I should begin with a disclaimer: with the exception of the very basest of facts that almost anyone would know by virtue of growing up in America and/or being deeply immersed in all things pop culture, I don’t know squat about comic books or superheroes. That said, I think my comic tabula rasa gave me a unique advantage when I went to see The Avengers last weekend because I could look at the characters objectively. I don’t really know their back stories. I don’t know how they’re supposed to look, act, or sound. To me, they are just characters on the screen, probably representing certain ideas or themes, just like any other character in any other movie. So, after the movie was over and my husband asked, “What did you think?” without hesitation, I said, “I think Tony Stark is gay.”
Since Sunday, I’ve had time to meditate a bit more on this and speak with some of my film-savvy friends about their opinions on the matter (thanks, Tim!), and this had led me to amend my position. Tony Stark may or may not be gay (cue bad stereotypes: stylish and FITTED Black Sabbath tee-shirt, maybe Lucky Brand…good haircut and properly groomed facial hair…lots of face time…constantly disrobing from Iron Man suit…indirectly refers to himself as a diva…graceful glide…affected speech and body language…talks a lot with his hands) – but that’s neither here nor there. Regardless, he certainly embodies a different type of masculinity than the other male heroes in the movie; and, as far as gender stereotypes go, he’s sometimes even more feminine than the lone female hero, who can truly kick some ass without the aid of a metal costume.
No doubt, Tony Stark is, indeed, an alpha male. The Avengers may be a group of “equals,” each with his or her own skill set, but he certainly comes off as the de facto leader. However, what’s interesting is that his alpha maleness is not defined by his physicality but more by his intelligence, style, wit, and charm. He is not the strongest, toughest, or most muscular male character, yet he is the one who seems to command the most respect (well, maybe second to Hulk – but only out of fear). And, much of that command comes not only from his awesome energy suit, knowledge of physics, and fancy gadgets, but from the way that he dismisses and diminishes the importance of the “traditional” aspects of manliness found in the other male characters, mainly focusing his attention on the ultimate definition of American manliness, Captain America.
Steve Rogers is first seen in a boxing gym, relentlessly wailing on a heavy bag, a row of unused punching bags behind him in anticipation of him destroying the one he’s currently maiming. His muscles and barrel chest are difficult to miss (I tried to look away, but, alas, I could not). However, Rogers’s physical strength is shown to be no match for Tony Stark’s mental and verbal agility. During an argument, Stark calls Rogers’s rugged masculinity into question when he says, “A hero? Like you? You’re a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything that’s special about you came out of a bottle.” Comic book fans will know exactly what that bottle was and what it contained, but for non-com’s (and sports fans) like me, Stark is essentially accusing Rogers of being a juice-head, thereby exposing the thing that makes him heroic – his muscularity and physicality – as fraudulent.
Stark continues in this fashion throughout much the movie, using his intelligence and wit to one-up the patriotic soldier at every turn. When Rogers says to Stark, “Yeah. Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?” Stark replies handily, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” Not only is Stark showing his versatility beyond physical strength and force, but he is also turning using the conversation against Rogers by implying that all Captain America is, is a big man in a suit of armor (not armor so much as – what is that? – spandex?). In another verbal altercation between these two manly men, Rogers says to Stark, “I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.” Stark replies, “I think I would just cut the wire.” Rogers obviously believes that a hero (read: “real man”) makes sacrifices and protects others first. Stark doesn’t share this worldview; there are no “manly” obligations when it comes to being heroic. Being heroic means getting people out of a jam as quickly and efficiently as possible even if that means saving himself first (he’s totally right: think about the “in the event of a plane crash” brochures on airplanes; you’re always supposed to secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others. Duh, Captain America…). From making fun of Rogers’s “spangly outfit” to calling him a “Capsicle,” Iron Man verbally and mentally pummels Captain America – and his notion of masculinity – throughout the entire movie.
This is not to say that Iron Man’s not a tough guy in the traditional sense; he definitely holds his own in the fight scenes, and [KIND OF A SPOLIER] he’s pretty essential to the resolution of the movie. But, he’s got these other traits, traits that aren’t necessarily consistent with that rugged masculinity displayed in characters like Captain America, Hulk, and Thor where heroism and, thereby, manliness is equated mainly with strength and force. Nonetheless, Stark’s commanding role and leadership cannot be ignored or overpowered. He’s more than muscle; he’s Anderson Cooper with a jetpack. And, that’s my kind of man.