Background: I saw Avengers Age of Ultron opening weekend, and really liked the movie. That weekend I noticed a growing backlash online about the "Prima Nocta" line. A lot of people were upset, and as I thought about it, it seemed to me a bit of misguided self-righteousness. I tried to engage some people on the level of media criticism, but was told a comic book movie didn't deserve that treatment. Respectfully, I disagree. If a media text is very popular, it's more deserving of the critical eye because it has a broader reach. So this is what I wrote on Quora in answer to "How inappropriate was it for Joss Whedon to have Tony Stark make a joke about Prima Nocta?" It seemed to do well there, so I thought I'd release it here.
There's long been a conversation in media criticism about the male gaze, and the way the director portrays characters by how he places them relative to the camera. I should point out that nothing that I'm going to say here is groundbreaking in terms of film theory, but I haven't seen it mentioned in reference to this particular issue. What I've written below is a bit informal, but it's basically how you would approach the issue from an academic perspective.
Part of today's film theory is Mise-en-scene theory. Mise-en-scene is French for "everything in the scene." This theory allows for critique of film ideas based on what is included in the scene, costuming, shot selection, the relationship on screen between characters, the relationship of characters to the camera, etc.
If a character is powerful or has agency in the plot, the general tendency is to place the camera below the character shooting up at them. The audience is looking up at the powerful character.
If a character is weak or lacks agency, you place the camera above them, and shoot down towards them. The audience is looking down at the weak character.
Sometimes directors do this intentionally.
This is the first shot of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. The camera is looking down at him while he lays in a hotel room bed. For the first 6:15 of this scene, when we see Martin, the camera is above his eyeline looking down. The script is about the psychological repercussions of fighting in Vietnam. This man has no agency. He's fighting a war, and he's at the mercy of the war, the military, and the river.
This is the shot in Psycho as the killer enters the shower. Throughout the scene, we look down at poor Janet. Interestingly enough, we also look down on her killer. Hitch apparently felt he or she is at the mercy of other forces too.
Sometimes directors do this because of the Hollywood system. One of the conventions of Hollywood is that leading men are proportionally taller than leading women. This is because of a true life bias in casting, but interestingly enough, if the lead actor is shorter than the lead actress in real life, he's still taller on screen. When you shoot an interchange between an actor and an actress, you match eyelines with your diegetic world -- the world of the fictional narrative. This is one of those conventions that's a bit sexist as well.
Tom at a roster height of 5'9" and Nicole, at 5'10 1/2" at a premiere. He generally wears thick soled boots that have an easy inch in the sole, and he's probably got lifts going too. Most head to toe shots of Nicole have her in short heels:
This is the first time Tom and Nicole meet in Far and Away -- the first film with both that came to my mind.
The camera slightly down toward Nicole. She has a pitchfork on Tom. She's afraid of being attacked/raped and she lacks agency.
At first Tom was crouched, but as he decides she's not going to attack him, he relaxes and stands up. We go from a neutral shot to an upward shot as he relaxes. Nicole has 3 1/2 inches on Tom in real life, and is holding a pitchfork, but is looking up to him in their first meeting in the story. This guy is running things.
When a male character is doing something awesome, they get a hero shot. This is a shot that illustrates their ultimate power over the plot. This is happening more with women recently, but that's for another blog.
We ride together, we die together, Bad Boys for life.
Mifune with several of the Seven Samurai, because we're all borrowing from Kurosawa. Mifune has an extremely long sword, and that's an intentional choice by the director. More on swords later.
Basically any time Indiana Jones walks into a room, but especially when he chooses wisely.
What does this have to do with Avengers Age of Ultron?
Lifting Thor's hammer is essentially a derivative of the Arthurian legend of the sword and the stone. Whoever can pull Excalibur from the stone is worthy to be King of Albion (England/Britain) and wield the power of the monarchy. He's also righteous.
Here's a recent television adaptation of that myth. Arthur, with some help from Merlin's eyes, has just pulled Excalibur from the stone. My hero.
There is in film, and literature, a use of the sword as a male token for masculinity, and very bluntly as a phallic reference. Romeo and Juliet starts with a low comedy -- "Cut off their heads. The heads of the maids? Aye, the heads of the maids or their maidenheads... Draw thy tool" and ends with Juliet burying Romeo's "happy dagger" into herself. Shakespeare is the eternal champion of the sex joke.
Teddy Roosevelt's, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," comes to mind as a nonfictional example.
William Wallace certainly had a big... sword. His masculine token was so powerful, it get's it's own hero shot at the end of Braveheart, after it's thrown and sticks quivering into mother earth. Presumably the English then drop dead. Wallace is deceased at this point in the story, but his masculine power leads the Scots to victory.
So we can agree that swords and weapons in general have a commonly understood reference to male power in literature, and by extension cinema. In the academic world of film criticism, it's generally accepted that putting the camera low and shooting up at a character indicates they have agency/power.
In the scene in question from Avengers AoU, we have a bunch of guys trying to show off that they are "worthy." Tony Stark spouts off a lot of patriarchal, hetero-normative power talk. And then this happens:
Yeah, still not happening.
Look at how low the camera is. This isn't even a hero shot. This is a god shot. This is a dictator in the eyes of a documentary filmmaker. (Google image search "Leni Riefenstahl Triumph of the Will" and you'll see what I'm talking about.) Whedon is taking this common chauvinistic convention of american film, with all of it's patriarchal wrappings, and turning it into a big joke. The joke is not what comes out of Tony Stark's mouth. The Joke is Tony Stark's machismo. The Joke is that the military industrial complex, represented by War Machine, is not worthy. The Joke is patriarchy in cinema, and it's so embedded and such a subtle sexism, that these angry fans complete missed A) the contextual sexism that the director was making fun of, and B) that the director had made their point much more eloquently than they ever could.
In the meantime, they're all trying as hard as they can to burn him in effigy.
Having Tony Stark make the "Prima Nocta" joke, and then turning it around on him, is actually a more helpful critique than Braveheart gave to the issue, because in Braveheart, Murron needs William Wallace to fix the problem for her, and then she still gets killed by a different man, because Murron is living in a man's world and she has no agency at all in the plot. In fact, she is punished (killed) for breaking a King's law, but the man, Wallace, receives no direct punishment for breaking the same law. Braveheart reinforces the patriarchal narrative. In the Avengers films, Whedon likes to make a fool out of, or punish the character that's spouting off patriarchal chauvinism.
In short, it's not inappropriate, Whedon is making the point that all the angry internet commenters think they're fighting on behalf of. The angry fans just missed it because they aren't as sensitive to the encoded sexism as Whedon is.