avengers: endga(y)me

a failed attempt at representation and a pat on the back for straight men

(image source)

**super mild spoilers that were referenced in the trailers so they don’t feel like spoilers but I don’t want any angry replies so I’m putting a warning anyway **

Over the weekend, I watched Avengers: Endgame with five hundred of my closest friends in an IMAX theater. The film, a culmination of more than ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), ended with a bang and not a whimper. Character deaths, storyline fulfillments, and hints at what the next ten years will have in store for fans, the film achieved a lot considering how much mythology it had to tie together.

But, where were the gay people? Are there no gay characters in the MCU?

Early on in the first act of Avengers: Endgame, Captain America leads a group therapy session with people who are still grappling with the intense and profound loss of loved ones after Thanos’s snap which killed off exactly half the universe. Members of this group therapy session talk about the steps they have taken to bring normalcy back to their lives. One in particular, a cameo by co-director Joe Russo, is a gay man who talks about his date with another man, his first since the snap.

While I was processing the movie with a friend, she stated:

“also the gay character was laughable omg. they didnt even try at all.”

I did not know who she was referencing at first. There were no out queer characters in the MCU. There are characters whose potential queerness you can read into where gender presentation and blurring of gender stereotypes creates space, whether intentional or not, for conversations around sexuality. Friendships like Steve and Bucky or the quarrel between Captain America and Ironman can, given how we as a society view male friendships and platonic male love, be thought of in more queer terms. Or Valkyrie, who exhibits more masculine qualities can be read as queer but never clearly defined as so in the films. When the Captain Marvel movie came out, there was speculation around Carol Danver’s sexuality as her friendship with Maria Rambeau and her commitment to Dr. Wendy Lawson were central to her character development. But, those queer-adjacent storylines are not enough.

The particular gay character my friend was referencing was the cameo by Joe Russo. An unnamed character. Two minutes of screen time detailing a Tinder date. After twenty-two films, that’s where we’re at. A film franchise full of intergalactic villains, magicians, literal gods, and the only gay character we get is a citizen in group therapy whose queer identity is not directly announced. We only know through his use of pronouns describing his date. A bathroom break moment in a three-hour long film.

I find this infuriating.

But, nothing fills me with more blind rage than straight people taking credit for queer representation. As if our existence as queer people only matters when it’s acknowledged by straight people. As if we should be grateful that this brave straight man did what no one else would do and include a queer character in his work. As if he’s doing us a favor. Straight people giving us leftovers while they enjoy a full course meal. The sheer audacity of a straight person thinking they can do any queer character justice is laughable.

And surely, that’s what Joe Russo seems to be doing, taking credit for the first openly gay character in the MCU. In an interview with Deadline, Joe Russo states:

“Representation is really important,” Joe Russo said. “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.”

Where do I even start? Claiming representation matters but being a straight person writing and playing a gay character is some level of cognitive dissonance that goes beyond my understanding. Was there not a single queer actor who could have played this incredibly minor character? It had to be the straight co-director? He and his brother Anthony Russo decided one of them needed to play him because of “integrity.” What integrity? What does that even mean? Could they not trust a gay actor to recite a few lines? Did they think most people would even notice them playing a gay character? Are they that well-known? I doubt it.

Marvel’s movement towards diversity is small compared to its sheer volume of films. For every ten films centered on a straight white man, there’s one that’s not. Marvel’s Black Panther was such a successful film because of its commitment to casting black actors, writers, set designers, and having a black director at the helm. For Marvel’s Captain Marvel, the co-director and co-screenwriter was a woman who was able to authentically portray Marvel’s first solo female superhero. Why do Joe Russo and Anthony Russo think it was their responsibility to introduce the first openly gay character? If you can even call him that. He’s unnamed! He doesn’t even have a name!

Later in the interview, Joe Russo states:

“We wanted to have a voice that was talking about the experience of people that went beyond The Avengers. That’s why we felt we really needed it in the movie. Otherwise, it just became too hermetic and insular. That character that Joe is playing really came from that point of view, him being an everyman who has suffered from Thanos’ act.”

