Take Off the Mask: The Construction and Impact of a 21st Century Hero

Marvel Studios’ Marvel’s Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron revitalize what it means to be a hero and invigorates audiences to be the hero in their everyday life.

What the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taught us over nearly a decade is that we need heroes. And not these “greater than thou” type of heroes that we see in characters like Superman. Real heroes. But what makes a hero, especially in the 21st century where the term needs a greater definition? Following Joseph Campbell’s definition, the 21st century hero differs from more classical definitions of heroes, because such heroic people don’t have to be on a high pedestal, nor do they always have to slay the dragon. Instead, they come off the pedestal to relate to everyone else. And the dragon takes a new form and become less tangible. It becomes society’s dragon, if you will.

The superhero genre of films taps into the intersection between what makes a hero and what audiences want in a hero. Arguably, Marvel Studios has been most successful in this endeavor. Unlike its predecessors, the film franchise relies on more than just great cinematography, but for me, the construction of the story and the relatable characters makes the studio more successful. And the success of the franchise demonstrates an audience’s support for the evolving superhero. This new 21st century superhero does more than just teach us how to be heroes. The new superhero that audiences want is more human; a hero whom we can relate to; not the godlike supermen anymore. They are more like us. Just, you know, heroic.

But, you may argue, other films, genres, and even superhero films have already created inspirational heroes. And you are right. The rise of the superhero in film since Superman (1978) offers an opportunity to inspire groups to see the hero within themselves. The film stands as a testament to the modern hero because of this near perfect and godlike character. But in the 21st century, audiences want to see a more realistic hero; they want to see themselves in these superheroes. Especially when we log onto our social media and are bombarded with violent tragedies, we want a realistic hero who tackles more real world problems, not just takes down the supervillain bent on world domination. Such desire speaks to the overarching intent and success of the Marvel film franchise. They have an ability to create characters with real human flaws; flaws that sometimes have catastrophic consequences. Despite the failings of these heroes throughout Marvel’s Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, new heroes rise from the ashes. Their ability to be morally upstanding despite obvious flaws translates into everyday heroism. Ultimately, the heroes from Marvel’s Avengers, and Avengers: Age of Ultron reflect heroic evolution by propelling its elements into the 21st century. These films and characters move away from the standard motif of the idealistic hero and take on more aspects of a tragic hero in a way that can more successfully transform into everyday heroism.

The development of the 21st century hero revolves around a storyline that mirrors current events. For example, Marvel’s Avengers’ primary conflict centralizes around overcoming an invader. The films resonates with the typical war story or terrorist invasions that remind audiences of Nazi Germany or an even larger scale 9/11 attack. The primary antagonist, Loki, represents this foreign invader. His character easily fits into the shoes of many terrorists or possibly dictators, yet perhaps his strongest parallel is to a version of Hitler. While Loki is busy doing bad guy things (as bad guys typically do when trying to conquer the planet) he decides that a little chaos is in order at an elegant event at a museum in Germany and forces a group of frightened onlookers to kneel before him. Classic villain technique. While he is giving the typical bad guy speech that no one really wants to hear, an old man stands up in defiance. A little tit-for-tat between Loki and this old man, and right as Loki tries to blast him with some sort of energy spear, BOOM! Captain America deflects the plasma bolt of death away and boldly proclaims, “You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing” (Cue ‘Merica chanting). Now, there is such a classic portrayal of synecdoche between America and Nazi Germany and we cheer Captain America and cheer for this old man (although the cheers are probably louder for Captain America). Through this dialogue between Captain America, Loki, and this Old Man, the audience gets to draw a powerful connection to see the Old Man, who is just as heroic as Captain America.

(Left) my hero, (Right) not so much

It’s not only the youth who can change a nation, but the everyday acts of defiance that teach all of us to be everyday heroes. Given the more modern conflicts and controversies that people are living through, Captain America reminds audiences to defy unjust authority, a notion that appeals to those of us who feel that we live in a world that makes us feel powerless.

