Queerbaiting & Erasure: A Brief History of Institutional Homophobia In Marvel Films

This article is going to focus on three known instances where Marvel as a film studio has institutionally omitted the representation of LGBT characters and relationships in their films. Racism, sexism and colourism are also rampant issues when it comes to diversity and inclusion in Marvel films and I will be discussing them in another article I am currently working on soon. In this one, however, I am going to focus on the specific erasure and omission of LGBT identity in the following cases.

Films based on Marvel Comics have been made, viewed and loved since Republic Pictures produced Captain America in 1944. As of 2018, there are over 50 films based on Marvel comics (with more on the way), spanning 8 decades, and I’m somewhat excited and disappointed to announce that the Marvel film franchise finally has its first openly, explicitly LGBT character. Amazing, eh? Only took them 70 years or so.

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I’m talking, of course, about Negasonic Teenage Warhead (aka Ellie Phimister) played by Brianna Hilderbrand in the Deadpool films. In Deadpool 2, Negasonic introduces Deadpool to her girlfriend, Yukio, played by Shioli Kutsuna. In the scene, Negasonic specifically identifies Yukio as her girlfriend, making Negasonic and Yukio the very first open and explicitly gay couple in a Marvel superhero film to date. What makes this even better is that Brianna Hilderbrand (Negasonic) is herself part of the LGBT+ community, making her the first openly LGBT actress to play an openly LGBT superhero.

Watching Deadpool 2, I was over the moon excited about this. Even if Negasonic is a secondary character in the Deadpool films, I’ll never get tired of seeing LGBT superheroes on the big screen because well, we haven’t had any until now. This is surprising because Deadpool himself is not heterosexual. Yep. Deadpool, written as an openly pansexual character in the comics, is not the first explicitly LGBT character in his own film franchise and unfortunately, Deadpool isn’t the first character whose non-straight sexuality has been omitted. In fact, Marvel, as a film studio, up to this point has deliberately excluded at least 3 characters’ LGBT identities from their films.

 

CASE OF EXCLUSION #1:

THE VALKYRIE

I do not know a single human who didn’t see Thor: Ragnarok and walk out with a whole lot of love for Tessa Thompson’s warrior, the Valkyrie. Not only did Tessa kill it in the role, but she confirmed on Twitter that the Valkyrie, like her comic book counterpart, is bisexual.

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There was just one hiccup, however. There is no explicit representation of the Valkyrie’s sexuality in the film itself. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Thompson explained that she pitched director Taikia Waititi on the Valkyrie’s sexuality, referring to the Valkyrie’s relationship in the comics with the anthropologist, Annabelle Riggs. In response, a scene was shot in which we (the audience) were meant to see a woman exiting Valkyrie’s bedroom, but the scene was cut by executives because it supposedly “distracted from vital exposition.”

Tessa goes onto say in the same interview that she was allowed to imply certain things in the Valkyrie’s characterization, but not explicitly in the film itself. Despite both Thomspon’s and Taika Waititi’s best efforts to keep the brief shot in the final cut, the scene and any explicit representation of the Valkyrie’s sexuality was cut from the film.

Yes, you heard that correctly, folks. In a film about a god of thunder going to a dimension made of garbage ruled by a madman who makes monsters fight for sport, featuring a naked green hulk, a ship specifically used for orgies, the only exit from this place is “through the devil’s anus”, it would have been far too distracting to have a very brief shot where a woman leaves the Valkyrie’s bedroom. Because the only thing more confusing to put in a film than hulk butt and penis, senseless violence, slavery jokes, murderous siblings, genocide and torture is showing that women can have intimate relationships with other women in a brief 3-second shot, apparently?

But I know what you’re thinking, the MCU is owned by Disney and Disney is notoriously not so supportive of the LGBT community so that’s not a surprise and you’re right. So, let’s take a look at a few non-Disney marvel productions, shall we?

 

CASE OF EXCLUSION #2:

ANDREW GARFIELD ’S SPIDERMAN

Andrew Garfield was cast as Spiderman in 2011. He played the role in two films: The Amazing Spider-man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-man Two (2014). In 2015 however, Sony sold Spider-man back to Marvel/Disney, and in 2016 the franchise was rebooted with Tom Holland as the lead. Tom Holland has played the character since. It’s easy to credit this series of events as the natural progression of Disney snapping up all the wayward Marvel characters and potentially lucrative franchises, but here’s something you might not know: In June of 2015, contractual documents from Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures leaked online revealing that Spiderman/Peter Parker is contractually bound to be portrayed only as a white straight male (see below).

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I’d like to point out that Spider-man’s mandatory character traits may say that he can’t be gay unless his alter-ego (Peter Parker) is portrayed that way, but in Peter Parker’s mandatory traits it states that he must be heterosexual. Basically, its put in writing that there is no way either Spiderman or Peter Parker could be portrayed as gay. I’d also like to briefly mention the inherent racism in the requirement of Spiderman to be white on-screen. While it’s fair to say that these documents were leaked from Sony and for all we know these same requirements may not apply now that Spiderman is owned by Disney, racism in the portrayal of Spiderman is still quite prominent.

Tom Holland’s version of Peter Parker borrows extensively from Miles Morales’ version of Spiderman. Miles is Afro- latina and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in Spiderman: Homecoming borrows heavily from Miles’ characterisation with everything from his Asian best friend, love interest and even mentorship from Tony Stark. Of course, this isn’t the first or last time a character of colours’ storyline has been appropriated for a white character’s to be more interesting, but that’s another article for another day.

When Andrew Garfield started fighting for a bisexual Peter Parker in 2013/14, Marvel dumped him and his whole franchise. Or in the very least, the franchise’s dismantlement coincided rather neatly after Garfield came out swinging for a bi Spidey. There is, of course, no official record of Sony stating they buried Garfield’s Spiderman for this reason, but there’s too much coincidence for it not to be a factor in the scrapping of Garfield’s Spiderman franchise.

In July of 2013, a little under a year before The Amazing Spiderman Two was released and two years before the contractual documents were leaked, Andrew Garfield revealed in an interview that he’d had serious discussions with director Marc Webb and producer, Matt Tolmach about the possibility of Peter Parker’s love interest, ‘MJ’ being a man. As the quote goes in this interview:

“What if M] is a dude?’ Why can’t we discover that Peter is exploring his sexuality? It’s hardly even groundbreaking!… So why can’t he be gay? Why can’t he be into boys?”

Garfield, in the same interview even suggests Michael B Jordan for the role of ‘MJ,’

“I’ve been obsessed with Michael B. Jordan since The Wire. He’s so charismatic and talented. It’d be even better—we’d have interracial bisexuality!”

I mean, we all saw Black Panther, right? Can’t disagree with Garfield on that dream casting. Whats interesting is that there’s evidence to suggest that this plan of making ‘M]’ a male love interest might have actually been in the works for the final instalment of the trilogy. Originally revealed in this interview in June of 2013, it was confirmed Shailene Woodley filmed a few scenes as Mary Jane for The Amazing Spiderman Two that were cut from the second film. Marc Webb explained that he wanted to recast the role and introduce (a more neutral sounding) “Watson” as Peter’s love interest in the third film. Woodley even said,

“Based on the proposed plot, I completely understand holding off on introducing [Mary Jane] until the next film.”

Note: the non-gendered name ‘Watson,’ the intention to recast, the fact that ‘Mary Jane’ is in parenthesis, indicating that’s not what Woodley said and the following month was when the aforementioned interview of Andrew Garfield and Marc Webb discussing the real potential of bisexual Spiderman surfaced and a very possible future of a Spiderman film with a male love interest began to take shape.

But It became apparent that Marvel film executives were not on board with the idea of a bisexual Spiderman. In August of 2013, a month after the above interviews were given, Stan Lee was asked about Garfield and Webb’s comments about a male love interest. His response was…Well, see for yourself.

