Understanding AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR’s Obsession with the Male Ego

Warning: Spoilers follow for Avengers: Infinity War. Stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie.

Challenging though it may be to juggle more than two dozen major characters in a single feature, Avengers: Infinity War does its best to keep things from getting repetitive. The film sends Tony Stark and Doctor Strange on an impromptu getaway to Titan, the Guardians of the Galaxy on a stone-seizing operation to the Collector’s lounge, Thor and Rocket on a glorified arts and crafts retreat to Peter Dinklage’s foundry in the sky, and the rest of our favorite familiar faces to stand ground between a horde of charging outriders and a comatose Vision on the battlegrounds of Wakanda. But Marvel seems markedly less interested in exercising versatility when it comes to what these characters are contending with internally: in more cases than not, their own oversized noggins.

As if the story’s would-be saviors needed much more than the whims the Black Order mucking up their mission to prevent Thanos’ promise of universe-grade genocide, most of our heroes complicate matters with disproportionate concern for their own standing in some unwritten chain of command. Tony spends the bulk of Infinity War’s runtime in a tussle with Stephen Strange over rightful claim to their communal mission’s proverbial steering wheel. Meanwhile, Star-Lord, once thrust into this pair’s neck of the space woods, likewise insinuates himself as de facto team captain, though not before trading barbs with fellow self-ascribed alpha dog Rocket over the hierarchy of the Benatar ( their new ship) and fumbling through an array of attempts to outshine the ship’s impressive new drop-in Thor. And then, of course, there’s Thanos himself, whose drive to wipe out half of all life is based on the firm belief that he alone knows what’s best for the vast cosmos.

Seasoned MCU fans shouldn’t be particularly surprised by Infinity War’s indulgence in so many an ego trip. Tony has spent three Iron Man films, two Avengers movies, and even a so-called Captain America title taking lesson after lesson in humility, while Thor’s affinity for his own splendor was essentially the primary conflict of his 2011 debut; by Ragnarok, Thor’s carefully maintained self-image was no longer so statuesque to rank as a fatal flaw, but lingered all the same as a reliable source for laughs.

Evidently, the trait runs in the family, as Loki’s delusions of grandeur served as the primary generator for assaults on Asgard and Earth in Thor and The Avengers. We got more of the same in the form of Doctor Strange’s journey of self-discovery in his eponymous solo outing, likewise in Peter Quill’s institutional efforts in boyish one-upmanship speckling Guardians of the Galaxy, not to mention his rivalry with Rocket that steers the drama through the backdrop of Vol. 2. As a matter of fact, the latter feature also treats us to the same archetype in the form of Yondu, Taserface, and a character whose actual name is Ego, but now I’m getting exhausted.

When disseminated across the discrete releases that make up the Marvel canon, these characters don’t read as quite so redundant. In fact, the franchise’s proclivity toward the bravado-infused alpha male doesn’t even seem especially remarkable, given the tendency of pop culture at large to favor this breed of character. He finds life in genre favorites like Bruce Wayne, James Kirk, Han Solo, and Poe Dameron, and a comfortable home in the filmographies of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Aaron Sorkin. The small screen has treated us to variations as diverse as Tony Soprano, Walter White, Rick Sanchez, Sterling Archer, BoJack Horseman, Gregory House, Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, and the ever-nebulous The Doctor. He is just about every character ever played by Bill Murray, Tom Cruise, and Will Smith.

With a platter of this magnitude, it’s no wonder that we’ve become so desensitized to the archetype as to require a collision on the scale of Infinity War to clue us into exactly how deeply indebted Marvel is in the prioritization of the male ego. By this point, the toxicity of this breed is well regarded in circles willing to acknowledge it, but blissfully ignored by those still resting on the laurels of its self-diagnosed subjugation—an almost necessarily inborn trait in a character who feels the constant need to assert his capability to a world he seems to think has fallen tragically shy of appreciating it. But looking beyond the perils of feeding this particular beast, we notice its company being systematically starved.

Not only does the latest and largest Avengers experience let its alphas run amok, it does so at the expense of the rest of its lineup. We see very little of the relatively unassuming Steve Rogers, T’Challa, and Bruce Banner, and even less of reliably self-possessed (and even more reliably underserved) characters like Black Widow, Rhodey, and Sam Wilson. There may be other factors at play behind why we got barely more than a few words out of Steve Rogers in Infinity War or why we still have yet to see, and perhaps never will, a Black Widow standalone, but the primacy afforded to characters like Tony Stark, Peter Venkman, Maverick, and Hitch certainly doesn’t help.

In fact, it doesn’t help much of anything. Especially not said characters. While it may be going a bridge to far to say that these movies celebrate or reward their characters’ self-satisfaction, they certainly do seem to think its showcase is worthy of our every free minute. And there sure is something comically counterintuitive about treating a pandemic of narcissism by awarding it superlative attention.

But perhaps the greater tragedy is the stories we’re missing out on by continuing to calculate the ego-addled male with the utmost esteem. On the one hand, the MCU seems to be stepping slowly away from this mold, building up a new slate of heroes (Black Panther, Spider-Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and perhaps Captain Marvel) who aren’t so defined by a harmonic celebration and bemoaning of their own greatness. But on the other, Infinity War‘s distribution of screen time paints a vexing picture of the stories that Marvel seems to think are worth telling. Will we ever get an MCU—better yet, a zeitgeist at large—that realizes there’s something more invigorating than a man contending with than the weight of his own perceived brilliance, or a world around him that doesn’t share his perceptions?

If there’s one thing Thanos can teach us, let it be this.

Images: Marvel/Disney

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