Exploring the Dangers of Toxic Masculinity in Avengers: Infinity War

*Spoiler Alert*

Star-Lord: Boy.

Masculinity is a mess. Attempting to define it is a messy task. One can best say that masculinity is package of learned or inherited traits and characteristics present in the attitudes and behaviors of humans (one says humans instead of men because, although cismen are considered to be more masculine than feminine, masculinity is present in people who are not cismen). Cultures and societies have tinkered with that package and its contents for ages, adding beliefs and practices to its contents that either promote the better qualities of what we expect in people or diminish those that are harmful. Unfortunately, sometimes they do the opposite.

The American package of masculinity is one that has, over time, enveloped more detrimental behaviors and attitudes than positive ones. That is why American masculinity is currently under a much-needed reassessment. It’s a reexamination catalyzed by the voices and efforts of people across the country who will not suffer it anymore, who will no longer tolerate a masculinity that allows for unnecessary, violent damage to occur against the mind, body, and spirit of others. From auto plants to insurance offices, from college campuses to churches and city halls, these people are clear in their call: American masculinity has become corrosive.

This includes voices in Hollywood. Hollywood and its studios are forerunners of American media, charged with the daunting, solemn responsibility of mass messaging. For quite some time now, the messages sent from them have contributed to a toxic American conception of masculinity, and, unfortunately, many messengers in Hollywood still do.

But that is changing. Because of movements such as #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite, everything Hollywood now produces — including its stories and characters — is under consideration. In Infinity War the question is clear: What are the dangers tucked inside American masculinity?

The film tries to answer this by exposing Star-Lord and Thanos, who share the same glaring, fatal flaw — boyishness.

Ostensibly, Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord, is the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy. The plot of the first Guardians film mainly revolves around Star-Lord’s story: his complicated family history, the betrayals of his youth, his hero’s call. All movement in the first movie comes through his emotions and decisions, and the entire second Guardians film is dedicated to Star-Lord’s issues with his father, Ego. Quill is the star played by a star, Chris Pratt, who adds teeth to the foolish humor and ignorance of his character on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Andy Dwyer. Pratt’s Star-Lord is different than Dwyer in that Star-Lord is provided more responsibility and more serious plotlines in Guardians than Dwyer — who mostly doddles about in Parks and Recreation — and that presents a problem.

It’s reckless to give boys such responsibility.

Throughout Avengers: Infinity War, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord proves time and time again that his simple earnestness actually masks his childishness, to the rest of the Avengers detriment. For instance, when Thor arrives onto the Guardians’ ship, Star-Lord is knocked off his perch by envy. Drax points this out to Quill saying, “You’re a dude. He’s a man.” Unable to deal with the possibility that someone else may be more attractive than him, sharper than him, more refined than him, Star-Lord falls into a humorous but ultimately ridiculous pattern of childish mocking towards The Norse God. It’s a defensive, self-centered reaction.

This self-centeredness is on display again when the Avengers and Guardians on Titan are able to corral Thanos and hold him as a momentary captive. Quill swoops in, only a moment before confronting Thanos in a fit of mournful rage, and proclaims that the plan to capture Thanos only worked because it was his plan. The humor that Chris Pratt adds to these moments of tension usually make him, unfortunately, an attractive character to many of us in the audience. In this case, however, Quill seems desperately amateurish and out-of-place. His insecurity is an addiction, making him crave validation for passive attributes. These boyish qualities, though cute, make Quill a poor leader.

It’s in that same scene, while the Avengers have Thanos under arrest, that Star-Lord blows it. Thanos’s glove, with all of its force, with all of those stones — filled with strength and power — was nearly nearly tightened in the victorious clutch of the Avengers as it slipped off of Thanos’s brutal fist.

Star-Lord ruined that salvation. Lost in the pain of Gamora’s death, Peter Quill wailed on Thanos’s bulky head with pitiful strikes, which did no harm to his enemy. Rather, his actions brought the Avengers’ battle against Thanos on the planet Titan to a tragic end. Thanos gripped back his glove.

