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The Old Guard, one of 2020's few 'blockbusters,' is now the blueprint for representation in tentpole films
As a gay genre geek who loves comic book movies and tentpole films, I’ve longed to see superheroes and space warriors on the big screen who represent me. Thankfully, The Old Guard, one of the few big movie events of 2020, gave me a chance to see myself and presented a loving queer relationship in a refreshingly nonchalant manner. Both Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) are two openly gay immortals who’re in an interracial, and inter-religious, relationship. Most importantly, their relationship isn’t made out to be a big deal, a shocking reveal, or a background set piece. And months after the film first premiered on Netflix in July, The Old Guard has snatched up several E! People's Choice Awards nominations, including "The Movie of 2020," proving just how hard it hit.
In 2020, showing two men in love shouldn’t seem like a big deal. Yet, given how the realm of tentpole fare is predominantly heteronormative, Joe and Nicky’s relationship was monumental — a moment that set social media ablaze — and serves as further proof that LGBTQ+ fans don’t have to lean into subtext or queercoding to see themselves represented. In addition, studios shouldn’t have to make any more preannounced empty promises of queer visibility; as SYFY FANGRRLS has written, “after literal centuries of queer representation being stifled or outright destroyed by the Bury Your Gays trope, maybe immortal queer superheroes who fight for their love and murder homophobes is exactly what we deserve...”
What fans don't deserve are queer characters in films who only occupy the “blink and you’ll miss it” background moments. For instance, it was revealed that 2016's Star Trek Beyond would portray Sulu (John Cho) as a gay man with a family before the picture’s release. Yet, it only showed him reuniting with his partner and their child as a literal background moment to the larger plot at hand.
Then there’s that time before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hit theaters, and director J.J. Abrams promised that the Star Wars franchise would be more queer-inclusive. But when The Rise of Skywalker did come out, it didn’t entirely live up to that promise. The queer-inclusive moment turned out to be two women kissing in celebration in another “blink and you’ll miss it” sequence.
It’s as if filmmakers are saying they know that LGBTQ+ people exist, yet are willing to hastily put them on the sidelines to avoid any backlash from hate groups or avoid risking poor financial results. Given how tentpole films have large budgets and rely on overseas box office revenue, LGBTQ+ people are easily underrepresented since countries like China, which is on track to be the world’s largest cinema market according to a CNBC article from last year, have strict, homophobic laws.
Because The Old Guard is a Netflix film that lives outside the studio machine, it doesn’t have to worry about such restrictions. As a result, the filmmakers have free reign to show characters expressing their queerness whether it’s through a discussion of their relationship woes or a passionate kiss. Not to mention, the marketing team had some leeway to show a promo clip of the pivotal kiss between Joe and Nicky before the picture hit streaming. It felt as though this quick, one-minute clip served as an antidote to the preannounced “exclusive gay moments” or “first gay character” brownie point reveals we’ve gotten in the past.
Remember when the Russo Brothers hyped up the first openly gay character to appear in the MCU when promoting Avengers: Endgame? That character was a grieving man, played by Joe Russo, who appears in a therapy scene with Captain America and talks about his former partner. After appearing in that one scene, he doesn’t appear and plays no key part in the storyline. He was a background character who the directors might’ve felt was a way of expressing allyship, but ended up feeling more like forced window dressing.
Ultimately, there’s a big difference between tokenism and integration. Tokenism would be when a gay character doesn’t contribute to the story and exists just to be “the gay character” like the aforementioned character in Endgame known only as "Grieving Man." But the depiction of Joe and Nicky in The Old Guard is an incredibly fine example of integration — they’re vital to the storyline by combatting the main antagonist along with their comrades without their queerness being defining characteristics. We get small moments of Joe and Nicky acknowledging their sexualities, but their defining traits are how they act as a source of humor for the group during the most dramatic moments — and of course, their passionate chemistry.
Before The Old Guard, we have recently gotten small hints of queer visibility in the realm of tentpole cinema. A few years ago, Deadpool 2 brought back the sidekick Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who had a less prominent role than she did in the first film. But in her first scene, she casually introduces fellow mutant Yukio (Shiori Kutsuna) as her girlfriend. Thankfully, the film didn’t allow them to serve as token queer characters since they got to fight in the final battle. They may only appear in a handful of scenes, but the presentation of their relationship still proved to be a small yet crucial step forward.
That being said, The Old Guard proves that we don’t need to take any more small steps toward open visibility or need to wait for the right time for it to happen. Joe and Nicky got to share an on-screen kiss while kicking a**, the DC heroine Batwoman had her own CW series (before Ruby Rose left the role), and the animated series Harley Quinn features the titular villain in a same-sex relationship with Poison Ivy. As realistic and respectful queer representation starts to creep in from the television and streaming side, it becomes more and more clear that the major film studio system has plenty of catching up to do.
Now, with Joe and Nicky’s touching romance, any excuse for not portraying queer love, or an openly queer character, on such a large-scale picture is void. This isn’t to say that such films should have graphic physical content to prove a character’s queerness. Rather, show characters freely discussing their sexualities while being genuinely well-rounded characters who just happen to be queer.
Those involved in tentpole properties like the DC or Marvel Cinematic Universes may have talked about being more representative, which is better than not discussing it at all. But as The Old Guard director Gina Prince-Bythewood and co. have proven, it’s best to have this discussion no longer be just a discussion.
Representation indeed matters and a relationship like the one Joe and Nicky have should be shown more often to strike a chord with people who love as they do. It certainly meant a lot to this writer.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.