When the teaser trailer for next year’s hotly anticipated Avengers sequel dropped on Friday, superhero fans discovered the film’s full title — it’ll be Avengers: Endgame — and got a vague sense of what to expect after Avengers: Infinity War’s cliffhanger ending.
But what they probably weren’t as prepared for was the image of Captain America crying. Clearly, the internet wasn’t ready for it.
Erik Davis, managing editor over at Fandango, was hardly alone in his response. Comic-book sites ran posts that collected freaked-out reactions on Twitter from people who couldn’t handle the idea that mighty Steve Rogers would be in tears after what went down in Infinity War. As one fan put it:
We’re used to superheroes being expressive, but those emotions tend toward the aggro side of the spectrum. It’s far more common for costumed characters to be angry than sad — and even when they ought to be sad, they opt for rage anyway. This probably isn’t surprising: We think of our fictional male heroes as being all-powerful, so watching them break down in such a nakedly vulnerable way would suggest they aren’t.
This judgmental big-boys-don’t-cry cultural narrative is a powerful and persuasive one, even in real life. In 2016, when President Obama got teary-eyed during a press conference in the wake of recent school shootings, Fox News accused him of faking his tears, while conservative buffoon Ben Shapiro mocked him on Twitter, derisively comparing Obama’s genuine sorrow to James Van Der Beek’s ugly-cry face on Dawson’s Creek. The message was clear: A guy who cried was either a wimp or a liar — no self-respecting man would ever allow himself to be so unguarded in public.
Superhero movies have largely adopted this same philosophy, being very careful when they allow their most iconic characters to weep. A notable and telling exception was Tobey Maguire in the first Spider-Man, back in 2002, when he cries at Uncle Ben’s death.
It’s a crucial moment in Peter Parker’s origin story — familial death is as major as that radioactive spider bite in his mythology — and Maguire unashamedly weeps. But in a way, his frank display of emotion could be explained away: After all, he’s just an impressionable kid, not a man.
That may seem like a simplistic rationale, but look at how adult superhero characters react in comparison. For instance, in Man of Steel, Superman is forced to violate one of his character’s core tenets, which is that he doesn’t kill people. But that’s exactly what he does when he must stop the villainous Zod from wiping out dozens of innocent bystanders. Realizing the consequences of his lethal actions, Superman (played by Henry Cavill) gets very, very upset. But notice that he doesn’t actually cry — he just screams in anguish. Next, the movie does the superhero equivalent of what’s acceptable for manly men: He’s cradled affectionately by his love interest, Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Superman is down on his knees, his face buried in her midsection, but then the camera pulls away, as if nervous to be too close to the Man of Steel should he start sobbing. The strong Kal-El doesn’t shed a tear — even when he grieves, he does it in a bro’s bro kind of way.
This tendency isn’t unique to Warner Bros.’ DC films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had its share of poignant moments and shocking revelations, but it’s rare to see the characters cry. Captain America wakes up decades later after being frozen solid, only to discover that all those he loved (including Peggy Carter) are dead or dying. But even at her funeral, he never wavers from his stoic, lump-in-the-throat reserve. And when Iron Man learns that Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) killed his parents in Captain America: Civil War, Robert Downey Jr. gives us the red-eyes treatment, but his sorrow is soon transformed into violence.
Superheroes may be incredible, fearless figures, but they’re not really in touch with their feelings. Rather than processing grief, they lash out, seeking vengeance. It’s a very adolescent-male way of operating in the world, equating physical strength and forceful retribution with emotional control. Comic-book movies ennoble such immaturity, treating the death of loved ones as mere plot twists — and so their tragedies have a brooding grandeur to them, requiring action-packed repercussions. Even worse, we’ve come to accept and embrace this hit-back philosophy. After all, how many MCU movies would have been blockbusters if the characters resolved their issues by seeking counseling as opposed to, say, beating the crap out of one another?
If a superhero is sobbing, though, watch out: It means that character is clearly no longer in his right mind. In Watchmen, we see a flashback in which the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) tearfully and drunkenly breaks into the home of his nemesis, Moloch (Matt Frewer), to unburden himself. (As a further indication of how uncharacteristic and nakedly emotional the Comedian is behaving in this moment, he’s not wearing his mask, either.) The scene is meant to be upsetting: As Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) later muses, “What could have possibly scared the Comedian enough to cry in front of Moloch?”
It’s not as if audiences would tune out superhero films if their beloved characters cried on occasion. Some fans actually want to see it more. Writing for SlashFilm last year around the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming, culture journalist Monique Jones argued in a piece subtitled “Why Captain America Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Cry” that Marvel would only strengthen its grip on viewers by acknowledging its characters’ full range of emotions:
Disney and Marvel could go far if they just face the facts — they are avoiding the important task of creating vulnerable male characters in general. Regardless of whether the character is gay or straight, it would mean a lot if Marvel superheroes were simply allowed to show emotions other than anger and snarkiness. Imagine if we saw a superhero that was allowed to cry and was still seen as a strong, American hero. With all the junk Steve’s been through, you’d think we’d have seen him ugly cry on screen by now. But such emotions are still relegated to women and young boys, like Spider-Man. We saw poor Peter Parker have a nervous breakdown when he was trapped under the rubble in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and that was important for us to see in terms of his development as a young man and as a superhero. However, another reason he was allowed to show these emotions is because he’s a boy, not a jacked-up man. He’s still seen as moldable clay, and he’s still being molded into a man that doesn’t cry.
Tom Holland’s freak-out in Homecoming paved the way for Spider-Man’s emotional “death” at the end of Infinity War: We’re so distraught about the character’s apparent demise, in part, because he’s allowed us to see the unvarnished anguish and insecurity that are integral to his makeup. But Spidey isn’t the only hero with such complexity — it’s just that he’s one of the few who’s allowed to display it.
So, as we prepare for Avengers: Endgame, which arrives in April, it’s likely that “Captain America crying” memes will inundate us, suggesting a cultural shift toward being okay with weepy crime-fighters. It’s about time — hey, it’s not like the actors playing these characters don’t have real feelings about inhabiting these iconic superheroes. When Evans wrapped up his filming of Endgame in October, he tweeted, “It was an emotional day to say the least. Playing this role over the last 8 years has been an honor.” This prompted Ryan Reynolds (whose Deadpool movies are noticeably sappy amidst the blood and F-bombs) to tweet back, “I’m not crying. I’m weeping. There’s a difference.”
The joke was a comment on the manly-man tendency to pretend that you’re too tough to cry — any evidence of tears is clearly some biological anomaly and not, y’know, actual sentiment. But it’s also an acknowledgement of the emotional connection audiences and actors have to these indelible roles with their larger-than-life narratives. Superheroes can leap tall buildings and save the planet from destruction — it won’t kill them to get a little blubbery now and again, too.