Fun fact: Marvel introduced its first gay character in Avengers: Endgame. But don’t get your cape in a twist, as this is not the exciting landmark moment you think it’s going to be, to the extent that it may not even be worth including a spoiler warning. But here it is anyway. Spoiler warning.
The character is not one of several LGBT+ characters in Marvel’s rich canon, but instead one you can only describe as “grieving man,” who is introduced to the audience for 30 seconds at the counselling group speaking to Captain America about going on a date. I have nothing more to tell you about this character. I had to whisper to my boyfriend that that was the first gay character in the MCU, and eye-rolling ensued. Someone should really take down this rainbow confetti, and maybe cancel the celebratory cake.
Co-director Joe Russo, who himself dazzled audiences across the world with his poignant portrayal of “grieving man,” stated 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.” And he is absolutely correct: diverse representation, especially on such a humungous scale, is wonderful and vital. This renders this disappointing attempt at inclusion even more laughable: why go to such lengths to congratulate yourself on what is a non-existent landmark? It felt like a colossal let down having been promised a seismic event only to receive the most hollow, insignificant of cameos.
And there is scope within these films: there has long been suspicion that Valkyrie could be bisexual, as actress Tessa Thomson has portrayed so far. Thomson reminded Vareity that “In the canon, [Valkyrie] is bisexual. You see her with women and men, so that was my intention in playing her.” And imagine Captain Marvel, hands down the strongest Avenger, happened to be a lesbian – that could shape the perspectives of children and young people in a meaningful way. And when Black Panther and Captain Marvel each made at least $1 billion at the box office, there is evident demand for stories that aren’t told from a straight white point of view. And there is no shortage of stories to tell.
Between the Marvel and DC universes and beyond, it’s not as if there aren’t scores of LGBT+ characters to bring to the big screen. With diverse characters like Batwoman, X-Men’s Mystique, Rat Queens’ Braga and Young Avengers’ Wiccan, the progress that has been made in portraying queerness in an amplified and bombastic medium like comic books is promising. Adapting such inclusion to the big screen is a little more sluggish: after all, it was only last year that Marvel’s cinematic universe was led by a person of colour (Black Panther) or a woman (Captain Marvel), and we are yet to have a single LGBT+ character in the MCU’s 11-year reign. And yes, Wesley Snipes led the Blade franchise, but what five-year-old is dragging his parents to see that? We have a unique opportunity here to introduce positive LGBT+ role models that is going to waste. So what’s the hold up?
One could argue that it comes down to the films’ international market, especially in countries like China. While homosexuality is no longer illegal in China, explicit references to homosexuality are banned under Chinese laws and LGBT+ content is commonly cut or censored by Chinese media anxious to comply fully. And when, at time of writing, Endgame has taken $579 million at the Chinese box office, surely this is one market Marvel will want to keep onside. Or perhaps, just as disappointingly, we are still at a point where executives are simply homophobic and reluctant to risk their franchise in the name of ticking a diversity box.
Yet queer presence is so important in comics, a medium that can be a catalyst for real social change. North Star, for example, from Alpha Flight was Marvel’s first gay superhero and came out in 1992, in the throes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Through their first gay superhero exploring the controversial topic directly, Marvel presented loyal readers with an invaluable chance to become more compassionate and tolerant towards those affected by the virus. Comics are enormously influential, and with the key demographic of these films becoming younger by the film, surely these studios have a moral obligation to give us the representation our community deserves.
There could be hope in the future, however. Marvel assures fans there will be more diversity in their upcoming adaptation The Eternals, following super-powered beings who gained powers due to experiments by an alien race called The Celestials. What would be even better is if these films and characters were written by writers who identify as LGBT+ to offer more insight into how they can be portrayed honestly on the big screen. Brie Larson herself, in response to the criticism, said “I don’t understand how you could think that a certain type of person isn’t allowed to be a superhero. So to me it’s like, we gotta move faster. But I’m always wanting to move faster with this stuff. It wasn’t enough for me to just look strong on a poster … I feel like I can’t at the end of the day go to sleep at night if I didn’t do everything that I possibly could [to empower others]” Time will tell.
I’m not asking for much: not even a delicious, tempting LGBT sandwich from M&S. I would just like my favourite LGBT+ superheroes to make it to the big screen. If the Avengers can survive a literal apocalypse, surely we can make that happen.