“He’s becoming bisexual? Really? Who have you been talking to? I don’t know…seriously I don’t know anything about that. And if it’s true, I’m going to make a couple of phone calls. I figure one sex is enough for anybody…Maybe sometimes you say something just to be noticed or to create a controversy, who knows?”

I don’t need to explain the inherent homophobia and harmful rhetoric present in claiming that people/characters talk about, or identify as bisexual purely for attention or controversy. Or how disgusting it is that in a universe where a 16-year-old can gain spiderlike abilities from a spider bite, a person not being straight is something to be stopped at all costs. But sadly, it was.

After the Amazing Spiderman Two’s release in 2014, Sony entered talks with Disney to re-license them the character with the intention of completely rebooting him in the wake of Amazing Spiderman Two. In early 2015, the deal went through and Disney reacquired the rights to Spiderman, dissolving Garfield, Webb’s and Tolmach’s involvement with the franchise and scrapping all Sony’s future instalments. I guess Stan made those calls, after all.  Garfield has since spoken about his dislike of the Spiderman franchise, more specifically his dislike for perpetuating toxicity through the role. Like in this interview with the Hollywood Reporter, saying:

“…for me it was, you know, Spiderman stuff… There’s millions and millions of young people watching who are hungiy for a hand here. Someone to say, “You’re okay. Everything’s okay. You’re seen. You’re seen very deeply. ”And we have opportunities to do that with those kind of behemoth films. And more often than not, the opportunity is not taken. And it’s absolutely devastating and heartbreaking because there’s so much medicine that could be delivered through those films.”

In short, there’s a pile of evidence that strongly implicates that Garfield and Webb fully intended to introduce a male love interest for Spiderman in the third instalment of their trilogy, but the forces that be in Sony and Marvel responded by killing their franchise and licensing the character back to Disney to ensure Spiderman would remain firmly heterosexual. Of course, I acknowledge this could all have been coincidence, but given Garfield’s comment above there is certainly some truth to the tale.

(Much of this information was originally pieced together in this Tumblr post and I highly recommend the follow-up post linked within it too).

 

CASE OF EXCLUSION #3:

DEADPOOL

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There is arguably not a single more iconic LGBT superhero than Deadpool and for many LGBT folks like myself, he holds a special place in our hearts for this very reason. Since his first appearance in 1992, Deadpool has expressed romantic interest in men, women, gods and even the physical form of Death themself who manifests as both feminine and masculine. Fabian Nicieza, original co-creator of Deadpool, has categorically stated that he has written Deadpool as “fluid” from the very beginning. Other recurring prominent Deadpool writers, Gerry Duggan and Gail Simone, also reaffirm this, saying they both have always written him as pansexual as well.

I would be remiss, however, to go forward without acknowledging the problematic origins of Deadpool’s sexuality. Nicieza has said that Deadpool’s ‘fluid’ sexuality is a side effect of his constantly regenerating brain cells, saying:

“They (nor you) understand DP brain cells in CONSTANT FLUX so he is hetero one minute, gay the next, etc. ALL ARE VALID.”

Once again, I don’t need to spell out why linking someone’s sexuality to a mental illness or implying that it is a symptom of a neuroatypical condition is inherently problematic and emblematic of a long dark history of LGBT folk being labelled as insane because of our existence. Nor should I need to explain why saying that bisexual people are “hetero one minute, gay the next” is a harmful mentality that has lead to people who are attracted to multiple genders being ostracized from multiple communities. But when it comes to Deadpool, whether we like it or not, the end result is the same. The Merc With A Mouth is written and portrayed as someone attracted to multiple genders, even if the origins of that attraction is not ideal. He is an LGBT antihero and loved by fans, regardless of creators’ misguided intentions.

