Earlier this summer, Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, went on the record with The Playlist to assure fans that we’ll soon have LGBTQ characters coming to the world of the Avengers — but is that something we should be excited about?
Thor: Ragnarok was slated to be the first film to bring a queer character to life with Valkyrie — the badass, bisexual, Afro-Latina shieldmaiden of Asgard — but ultimately, the one scene overtly inclusive of her bisexuality died on the cutting-room floor. Despite the fact that Tessa Thompson reaffirmed Valkyrie’s bisexuality on Twitter, the erasure of the character's sexuality from the film stung.
The complete omission of queerness thus far is disappointing and kind of bizarre, considering the fact that we’ve had queer characters in Marvel’s comic books for decades (and kind of not, considering the current state of the world).
Queer characters already do exist in Marvel TV and film properties. None exist in the films of the MCU, but queer characters exist in the TV shows of The Defenders stories and in Marvel’s Runaways (which are part of the MCU but seemingly only tangentially), as well as in Deadpool 2, which belongs in the extended X-Men universe. Having queer characters is better than nothing, but, frankly, they are either such a minor part of the story or so problematic that Feige’s promise should be regarded with, at most, cautious optimism.
Jeri Hogarth (Jessica Jones)
Jeri Hogarth, her ex-wife, Dr. Wendy Ross-Hogarth, and her girlfriend, Pam, are the first queer characters to have appeared in a Marvel TV show. We’re immediately introduced to Jeri as a lesbian, which is great, and as someone who is cheating on her wife with her secretary, which is not as great. Jeri is not a nice person — she’s not even really a good person — but she is a total hardass and a fantastic lawyer.
Jeri is a fairly minor character, appearing here and there to help Jessica Jones and her super-powered friends with their legal woes. She’s also morally ambivalent and capable of exceptional cruelty, manipulating people to her will (again, not great) with skill and intention.
Jeri tries to use Kilgrave, the evil monster who raped Jessica and has the ability to control people with his mind, to manipulate Wendy into a divorce settlement that was more favorable to Jeri. Instead, because he’s a fracking evil rapist and murderer, he tells Wendy to attack Jeri with scissors. As Jeri begs Wendy to stop, Pam walks in and defends Jeri, murdering Wendy in the process. So, yeah, it’s a case of bury your gays, make murderers of your gays, and then blame your gays for it.
Say it with me now: not great.
Yukio and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Deadpool 2)
Yukio and Negasonic Teenage Warhead gave us a few of our Marvel firsts: first queer woman of color, first queer couple in a film, and first queer superheroes. (And, maybe something like, first queer couple that’s so cute you just want to explode.) Their appearance has been celebrated by the likes of GLAAD.
Unfortunately, though, Yukio and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are minor characters. They show up mostly to hold hands for a few seconds, exchange cute or terse interactions with the usually sardonic Deadpool, and fight the bad guys at the climax of the film. Instead of being fully formed, critical members of the team, they serve more as a vehicle to bring levity to the film or beef up the intensity.
Deadpool isn’t exactly out and proud in the film adaptations, though he is canonically pansexual, so in some ways, Yukio and Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s non-canonical (at least in the comics) relationship feels a bit like a consolation prize.
Shades and Comanche (Luke Cage)
Shades, aka Hernan Alvarez, is a criminal mastermind, one of Luke Cage’s enemies, and sometimes lover of Mariah Stokes. In Season 2, his friend Comanche gets out of prison and Shades offers him a job. Together they decide to take Luke down.
Things don’t go very well in their pursuit, so they decide to ambush Luke at Pop’s Barbershop. He doesn’t show up, but while they wait, Shades and Comanche have a very intense conversation in which they talk about the future and their relationship while they were in prison. They had been lovers and even though they’re out now, Comanche tells Shades his feelings haven’t changed. Shades responds, “Life inside is inside. Prison has its own set of rules that no one in the outside world would ever understand. We're out now. It's different. I'm different. We're different."
Later, Shades figures out that Comanche has been a mole for the police and shoots him, right after Comanche shoots a cop. This is the moment that breaks Shades, and he confesses his love to the dying Comanche. Their story is devastating and Shades is never the same again, ultimately getting arrested after he turns on Mariah.
Shades and Comanche are men of color who fall in love despite the circumstances around them. Normally, that would be an encouraging story, one I would desperately love to see on screen, but in this case, Shades rejects and then kills his lover.
It makes sense that the narrative would want to show Shades, who has gotten by relatively unscathed since he was released from Seagate at the beginning of Season 1, getting his comeuppance. However, his consequences coming at the cost of a queer character’s life repeats the harmful bury-your-gays trope. And, this time, at the hands of your other queer character. Add to that fact that this is the single black queer character we’ve seen in a Marvel TV or film property and the treatment doesn’t seem so much consequential to Shades’ actions, but rather an effect of creators’ bias or lack of understanding. Maybe Shades doesn’t deserve a happy ending, but Comanche certainly did. He was a formerly incarcerated, queer black man who tried to do the right thing, not only for himself but for the man he loved.
Nico Minoru and Karolina Dean (Marvel’s Runaways)
Actually, Nico and Karolina are the exceptions to the examples above—and a serious improvement over the comic book version of their relationship. There has only been one season so far, and their shared attraction only became apparent in the last episode, but they are both powerful, independent women who are falling in love.
Karolina kisses Nico when the two are at a dance, trying to act like normal teenagers and forget that they have to save the world from their evil supervillain parents. The moment ends awkwardly, but later in the season, Nico kisses Karolina.
Karolina has the power of flight and glows like an iridescent rainbow because she’s an alien, and Nico is a powerful witch with the power to do anything she can think of. Plus, they’re super cute teenagers and they flirt kind of terribly, which is just adorable. Honestly, what’s not to like?
Of course, there are examples of kickass LGBTQ characters all over genre TV and film. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost Girl, Wynonna Earp, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, The 100, Riverdale, and Black Lightning have all featured queer female characters in lead roles. And Legends is finally bringing a bisexual Constantine to the screen. The Magicians brings many queer folks of the human and mythical varieties to life. Luckily, the list goes on and on. While not all portrayals are empowering, many of them give us queer folks with their own personalities and goals and plenty of screen time.
Trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming characters are upsettingly underrepresented, as are LGBTQ characters who are people of color. Nia Nal, aka Dreamer, is a trans superhero coming to Supergirl this fall, and Black Lightning and Riverdale each feature lesbian and bisexual women of color. It’s not enough by any means, but hopefully these are just the first few examples of many to come.
The question of whether to be excited about the queer characters coming to the MCU is really a question of how they will make their entrance. Hopefully, Marvel will make a good-faith effort to develop LGBTQ characters who reflect the diversity of the queer community without making them stereotypical or tokenized. The most surefire way to ensure these portrayals are true to our communities is to make sure the people writing, directing, and starring in these adaptations are LGBTQ creators and actors.