Queer and Super – Will Hollywood Ever Embrace Gay Superheroes on the Big Screen?

With Pride Month upon us once again, It’s time to reflect on the many contributions that the LGBT community has made to society over the years, historically, culturally, politically, as well as cinematically.  The positive thing to note is that we are currently in the middle of a Renaissance of Queer Cinema, as the once niche market is finally hitting the mainstream.  We’ve witnessed this through two Oscar-winning projects like the historic Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016) and the critically acclaimed Call Me by Your Name (2017), and earlier this year we were given the teen romance film Love, Simon (2018) which is the most mainstream film yet to feature a gay protagonist.  Though these films are modest in terms of box office, their exposure is still an excellent sign that Hollywood is indeed ready to treat the queer community with the dignity and respect that it has long been waiting for.  And another positive from these recent films is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of queer themed stories yet to be told on the big screen.  The door that Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name have cracked open are about to be busted down in the years ahead.  But, there has to be something to be said about where queer films actually go in this new, more permissive environment.  For the most part, queer themed movies have stuck mostly within the romantic or coming of age genres, tettering in between tragic or life-affirming narratives.  But, if it’s not careful, queer movies could sadly marginalize themselves again if they only stick to one type of genre.  For this Renaissance of Queer Cinema to really make a difference in both Hollywood and in the culture at large, it needs to branch out into many other different genres.  There are many types of movies that could be centered on queer characters that could really put a spin on all sorts of genres, but to really make a significant mark, the most ideal place that a gay character could make a difference in is the one that is currently dominating cinemas right now; the Super Hero genre.

Perhaps hoping for a movie centered around an out and proud super hero may be a little too much to wish for right now, but this is a period in time when we’ve seen diversity in this genre take a giant leap forward.  It can’t be underestimated how big an impact Marvel Studio’s Black Panther (2018) left on both it’s genre and the culture at large.  Regardless of how good the movie is (and it is excellent), the way that it inspired African American audiences and gave them an icon to look up to and celebrate as one of their own is one, and see that same movie become one of the highest grossing movies of all time, is one of the best developments to have happened at the movies in a long time.  And this comes on the heels of the success of Wonder Woman (2017) which gave us the first super hero film centered on a female super hero.  Though there were plenty of comic book and movie fans before that were black and/or female long before these two films came out, the fact that these fans now had representations of themselves taking center stage in this genre made a big difference and it’s now invited many of the studios behind these movies to rethink what kind of demographics they should be targeting today.  These films also opened the door to what kind of voices can be added to the super hero genre as well, as Wonder Woman and Black Panther were helmed by representatives of the same communities that the central hero was meant to represent, and their input made all the difference.  Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins fought with a studio who seemed to undervalue the iconic hero and view her as more of a spoke in their Justice League wheel, and pushed for scenes that showed off more of Wonder Woman’s true heroism, like the outstanding No Man’s Land scene.  And Ryan Coogler of Black Panther put emphasis on the African identity of his characters and setting, giving them attention on a scale unseen on film before.  In each case, we see what happens when filmmakers bring new life into a genre by celebrating what makes their heroes unique and showing just how valuable they are to the genre they represent.

But, the challenge is a bit trickier at the moment for the LGBT community.  Up until this point, queer cinema has been largely marginalized in a way that most others haven’t.  Though every minority group has had in one way or another been forced to break through barriers in Hollywood and proclaim a sense of identity that’s all their own, LGBT representation has faced the harshest of barriers.  Often labeled as obscene or perverse in the public eye, even by other minority groups, queer cinema largely had to survive mostly in secret circles, and often hidden underground.  Even after the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s allowed for more tolerant attitudes, queer identity remained largely unseen on the big screen, at least in a dignified way.  Gay characters often were presented as campy and were the target of ridicule by many film’s so-called “heroes.”  And this was the norm for many decades after.  Then, when the AIDS crisis hit in the 80’s, gay representation shifted into a different kind of state; the tragic figure.  While this period did at least turn some people around towards sympathizing with gay characters in movies, it still didn’t allow for LGBT characters to stand out on their own.  Really, until the new millennium approached, all the only definitive depictions we got out of Hollywood of gay characters were comic reliefs or dying best friends.  There was no shortage of queer talent within Hollywood, both in front and behind camera, but for the most part they had to conform to the standards that the industry had set when it came to representing queer characters, and that was one that was unfairly skewed over many decades to marginalize the same community.  Thankfully, those days appear to be ending, as gay filmmakers and performers are finally telling their stories their way and the public is finally ready to accept that with open arms.  But, as the lack of diversity in many genres has shown, there is a lot of work still to do.

