“Explicitly Gay Characters:” Queer Visibility and the MCU

Of the 48 hours and 11 minutes worth of movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only one of those minutes features an explicitly gay character. That means less than 0.05% of the MCU is gay—a solid zero on the Kinsey scale.

The much-discussed trailblazing gay who graces the screen for his 38 seconds of dialogue in Avengers: Endgame is not a superhero. Instead, he’s a participant in Captain America’s midtown post-apocalypse dating support group, played by one of the film’s straight directors. We don’t know much about Grieving Man (or as I would’ve titled the role, ‘Grieving Gay’), but what we do know is overwhelmingly ordinary: although I personally could not relate to his tale of weeping into a salad bowl on a first date, it seemed unexceptional to his support group peers (whether this is because people commonly cry in public after the apocalypse or because Grieving Gay always cries when he sees fresh vegetables is left for the audience to imagine). 

By most—actually, all—measures, the MCU has failed at queer representation. With a total of zero queer superheroes in a world where 0.05% of the population is openly gay, the next Marvel film would need to be over two and a half hours long and feature exclusively gay, trans, and queer characters to meet even the most conservative estimates of queer demography in the United States; even if Nick Fury has a boyfriend in Spider-Man: Far From Home, the movie isn’t long enough to fix this. The MCU fails, I’ve said all I have to say about the 38 seconds we’ve been given, end of essay.

Except.

The MCU isn’t exactly teeming with “explicit” romance. I think there’s a lot to be said about the limited amount of kissing in the MCU, but suffice it to say that romantic relationships in these movies are not regularly marked with a kiss. And when it comes to explicitly sexual relationships, forget about it—when Tony and Pepper had sex, we had to jump five years into the future just to forget about it, and when Bruce Banner merely enjoyed a steamy make-out session with Betty Ross, the next time we saw him he was shorter and nerdier and an entirely different actor.

In fact, aside from Grieving Gay, characters rarely even discuss sex or romance. Captain America tells Black Widow he’s not interested in dating when she suddenly and intensely invests herself in being his personal matchmaker. Soon after, Natasha and Bruce Banner fall into a brief romance that seems fueled almost entirely by their shared belief that they are incapable of loving and being loved romantically. There are a handful of Love Interest Ladies in the backgrounds of men’s lives, women who they ultimately leave or who ultimately leave them: Thor and Jane Foster share a fleeting lusty connection, Steve Rogers thinks wistfully of Peggy Carter when there’s a lull in the plot, and Pepper Potts flits in and out of Tony Stark’s life depending on Gwyneth Paltrow’s contract and availability.

So in this world where kissing is rare, sex doesn’t exist, and talking about romantic love is taboo, how do relationships get implicitly coded as romantic?

Sometimes it’s a meet-cute, when our protagonist connects with another character for the first time and we immediately know this person’s gonna matter; we see this with Thor and Jane (and with Steve and Sam Wilson). Sometimes it’s when two characters raise a child together, like Tony and Pepper and Hawkeye and his wife (and Carol and Maria). Sometimes it’s when one character moves, gives up a professional opportunity, or changes careers to be closer to their partner, like Gamora does for Peter and Betty Ross does for Bruce Banner (and Sam Wilson does for Steve Rogers). Sometimes it’s the loud moments, when a character risks everything to protect their loved one, like Nakia does for T’Challa and Thor does for Jane (and Steve does for Bucky and Steve does for Bucky and Steve does for Bucky one more time). And sometimes it’s the quiet moments, when one character is in the hospital and their partner waits patiently at their bedside, Marvin Gaye playing softly in the background (like Sam Wilson does for Steve…this only happens once in the entire MCU).

In Captain Marvel, Maria Rambeau is the most important person in Carol Danvers’s life, to the point that when Carol presumably dies in action as an Air Force pilot, Maria is given all her belongings. The two have very clearly co-parented a child—Monica’s biological father is never even mentioned, but we see flashbacks and old photographs proving Carol’s constant presence in her daughter’s life. “You believed in me as a pilot and as a mother when no one else did,” Maria says to her common-law wife, inspiring Carol to remember who she is just in time to fight an evil imperialist army of aliens.

12 films earlier, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve tells Natasha, “Believe it or not, it’s kinda hard to find someone with shared life experience,” when she asks him why he doesn’t have a girlfriend. In the same movie, he meets Sam Wilson, another veteran who watched a best friend die in combat, who he immediately connects with over the challenges of readjusting to civilian life (“It’s your bed,” they agree, “it’s too soft.”). Later in the same movie, Steve discovers Bucky Barnes is still alive and gives up everything to save him—Bucky, the only person who shares Steve’s experience of growing up in the early 20th century and then suddenly waking up alone in the 21st. “Do me a favor? Call that nurse,” Natasha tells Steve once their adventure is over—a request which he promptly ignores, instead confessing to Sam that he’s going to look for Bucky. (This is also the same movie where Steve wakes up in the hospital next to Sam playing him Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack and gently murmurs, “On your left,” a heartwarming callback to their meet-cute in the first scene, and if either of those characters were women it wouldn’t be at all controversial for me to call that the most romantic moment in the entire MCU.)

Carol, now rocking a very butch (very hot) haircut, and Steve team up to fight Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, and they both seem a little too focused on the problem at hand to think about their implicitly romantic partners. When someone needs to rally Tony Stark to invent time travel in a day, neither Carol nor Steve offers up one of their departed friends as motivation; instead, it’s Scott Lang who says, “I lost someone very important to me,” referring to his super-powered, romantically coded partner Hope Van Dyne. Hope and Scott don’t kiss when they’re reunited but they share enough meaningful eye contact that we get the point. It’s about on par with the romantic coding we get in Captain Marvel or The Winter Soldier, minus the lesbian fashion and the Marvin Gaye—queer people have been in the MCU.

And yet.

Despite Grieving Gay, I felt unrepresented walking out of Endgame. Not unrepresented as in an absence of representation, but unrepresented as in the representation I had felt previously was being actively undone. For years, I had imagined the implicitly queer narratives of the various Marvel Captains were carefully, intentionally devised – Victoria Alonso, Marvel’s one female senior executive, fighting to fit queer people into this franchise from the back of the boardroom. Alonso, an Argentinian American immigrant, proudly married to her wife of 17 years, has vocally championed diversity at Marvel whenever given the opportunity: “This is for my daughter!” she’s declared about Black Panther and Captain Marvel, as daughters begin popping up all over the MCU. Surely she understood what she was making.

But Endgame felt to me like the MCU reneging on its queer subtext in favor of an empty gesture of “explicit” gayness. “We take back our queer stuff from earlier,” the movie seemed to announce. “Take this man instead. This is what you get.”

Of course I recognize that an explicitly gay character is a milestone on its surface, but is it at all meaningful in the context of this franchise? Heck, are any characters in the MCU explicitly straight? Tony Stark has a compulsory girlfriend, sure, but he shares a unique intimacy with his friend Colonel James Rhodes and never explicitly says, “I’m only attracted to women.” In fact, he’s quick to check out Steve’s ass in his famously unflattering old suit during the Endgame time heist. Scott Lang has the most explicit (and best executed) romantic relationship in the entire MCU with Hope Van Dyne, but he’s also happy to admire and defend “America’s ass” from Tony’s ribbing with an earnest sincerity. In a world where most of the romance is implicit, so are most of the romantic and sexual orientations. The touting of Grieving Gay seems to assert that all characters in the MCU are straight until proven gay—if this is Marvel’s most significant queer character, he must be their only queer character. If this is a world where characters can only be queer when they explicitly claim a queer identity, but no one is allowed to talk about their sexual or romantic feelings…that doesn’t leave a lot of space for queerness among the Avengers.

Earlier today, I found myself thinking about how the final image of Avengers: Endgame is Steve Rogers kissing Peggy Carter, and I involuntarily shouted to my empty bedroom, “Tony didn’t even kiss Pepper in this movie and he DIED, you assholes.” (Oh, spoiler alert.) This is a franchise where it isn’t even that weird that we don’t definitively know if Tony Stark and Pepper Potts ever got married, and yet Steve Rogers’s arc ends with a wedding ring and kiss…I know this movie wasn’t intended as an attack on me personally, but it also sort of feels like it was. The Russos are frequently asked about the queer subtext of their Captain America films; they even once promised to keep queer-baiting us forever—“We will never define [the relationship between Bucky and Steve] as filmmakers explicitly, but however people want to interpret it.” You can imagine how I might feel betrayed seeing the director who once promised to never make Steve and Bucky not gay but also not not gay appear on screen in Endgame to honor himself as Marvel’s first gay character. What changed?

I love these movies and I want to make excuses for them. Maybe the key creatives at Marvel just wanted to be sure there was one clearly, explicitly gay character in the MCU before retiring the original Avengers from the franchise.

But then why not just give Valkyrie a girlfriend? Tessa Thompson, who is attracted to both men and women herself, has been vocal about how her character is bisexual, even though she—like most Marvel characters—doesn’t express any sort of sexual or romantic desire in the film. If this was just about making someone’s queerness explicit, why not just have Valkyrie be dating Lady Sif when we meet her in New Asgard? (This would’ve also assuaged the hordes of Sif fans who have been pondering her fate since her conspicuous absence in Thor: Ragnarok.) Valkyrie had her own “explicitly queer” moment that got cut from Ragnarok because it interrupted the flow of the story, as sex and romance tend to do in these stories. But Marvel loves to use chaste, boring kisses to introduce us to pre-existing romantic relationships; a quick Valkyrie-Sif peck would’ve been incredibly meaningful to a lot of people and would’ve perfectly obeyed the laws of Marvel chastity and expository kissing. (Maybe the creative team has a specific vision for Valkyrie that a girlfriend would undermine! I want to argue with myself; the Endgame creative team seemed generally incapable of imagining complex or specific futures for any of its female characters, I am forced to argue back. Not to mention thatValkyrie’s love interest mysteriously disappearing would not be the first time a character in the MCU kissed a more important character to tell us something about their sexuality and then was never seen or heard from again—see: Sharon Carter.)

Maybe they just didn’t realize what they were doing! Maybe all these characters are implicitly queer because they were in the military. Carol, Maria, and Sam Wilson were all in the Air Force at some point, and Steve and Bucky both served in an anachronistically racially integrated regiment of the Army back in the 1940s. The intimate bond formed between soldiers, we’re often told, transcends friendship—maybe these civilian writers and directors simply borrowed details from their most intimate relationships with their romantic partners to fill in the gaps from their own platonic friendships. After all, Anthony Mackie was full of a quiet gay longing as Sergeant Sanborn in The Hurt Locker before he was Captain America’s boyfriend. Whether these queer subtexts are intentional or not, they’re incredibly common in military films. Maybe Marvel’s queer representation was born accidentally out of stereotypical ideas about the pseudo-romantic relationships forged between soldiers, and not for any other deliberate, calculated, or subversive reason.

But even if that’s the case, queer fans have not been quiet about what these implicitly queer relationships mean to them. Brie Larson has retweeted queer Captain Marvel fan art, and even if Marvel didn’t have junior marketing executives doing comprehensive demographic analysis of all the Tumblr users with strong feelings about Stucky and SamSteve, Chris Evans is a quiet meme lord who surely has shared some subtler queer Captain America fan content with his key collaborators. If they didn’t realize how gay their movie was when they wrote it, shot it, and edited it, surely they know now.

Maybe Steve abandoning Bucky and Sam to kiss Peggy in their racially segregated suburb was deliberate antagonism towards Stucky shippers. Maybe Victoria Alonso has been driving the queer subtext all along and she was just outnumbered on this one. Maybe this is the result of a body-swapping incident between Kevin Feige and Dan Cathy, maybe Captain Marvel was too gay for the Russos to compete with and they decided, “If we can’t make the gayest Marvel movie, let’s just burn this whole thing down.” Maybe the MCU just fails at queer representation, I’ve said all I have to say about the 38 seconds we’ve been given, end of essay.

Whatever the case may be, there is something sinister to me about Marvel’s first explicitly gay character appearing in the same movie where Carol doesn’t once see her wife-coded friend Maria and Steve doesn’t seem to think at all about either of his recently-Thanos-dusted boyfriend-coded boyfriends. Grieving Gay may be the most explicitly gay character in the MCU, but Carol Danvers is the most implicitly gay one. Carol loved and lived with and raised a child with another woman. Grieving Gay ordered a salad. Are we really meant to believe he is a more radical act of representation?

I have never cried into a salad bowl on a first date, and I don’t particularly aspire to. But I do aspire to love and care for someone with the same devotion that Sam Wilson shows to Steve Rogers. I have not attended a post-apocalyptic dating support group, but I have had “friendships” with romantic subtexts, and I’ve struggled (and failed) to find the words for how I felt for those “friends.” Sam Wilson is one of my favorite characters in the MCU because he is gay. Grieving Gay doesn’t change that for me.

I still believe that if Sam ever attended a post-apocalyptic dating support group, he too might explicitly mention his attraction to men. I believe that if he and Steve had ever flown over a PRIDE parade in downtown D.C. on their way to some super-hijinks, he might’ve casually started a conversation about sexuality and attraction to test the waters. I believe his partnership with Steve Rogers is/was the most important relationship of his life. I don’t believe this because I spend too much time on Tumblr—I believe this because I watched four movies of romantically coded interactions between Sam and Steve and I paid attention.

If you don’t like that, that’s fine. You don’t need to read these movies the same way I do. It seems like the key creatives at Marvel Studios don’t. But they’re missing out on a much more interesting, more representative, more colorful and lived-in version of this universe. As a pretty serious fan of the MCU, I went into Endgame expecting it to break my heart. I’ve since seen it three times; I haven’t cried once. But I do tear up every time I watch this post-Endgame fan video…maybe the movie would’ve been better if it imagined some of its characters as queerly and complexly as its most productive and dedicated fans do. I certainly would’ve liked it more. And although I don’t know him very well, I think Grieving Gay would’ve, too.


Jackie Ferro

Jackie Ferro

she/they

is not sure how to describe her whole deal: she is a screenwriter and digital video producer, sometimes a teacher and writer of other things. She is currently completing her MFA at the University of Texas at Austin.

Twitter: @JackieFrac

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