In Defence Of The Marvel Cinematic Universe's First Openly Gay Character
Warning: the following will unabashedly discuss spoilers from 'Avengers: Endgame'.
While Avengers: Endgame is currently smashing box office records, the massive motion picture also included a minor historic victory for LGBTQ+ inclusion.
During a scene at a grief counselling meeting where Captain America sits with some of the other survivors of Thanos’ snap, a man speaks about re-entering the dating pool, casually mentioning the points during his date where he and his male partner broke down in tears.
It was a charming, inconsequential moment in the whopping 181-minute runtime of Endgame, but was a decent nod to the fact that prior to Endgame, there have been no canonically queer characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To clarify, there have been hints that characters may not be entirely straight, from rumours about Captain Marvel (especially with her new haircut) to cut scenes alluding to Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie having relationships with women in Thor: Ragnarok. Thompson was also vocal about Valkyrie’s bisexuality in interviews, but none of it ever made it to the big screen. Marvel has also had openly queer characters in some of their small screen outings like Jessica Jones and Marvel’s Runaways, and there are rumours the upcoming Eternals film will also feature a gay Asian male character (played by a queer Asian man!), Marvel Studio's president Kevin Feige has also gone on the record to tease LGBTQ+ superheroes in the future, but the character of “Grieving man” officially marked the first LGBTQ+ character in an MCU movie.
Grieving man was also played by one of the film’s co-directors, Joe Russo, who along with his brother Anthony, spoke at length to Deadline about the addition of the character and its importance.
“Representation is really important,” Joe Russo said, It was important to us as we did four of these films, we wanted a gay character somewhere in them.” Russo also spoke about the choice to play the character himself saying, “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.”
Russo, who is married with children, has never identified as queer, so the best criticism of this character -- and the subsequent interview -- is that they could have used one of the many, many queer actors in the universe. But fans went further than that, saying the character was pandering, a waste and the filmmakers were congratulating themselves over nothing.
Most of the criticisms have been that the character wasn’t important enough in the grand scheme of things, that it wasn’t one of the main superheroes who kicked down the closet doors and tearfully came out to Thanos before they resumed one of the film’s many, many battles.
But to introduce a major character’s sexuality in a film so bloated and packed with action and characters as Endgame would have had even less impact than the passing woe of Russo’s sad man crying into his dessert (another valid criticism: what gay man orders dessert on a first date, let alone cries into it?). With a majority of the cast spent as ashes, the core Avengers were established enough that having Bruce Banner living as an out gay Hulk on Christopher Street would have been remarkably jarring (despite the addition of the CGI chest hair, which made him a gay ally).
The relationships in the films worked as the most basic plot devices -- Hawkeye’s beige family being snapped into beige ash driving him into a violent spiral of mass killings (his transition into Ronin was even less fleshed out than Russo’s date. When did he learn Japanese? Where was he getting the funds to travel the world, assassinating foreign gangs?), juxtaposed with Tony Stark’s desire to protect his daughter. But these heterosexual family units had been long established in the decade of Marvel films leading up to Endgame. Remember the immense snore-fest of our first visit to Hawkeye’s family home where we were supposed to care he was a woodsy everyman? He had a tractor AND a barn! And Stark’s relationship with Pepper Potts has been central to his -- albeit glacial -- maturing into an adult (leading into his ultimate sacrifice).
For all the celebrating we do on behalf of Marvel, they have been remarkably slow when it comes to representation. It took them 18 films to have a black lead, and four more before a woman headlined a film. Before that, Marvel was awash with heterosexual, white men saving the world again and again (with special guest Scarlett Johansson by their side).
It’s understandable that fans would be frustrated with the grandstanding of the Russos, the way they looked at Marvel’s terrible past with representation and attempted to take credit for providing the LGBTQ+ community with a handful of lines of dialogue about a Sad Gay, but at the end of the day it is something, and it was something entirely human. The moment was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and that was kind of wonderful to see.
Larson, who plays Captain Marvel, recently told an interviewer it broke her heart to hear him say growing up he’d never think there would be a gay superhero on the big screen, “I don’t understand how you could think that a certain type of person isn’t allowed to be a superhero,” she said, “So to me it’s like, we gotta move faster. But I’m always wanting to move faster with this stuff.”
Moving faster hasn’t been Marvel’s style when it comes to representing diverse faces and voices, but for what it’s worth, they are moving.
For some queer people, the character wasn’t enough, it was barely worth a mention. For others, the predictable chorus of, “Why does it matter if a character is gay?” couldn’t be resisted. But representation does matter.
Sitting in the cinema, prepared for three hours of unrelenting CGI smashing, only to find a quiet moment where Captain America -- America’s ass -- sat and listened to a queer man talk plainly about the banalities of dating in a post-snap world wasn’t the Carol and Valkyrie embrace that we hoped for, or the time travelling montage of Steve and Bucky kissing in front of various world monuments. Instead, we got something inherently human. Mourning. Dealing with the consequences of the actions of these so-called heroes.
“We wanted it to be casual, with the fact that the character is gay tied into the fabric of the storytelling and representing what everyday life is,” Russo told Deadline, “We’re trying to represent everyone in everyday life.”
“These are global movies that reach a lot of people. They are important to a lot of people and everyone has the right to see themselves on the screen and identify somewhere.”