I understand wanting to show the fallout of Thanos’s attack on the everyman. To show how regular citizens deal with one day finding that their loved ones disappeared into dust at the hands of an alien invader. Powerlessness. Loss of hope. Confusion. They’re all integral to make a compelling story that goes beyond the super human characters these MCU films revolve around. It grounds the reality. But, wanting to kill two birds with one stone and shoehorning in a gay character to play that everyman feels cheap.

An everyman is someone who does not disrupt the status quo. Our status quo is heterosexuality. An everyman is a person who, because of our heteronormative society, you’d assume to be straight. Straight writers frequently deploy this tactic of normalizing queer identity to downplay the significance of that queer character’s identity. Their character’s queer sexuality is just a fun fact. A little detail. No different from being left handed. Or having red hair. It’s a nudge nudge wink wink that they get it. They understand queer characters so well. Queer people are just like everyone else, see? You’re actually the homophobic one for caring so much about their sexuality.

To represent queer identity meaningfully and successfully on the screen or in media is to give weight and impact to that queer identity. Our queer identity is how we navigate and view the world. Our lived experiences are shaped and compounded by our sexuality in a multitude of ways — in ways I don’t believe straight people ever have to think about. That’s why straight people can have difficulty understanding why representation matters or why having queer characters should be included at all.

Joe Russo goes on to say:

“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.”

I agree. Everyone does have a right to see themselves on the screen and identify somewhere. I want that. But, why can’t I be represented as a super hero? Why can’t a queer character save the day? Why should I be satisfied as a sidelined minor character without a name. Did I mention he doesn’t have a name? We couldn’t even have a name!

Representation is not checking off a box on a diversity checklist. Making space for queer characters, especially after twenty two films, should be done in a thoughtful way. If you’re so interested in showing everyday life of a queer person, show a queer person’s everyday life. Show the daily struggles of navigating sexuality in a threateningly heteronormative world. There’s your villain. There’s your heroic rise to greatness. There’s your hero’s journey. It starts in the closet and ends in fulfillment. Of self-actualization. Of self-love. The things straight people may have never had to deal with.

I think what’s most frustrating about this interview with Joe and Anthony Russo is when they talk about how sexuality is viewed around the world. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo state:

“We’ve seen it now even in countries where people countries where homosexuality isn’t as free as it is here,” Anthony Russo said. “It’s actually one of those elements of these movies that I think resonates in challenged places in the world as well.”

Said Joe Russo: “As filmmakers of a massive franchise we’re saying, we support you.”

What exactly did they accomplish? A minor moment that can be easily censored or cut? How did they exactly challenge restrictive countries? How is this supportive?

The MCU can do better. What queer people don’t need is straight people defining our experiences and portraying us on TV. We definitely don’t need straight directors grandstanding about their commitment to representation while still controlling narratives for their own interests. I’m sure Marvel’s reluctance so far to include queer heroes is not because of lack of talented writers to write screenplays, directors to direct these films, or actors to play these queer heroes, but a perpetuation of the status quo - the heteronormative - a fear that a queer character won’t sell tickets. That’s what it’s all about, right? The money these films are making and less about the representation of marginalized identities.

Queer people make fantastic superheroes. We have already beaten the odds. We exist in a world that systematically tries to tear us down, to minimize us, to threaten us, and even sometimes, to kill us. We exist despite it all. We serve as role models to our younger selves and for future generations. We are hope. That is our super power.

Letters of Recommendation:

To all the mutuals I’ve loved before - Bijan Stephen

I Set Up Two Facebook Portals In My Office and People Truly Loved It - Katie Notopoulos

How Pop Culture Made Me Love My Fat Self - Mike Freiheit

Killing Eve - BBC America

Grade A Tik Toks - Instagram (seriously)

Share this newsletter with friends or click on the little heart at the bottom of this post so others can see and enjoy it as well. Thanks for reading! As always, reply to this newsletter with your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.