CmdxBmfWYAAClJXComic book Deadpool is certainly not ashamed of his attraction either. One of the most popular relationships in the Marvel comic-verse is that of ‘spideypool’, the relationship between 20 something-year-old Peter Parker and Deadpool. Of course, this romance is rather one-sided with Deadpool constantly flirting and Peter more or less letting it wash over him, but it is a romance for Deadpool, nonetheless. The pairing was so popular that Deadpool and Spiderman got their own comic series, “Spider-Man/Deadpool” in 2016, in which its revealed that Spiderman is on Deadpool’s ‘Free Pass’ list aka the list Deadpool keeps of people he and his current partner had agreed he can hook up with in the event they meet. Thor can also be found on this list (relatable, right?).

Of course, when one speaks of Deadpool’s greatest loves, one cannot overlook Deadpool’s well known one-sided, at times murderous, always irritating attraction toward Wolverine. In the comics, the two have, what can only be described as a resentful friendship characterised by Wolverine’s bone-deep annoyance of Deadpool, and Deadpool’s big ol’ crush on Wolverine.

deadpool-and-wolverine

The two are well matched. Deadpool is terrible at trying to be a good guy and Wolverine is bad at trying to be a bad guy, and so, the two find common ground somewhere in the middle of their anti-heroic complexes. Moving past the quips, teasing, etc., Wolverine is the only mutant Deadpool percieves as an equal.

With their healing, overly exploited violent skillset and abused backgrounds, these men parallel each other in more ways than one and know that in a thousand years, it may only be the two of them left. Besides, as you can see from the panels included in this post, it’s not like there isn’t subtext to support the idea that the two have feelings for each other.

wolverine_vs_deadpoolThe panel on the right shows Wolverine holding Deadpool against him, the two joined at the torso by Deadpool’s katana, with Wolverine’s head tossed back and fire raging behind and between them. I think we can all agree that if we saw this exact image, but with a male/female pairing, you’d have a tough time convincing anyone that it wasn’t a tragically romantic image at its core, and it is. Deadpool is holding the only man who’ll ever understand his experience, the only man he fully understands. Before I get back to explaining how these specific relationships were and are squashed by the Marvel film adaptations, I just want to say that I think its truly amazing that people really believe that Wolverine has been alive for hundreds of years and never once been with a man romantically.

But when it comes to the Deadpool film adaptations, Deadpool’s sexuality is at best, entirely left out and at worst, made into a running gag. In fairness, his sexuality is portrayed in a comedic context a lot in the comics as well because comedy is an intrinsic aspect of Deadpool’s character. But when you couple this treatment of Deadpool’s attraction with the fact that, in the films, he is shown exclusively in a relationship with a woman (Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa) it smells a little more like exclusion and erasure.

Much like in our aforementioned cases, it isn’t for lack of trying on behalf of the actor themselves that Deadpool’s canonical love-life is exclusive to women. Ryan Reynolds, whose dedication to a faithful film adaption of Deadpool is nothing short of admirable and deserves its own essay, has been vying for Deadpool to have a boyfriend since minute one, saying in a Deadpool pre-release 2016 interview with Variety:

Reynolds added that he thought it would be “nice” for Deadpool to have a boyfriend at some point. “I certainly wouldn’t be the guy standing in the way of that,” Reynolds said. “That would be great.”

Two movies later, though, and Deadpool is both boyfriendless and girlfriendless with his explicitly shown relationships made up exclusively of Vanessa. Many have speculated that the reason for Deadpool’s boyfriendless existence is because of China. China makes up a massive proportion of the market for superhero films and because the country is, shall we say, not very supportive of LGBT people in general, most films seeking to be released in the Chinese market avoid LGBT representation. However, Reynolds and the screenwriters for Deadpool have said that the film is already banned in China so China’s stance on the issue is irrelevant.

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Credit where credit is due, it’s not as if the Deadpool films sweep Deadpool’s sexuality under the rug completely like Marvel did with Wade Wilson in the X- Men Origins: Wolverine film. Whether this counts as “good” representation is debatable, but his opening monologue in 2016’s Deadpool alludes (mockingly) to a one night stand with Wolverine, he hits on his recurring cabbie (Dopinder) and calls him “pretty cute,” among other things.

