Why MCU’s First Openly Gay Moment Is Bullshit Representation
Disney’s at it again. The studio that’s so big and powerful that it owns Pixar, Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a slew of Fox properties, is claiming it’s breaking ground in gay representation by doing the very least possible. Last time it was Beauty and the Beast’s “exclusively gay moment.” Now, it’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it queer character in Avengers: Endgame.
Below are minor spoilers for Avengers: Endgame
Deadline has announced Avengers: Endgame contains “the first openly gay character to appear in a Disney/Marvel movie.” Which sounds like big news! But the reality is predictably disappointing. For those of you who have already seen the movie, you may well be scratching your heads, wondering if you missed something for a bathroom break or while the audience was roaring with excitement. More likely you forgot the scene and the character because it’s totally inconsequential.
Here’s a clue: The character was played by Joe Russo [pictured above], who co-directed this film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War with his brother Anthony Russo. Anything? Okay. He’s the guy in the group therapy session who tells Captain America about a bad date. He uses he/him pronouns when speaking about his date, saying in part, “He cried when they served the salad. I cried just before dessert.” That’s it. And the Russos want queer audiences to know, you’re welcome.
Here’s what Joe Russo told Deadline about that moment:
“Representation is really important. It was important to us as we did four of these films, we wanted a gay character somewhere in them. We felt it was important that one of us play him, to ensure the integrity and show it is so important to the filmmakers that one of us is representing that. It is a perfect time because one of the things that is compelling about the Marvel Universe moving forward is its focus on diversity.”
This is the 22nd MCU movie, the fourth directed by the Russos, and the big gay moment for which they expect praise is an average Joe (Russo) talking about a gay date for about 10 seconds. But hang on! Anthony Russo offers some justification on why it’s not one of the Marvel heroes who gets this gay moment that Deadline proclaimed a “milestone”:
“The fact that the character is gay will get attention but it isn’t where the scene started. When you have a story point that includes killing half of all humans on Earth, you’re telling a bigger story than The Avengers. So that scene was important to us in telling the story of the larger world. We wanted to have a voice that was talking about the experience of people that went beyond The Avengers. That’s why we felt we really needed it in the movie. Otherwise, it just became too hermetic and insular. That character that Joe is playing really came from that point of view, him being an everyman who has suffered from Thanos’ act.”
I’m calling bullshit. Yes, the Russos have made sure that in the biggest movie fo the summer there was at least SOME queer representation. Yes, one of them playing the role may well speak to their sincerity on this matter. But I call bullshit that queer audiences should be grateful for this “scrap” as S.E. Fleenor rightly puts it in their Magicians critique. The Russos decided their big gay moment would show that in the MCU an everyman can finally be queer, but not a superhero. I call bullshit that a major studio gets credit for LGBTQA+ representation for something THIS minor. And I call bullshit that Disney’s doing it AGAIN.
Let’s circle back to 2017’s live-action Beauty and the Beast. In it, Josh Gad played LaFou, the fawning minion of the brutish Gaston. Ahead of its release, director Bill Condon promised a “nice, exclusively gay moment” for LaFou, which scored headlines promoting Disney’s first gay character! (As if all those gay-coded villains from their cartoons don’t exist? Ursula would like a WORD!) But when audiences saw this “exclusively gay moment,” the response was less “We’ve been seen!” and more “Is that all there is?”
As described by Jackson McHenry for Vulture:
“During a group dance, LeFou starts off dancing with a woman, and then strikes up with the dress-loving henchman. It’s certainly a moment because it lasts for two seconds at the most. It’s gay, in the sense that two male characters are doing something that expresses affection, though it feels so platonic they might as well be shaking hands. It’s certainly not exclusively gay, however, as other couples are still dancing in the background. To be exclusive, you have to exclude — get the straights out of the shot!