Later in the film, the concept of invasion develops with an all out war between the Avengers and this alien army called the Chitauri. In the climactic scenes from the Battle of New York, we can’t help but think of a sci-fi version of 9/11. Whedon reminds his audience of this tragedy in order to highlight some of the heroes from the 9/11 attacks. In this case, we reminisce on the cops’ role to manage the aftermath of the attack. To set the scene, Whedon utilizes images of kamikaze whale-like aliens crashing into buildings so they tumble down. That image carries weight to an American audience. Because of this similarity, we see the development of the modern superhero while the film captures and juxtaposes the scenes of the heroes with real moments of suffering from the citizens and police force of New York. For instance, there’s profound death and destruction all around as hordes of these alien soldiers along with flying alien whale-like monsters help level buildings. The way that Director Joss Whedon parallels the Avengers to the New York Police Department affirms and bolsters audiences because these everyday heroes can stand amongst the giants of the Avengers and play a major role in saving the innocent, just as the presence of the police officers as defenders speaks volumes because they are more present in fighting these titan foes. Like soldiers defending their home, the image of the police officer offers a more tangible presence of protection. Additionally, when we consider the current climate around police officers (a discussion this author is not prepared to dive into), their role in the films is meant to portray them as our everyday heroes parallel to the Avengers. Later, as the world tries to grapple with what happens to the Avengers at the end of the film, clips of news reports depict the controversy of having super heroes. These discussions do set up the conflict of Avengers: Age of Ultron, but they are mostly overshadowed by depictions of children dressing up as the various heroes in makeshift costumes and we see a waitress thanking Captain America for saving her life.

The waitress character during the Battle of New York serves many purposes, but her inclusion in the film highlights how the characters of the Avengers seem to be attacking bigger tasks than saving the world. However, the film’s focus on this random civilian serves to showcase the cost society pays because of the Avenger’s actions. By focusing part of the plot on Beth (the name given to her during a deleted scene), Whedon effectively develops Captain America and the other Avengers as more relatable characters because they interact with citizens on a personal level. When we first meet Beth, she’s working at a cafe when the Chitauri invade and the camera pans over her as she, along with other scared patrons, try to get off the street. Later, poor Beth is taken hostage along with others and almost killed by some sort of Chitauri bomb, yet Captain America manages to save all the hostages! Once the battle is over and the news stations creep in, Beth responds to a question about the threat of the Avengers with pure gratitude: “Captain America saved my life. Wherever he is and wherever any of them are… I would just… I would wanna say thank you.” In a way, Joss Whedon uses the waitress not to only remind the audience about the tangible reward of the Avenger’s task, but also to turn Captain America from an over the top hero into a relatable, everyday hero. He is her hero.

Whereas the primary motif of Marvel’s Avengers is the threat of an invader, Avengers: Age of Ultron tackles the struggles of managing an overbearing government that exploits too much power. While Marvel’s Avengers appealed to an audience yearning to take power back from the elite (something we see through the emphasis on Captain America), the next film appeals to an audience who fears the government and their overbearing, overreaching nature. After all, the writing of the screenplay and the timing of the release of the film was impeccable! America went through the NSA snafu and people often feel a twinge of fear when they give up some personal privacy in favor of technological perks. Yet there is something specific about the plot to Avengers: Age of Ultron that resonates with the audience. Remember Tony Stark and the discussion about personal responsibility? Well, in this film, Stark/Iron Man screw up. Big Time. With the accidental creation of Ultron, Tony Stark unleashes a sentient robot that aims to destroy mankind in order to protect it! This is an Asimovian’s worst nightmare, the machines rising up! And while the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron centralizes around the conflict between whether the concept of surveillance is a necessary precaution, we must remember an easy to overlook issue: Tony Stark works to solve his problem. This goes back to the idea that heroes are human too. Again, this may seem to be a mundane point, but when we are looking at the structure of heroism in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we cannot forget such a simple detail. The 21st century hero makes mistakes too. Our superheros cannot be relatable if they are perfect. Despite Tony Stark’s gargantuan mistake, his actions to correct it speak volumes about his heroism.

As we are looking at Tony Stark’s reaction to his accidental creation of Ultron, we should also consider the heroic elements of the other heroes in the film. Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Hulk all represent the modern hero because they rally together and collaborate through the conflict. That is not to suggest that these characters are altogether forgiving of Tony Stark (far from it!), but that these characters can get together in a time of need to solve a common problem. For the audience, these characters model good leadership because they accept each other’s flaws and failings, but each contribute a unique strength to tackle this unbeatable foe. This element was not as widely seen in Marvel’s Avengers which was largely a giant pissing contest about who has the biggest muscles. Instead, Avengers: Age of Ultron explores what makes a hero, but then begins to question if we really need heroes of this nature. By making this departure from the hero genre, Marvel Studios actually develops its own microevolution in defining heroes because the films progressively take the costs (financial as well human) and shine a spotlight on how dangerous unregulated heroes can be.

