Wanted: Superhero with alt sexuality in films

Sonali Kokra

May 31, 2019 13:56:01 IST

What do Wonder Woman and Batwoman have in common? What existential paradigm do Loki and Deadpool share, apart from their passion for mischief?

If you know your superheroes from the movies instead of the comicbooks, you are likely to be unaware of a small but significant detail about these popular characters: The source material of all four above-mentioned superheroes describes them as non-binary in their sexual preferences.

They are not the only ones. The hallways of Marvel and DC are full of characters bracing a mix of sexual identities.

It is an established fact that the identity of DC’s Wonder Woman was heavily inspired by the longstanding relationship that creator William Marston’s wife Elizabeth had with their polyamorous partner, Olive Byrne. The movie skirted the issue of Diana’s sexual preference, but the comics make it clear: the Amazons of Themyscira have a lot of sex, and most of it isn’t heteronormative.

Marvel’s loveable but potty-mouthed Deadpool is not just R-rated, he’s also pansexual. Ryan Reynolds, the actor who plays the character, openly said he’d love the creators to explore Deadpool’s sexuality.

Wanted: Superhero with alt sexuality in films

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

DC’s Batwoman started out in the 1950s as Batman’s love interest, but in 2013 she was all set to marry her girlfriend Maggie. The bold storyline ruffled feathers and led to an acrimonious separation between the writers and DC, after the publisher “prohibited” the union between Batwoman’s alter ego Kate Kane and Maggie. Hell, the reason Batwoman’s character was drummed up in the first place was to quell all talk of Batman’s homosexuality — an aspect notably dealt with in Italian novelist Marco Mancassola’s Erotic Lives Of The Superheroes, where the caped crusader is one half of a bickering gay couple, the other half being Robin.

In 2012, DC relaunched Green Lantern as an openly gay superhero. A more interesting character is Marvel’s Loki. He is bisexual and he shifts form from male to female, raising an interesting question about gender identity. Does shape-shifting make Loki genderfluid?

The X-men superhero, Iceman, exists in two simultaneous states — an adult version still in the closet and a teenager who realises he’s gay after his mind is accidentally read. Mystique, also from X-men, is bisexual in the comics.

While the comicbooks have been doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the progressive issues of representation and inclusion for decades, the movies are cautiously tiptoeing around the idea only now. It has taken Marvel 22 movies and 11 years to start making loud enough noises about launching a superhero that deviates from the hyper-masculine, straight white man template. On the other hand, DC’s Flash might have been established as queer since 2012, but he is still to get his standalone film.

There’s reason why Hollywood is unwilling to reinvent the superhero wheel. These movies rake in big money worldwide, and studios are often forced to toe a line deemed acceptable everywhere. Disney’s Beauty And The Beast was almost banned in Russia as a gay propaganda film because of one scene that subtly establishes a character’s homosexuality. China heavily censors any allusion to queerness, as it did with the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, scrubbing it clean of all references of Mercury’s sexuality and AIDS diagnosis.

Perhaps it is the opinion-shaping power of pop culture that makes it the target of such scrutiny, in the contentious times we live in. Films, even the ones meant for rapid consumption and instant gratification, are a window to society’s soul, its value system and moral fabric. They help us retrace the trajectory of our intellectual and cultural evolution. Their most potent magic, however, lies in their ability to provoke us into reflection, engage us with ideas that contradict our beliefs and, maybe, change our minds.

How else do you explain the recent flurry of propaganda films masquerading as political biopics in Bollywood, just before the elections? It’s the reason activists demand that films portray the realities of marginalised groups accurately. Films can open our minds to progressive viewpoints, or encourage us to remain closed to everything we consider alien or — in the case of homosexuality — unnatural.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Section 377, and gay sex ceased to be an offence. Taiwan recently became the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriages. It’s only over the past decade or so that the world has made significant progress when it comes to securing LGBTQ+ rights. Civil societies require ratification of laws but, despite the laws, people who subscribe to non-binary gender or sexual identities continue to live under fear of persecution.

A gay superhero could go a long way in toppling oppressive stereotypes and open up the LGBTQ+ world to those of us not in the know. Laws are powerful deterrents, but not as powerful as changed minds.

The timing couldn’t be better for the world to get its first queer superheroes on screen. If Marvel and DC need proof that fans are ready for superheroes beyond the white-dude default, they can look at the twin successes of Black Panther and Captain Marvel. Both movies cruised past the billion-dollar mark.

Inclusion wouldn’t demand radical changes either. Even if Marvel and DC were to maintain the heterosexuality of established characters, there’s rich material to choose from for upcoming superheroes. Tessa Thompson, who plays Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame, has gone on record to say she’s always played her character as a bisexual, even though the scripts never disclosed her sexual preference explicitly.

Last year, Marvel Studios top boss Kevin Feige hinted that his team might be setting the stage for Young Avengers, one of the most diverse groups of superheroes. It has the spunky Miss America, a Latinx bisexual superhero who travels across dimensions and realities. It also has Scarlet Witch’s son, Wiccan, and Hulking, modelled after Hulk, as boyfriends.

If only Marvel and/or DC could put together a rainbow-coloured team of writers, directors and actors who understand, create, and portray the reality of queer characters, we’d forgive the years of neglect.

Updated Date: May 31, 2019 14:52:13 IST