More troubling is that why Endgame’s is the first official gay moment in the MCU is because Disney has cut them twice before. In interviews about Thor: Raganarok, Tessa Thompson revealed that she considered her character, Valkyrie, to be bisexual, as she’s been in the Fearless Defenders comics. But moreover, director Taika Waititi actually shot a scene that’d confirm this identity, “a glimpse of a woman walking out of Valkyrie’s bedroom.” However, it didn’t make the final cut. Similarly, a lesbian flirtation between two members of the Dora Milage—Wakanda’s all-female warrior squad—was cut from Black Panther. News of these cuts was met—not exactly with outrage—but disappointment online. Maybe after two test runs, Disney/Marvel felt safe showing a gay character—as long as he wasn’t remotely a lead. That means Disney and Marvel are behind other studios. But not by much.
Yeah, Disney’s not the only studio to overhype their gay representation. Remember all the fuss over Star Trek Into Darkness making Sulu gay? Then all Paramount Pictures gave us was John Cho being spotted with a man who’s implied to be his husband. Or how about 2017’s Power Rangers, which was promoted as the first movie with an openly gay superhero? Then, all Lionsgate delivered was Trini shrugging when asked about “girlfriend problems.” The only superhero movie that’s made a superhero explicitly queer is Deadpool 2. And frankly, as an R-rated franchise dedicated to pushing the envelope and buttons, it should have gone further. (Read my Mashable piece for more on that.)
These much-hyped “gay moments” are routinely so brief and so unimportant to the plot that they could all have been cut as easily as the MCU’s. This reveals how hesitant studios are to break boundaries when it comes to LGBTQA+ representation. Yet queer audiences are expected to feel grateful for even these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it recognitions that we exist? Fuck that. It’s time for more.
For years, the MCU—and the Russos—have been happy enough to titillate us with shots of Steve and Bucky, gazing and hugging, allowing the Stucky fandom to grow wide and hopeful. Thompson champions queer inclusion but has no power to make it happen onscreen. Then the MCU gave us barely enough fuel in Captain Marvel to ship Carol and Maria. Queer representation in superhero movies shouldn’t exist solely in fan theories and press ops. And it’s especially insulting for the Russos to try to claim queer street cred while Endgame deprives us of the big reunion Stucky fans had been waiting for. At Vanity Fairy, Joanna breaks all that down beautifully. But in brief: It was not Sam whose ashing hit Cap hardest. So giving him the return moment over Bucky was almost as garish a NO HOMO disclaimer as forcing in Sharon Carter as Cap’s love interest. (Notably, something that happened in both Russo/Cap movies.) Of course, the MCU was never going to make Stucky canon. But did the Russos have to work so hard to make that final hug/farewell so concretely platonic and totally bro-hetero?
Of course, inclusion on any front has been slow to come to the MCU. Seventeen movies centered on white-male heroes before Black Panther broke the color barrier. There were 20 focused on men before Captain Marvel became the first female-fronted MCU movie. How many more movies must come before queer audiences get superpowered representation onscreen? Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is evasive on that point.
Asked about the rumor that The Eternals could feature the MCU’s first openly gay hero, Feige told io9 , “Well it’s accurate in that we’ve talked about [it for] a long time. You look at the success of Captain Marvel and Black Panther. We want the movies to reflect the audience, and we want every member of our global audience to see themselves reflected on the screen. And that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time. And certainly, that’s what we’re focusing on going forward.”
Enough of ambiguity, empty promises, and scraps! Over the past ten years, the Marvel movies have become an industry unto themselves. They make astounding amounts of money in theaters and in merchandising. So the unspoken fear that a queer hero could kill the golden goose sounds more and more ridiculous with each new money milestone. Will there be some bigots domestically who might boycott an MCU movie with a queer hero? Sure. But look to Captain Marvel’s box office of more than $1 billion worldwide to see how the misogynistic boycott went. Now, Endgame surpassed the $1 billion mark in just one weekend. So, how many more movies and millions will it take for Disney/Marvel to risk giving a queer character more than an easily cut “gay moment?” After earning all these billions and worldwide popularity that veers into cultish brand loyalty, can’t Disney/Marvel afford to take a risk that’d pay off big for queer audiences who’ve been starving from an irregular diet of scraps and empty promises?
We’re queer. We’ve been here. We’ve bought the tickets and t-shirts and toys too. We deserve a hero who is queer. When is it our turn?
Header Image Source: Getty