Welcome to part 2 of Take Off Your Top: The Trend with Marvel’s Shirtless Heroes! If you missed part one of this article, swing on over and give it a looksy.
Last article, I focused on the different groups of men who are depicted as topless in the Marvel Universe—the Brute, the Beast, the Brawn, and the Baddie—and some possible reasons behind the trend. Concerning the last category, there seems to be a direct correlation between where a character falls on the good/bad spectrum and how much clothing they wear. I believe that nowhere is this case stronger than in characters who switch from one side of the spectrum to the other. Whether these characters are reformed villains, temporarily brainwashed, or simply undercover, when the line is crossed from good into evil, more chest is exposed. Now whether this is to make the audience connect with the savagery of the character, his unpredictable nature, her imposing force, or something a bit more visceral, there is a definite trend.
And while this fashion does not necessarily hold true for 100% of the characters, more than enough fit the bill to at least arouse suspicion. Allow me to make my case.
Let’s look at some examples:
- Daimon Hellstorm
- (Allegiance: Constantly Shifting)
From Marvel’s dark, horror-inspired period, Daimon Hellstorm—the Son of Satan—has never been fully on the heroic side of the spectrum; often his allegiances are in question due to his demonic background. For most of his career, he spent his time fighting his evil urges; however, he relapsed from time to time. When Hellstorm is paired up with his on-again-off-again team, the Defenders, he is usually seen covered up; however, when he gives in to darker urges—like in the current on-going series Avengers Undercover—he is shirtless and fancy free, showing off his pentagram chest marking to further emphasize his evil leanings.
- (Allegiance: From Bad to Good-ish)
This burly, green destroyer has reached recent notoriety in The Guardians of the Galaxy film and comics. Formerly a villain, Drax has drifted into the murky realm of anti-hero. His actions are questionable, at best, and even he views himself as a weapon to be aimed at an opponent—someone who gets the job done in the quickest and most efficient way. Since Drax has almost as much blood on his hands as a hero that he did as a villain, he needs to cue the audience in to the fact that “this man is dangerous” by bearing the costume of The Baddie: a bare chest.
- (Allegiance: From Bad to Good-ish to Bad)
Namor has always been an interesting case: tasked with ruling his kingdom, many of his morally questionable decisions have been in service of the greater good of his people. However, there have been many times that Namor has sparred with heroes throughout the decades, particularly the Fantastic Four.
In the 2000s, Marvel decided to purposefully rebrand Namor as a mutant, even going so far as to have him join the X-Men. While with the merry mutants, Namor added a lot of clothing to his costume (yet still exposing some chest to reference his moral ambiguity).
Later, Namor was possessed by a fraction of the Phoenix Force and became cosmically powered. Of course, the power began to corrupt him, as is evident by his go-go boy inspired leatherware and bare chest. All I’m saying, is I’m not complaining…
- (Allegiance: From Good to Bad-ish)
The Son of Odin has always been a noble champion for the cause of justice, even when those causes put his at odds with his father. However, after Marvel’s latest big event—Original Sin—Thor somehow becomes “unworthy”. While the causes have yet to be revealed, the repercussions are that Thor can no longer wield his hammer which powers him.
The hammer has found another bearer in the new female Thor, and, what costume have they given our hunky blonde bad boy? Leather pants and a red cape. No shirt.
- (Allegiance: Questionable)
I saved the Hulk for last because, given how many iterations of the Hulk there have been, there is a lot of material to draw from. While the green goliath (well…usually green) can definitely fit into the Brawn category, I feel like he is also the perfect example of a character that falls into the “moral ambiguity” category like Drax.
Hulk is, and always has been considered, a so-called hero. However, he has also always been a wild card. If the Avengers film is any indication, having a Hulk on your side was seen as the equivalent of a WMD in stretchy purple pants. He isn’t something to be reasoned with: he is something to be unleashed.
Often, the destruction that he causes as a by-product of his battles can be even more damaging than what the villain was intending. Due to his unpredictable nature, a secret group of heroes even once decided that the world would be better off with Hulk, and banished him deep into outer space.