You know, we don’t really need superheroes, just heroes.

Wakanda. Check out 1:00–3:00, which best captures the destruction.

The level of brute and frankly unnecessary carnage takes on a greater force in Avengers: Age of Ultron because there is a backdrop of a hero’s failures behind it all. There is an increase of focus on people being harmed by the exploits of heroes in the films, and so we are meant to connect these moments as heroic failures that question whether or not society really wants to rely on the shoulders of giants. When the characters travel to the fictional country Wakanda, Hulk is possessed by the powers of Scarlet Witch and goes on a rampage within the city. Iron Man quickly takes on the challenge of subduing an out of control hero, but in the process, he practically levels the town. Throughout the entire sequence, there is a real presence of people being harmed through these actions. Whether it’s the camera taking on the perspective of a woman inside her car as Hulk pounds on the hood, or Iron Man being thrown into an elevator full of construction workers and seeing the crushed elevator falling over ten stories, or watching Iron Man blast Hulk down a construction zone skyscraper, toppling the tallest building in the town; the human cost to these heroes is starkly thrust into the face of the audience. What are we supposed to do with this information when only a few years ago these heroes were the saviors of the world? Joss Whedon challenges us to look at these characters with a sense of awe and respect, but really he wants us to see a world being destroyed by idealist heroes. His message concerns us with being the hero in our daily life, but not the kind of hero that changes the world in one fell swoop. These people are too dangerous. Perhaps we are instead supposed to look towards the meeker heroes such as Hawkeye and Black Widow who, despite their amazing abilities, are constrained to a more realistic world.

Whedon eloquently juxtaposes characters such as Hawkeye against the grandiose battle of the superhero elite. About midway through the narrative, the heroes head towards Clint Barton’s (Hawkeye) home, a quaint house off the grid. The audience is shocked when they learn about Hawkeye’s wife and kids (the only member of the Avengers to have a family). Through time spent there, the characters find their rallying cry to take on Ultron. What makes this scene so distinct is the message of the evolving hero. We are starting to see constraint; we see evidence of a hero who has more to live for. Hawkeye does not have the ability to cause the mass carnage that more powerful, more godlike characters such as Hulk can. This limitation; however, is meant to be seen as a strength. Hawkeye becomes the calling card of the modern hero because of his limitations.

Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) are two very mortal characters who don’t have the luxury of a multi-million (billion?) dollar suit to shield them, nor are they enhanced with amazing powers. In fact, in Age of Ultron we see in a greater sense the humanity of these two characters who inspire their everyday counterparts because they have desires to love and families to protect, yet they hear the call and respond. Perhaps we can be like them if we only put our mind to the task. Or maybe we can look at Captain America. The man fully embraces his personality in The Avengers and quickly takes the leadership role, but we also know that he has his limits. We see through someone like Captain America a message of hope and a desire to do the right thing. He’s a hero, he’s an American. We can be the hero too.

However, there is more to the construction of a hero than just beating up the bad guy and saving the Beths of the world. You have to be public and visible. People want to see you in order to be you. Now, Marvel’s Avengers does an excellent job with their character development and through the relatability of its core characters, we see the film flourish because of our ability to see ourselves in these heroes. And it’s all achieved by simply taking off the mask.

Public exposure overarches many elements of relatability throughout the Marvel franchise. Whereas the general motif of the superhero genre has been to create heroes with their alter ego of human perfection, there are characters whose identity is fragmented between the fallible self and the infallible hero when they hide behind the mask. Think about someone like Batman. For the most part, this character has a sense of moral absolutes and a stringent view of justice. His alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is just as human as the rest of us; he has fears, he makes mistakes, he doubts. We just don’t see that as much in Bruce Wayne when the mask is put on. Unlike Batman, the Marvel franchise often melds the alter ego with the superhero. The marvel heroes are not our modern olympic pantheon. They have evolved.

Instead of being reflections of human perfection, characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe shed their right to anonymity in spectacular ways that send a message of everyday heroics to the audience. With this in mind, the director of Marvel’s Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron Joss Whedon articulates to his audience that we don’t need the mask to be the hero. His direction demonstrates characters who unabashedly expose their faces to their enemy, but also to their friends. The government knows who they are, the general public knows their names, these heroes are out there for everyone to see.