In that scene, Quill’s reaction to Gamora’s passing, to his own suffering, is understandable. He was angry and he acted like it. However, Star-Lord’s response is still disastrous. He threw a temper tantrum, one with no room for Chris Pratt’s simple charm or boyish humor. Star-Lord’s failure is made obvious for the audience, and his flailing punches and mournful cries crystalize for us the dangerous recklessness of the man-child. And, in the Avengers: Infinity War, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill is certainly that.

However, Star-Lord is not the only character whose attributes present questions. Thanos’s childishness is less obvious to the audience, because his is clouded by his strength and power as well as his moralistic profundity. Thanos uses these characteristics as shields to protect his own childlike entitlement. Unheard and ignored in his youth, Thanos reveals to the audience his true motivation behind his quest for all of the infinity stones: to be validated.

His explanation of Titan’s downfall as an interior collapse due to overpopulation might be logical, but his solution (to gather all of the infinity stones to enact genocide) is self-centered. That is because Thanos’s persistence to prevent the violence that occurred on Titan from occurring to other societies is hindered by his need to be right. He blames others for his failure to protect Titan, and this experience has become a cinderblock on his shoulder. “They called me a madman,” he says to Dr. Strange, “And I predicted what came to pass.” Thanos does not stop until he can prove to the universe that he is an all-knowing, all-powerful, correct, righteous God.

Both Thanos and Peter Quill are defined in Avengers: Infinity War by their insecurities, and like many men who seek safety, both exploit women to their own ends. Gamora is caught in between her father Thanos and her boyfriend Peter Quill, and for both she becomes nothing but an object. This is an unfortunate fact of Infinity War. Unlike the Guardian films, where the audience only knows Gamora as a persistent resistance to Thanos, in Infinity War, the audience becomes privy to Gamora’s story: her complicated family history, her betrayals and tragedies of youth, her no more valid but much more complex hero’s call.

But her journey is tragically cut short.

Infinity War is a long movie.

All of the action is packed into two hours and forty minutes, and the length can be explained by the film’s structure. The film is split in two, between Titan and Wakanda, Iron Man and Captain America, with Thor’s journey acting as an intermediary, connecting the intergalactic battles. Both structural halves include personal moments of truth for its characters.

For those that arrive on Titan, the intimate crisis occurs between Peter Quill and Gamora. Before arriving to the planet, Gamora implores Quill to do the right thing and prevent Thanos from garnering the soul stone by killing her, if need be. Quill tries to diffuse the tension of the request with jokes about grenades, but Gamora cajoles him into a serious commitment.

Well, eventually need does come to be. Quill stands with his finger wrapped around the trigger, doubting Gamora’s decision to sacrifice herself. He is unsure of himself in that moment, though he has no right to question a decision that has already been made by someone else and for someone else. Still, Quill wrestles the space and scene away from Gamora, making it all about him.

Quill is then only moved to act by Thanos’s challenge and Gamora’s reassurance. “I love you. More than you’ll ever know,” Gamora screams to Quill. It’s a nice, sentimental message from Gamora, but it’s a transactional one: I will affirm your insecure position in my life in order to save the universe. Oedipus aside, Gamora’s affection in that moment is more like a parent’s love towards a child, which might explain why Thanos playfully says, “I like you,” to Quill before he morphs reality to thwart his daughter. Game recognizes game.

But the structure of the film also allows for Quill’s natural foil: Vision.

Vision, too, is in a personal relationship with a superhero work colleague, Scarlett Witch, and he too faces a moment of truth where sacrifices are called for.

From the moment we’re introduced to Vision in Infinity War, we immediately notice a maturity not shown by Star-Lord. Vision is secure in his position to Scarlett Witch, and frankly states his feelings, thoughts, wants, and needs. “This works,” he tells Scarlett Witch, before asking her to stay with him longer. It’s the beginning of a conversation where both sides are heard, interrupted not by Vision’s personal failings, but by tragic circumstance.

Unlike Quill, who cannot see past himself, Vision is reserved in his measurement of his importance. He admits that his own destruction can help save the universe but does not indulge or inflate this self-sacrifice. There is no need for praise. In fact, he delays his request to die for as long as possible, not only to save his own life but to prevent burdening his partner with the pain that comes from having to destroy someone she loves. This pain is something that Quill transfers to himself without true empathy and is the same pain Thanos bowls over, flipping Gamora off the edge of the cliff to attain the soul stone without hesitation.