The second Deadpool film extends Deadpool’s incessant innuendos, aiming them at Cable and Colossus. Cable and Deadpool’s tension is palpable in Deadpool 2, and cashed in upon by Ryan Reynolds and Josh Brolin during the marketing, culminating in Deadpool holding Cable close and suggesting they try a certain sex act. Cable responds by holding a knife to Deadpool’s groin. As for Colossus, throughout the film, he is flirted with, groped and boombox serenaded by Deadpool, culminating in a throwaway one-liner from Vanessa in the afterlife in which she tells Wade, “Don’t fuck Colossus!” as Deadpool is pulled back to reality…which is kind of the problem.

Ryan Reynolds is serious about giving Deadpool a boyfriend but as we’ve seen in these cases an actor, even the lead backed up by the writers, doesn’t translate to the idea getting off the ground into the film. What we see in the Deadpool films is an extremely watered down version of that concept, easily discredited by the safety nets of comedy and a core heterosexual-adjacent romance that is the only one treated seriously by the writing.

Deadpool-Vanessa-feature

Deadpool’s relationship with Vanessa (a woman), despite all the jokes, is given full weight within the film’s narrative. Hell, the entire first film revolves around Deadpool wanting to get cured for Vanessa, look pretty for Vanessa, realizing he must be a better person for Vanessa and finally, him trying to rescue Vanessa. Vanessa and Wade/Deadpool’s relationship, while also central to a great deal of the film’s comedy, is also what gives Deadpool’s character the majority of his development and depth.

Even in the second film, in which Vanessa is killed in the first ten minutes, Deadpool’s character development still centralises on his relationship with her. Deadpool 2 sees Wade, in his grief, trying to become a hero partially for the sake of bettering himself and helping Russell, but mostly because when he tried to kill himself in the wake of Vanessa’s death he wasn’t allowed to join Vanessa in some version of the afterlife. So he pursues redemption (helping Russell, becoming an X-Men trainee, etc.) over the guilt of her death in the hopes it will reunite him with Vanessa. The last scene in which Wade and Vanessa are together in this afterlife, he’s sent back, but not before Vanessa, who may I remind you is literally dead and Deadpool is very likely going to outlive her by 100s of years, warns him, “Don’t fuck Colossus!”

This line is intended as a joke. Because a man feeling genuine affection and attraction toward another man and wanting to act on it is so funny, right? Because killing a female character for the sake of bettering a male-centric plotline and then (even in death! !) framing her as the controlling girlfriend is hilarious, right? Because preserving and prioritising the status of a heterosexual passing relationship, even when one party is dead, is so funny and not emblematic of a larger issue concerning perceptions of LGBT relationships in real life, is it?

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For the record, I am in no way belittling or invalidating LGBT folk who enter into relationships that outwardly appear to be straight relationships. Such thinking is toxic, harmful and not constructive or helpful when it comes to LGBT identity and safety. What I’m asking for is that Deadpool’s sexual identity is contextualised as something other than a punchline. What I’m asking for is for LGBT identity to be authentically represented on screen, not just in subtext, or in claims from actors and writers because LGBT folk have a right to see themselves represented like anyone else. When it comes to fiction, despite JK Rowling’s beliefs on the matter, the representation of marginalised identities should be explicit within the text. It cannot be called representation if it is not represented in the first place.

Deadpool 2 proved that these films are more than capable of representing LGBT identity and issues seriously, not only with the establishment of Negasonic and Yukio as a couple but also with one of the main plots concerning the ‘Mutant Re-education Center’ whose treatment of mutants was a thinly veiled metaphor for conversion therapy. Which Deadpool is deeply and visibly angered by in the course of the film. Its a bit unfortunate, however, that none of this is explicitly linked to Deadpool’s well-established canon sexual identity.