Though the world of cinema has been slow to move in this direction, it has been a different story in print.  There have been well-received books centered on queer characters for decades, and are often today the source for many of the ground-breaking movies getting the green-light now.  Surprisingly, the same has also been the case with comic books.  Comics have always tackled social issues head on in a way that movies largely haven’t, even in it’s earliest days.  And indeed, queer representation has even been addressed in many comic books, with a surprisingly robust gallery of heroes who openly identify as gay.  On the DC side, you’ve got heroes like Batwoman, Midnighter and Apollo, while on the Marvel side you have Iceman, Northstar, and Hulkling, and that’s just the one’s who are fully out of the closet as there are a ton of other characters whose fluid sexualities are only hinted at (like Harley Quinn and Deadpool).  But, what’s most important about the queer representation of the characters in the comics is that it is addressed directly and in a serious way, much unlike what cinema had done for so many years.  As a result, there has been a steady fan base of LGBT readers for comic books for decades, largely because they finally found a medium where their identities were treated in a dignified way and saw representations of themselves as part of the larger community of super heroes, making a difference in the world.  Comic books gave queer people a place in the world at a time when most other parts of society tried to shut them out.  So, you would think that Hollywood would take notice and recognize that a large portion of comic book readers are also a part of the LGBT community, and that maybe it might be time to carry that representation over onto the big screen.

There certainly isn’t a shortage of gay super heroes to choose from in the comic books.  But, Hollywood again has been slow to evolve when it comes to representing a marginalized class accurately on screen.  The industry has been fair to openly gay workers for a while now, but it’s also been responsible for perpetuating the same stereotypes and pre-conceived notions about the community that has kept the community from breaking free of it’s own narrow niche of the market.  That’s why it’s hard for many queer characters to break out and be recognized in other genres like super hero films or action movies.  Because of the influence of Hollywood, the large pre-conceived image of queer characters are often colored by stereotypes; a gay man has to be ultra-feminine and often cowardly, while lesbians are often in your face and aggressive, bi-sexuals are portrayed as slutty, and trans characters are just straight-up cartoons, if present at all.  Movies have programmed the culture into thinking one way about queer people, when in truth, LGBT people are as diverse in character as any other group.  As strange as it may seem, a gay character can be as gritty as any action hero and a lesbian can be nurturing and even-keel in any movie.  We are only now seeing these stereotypes of the past starting to go away, but it has yet to take hold in avenues of Hollywood unexplored with gay themes in mind.  For one thing, having an openly gay action hero would be a huge leap forward, especially with regards to putting to rest out-dated stereotypes, and what better place to try that out than in the super-hero genre, where such a gesture is guaranteed the maximum exposure.  It’s wishful thinking, but not outside the realm of possibility.  It all depends on how Hollywood wishes to market itself; do they wish to play it safe, or do they want to make history by taking a chance.

