding or friendship-building by way of violence and it usually elicits wild cheers from audiences. It’s a plot point that I think should at least raise questions regarding the kinds of behavior being modeled for men about male relationships and communication.
What exactly is so appealing about this particularly aggressive form of hypermasculinity that it’s now become a worldwide movie obsession?
There are many types of masculinities, some healthy and productive, others destructive and harmful. Hypermasculinity (sometimes also referred to as toxic or hegemonic masculinity) is one form of manhood that’s characterized by traits of physical strength, domination, aggression and violence as a primary means of conflict resolution. This is a perilous and decidedly unhealthy form of manhood and one that tends to dominate superhero narratives.
There’s a pervasive theme running through the MCU movies, for example, and that is that violence is an effective way to solve problems between men, both institutionally and interpersonally.
Back before The Avengers were household names, superheroes were the domain of geekdom, and particularly “geek guys” who, to some degree, felt personally ostracized and disenfranchised by the ideals of stereotypical tough-guy manhood in mainstream culture. I know that growing up I certainly felt that way.
Of course people of all genders may enjoy superhero comics but here I’m primarily addressing male fans and our ideological relationship to the genre.
Despite being made to feel subordinate to concepts of hypermasculinity in the real world, many geek guys have nonetheless embraced superheroes who embody hypermasculine traits and values. To an extent this is connected to a power fantasy in which comic book fans can project themselves onto powerful figures. The superhero is, in a sense, everything that they are not, but perhaps (at least in their imaginations) aspire to be. That’s not really surprising, nor is it limited to geeks; our larger culture also idealizes the combative behavior associated with hypermasculinity.
Men who fall outside of the idealized version of manhood and into the geek category might seem like they would be the first in line to challenge notions of hypermasculinity. But more often than not, they tend to idolize those ideals despite being alienated from them as individuals. This self-identification with hypermasculinity is no doubt one of the factors in the rampant misogyny that plagues the comic book industry and community.
The particular brand of superhero masculinity represents a popular conception of what it means to be a “real man,” a conception that is not relegated solely to the realms of fantasy. Hypermasculinity manifests everywhere in our culture and can be seen reflected in politics, international conflict, municipal policing, domestic violence and interpersonal relationships. All you have to do is look at global leaders who routinely pound their chests while advocating for the use of deadly force as a solution to complex social problems, as if they aren’t talking about delicate matters of international diplomacy but rather boasting about taking down a supervillain like Ultron or Thanos.
One common reaction I encounter whenever I bring up these questions is the concern that there’s no way to create exciting dramatic tension or movie conflict, other than resorting to violence as the ultimate resolution. Of course, that’s not true, as evidenced by one of the most exciting and intense pictures of the year, The Martian. A remarkable thing about that film is that it contains absolutely no violence or killing. All problems are solved through science, cooperation and human creativity. And yet the filmmakers behind The Martian managed to create a widely successful, thrilling, edge-of-your-seat blockbuster. Given the current state of the world, we could certainly do with a hell of a lot more heroes who solve complex problems with innovation and ingenuity rather than by punching each other in the face.