Admittedly, superheroes could hide behind each other or some other heroes, but the heroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe demonstrate a resistance to that temptation by standing up despite knowing how public their failures can be. Take for instance the popular line from the end of Iron Man (2008) where Tony Stark goes off script during a press conference and announces “I am Iron Man” (his publicist probably quit that second). This sense of claiming identity opens up Tony Stark to a plethora of problems: lawsuits, personal attacks, overt pressure to perform. By removing the mask, Iron Man/Tony Stark’s badassery inspires people not only through bold proclamations, but also by asserting that we have to own who we are. By being exposed to the public, Iron Man shows audiences that true heroes are ones who will hold themselves accountable for their actions. Additionally, when we look at the onset of Marvel’s Avengers when Iron Man first appears on screen, we see him tackling environmental issues. We see a hero fighting climate change! He does not do anything too spectacular when you break it down, just a man in a pressurized suit welding a device to the power grid to help create a self-sustaining skyscraper. What a powerful message to send to the audience in such a subtle manner, that we can make a major change for society and we don’t really have to have a billion dollar company behind us (although having a Tony Stark in real life certainly would help).

War Machine is also an exemplary example of public accountability that is distinguished from someone like Iron Man because his character comes from a less distinguished background than Tony Stark. Colonel James Rhodes (War Machine) is a superhero working for the United States government and yet embarks on side missions for the Avengers with the full knowledge of the government. His work self and his superhero self have managed to coexist and he can accomplish mundane civil work (although granted he does work for the military, so how mundane can it really be?). War Machine can operate within this tangible world, and yet can also be a superhero. Military personnel and would-be recruits must see such a character and somehow imagine themselves saving the world too.

Most of these characters have removed their alter ego and instead blend together their mortal self and their super self. This action seems necessary to the construction of the 21st century superhero because these types of heroes can then more effectively demonstrate the connection between heroics and daily lives. No more beating up bad guys in the dead of night. That doesn’t speak as much to the 9–5 worker. The hero must be able to publicly engage a heroic self with an everyday self. Additionally, when we look at Captain America’s introduction in the film, he definitely strikes most people as an ordinary man from the Bronx (except for the fact that he obliterates punching bags). But the scenery coupled with the characters emphasizes an everyday heroic action. When Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) is introduced, we see him in an ordinary gym. To be frank, a dirty gym. I could afford a membership to somewhere better.

It’s the kind of gym that’s lost to time — no fancy trainer either. Instead, Steve is just training away at his own pace. He’s your everyday kind of guy; he just happens to be given the chance to do something extraordinary (Cue Samuel L. Jackson walking in with classified documents). The fact that an everyday guy like Steve Rogers can do the extraordinary resonates with the audience because of his stark contrast to the billion dollar man Tony Stark. To a 21st century world frustrated with a elitism mowing over the middle class, Steve Rogers was a breath of fresh air because he was accessible. He has the meager origin story, the out-of-timeness from being frozen since WWII that gives him an air of innocence. And Joss Whedon capitalizes on this with his audience, setting Captain America to be the main leader in the film because his upbringing and his humility made him more desirable as a model for everyday heroism than Tony Stark. Not to mention the intentional pivot of Captain America as an exemplary hero against competing comic book films from DC like The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Captain America then represented taking back the power from the elite and giving it to the everyday man. Thus, when Beth the waitress thanked Captain America as mentioned before, she represented America thanking him for giving them a sense of power to be the hero in the real world.

Marvel Studios and the Avengers films have empowered everyday heroes. Through the direction of Joss Whedon, these films that have story lines spanning many years, and we see the evolution of the superhero in film become a startling reflection of modern society. The film tackles 21st century issues and fears by giving its hero 21st century problems. But the film is not only successful because of its storyline. Success of the Marvel film franchise hinges upon these fallible characters who make titular mistakes, but still manage to come together to solve major problems. So, the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe represent the best of our society because of their moral uprightness. They hone in on not only the qualities that our society values, but the ones that we want to value: altruism and true selflessness. Ultimately, these values that have always existed in the superhero genre have only come to mean something greater because of the evolution of the 21st century superhero. This pantheon of godlike superheroes are maybe not so godlike after all because they not only rely on each other, but they empower the citizens to be the everyday hero.

Works Cited

Whedon, Joss. Avengers: Age of Ultron. Marvel Studios, 2015. Blu-Ray.

Whedon, Joss. Marvel’s Avengers. Paramount Pictures, 2012. Blu-Ray.