A couple of minor warnings first: the above video may be NSFW for language, and both the video and this post “spoils” details about a minor scene that happens within the first 30 minutes of Avengers: Endgame.
Edited 5/12/19: Since I wrote this, I’ve been seeing more interviews and articles that have made me change my mind about this. Worst is the announcement that a major character is going to be revealed to be LGBT in an upcoming movie. I’ve seen that interpreted as a new character being introduced, or an existing character coming out. Obviously keeping a character closeted for years and then treating it as a victory to reveal after the fact would be BS and invalidate every assumption I’ve made about what the movies are trying to do with “archetypal” characters. But really, the entire issue now seems more like a series of PR stunts and less like the sincere message of inclusion that I assumed it was when I first saw Endgame. I think I should probably stop trying to defend the multi-billion dollar franchise and let it speak for itself.
Original Post: Here’s something that annoys me, and these days, it’s such a relief to see something that just annoys me, as opposed to something that makes me outraged and unable to concentrate on anything except stomping around angrily muttering to myself.
The video above is from a recording of Jon Lovett’s podcast, and in it he calls out the new Avengers movie and director Joe Russo in particular for patting themselves on the back for claiming to make great strides in gay representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the surface, it seems like bullshit for them to be bragging about it, since it’s the first and only mention of gay relationships after 11 years and 22 movies, and it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference from a minor civilian character not really affiliated with any of the super heroes. The scene is of a support group with Steve Rogers and a bunch of other characters talking about life after Thanos, and Joe Russo plays a man who describes going on a date with another man and how neither of them have been able to come to terms with losing so many people.
First, let me get my basic assumptions out of the way:
- Representation in the media — even in something as seemingly trivial as superhero movies — is extremely important. I’m still convinced that if I’d seen more representations of gay men who weren’t caricatures when I was a teenager, I would’ve had a much easier time coming out and wouldn’t have wasted my 20s.
- Making a marketing push bragging about this minor scene as being a step forward for LGBTQ equality would be bullshit, but Russo didn’t do that. What actually happened was that the Russo brothers did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, and they were responding to a direct question the interviewer asked about it. It’s pretty disingenuous to make it sound like Marvel or Joe Russo were leading with it.
- Obviously, neither Marvel nor the Russo brothers need me to be defending them; they’re not scrappy underdogs and they’ll hold up fine against criticism on the internet. But I just think that it’s churlish and asinine to take a sincere gesture and throw it back in anyone’s face. That’s true whether it’s wishing someone Happy Holidays, or putting in a brief acknowledgement of non-hetero relationships in a blockbuster movie.
- It also seems churlish for me to point out how hypocritical it is for a speechwriter for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to be calling out anybody for spending years pretending that LGBT people don’t exist, before making a half-assed show of support and then expecting to be praised for it. So I’ll only mention it once.
- If a billion and a half dollars’ worth of people in international markets see a brief but sincere and sympathetic portrayal of a gay man who’s just like everyone else, I’ll appreciate it. Both in the spirit that it was included in the movie, and for the potential it has to reach audiences.
- If any other Marvel apologist (and I’ll concede that I am 100% a Marvel apologist) tries to claim that there are no gay characters in the MCU because these are action movies and not about relationships, tell them that that’s complete nonsense. The movies aren’t very sexy — apart, of course, from the constant stream of images going through my head every time Captain America or Thor are on screen — but they are full of heterosexual relationships. To the point where multiple storylines in Infinity War and Endgame, including a couple of the franchise-long story arcs, are driven by heterosexual romantic relationships.
I’ll also just say that I liked the scene. I noticed it when I was watching the movie, and I thought it was a nice little bit of welcome inclusion. Not earth-shattering, but welcome. And I don’t doubt its sincerity, both since Russo played the cameo himself, and because it’s played opposite Chris Evans, who’s been outspokenly pro-LGBT rights.
But Lovett practically sneers at it, both for being too short to be significant but also for drawing too much attention to itself. Of course I realize that Lovett is being hyperbolic in that video for effect, but he’s also got the tone of someone on a self-righteous tear fighting against bigotry and corporate cowardice. And to be clear, it’s not just Lovett. A simple Google search will turn up dozens of different think pieces calling out Russo and Marvel for being tone-deaf or much worse.
At the center of all of the arguments, I think, is the false dichotomy that Lovett presents: that either there’s an openly gay superhero in the MCU, or else Disney and Marvel execs are profit-driven cowards if not outright homophobes. That’s a claim that’s either short-sighted or disingenuous, depending on how charitable you’re feeling.
The actual choices are: the Marvel movies briefly show an incidentally gay character, as they did in Endgame; or there’s no representation at all. And if you want to blame someone for that, blame Marvel Comics. Or more accurately, blame over 60 years of Marvel Comics.
The reason the MCU doesn’t (and likely won’t soon) have an LGBT superhero is simply because all of its characters were created in a time back when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness. To claim that they can or should introduce new gay superheroes — or new superheroes, period — is to ignore why these movies exist. If you claim that they exist to make lots of money, that’s just lazy cynicism; these movies don’t need to be nearly as good as they are, and they’d still be plenty profitable. The real reason these movies exist is to bring decades’ worth of characters together into a cohesive “modern mythology” for a new audience. (Which will then make lots of money that they’re not making from selling comic books).
So as far as I’m aware, the movies have been dealing exclusively with the long-running “platonic ideal” versions of The Avengers and associated characters. With few exceptions, they don’t invent whole new characters that haven’t appeared in the comics, and they don’t significantly alter the existing characters. Origins are combined and streamlined, lengthy subplots or convoluted legacy storylines are omitted, and entire aspects of the characters might be left out or abbreviated, but for the most part, they’re not dramatically changed from the “essence” of the character.