That’s why the examples of Black Panther and Wonder Woman are so key in this equation, because they have shown that taking a chance on something different results in huge success.  Whether or not a gay super hero can hit as well as Black Panther did is up for question, but I’m sure the same doubts followed that movie into the box office as well, and now we have our answer.  Hollywood has known for years that there is a strong presence of LGBT fans when it comes to comic books; but this is also an international business that has to sell their movies into places that aren’t quite as tolerant.  Sexual Orientation is still a touchy subject in much of the world, and movies are expensive to make, so for the longest time, Hollywood has maintained the play it safe route when it comes to queer representation in their movies.  There have been some that have tried to work around those barriers in clever ways.  Take for example the X-Men movies made in the early 2000’s.  Director Bryan Singer takes the narrative of super powered mutants coming together to overcome prejudice in society and frames it specifically to mirror the struggle for gay rights in America.  The X-Men comics have always had a subtext centered around fighting institutional prejudice, as the comic was first published amidst the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s, but Singer’s modern take clearly links the struggles of the mutants in his movies to those of LGBT community.  There’s a pointed line in X2: X-Men United (2002) where Iceman’s own mother asks him, “Did you ever try not being a mutant?” which is a turn on a phrase many LGBT people will no doubt have heard at one point in their lives.  Bryan Singer himself is openly gay as well, so I’m sure the subtext in his X-Men movies is intentional.  Even still, his movies still had to adhere to some Hollywood standards (Iceman is portrayed as heterosexual in the movies, for example), so it’s not the full breakthrough that the community would have liked to have seen.  But, even still, it’s at least an acknowledgment on the director’s part that queer identity is something that can and should be a part of this Super Hero genre on the big screen.

While the push for a queer super hero is growing stronger, I do believe that there is the danger of an over-correction in this situation as well.  One thing that happened in recent years with regards to the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was a call from many fans to make Captain America gay in the movies.  The hashtag #GiveCapaBoyfriend trended for a while, which made many people wonder if Marvel was considering the option.  But, I think this is the wrong way to approach the issue of queer representation in super hero movies, or any film in general.  Speaking as a gay man myself, I take issue with the practice of retroactively turning an already established character gay instead of allowing a new queer character to develop naturally.  This seems to be an unfortunate growing trend recently, and I only view it as a desperate attempt on the parts of writers and filmmakers to make themselves look more progressive in retrospect.  This has been the case with J.K. Rowling outing Dumbledore long after her last book was published in the Harry Potter series, as well the more recent case of screenwriter Jake Kasdan stating that Lando Calrissian is pansexual during his promotion of the movie Solo.  It becomes problematic because with each case, they are making these revelations outside of the text of their stories, so it makes it clear that their character’s sexual orientations were an afterthought and thus never important.  Then why make it an issue at all, other than to win some praise for showing diversity.  That’s why I don’t think making Captain America gay is the way to go towards bringing LGBT representation into the super hero genre.  For one thing, in all previous incarnations, Captain has always been portrayed as heterosexual, so such a move would only be seen as an intentional gimmick and disingenuous as a result.  Also, I think it’s much better to have super heroes whose queer identity is a major part of their character be the ones to take the center stage.  Sure, it’s a longer road than the shortcut of changing Captain America, but it works better for the community that a super hero should leave his or her mark in addition to being born this way.

Hollywood is certainly at a point where they are closer to embracing the idea of making a movie about a gay super hero.  The only question remains  is whether or not it is worth the risk financially.  Black Panther has certainly opened the door to that possibility, and it may be something that becomes a reality in only a few short years.  I just hope that Hollywood doesn’t treat the move as a gimmick and resort to cliched old tricks or misappropriate established characters in order to make that happen.  There are a lot of worthy openly queer characters that have been embraced in the comic books for years that could translate well to the big screen.  Hollywood could even build one up from scratch and allow him or her to represent the movement as a whole in a way that’s unique to that character.  There are many options available, but at this point it’s a whole different frontier to be explored by the film industry.  I for one am optimistic, considering the way that audiences have embraced queer themed movies recently, both critically and financially.  Even the characters are showing a better sense of diversity recently, as previously ingrained stereotypes are becoming a thing of the past when it comes to portraying a real gay person on screen.  I was especially impressed recently with how well this was handled in movies like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, where each gay protagonist is merely a boy next door type of character, with not an ounce of camp to them.  That’s how I want to see a gay character be portrayed in other genres, and especially when it comes to portraying them as a superhero.  One has to remember, Super Heroes are role models, and to many young people who are beginning to form an identity of their own, they need heroes to look up to, especially if they share the same traits they do.  What Black Panther managed to do for young black children all over the world, and what Wonder Woman did for young girls as well, is something that I also hope happens soon for young boys and girls too who are struggling with their sexual orientation, after they see an out and proud hero saving the day on the big screen.  For them, especially in times like this, these are the heroes that they need as well as deserve.

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