*Mild spoilers ahead for “Avengers: Endgame.” Watch the film before reading on.*
I’m Selina, Awards Circuit’s queer Girl Friday for everything LGBTQIA+ on film and TV! Fans are still processing the emotional impact of “Avengers: Endgame,” which is living up to its expectations with audiences and breaking records at the box office. As of the publishing of this article, the 22nd film in the MCU has made $1.6 billion since its premiere on April 26. Many fans were on the edge of their seat for the full three hour runtime, and are still trying to process entirety of the film, concluding a decade of world building and adaptation. Yet there are still elements of execution that aren’t sitting well with fans, this writer included. Notably, the grandstanding about the “first gay character in the MCU,” courtesy of “Avengers: Endgame” directors Anthony and Joe Russo.
If fans don’t remember the gay character in “Avengers: Endgame,” a reminder follows. Five years after The Snap, audiences find Steve Rogers sitting in a grief group meeting with other survivors of The Snap. Listening as a grieving man (from here on referred to as Grieving Man) talks about his first date with a new guy since the death of his partner. Steve encourages the man, basically telling him to keep moving forward. If there was anything most audiences will remember from this scene, it was the fact that Steve has again lost most of his loved ones, and is surviving only to help others at this point. The element audiences noticed from the scene (during the film, at least) was that director Joe Russo was playing the aforementioned Grieving Man.
The trouble began when the Russos started trying to make the scene into some sort of stand for LGBTQIA+ rights. In an interview with Joe and Anthony Russo, Joe told Deadline:
“Representation is really important. It was important to us as we did four of these films, we wanted a gay character somewhere in them. We felt it was important that one of us play him, to ensure the integrity and show it is so important to the filmmakers that one of us is representing 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.”
The pair wandered off a bit to speak more about why the scene was important to them (essentially, more testimony from people who went through The Snap and weren’t the Avengers). Joe continued:
“We wanted it to be casual, with the fact that the character is gay tied into the fabric of the storytelling and representing what everyday life is. We’re trying to represent everyone in everyday life. These are global movies that reach a lot of people. They are important to a lot of people and everyone has the right to see themselves on the screen and identify somewhere.”
The old adage, every closeted youth will identify with Grieving Man, that person without a name from Cap’s grief group. Fans will all delight in the 90 second storyline of a glorified extra and sing the praises of the MCU, because after years of consciously writing out their heroes’ disabilities (Hawkeye), non-binary identities (Loki, Thor and Asgardians in general), and queerness (Valkyrie and so many more), they have delivered on their promise. Fans searching for representation now have Grieving Man! But this is a scene easy to cut out of the movie for more conservative countries, and such that risks to the box office earnings have ones taken to portray this paragon of queerness: Grieving Man!
Sarcasm aside, there’s a few reasons why the Russo brothers’ statements are at best well-intentioned but ignorant. And at worst a symbol of how terrible Marvel and Disney have often been when it comes to decent LGBTQIA+ representation. Chief among these issues is the way the Russos have framed this small sequence as a grander stand for LGBTQIA+ audiences. This is the literal Oxford dictionary definition of tokenism, where people of severely underrepresented groups are recruited to give the appearance of diversity. Grieving Man serves absolutely no purpose as a character; Ant-Man seeing grieving people at the monument to the dusted had the same emotional impact for “Avengers: Endgame’s” plot. LGBTQIA+ representation, as we know it, would mean portraying a world where LGBTQIA+ people had the same power, importance to the story, and minutes onscreen as straight or cis characters (“Sense8” and “The Favourite” come to mind). Tokenism is to representation as a crumb is to a five-course meal, and passing off one as the other is, frankly, insulting.
The Marvel party line about its seemingly new focus on diversity is also awkwardly trite, even though it’s continually mentioned by Marvel and Disney bigwigs on red carpets. Diversity has always been important with blockbuster films, because they’re bound to be seen by the most people. Bigger audience, bigger exposure, especially with family-friendly films that children (straight and cisgender or LGBTQIA+) will use to deepen their understanding of the world around them. But the focus of these films, rightly or wrongly, is on the box office; if they release a story with a potentially “controversial” main character (a.k.a. LGBTQIA+), some potential audiences will refuse to see it, and the film’s earnings will take a hit.
So we went through 22 MCU films without a single, confirmed LGBTQIA+ main character. Despite “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” being a retconned love story for Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers, the pair never declare their (plainly obvious) love for each other. Valkyrie, who’s bisexual in the Marvel Comics, is in “Thor: Ragnarok,” but the flashback scene confirming her sexuality was cut “for time.” With every new installment, there were easy, blatant opportunities for the Marvel and Disney to give us some true LGBTQIA+ representation. And due to any number of reasons (worries about conservative backlash, box office losses in foreign and domestic markets, etc.) higher-up never took the chance.
So instead of admitting they failed their mission to get a gay character into the MCU, the Russos shoe-horned in a director cameo, made this minor, minor character gay, and touted it as a victory. But it isn’t a victory. It’s tokenism, a brief conscience-cleansing moment meant to make the directors feel better about failing to meet their goal of diversifying the MCU.
“Avengers: Endgame” is in theaters now. Watch the official trailer below.