Even the transformation of Bruce Banner into the Hulk—something reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—has Banner tearing out of his clothes to become a more dangerous (and less trustworthy) character. But the Hulk has not always been unreasoning; several of the incarnations have been decidedly less destructive and (coincidence?) clothed.
The first, introduced in 1986, was Joe Fixit, the Gray Hulk. Working in a Las Vegas casino as an enforcer or sorts, Joe was characterized by his blue three-piece suit. While Joe was not fully aligned with the heroes (he was more focused on his own agenda), he was purposefully absent from many of the destructive events that would have captured the Hulk’s attention.
In 1991, a unified Hulk form dubbed the Professor emerged. Choosing to work with the heroic group the Pantheon (even leading it at one point), the version of Hulk was much more intentional about doing good deeds and making restitutions for his previous wrongdoings. His costume, while simple, was a pair of pants and a form-fitting muscle shirt.
The current storyline—Omega Hulk—has yet another clothed incarnation of the Hulk calling himself Doc Green. While his motivations have yet to be fully determined, Doc Green is going around the world curing gamma-powered individuals of their powers. In his interactions with these individuals, however, he does not jump to violence as a first option of resolving conflict.
Now some might argue that these three characters had another thing in common besides clothing; an increased intellect. And while that may be the case, brainpower is not the deciding factor on whether or not to wear clothing. Let me drop one more gamma bomb on you: The Maestro. Fully intelligent, fully evil, fully shirtless.
First shown in an alternate future in 1993, the Maestro is a fully intelligent version of the Hulk who decided to use that intellect to his advantage: systematically and methodically killing every hero in the world that could oppose him. After he demolished the opposition, Maestro took his throne as ruler of the world. And while some appearances have Maestro sporting a cape or other trophies that he purloined from fallen heroes, all appearances have had him showing chest.
And to beat a dead horse, what’s the difference between Hulk and Abomination? Not much as far as costume; yet, Abomination is smarter.
So you may be asking, why is he reading into this topic so much? Why can’t he just sit, stare, and drool like the rest of us? Because I think it says something about ourselves as Americans and our hang-ups with body issues. It says that, at some level, we are still nervous, afraid, or revulsed by the male body. It says that, although it’s absolutely fine to have our heroines like this
our male heroes better not be the same. It speaks to the tired adage of our “men being men and our women being women” and the inane idea that showing off a well-toned body blurs the line too far between.
And, it impacts our community—a group that has embraced this liminal space of loose gender and identity definitions. Think about any protest a person has had to a gay pride parade: I can guarantee that they mentioned something about the way that people dressed and directly jumped to the conclusion that dressing in such a provocative manner was shoving our lifestyle down their throats.
I am a high school teacher. One thing that I like to regularly discuss with my kids is the idea of gender roles and expectations: Who sets them? Why are they there? Why do people feel the need to adhere to them?
To illustrate the point, I took one class to the Hawkeye Initiative website—a page where artists take poses that female characters are put in and show the inherent ridiculousness of those poses by inserting a male character in her place. Here was the photo I stopped on:
One of the students—a freshman boy—audibly gagged and began saying how incredibly disgusting it was. When I questioned him on why he would say that, he just kept saying “It’s just gross. It’s so nasty!” After a few of his classmates jumped in to question him, he finally gave up the argument with a line I’ll never forget: “I wouldn’t let that hero save me.”
So I, for one, would like to see this trend stopped. I would like to for artists, authors, and publishers alike to begin to broaden their horizons when it comes to masculinity and what makes a male hero a man or not. I would like to see a generation of children raised to believe that their bodies are not something uncivilized, brutish, or evil. I would like to see people embracing their forms—in whichever shapes they may come—without having to question the inherent “goodness” or “rightness” of their actions. I would like to see a future where little boys don’t react in disgust to a hero who’s showing a little skin.
And, ya know, I also wouldn’t mind seeing more good looking men in comics. ;)
What thoughts do you have on the topic? Jump into the debate in the comments section!