When the time comes for Vision to sacrifice himself, he balances his own needs with the needs of those closest to him, as well as with the needs of the universe. In this way, he is more like Gamora, but she is burdened by Star-Lord’s insecurity and selfishness, which forces her into a compromised position as an object. By having to say, “I love you,” she reminds Quill that he is the important person in the process, though it is Gamora who is asking to die, and though it is Gamora who knows where the soul stone is, thus making her much more powerful than Quill ever could be.

Vision, however, intentionally objectifies himself to support Scartlett Witch. Knowing that Scarlett Witch will be hurt by having to hurt him, Vision tells her that “It’s alright, you can’t hurt me.” He recognizes that what he is asking of Scarlett Witch has consequences for her, and uses that moment to empower her to do the right thing. Unlike Star-Lord, who questions Gamora’s agency, Vision supports Scarlett Witch’s decision-making ability.

The two outcomes are stark in their contrasts. Scarlett Witch steps up to the task, genuinely secured by her partner, while Star-Lord ends up throwing a fit that eventually kills half the universe. Star-Lord is exposed as a poor leader without Gamora, while on the other hand Scarlett Witch faces her own death with a look of relief, as if she believes that in death she will be reunited with someone she knows loves her.

But, however compelling these implications may be, they are still somewhat unsatisfying. After all, Gamora ends up “fridged” by the filmmakers; her presence merely becomes a plot tool to push the character arcs of Star-Lord and Thanos. One cannot tell if her loss is necessary. Furthermore, it would be a waste to not appreciate her bravery and understand the dangerous force behind her death: the boyishness that underlies many of the acidic portions of masculinity.

In Avengers: Infinity War, the difference between a boy and a man — between positive masculinity and toxic masculinity — is defined not by position or power, but by how one confronts pain. Star-Lord is supposed to be a leader. Thanos is supposed to be powerful. Vision is the only, pardon me, vision of positive masculinity out of the three.

Humility in the face of pain is yet to be incorporated into the definition that American masculinity. The outcome of this fact is simple if not terrifying — in our midst are children dressed as men; entitled and immature actors clothed in gloves of power, leading blind boys into the wilderness. This has been the American way for quite some time now, and we have not only let it pass but have bought and sold this brand of masculinity.

For instance, it should surprise no one that white men showed up in droves to vote for a self-centered, petulant child. One can imagine how painful losing a job to the global economy might be, but grasping for the coattails of a racist, sexist, xenophobic madman is no way to handle that pain. Voting for Donald Trump was a temper tantrum, and what’s even more tragic is that, in order to assuage their husband’s loss of stature, many white women felt it necesarry to vote for that madman too.

Conservatives, however, are not the only ones who have caved to this kind of behavior. Liberals are also culpable. The New York Times has dedicated whole swaths of ink to allies of America’s Thanos. They also wrote one profile about a white man who averted his eyes from the devastating effects of 11/8/2016 to protect himself, rather than countenance the pain since that day. No flourishing rhetoric about “free thought” could convince one that such is not the absolute display of a child’s cowardice. Nor can one be convinced of Mark Zuckerberg’s boyish ignorance. Zuckerberg seems akin to Steve Bannon in his ability to create chaos and avoid consequence.

Many Americans are still boys.

One hopes, though, that this reality will change, like Thanos changed Star-Lord and Gamora’s reality with the squeeze of his fist. One hates to admit it, but Thanos was correct in that moment, because the more accurate reflection of truth was not heroism on the part of Star-Lord, but of a boy trapped in the façade of his own self-importance.

But what Vision presented to Thanos could not be bent by reality. His maturity was overwhelmingly sincere and his honesty was so powerful that Thanos had to cheat to overcome him. Vision’s example is worthy: consider the consequences of your actions, weigh yourself fairly, include the perspectives of others, and, if you have to, destroy the pieces of yourself that no longer serve you or anyone else a purpose. By turning back the clock on such heroics, Thanos proved that our conception of masculinity is not quite at Vision’s level yet.

Writer/Educator