For the last decade, Marvel has basically owned the cinema landscape. Since the release of Iron Man, they have never left the top 10 highest grossing films list of each year, the only exception being in 2009 when they didn’t release a film (remember when there was a year that didn’t have a Marvel film? Memories). In all that time they have proven to dominate the cultural conversation around movies, and recently they even added an Oscar to the collection of things they pulled off. But there is one thing that they didn’t pull off yet, that their competitor DC just pulled off with Shazam! and I’m in the mood to talk about that. The catch is, in order to talk about it I have to spoil a few things so if you haven’t seen Shazam! then be warned, I’m spoiling a lot of major moments that you’re going to want to see so this is where you abandon this editorial discussion and go see the film, then come back because I require validation.
So before I get to the actual meat of the spoilers (because I’m aware how scrolling and eyesight works so I know you probably read this sentence by accident), let’s talk about just what we’ve seen in the superhero genre up to this point. We’ve been given several female superheroes, Black Widow, Captain Marvel and of course Wonder Woman, we’ve had black superheroes with Cyborg (in Justice League) and Black Panther, we’ve been getting better lately with the representation and if you saw any photos of kids dressing up like they were part of the nation of Wakanda, you know how important this is. But you know what group hasn’t gotten good representation in superhero movies yet? The LGBTQI+ community.
There’s something really weird about this because it’s been obscenely intentional. Black Panther could’ve had a relationship between Okoye and Ayo, making them the first lesbian couple in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There was even a scene shot that would allude to this but the scene was removed and this was known even back when the movie was released, thanks to an article by ScreenCrush that pointed out where the storyline came from and described it. It was subtle, barely a flirtation, but it would’ve been something and it was removed. Then there is Thor: Ragnarok, a film that has been described by Vulture as the Gayest Marvel Movie, almost actually achieved that legitimately by having a bisexual character in the movie. That character was going to be Valkerye, the badass warrior played fantastically by Tessa Thompson, and a scene was actually shot (according to the AVclub) where there was a simple shot of a woman walking out of Valkerye’s bedroom. That’s the confirmation we would need, she would be canonically bi, they’d destroy the barrier that kept gay representation out of Marvel movies… and it was removed because it might distract from exposition. To remind you, this film kept Hulk’s naked ass on screen for a shocking amount of time and has Chris Hemsworth looking like Chris Hemsworth, we’re distracted already so maybe you could just give us the damn queer representation.
Now the good news is that Marvel has announced that they’re going to be giving us the gay superhero that we’ve been waiting for in the upcoming Eternals movie. There is a good chance it’s going to be Hercules and even played by a gay actor which is absolutely awesome. I can’t wait to see it, finally, I’ll get to see myself as a superhero (or at least, what I might look like as a superhero if I took care of myself and looked like some kind of muscle-bound god… let a man dream, damnit). Hell, Spider-Man: Far From Home has actually cast the first transgender male actor in a superhero film. It’s absolutely incredible that all this representation is coming to Marvel… and DC beat them to it with one line of dialogue in a film about a chld that turns into Zachary Levi. This is what you get for waiting so long Marvel; DC kicked your asses at this.
So, this is the spoiler part I was warning you about. In Shazam! the hero and his adopted siblings are running from Dr Thaddeus Sivana who has caught them in the same magical realm where Billy Batson got the powers that turned him into Shazam. Desperate and scared, they all wonder if maybe Shazam can teleport them out of there and with nothing to lose, they all hold onto Billy who thinks about where he’d rather be right now and in one of the comedic highlights of the film, they pop up in the middle of a strip club. We never see inside, it’s clearly one with a lot of naked women since Billy and Freddy both seem to enjoy it while Billy’s adopted sister Mary is desperately trying to cover little Darla’s eyes. They’re all panicking as they ran outside, except for Pedro Peña who is shy and doesn’t really talk. Indeed he barely says a word throughout the film except for this scene where he says “Not my thing”.
And just like that, we have ourselves a gay character.
Now, am I grasping at straws here? YES! Hi, did you miss the part where I’m desperate for this kind of moment to happen in a superhero film? Yes, I’m grasping at straws, they’re nice and long and fun to grasp at, but the line is there and it’s pointedly said by a character that seems to be holding back a lot. Any person in the LGBTQI+ community will tell you that a quiet shy character that seems afraid to open up to anyone is basically an alarm bell for “Someone who might belong in the LGBTQI+ community”. But wait, not only can I call this character a gay character… Pedro Peña is the first gay superhero.
Right at the end of the film, the way that Billy Batson decides to defeat the bad guys is to turn all his brothers and sisters into Superheroes. He gets them to hold the staff, say his name (there’s another great joke at this point) and then every one of them becomes a Superhero, including Pedro Peña who ends up basically saving a ton of lives by holding the Ferris Wheel up and a bunch of other amazing things. All while being a gay Latino superhero… because we now have that. We now have a gay Latino superhero who is also a 15-year-old child and turns into D.J. Cotrona which, let’s be honest, we all wish we could turn into D.J. Cotrona at some point in time… where the hell was I going with this? Oh right, YAY REPRESENTATION.
I’m aware that some people are going to look at this and think that it’s not enough, and you’re right. We deserve a gay superhero that is as open about their homosexuality as every other character is about their heterosexuality and don’t even try and pretend they aren’t open about it. Iron Man’s entire character arc basically revolves around being a better person so that Pepper won’t dump him for being a complete asshole. Starlord basically doomed half the planet because the woman he loved was murdered. Steve Rogers’ first thought upon realising that he wasn’t in the ’30s was “But I had a hot date with this awesome badass woman to go to”, I could literally do this with every single solitary character in the Marvel Universe, it’s that common. The LGBTQI+ community deserves that… but we’re also hungry and desperate and if you don’t think we’re going to take Pedro Peña and run with that as our representation, you don’t know this community.
This is how shockingly easy it is to provide gay representation in film. A line of dialogue that makes it very clear what the person’s sexuality is will do the job. It’s worked before, ParaNorman got a fairly large amount of praise because it literally just had a jock character say the sentence “You’re gonna love my boyfriend” and that was enough, it was obviously a comedic reveal meant to subvert expectations but it was there and it was real and it made a community happy. Contrast this to when Beauty and the Beast’s Lafou, who never actually addresses his sexual preference, dances with a guy in a dress for literally a second of screen time and that is the moment we’re meant to take as confirmation that he’s gay. I’m not joking, that’s it, that’s our moment to go “Oh cool, gay people are in a Disney film… as the henchman of a sociopath… yay representation?”. It didn’t help that Disney were basically trying to get attention by saying “We did it, we put a gay in the film, that’s never been done before”, or at least that’s how it sounded with how they were pimping it. They pimped this character as gay so hard they got the film banned in multiple countries, that’s some hard as hell gay pimping. In the end we got a hyperactive Josh Gad performance and one second of slow dancing and the reaction was exactly what you think it was. Nyle Dimarco spent more time dancing with a man on an episode of Dancing With The Stars, this isn’t something that should be difficult to do! Also, don’t bother pointing out “Oh he clearly had a crush on Gaston” because I will point you to the original and scream like a banshee about how Lafou behaved the exact same goddamn way around Gaston when he was a cartoon and merely a coded gay character.
Seriously, more gay dancing than any Disney film
The trick is simple, it’s something that these films need to learn but never will. Make it text. Put the sexuality of queer characters in the text and the community will thank you. I can sit here for hours guessing what characters are and aren’t gay based on mannerisms or coding, that’s what most of us have learned to do for decades. Do you think Scar is considered a gay character for anything other than the fancy way he says he shall practice his curtsy? We’re desperate for representation and we resent being promised it without getting it. Put it in the text, have a character verbally confirm or allude to their sexuality, it’s not much but it gives us something to latch onto. We want to be part of this, the community wants to have a superhero and we shouldn’t have to wait for that Lee Daniels’ gay superhero movie to get it, it isn’t hard to do. DC did it in one scene without any fanfare; DC beat Marvel to this and now gets to put that feather in their cap. It’s not hard to give the LGBTQI+ community the representation it deserves, it just takes the will to goddamn do it instead of pretending you need to wait for someone else to give you the OK.