With the caveat that I’m not a Marvel guy and definitely don’t know all the details (or even highlights for that matter) from the comics, here are the exceptions I’m aware of: Agent Coulson was invented for the movies, but he was created specifically to be essentially a MIB, an “everyman.” They used the Ultimates version of Nick Fury instead of the “main universe” one, but I would claim that’s less because of his race and more because Samuel L. Jackson is objectively and effortlessly bad-ass. They changed the origins of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver because they don’t have licensing rights for mutants. They changed the origins of Vision and Ultron because they hadn’t introduced Ant-Man yet. The only genuine, significantly-change-the-comics-storyline reversals that I’m aware of were in Iron-Man 3 and the Kree-Skrull war in Captain Marvel.
But the idea is that the main characters have key aspects to their origins and their personalities that aren’t getting re-imagined. Every version of Tony Stark has to be brilliant and arrogant and get trapped in a cave and build a suit to fight his way out. Every version of Captain America has to be noble and has to volunteer to take the super-serum. They’ve taken a lot of liberties with Thor, but he still started out as the arrogant and pompous thunder god, until they learned that that doesn’t make for very entertaining movies, and they need to make him funny.
I believe that it’d be weird and unnecessary to say “The Hulk was mild-mannered Doctor Bruce Banner until he was genetically altered by an overdose of gamma radiation, and also he’s into dudes.” (And I say that as someone who definitely wouldn’t mind seeing Mark Ruffalo making out with dudes). Orientation, along with gender and often race, is a significant part of identity, and to treat it as arbitrary is to cheapen it.
When you’re inventing new characters, then arbitrary choices in race, gender, orientation, and identity are great! They’re likely to make for a more interesting and unique story. At worst, it’ll probably be welcome representation for someone in the audience. But if you’re changing an identity-significant aspect of an existing character, then I believe that you’re obligated to answer the question “why?” The change draws attention to itself, so you have to devote screen time to do something with it.
For instance: I think it was a welcome change to cast black actors as Heimdall and Valkyrie, because it doesn’t impact the characters. The reason it doesn’t impact the characters is because Asgard presumably doesn’t have all the connotations of race that Midgard does, so it can actually be arbitrary and not have to “mean” anything. You just give better representation to more of the audience in movies already overfull of white people, and you also get to cast two of the most beautiful living humans in your superhero movie. Win-win.
Mild spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming: they did cast an actress of color as MJ instead of making her the iconic white redhead, but I’d argue that the movie and its casting don’t treat race as arbitrary, even if they don’t address race explicitly. For MJ herself, it’s just a clever surprise that this character crucial to the Spider-Man universe has been there the whole time; she just looks nothing like what you’d expect. It’s an extension of another play on the audience’s assumptions about race that happens earlier in the movie, which I won’t spoil because I thought it was one of the movie’s most effective moments. In both cases, they implicitly assert the notion that it’s our assumptions about race that are arbitrary.
As a counter-example from a different franchise: making Sulu gay in the new Star Trek. It was a change that drew attention to itself but then just sat there, doing nothing. If I’m being charitable, I’d say that sexual orientation was the least interesting way to show that they’re in an alternate reality. But really, I think it was just a ham-fisted attempt at diversity that chose Sulu solely because the original actor of the character is gay in real life, which doesn’t even make sense. Making alternate Spock gay could’ve been interesting (fascinating?) but the tepid attempt to show Sulu as a casually-happens-to-be-gay character didn’t make me feel represented; it made me feel like I was being pandered to.
So why can’t they use the LGBT characters that already exist in the comics? Because there simply aren’t many interesting Avengers-caliber ones on the Marvel side. I keep seeing lists of LGBT characters in comics online, and it’s always more disheartening than encouraging. Unless you’re a big fan of Northstar, I guess, but I’ve only ever heard of him via lists of LGBT characters. Iceman is the obvious exception, and maybe there’ll be room for him in the movies now that Disney’s bought Fox and they can start using mutants.
One weird, paradoxical side effect of all this: by trying to articulate why it’s okay that I’m not exactly represented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I now feel more included in the MCU than I ever have before.
Several times over the last decade, I’ve mentioned my story of being at Wondercon with thousands of nerds all watching the first Iron-Man trailer, and seeing them all absolutely losing their shit over it, and me just standing there not getting what the big deal was. Ever since then, I’ve felt like I’m an outsider trying to catch up: I’ll watch the “what you need to know before watching Captain America: Civil War” primers or read the “15 things you should know about the Kree-Skrull War” blog posts or see the “25 Easter Eggs you missed in Thor: Ragnarok” videos, filling in gaps of my comics knowledge so that I can enjoy the movies as much as the comics super-fans who are the real audience.
But it took 11 years and 22 movies for me to realize that I am the real audience. It doesn’t seem like they’ve been making these things for the people who can name all the different lineups of the Avengers since the original incarnation; they can and will enjoy the hell out of them, but they’re not who the movies are “for.” It seems more that they’ve been making them for people like me, who want to enjoy seeing these characters together, but have never been able to get into them.
And finally, I should say that I think only the movies get a pass for it. And as they start phase two of the movies, time is running out and it’s something they need to start addressing. I haven’t been watching the TV series since the first couple of Netflix seasons and a few episode of Agents of SHIELD, and it seems like with all those hours of screen time, there’s really no excuse if they haven’t tossed in an LGBT character here or there.