His name is Phastos and he’s one of the Eternals, a group of super beings who’ve lived on earth for yonks and will be blasting into cinemas this November (hopefully). Played by actor Brian Tyree Henry, Phastos is going to have a husband, a kid and an on-screen kiss. This is big news. Marvel’s previous LGBTQ+ representation included one of the films’ producers, Joe Russo, playing a nameless, grieving gay man opening up about his loss in a support group with Captain America in the film Avengers: Endgame. Yup, the first vaguely gay character is significant because a man he loved had died – eye roll. And then (spoilers) when all the people who turned to dust come back do we see the nameless gay guy be reunited with his now reincarnated lover, do we get an onscreen kiss, maybe even a hug? Do we bullshit. Not to mention Valkyrie from the third Thor film who, after the movie aired, we were told was bisexual, it’s just that any scenes that indicated this were left on the cutting room floor. So we didn’t get LGBTQ+ representation but we did get queerbaited. Again.
So, Phastos is progress – men kissing, men of colour kissing, men raising kids together, men loving one another. Hurrah. My concern though is with the larger morality of the MCU and how it’s dictated by the hero’s journey – it’s all about men following their punches with punchlines. Heroism is violence and quipping. There’s Iron Man, insufferably arrogant Tony Stark who likes nothing better than patronising women and making billions off selling weapons. Captain America, who used to be a scrawny guy but got injected with super-steroids so he could go beat up Nazis, living the American dream, right? Doctor Strange is a less funny, more arrogant version of Iron Man but with magic instead of a metal suit. Thor is the bro-God of Asgard who’s a violent mess with a big hammer but he is kinda funny. The Hulk is the personification of anger in giant, green blob form. The aforementioned are all white but fortunately Black Panther is black and also gets to beat people up in the name of good (although at least his movie has some nuance). Not forgetting Captain Marvel, a woman who’s a fighter pilot turned superbeing capable of inflicting super violence. Oh, and she’s great with those one-liners. So who is Phastos going to be? The violent, funny and gay one, who’ll do whatever he can to defend the simplistic and binary values of whichever side we’re being told is good? Kinda like gay soldiers being allowed to fight for Queen and country. It’s a certain sort of progress predicated on opening up opportunities for killing bad guys.
As for the portrayal of Phastos’ sexuality in the film, my gut feeling is that it will be ‘normal’ – the “hey, we don’t have a problem that you like boning guys” kinda reaction from straight people, “as long as you don’t rub it in our faces” etc. It’ll just be normal that he’s got a husband and kid because, y’know, gay people are normal. But normal in the MCU is patriarchal and violent which, spoiler alert, is a reflection of wider American society. Will we see any of the struggles that Phastos has had to face for his sexuality – the bullying, exclusion, poor mental health, loneliness – or will the Eternals be conveniently OK with diversity despite having delivered only one movie with a black lead and one with a female lead? Because it seems with a lot of movies these days, diversity is copying and pasting LGBTQ+ people into previously cishetero roles, rather than questioning the patriarchal plot lines and actually delivering something novel.
But queer isn’t just a word for describing gender and/or sexuality, it’s also a type of politics and, for me, that politics challenges the constraints and violences of the world so championed by the MCU – one which has so regularly seen women reduced to their reproductive capacity (or incapacity in the case of Black Widow) and romantic possibilities; and also one that so often kills off people of colour because they’re usually secondary characters (see Captain America: Civil War and the first Thor film as examples). Meanwhile, the baddies in the Eternals are known as the Deviants, which is a word often used to describe LGBTQ+ people but I’m guessing they’ll be a group of people as equally OK with diversity as the eternals but just the nasty version who want to commit some sort of simplistic evil so the audience will know to boo at them (in the MCU this usually means committing genocide and/or harming children). In conclusion, while there is progress in diversifying the MCU, I can’t wait to see Valkyrie actually get to be bisexual (and maybe get a name as well), until the underlying structures are transformed (i.e. truly queered) it’s just a fresh paint job on patriarchy. I could be wrong, though, and The Eternals could be the queer, intersectional feminist extravaganza we’ve been waiting for but I won’t get my hopes up.
P.s. and one quick aside about Valkyrie: when the director of Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi, was asked if Valkyrie would be explicitly queer in the next movie he said: “I think so…The IP is not mine. But with the actors, I feel whatever makes them comfortable — whether they feel like there’s a natural choice, or a natural way for that character to go — then I’m pretty supportive. If Tessa wanted to do that, I’m in.” But why does a queer plot line require a “natural choice” and a “natural way”? Heterosexual relationships never have to jump this bar and get endless, unquestioned screen time, while queer relationships have so much more ‘work’ to do to ‘earn’ their place on screen. Yawn.