Mon. Aug 3rd, 2020

The Hopeful Pragmatism for LGBTQ+ Visibility in Marvel’s ‘Eternals’

There are plenty of reasons to get excited about the feature film adaptation of the Marvel comic Eternals this November from Disney. It’s got indie filmmaker Chloé Zhao at the helm and a cast rich in both talent and diversity. As part of the film’s celebration of inclusion, it is said to have the first openly LGBTQ+ superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just recently, it was revealed by actor Haaz Sleiman (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) that the character of Phastos, played by Brian Tyree Henry (If Beale Street Could Talk), will be that superhero and the film will show Marvel’s first gay kiss. 

It’s something worth celebrating and as a gay man myself, it’d be meaningful to see a moment like this. I’m hopeful that it’ll be one that’s more front and center rather than another background or a “blink and you’ll miss it” sequence. Two types of  trends within tentpole properties like Star Wars, which has a background lesbian kiss at the end of The Rise of Skywalker, or Star Trek Beyond which had Sulu (John Cho) reuniting with his partner for a split second in the background. 

When it comes to comic book movie lore, in particular, fans within the LGBTQ+ spectrum like myself have leaned into instances of queer coding to find less sidelined depictions of our community. Occurrences like the scene from X2: X-Men United where Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) “comes out” as a mutant and the subtextual bond in Batman & Robin between the titular heroes in well-chiseled outfits.

Ironically, when Iceman had his allegorical coming out, it was before Iceman came out as gay in the comics. Even if he wasn’t portrayed as queer in the film series, Iceman was still one of the closest things to an LGBTQ+ superhero that we’ve had. Closer than queer superheroes who are being brought to the big screen, yet aren’t allowed to be openly queer. Heroes like Okoye (Danai Gurira) from Black Panther who had a relationship with Ayo (Florence Kasumba), a fellow member of the Dora Milaje in the comics. When their lesbian identities were erased in the film, fans started a social media movement around the hashtag #LetAyoHaveAGirlfriend. 

Thankfully, Birds of Prey didn’t showcase such erasure. Although it demonstrated queer-coding with the dominant/submissive bond between Victor Zzasz (Chris Messina) and Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), it still had genuine visibility in the form of Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). It is acknowledged that she was in a former relationship with a Gotham City DA (Ali Wong) and despite their interactions never going beyond uneasy run-ins with one another, it’s still made clear that Renee is a lesbian without her sexuality being a plot point. 

Renee may not have a big kiss scene, but she’s still able to exist as a lesbian without being a token gay character who has to constantly point out her queerness. Similarly, in Deadpool 2, the superheroine Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) introduces her girlfriend Yukio (Shiori Kutsuna) as her girlfriend without the film making a huge fuss over it. Because this relationship wasn’t announced beforehand, that made seeing it on the big screen a nice surprise. 

That’s what I’m hoping to see in Eternals. For Phastos to live as openly gay without his homosexuality being a defining trait. For him to be a powerful superhero who can kick butt and just happens to have a loving male partner. Also, because Phastos and his partner are played by Brian Tyree Henry, who’s African-American and Arab-American actor Haaz Sleiman, it won’t just be Caucasian queer youths who’ll get to potentially see themselves on screen. So, this monumental kiss would have more emotional resonance.

One possible root of skepticism over whether it’s a background moment stems from Marvel execs possibly giving into not just the fear that it won’t play overseas in countries where homosexuality is illegal like China, a strong source of overseas revenue that either bans movies with homosexual content or forces studios to cut out content that they deem inappropriate, but probable backlash started by Internet trolls. Dudebro trolls who weaponize their straight white maleness by bashing Captain Marvel for being feminist and its star being a vocal diversity champion, ruining the audience score for Black Panther on IMDB by giving it one-star ratings before its official release, and lambasting Birds of Prey due to its apparent lack of sex appeal.

In spite of all those backlashes, both Captain Marvel and Black Panther still joined the billion dollar club. Although Birds of Prey isn’t a monster hit, it still has grossed $174 million worldwide thus far with potential to break even. So, whatever vitriol that may get thrown at Eternals for having gay characters will likely be outweighed by its box office. 
Should Eternals be a success, it wouldn’t fix Hollywood’s representation problem overnight. Even if Phastos’ relationship is at the foreground and not sidelined or erased entirely, there’s still plenty of work to be done. It would be a big moment for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it should be a trailblazing scene rather than a “lightning in a bottle” one.

Matthew St.Clair is a freelance film writer who’s a member of the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA) and thus far, has covered the Sundance, Tribeca, and Toronto International Film Festival. He is also an expert on both queer and genre content. Because he lives and breathes film, he loves to occasionally  discuss how The Bling Ring is a misunderstood masterpiece and why God’s Own Country is a gay romance for the ages.

%d bloggers like this: