After 11 years, 22 films, and several strides toward more diversity on screen, the Marvel Cinematic Universe still feels decades behind on queer representation. But that hasn’t stopped Marvel’s actors, comic writers, and fans from doing the lord’s work of queering the MCU anyway.
To the surprise of no one, it turns out that queer stories and relationships make for some of the best superhero narratives.
“People tend to find common ground between queerness and superhero narratives because oftentimes when you’re marginalized you are hoping for a better world where you are accepted and where you are seen,” said Roxane Gay, seminal writer of Bad Feminist and the recent World of Wakanda comics centered around a romance between two Dora Milaje warrior women. “And superhero narratives are comprised of people who are trying to contribute to that better world in one form or another.”
Queering characters in the MCU works beautifully on a subtextual level too.
“Superheroes often make great metaphors for something else. Marvel in particular has created heroes that read like overt metaphors for gender and sexuality,” said Francesca Coppa, a Muhlenberg English professor and a scholar of fandom. “There’s all different ways these characters open up to queer identification.”
“Marvel in particular has created heroes that read like overt metaphors for gender and sexuality.”
Through a queer lens, for example, superhero tropes like leading a double life or having a secret identity take on whole new meaning, allowing us to explore different facets and perspectives on decades-old characters.
Coppa should know, as a co-founder of the popular fanfiction community Archive of Our Own. Marvel is one of the top two fandoms represented on the site, and the preferred ships are predominantly queer.
Despite this fertile ground for queer storytelling, though, our only confirmation that gay people even exist in the MCU comes from a 10-second grief support group scene in Avengers: Endgame with a nameless character.
However, there have been more concrete promises that a queerer MCU is eminent. Earlier this year Avengers director Joe Russo told Huffington Post that, “I can assure you that you will hear about [the possibility of a queer superhero movie] very soon!”
Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige also told The Playlist last year that at least two openly LGBTQ characters would join the MCU. Soon.
The MCU’s avenging intersectional angels
But people aren’t waiting around for Hollywood to make their queer hero dreams come true. And the clamor to see it made official is starting to reach a fever pitch thanks to a variety of those different voices within the Marvel-verse.
As Coppa pointed out, fans have always taken matters into their own hands on this front, and should continue to do so. But a recent major and necessary step in making queerness in the MCU a reality came from the newfound support from those on the Marvel payroll.
Brie Larson has been a vocal advocate, not only in the media but on Twitter by retweeting the abundance of fan art shipping Captain Marvel and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie. Before that Tessa Thompson made her own huge strides for queer Marvel characters, not only by supporting fans but confirming that she has always seen Valkyrie as canonically bisexual.
Their importance in validating queerness in the MCU cannot be overstated, especially for fan artists like Melody Kersetter, who saw her own gorgeous rendition of the Valkyrie x Captain Marvel ship pop up on the Oscar-winning actress’ timeline.
“Seeing the actors be so supportive of a queer ship is a really big step for a lot of us. As a bisexual woman, it means so much,” said Kersetter.
Often times when queer fandom ships have been brought up to actors in the past it’s at best brushed off as a joke and at worst treated with disdain or disgust — like when the cast couldn’t stop laughing on Jimmy Kimmel in 2015 over gay fan art of Bruce and Tony as the “science bros.”
“Even though it’s still not visible representation, having our personal identities acknowledged by an influential person in Hollywood is like them saying, ‘Anyone can do this. You don’t need straight to be a superhero,'” said Kersetter.
That’s also a huge element to why the MCU feels like such an inspiring space for queer writers and artists to work within, according to Kersetter.
“The idea of a superhero and superpowers is about how being different doesn’t make you worse,” she said, echoing Gay’s sentiments. “That’s essentially one of the main parts of superhero narratives: coming to accept what it is about you that makes you different. And that leaves a lot of room for not only queer representation, but acceptance of people who are different.”
Ironically, part of what’s made the MCU feel so conducive to queering is the odd asexuality in most of the films. While there are heterosexual pairings in the movies, they tend to be handled poorly or sidelined in favor of action. Unintentionally, this lack has left room for ample speculative queerness.
That’s particularly true in Captain Marvel.
“Her not having a specified romantic interest was a great opportunity because usually all the women in the movies are paired automatically with men,” said Kersetter.
The movie not only intentionally avoided pigeonholing Carol into a heterosexual couple, but also explicitly made her relationship with Marie Rambeau her anchor. Sure, it’s officially characterized as platonic. But the movie also does nothing to dissuade a romantic reading.
Captain Marvel‘s strong overall queer vibes likely also stem from it being the first Marvel movie to actually make multiple female relationships front and center.
“The dynamic between Annette Bening’s character and Captain Marvel was so powerful and really the narrative drive,” said Gay. “And I think every time we see a narrative where women are trying to work together — even from a distance — without the existence of a heterosexual love story starts to feel queer.”
If you ask the internet, Captain Marvel’s queerness was also only exacerbated by her new haircut in Avengers: Endgame.
View this post on Instagram
End Game✨Captain Marvel✨Audi Commercial✨Frose✨Piercings✨French Lessons… not in that order. It’s been fun hangin with this lady @brielarson and the one and only @colinfollenweider #thelastline #piercingparty #frose #avengersendgame #captainmarvel #audi #mahlady #bestinthevestcolinfollenweider #brielarson
Certainly, the recent abundance in badass warrior women introduced into the Marvel movies — from Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, to the lady pilot BFFs in Captain Marvel, to the Dora Milaje in Black Panther — has lended itself even more implied romantic tension.
“Captain Marvel and Valkyrie being two incredibly strong women, incredibly seasoned fighters was just so fun to play around with,” said Kersetter.
Gay, who was new to comic book writing and opened many new doors for queer representation with her run World of Wakanda series, agreed: “You have these really sexy women who are the top of the game. They’re the best at what they do. And that’s really attractive.”
Gay also found that the fantastical settings in Marvel narratives allowed her to write about Ayo and Aneka’s love from a unique perspective.
“The great thing about writing about Wakanda is that you’re writing about an uncolonized black population. So if they’re free from the ills of colonization, perhaps they’re also free from repression and homophobia and all other sort of forms of bigotry,” she said.
“Who are we if we don’t have to fight for our right to exist? That’s an interesting question that queer writers don’t get to explore often enough.”
Queerness is in Marvel’s DNA
Yet while the more recent diverse additions of Captain Marvel and Black Panther have added fodder for queering women and people of color in the MCU, the original white boys club that launched the cinematic universe also brings plenty of potential for queer readings and storylines.
“Who are we if we don’t have to fight for our right to exist? That’s an interesting question that queer writers don’t get to explore often.”
According to Coppa, Tony Stark’s Iron Man often makes for a natural exploration of performative masculinity. “Tony is a guy who needs to literally construct his masculinity, who builds himself an actual man suit. He’s like a man doing male drag, so to speak,” she said.
Certainly as one of the many male Avengers with hardcore daddy issues, that perspective on his character tracks seamlessly with his origin story.
Meanwhile Steve Rogers’ is viewed as “an obvious queer figure” in a multiplicity of ways, including even within his canonical heterosexual pairing with Peggy.
“They’re quite twinned as a couple. They’re both victims of patriarchy in a sense — Steve as a skinny, scrawny guy and Peggy as a woman,” she said. “It’s not a traditional het romance because it’s a het romance between a guy and a girl who share a common dislike of toxic masculinity.”
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also dive into the queer energy that fuels one of the most popular Marvel fandom ships ever, heterosexual or otherwise: Steve and Bucky, a.k.a. Stucky.
Coppa traces it back to Steve’s “queer Brooklyn background that has been thoroughly extrapolated by the fandom.” Currently, there’s even a Brooklyn museum exhibition that includes a reimagining Steve as scrappy gay ’30s socialist. But the Stucky ship also fits into the homoeroticism of military male-on-male relationships too, which date back to Greek culture.
“Steve and Bucky is a heroic love story, and I don’t even necessarily mean in a romantic way. It’s in the epic sense, like Achilles and Patroclus,” said Coppa.
There are also strong thematic grounds for Steve as a trans avatar, and the transformation into Captain America as a hyper fantasy of transitioning as a trans man. “I mean, who says T isn’t a super serum?” Coppa asked. Both substances share the same masculinizing effect. “For a lot of trans men, testosterone is a super serum. So there are even a lot of stories about Stephanie Rogers becoming Captain America through testosterone.”
And those who argue these versions of Marvel superheroes are a “stretch” or antithetical to their canonical origins are simply not paying attention to a core tenet of comic books.
“One of the wonderful things about comics that is queer in its essence is that there’s a multiplicity of stories. They keep doing them and doing them and doing them, so if you don’t like this one, there will be another one. Multiverses are essentially queer versions of reality itself,” said Coppa.
“The comics invite many different readings of a single character. Nothing is too ‘crazy.’ I mean if Thor can spend time in the comics as a frog, how crazy is it really to imagine him in a gay relationship?”
Whatever it takes to get queer heroes into the MCU
In that way, though, the finality of a linear movie franchise is a factor in why it’s taking much longer to see queer representation on screen than in the comics.
The wonderful thing about comics that is queer in its essence is that there’s a multiplicity of stories
“The movies are always going to disappoint someone, because at the end of the day there can only be one ending,” said Coppa. “And that in itself is unqueer in the sense that it’s not as polyvalent as the comics.”
There’s also the huge, Disney-shaped problem at the heart of canonically queering the MCU.
“You only get Captain Marvel after Wonder Woman, and you only get Wonder Woman after four different Spider-Man movie franchises,” Coppa said on why it’s taking Hollywood so long.
Even Black Panther, which ushered in a new era of inclusivity in the MCU with its unequivocal success, was still apparently held back by corporate conservatism. A flirtatious scene between Okoye and a Dora Milaje soldier was reportedly cut out of the film, and the movie’s final cut shows Okoye in a heterosexual relationship with W’Kabi instead.
“It was disappointing. And it happened because Marvel is owned by Disney, and Disney is gonna Disney,” said Gay. “And it’s interesting that they think seeing a woman be murdered is fine. But two women in a loving relationship or flirting and being attracted to one another? Wow, that’s a bridge too far.”
While the comics have clearly been more willing to take progressive risks — probably due to the financial stakes being lower than with the multibillion-dollar movies — they aren’t a saving grace for more inclusivity in the Marvel universe either.
Gay’s World of Wakanda series was cancelled all too quickly, along with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run as head writer on the Black Panther comics. As Gay has explained, one of the main issues with bringing more diversity through the comics is their current method of production and the lack of outreach to communities outside core comic book fans.
That’s why she believes the best hope for mainstreaming queerness in Marvel will come down to the MCU.
“If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to happen in the movies first. Because the fandom of the comics in general is very resistant to anything but white men,” she said. That’s also true for the most toxic subset of the MCU fans, but clearly they’re fighting a losing battle against the monetary success of Marvel’s most diverse films.
“What’s the fucking holdup, man?”
While the MCU’s official queer seal of approval can change a lot culturally, we shouldn’t forget who holds the power to demand Marvel be the best version of itself.
“In comics history, it was the fans that demanded the crossover,” said Coppa. Whether its Marvel Comics or Marvel Studios, “they’re following our lead, not the other way around.”
So, Coppa said, “if you want diverse storytelling in the Marvel-verse, it’s out there. Don’t wait for Hollywood. Don’t give them that much power. View the MCU as raw material. What can you make of it? What story can you tell that you want to see?”
Gay also believes in the power of fans to lead the charge on queer representation in the MCU.
“What fandom can do oftentimes is let creators know that the audience will absolutely embrace difference. When it works, fandom does a great job of pushing creators to trust that their fans will try new things,” she said. “And frankly, there’s no better vehicle for really trying to do something different than the Marvel films. Because they are just going to print a billion dollars no matter what. We know this. So what’s the fucking holdup, man?”
It’s about damn time
Perhaps the true sign of progress though is that, at this point, the MCU’s hand-wringing over whether or not to include an LGBTQ superhero is starting to feel increasingly outdated.
“It’s going to become more and more embarrassing for them to not do queer romances and representation, because the younger fans are almost expecting it,” said Coppa. “There will be queer representation in the MCU when the reality becomes so obvious and enormous that Marvel will start looking out of touch. And I suspect that’s already happening.”
Fan artists like Kersetter agreed, finding Marvel’s meek gesture at representation in Endgame laughable. “That is not representation,” she said. “You tried, but you failed!”
“The capacity for heroism and greatness is in everyone.”
Similarly, Gay won’t be satisfied until “we see [queer characters] as a significant part of the narrative rather than an afterthought. Captain Marvel would get a girlfriend and have a happy relationship. Or Okoye in Black Panther would have a girlfriend after her trash ass boyfriend betrayed her.”
The losses and risks of not queering the MCU are only increasing for Marvel with every passing movie when it comes to cultural relevance, audience, and storytelling. But the potential gains and possibilities embedded in queering our superheroes feels endless, both for fans and Marvel alike.
“It would just be validation that our lives are interesting and worthy of the big screen and that we are as normal as anyone else,” said Gay. “It’s why representation matters, because it allows people to see their lives reflected in some way and see the capacity for heroism and greatness is in everyone.”