This is especially frustrating when ‘mutants’ as a concept in the narrative are meant to be allegories for oppressed and marginalised people. With the lack of inclusion in Marvel films, it sometimes feels like Marvel created mutants in order to use and exploit oppression as a narrative trope without making certain, shall we say, conservative audiences uncomfortable.

Allegories aside, there is a term that is given when the creators of a character attempt to hint at a character’s supposed LGBT identity without actually allowing that character to explicitly engage in that identity. Its called queerbaiting and unfortunately Deadpool in the films, with his jokes. throw away lines, easily retracted physical comedy and dedication to Vanessa places his characterisation more in the camp of queerbaiting than actual LGBT representation. Even Reynold’s insistence that Deadpool will eventually have a boyfriend seems flimsy, especially in light of Deadpool 2‘s ending where Deadpool uses Cable’s time travelling device to go back and undo Vanessa’s death. Thus, undoing all the events of the film.  So, nothing genuine or authentic seems to be brewing on the horizon in terms of Deadpool getting a boyfriend anytime soon.

I’d like to finish this segment on Deadpool’s exclusion case with a more optimistic quote from S.E. Fleenor’s article on Deadpool’s pansexuality here:

“Is Deadpool pansexual? Yes. Deadpool is pansexual, even if he never, ever has an on—the— page or on-screen relationship with a man. No one has to perform their sexuality for their identity to be valid. just because the films haven’t figured out how to have a fully realized pansexual Deadpool yet doesn’t mean his identity is any less real.”

When it comes down to it, I’m not trying to tell you not to enjoy these movies, or trying to take away from the representation of Negasonic and Yukio’s relationship. It’s a small step that could potentially lead to better LGBT inclusion in Marvel films and superhero films in general. If anything I’m pointing out how momentous their relationship is in light of Marvel’s well-documented aversion to including LGBT characters in films. As I said, even though Negasonic and Yukio are secondary characters, it’s still a big deal. Especially because Hilderbrand identifies as part of the LGBT community too. I am 100% here for it, and with superhero films dominating mainstream media, the importance of including LGBT superheroes in superhero films is important now more than ever. The target demographic of these films (Millenials & Gen Z) have more LGBT identifying members than any previous generation, with a little over a third identifying with the LGBT community, and it has been proven time and time again that its vital for people to see themselves represented in popular media in a positive light. Especially, young people.

I know, inevitably, there are going to be people Who stumble across this post and shake their heads and fists, perplexed as to why the omission of the sexual orientation of a fictional superhero matters. Here’s the thing: Superhero films are, at their heart, films that imagine us as better than we are — as stronger people: physically, mentally and ethically. Even characters like Deadpool, who is extremely flawed, are imaginings of our determination to keep trying to be better even when we’re at our worst.

What’s the point if, when we imagine these enhanced versions of ourselves and the world around us, we imagine them with the same prejudices and limitations as our current reality? What does it say if we create worlds where its portrayed as more realistic, more human for a character to be a god-like warrior from an ancient dimension populated by Slavic Gods, or a fourth- wall breaking mercenary with an attitude problem, or a teenager who got their powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider, then it is for them to love someone whose the same gender as they are?

How do we expect to inspire young people to be better if we deny them authentic (non- fart-jokey) representation in the worlds where we imagine where we are better? Part of what keeps so many young people in the closet and contributes to ignorance is the fact that mainstream media refuses to normalise the existence of LGBT people. Imagine how much quicker young people would learn to accept themselves and feel confident in themselves if they saw their identities in their heroes who are heroes with their identity, not despite it.

The simple answer is if we imagine these enhanced better versions of humanity that ultimately exclude humanity than we have not imagined ourselves any better than we are. All we’ve done is put on a costume and that’s not good enough. At least, it shouldn’t be and I hope it won’t be in the near future.

 


 

In this article, I covered known cases in which Marvel studios quashed LGBT representation in their films. If you know of any I’ve missed, feel free to comment or hit me up on Twitter and Tumblr @akajustmerry. For my next trick, I’ll discuss Marvel’s overall lack of inclusion and diversity in another post coming soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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