WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame
You might have missed it, but Marvel introduced their first LGBT character in Avengers: Endgame.
No, he didn’t take part in the huge, final battle, but who could forget “grieving man” at the counselling group who spoke to Captain America about going on a date?
It was so important to director Joe Russo, he decided to play the role himself.
“It is a perfect time, because one of the things that is compelling about the Marvel Universe moving forward is its focus on diversity,” he said in an interview with Deadline magazine.
Moviegoers were introduced to The Avengers in a series of movies – Iron Man in 2008, Thor and Captain America in 2011 – three hugely successful films about white men with super powers.
It took until 2018 (Black Panther) and 2019 (Captain Marvel) for a movie in Marvel’s cinematic universe to be led by a person of colour or a woman.
And none of the 22 movies in the 11-year Avengers franchise have included a main character who is LGBTQ+.
‘It really did feel like a let-down’
“I think it’s very telling that the Russo Brothers made such a fuss about this inclusion of an openly gay character,” Philip Ellis, a pop culture journalist from Birmingham, tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.
“If they’d not said anything about it, that scene might have been seen as a pleasant surprise but because they made such a big deal of it, it really did feel like a let-down.”
And the scene “didn’t feel like enough” for Gabriella Geisinger, who writes about movies for The Daily Express newspaper.
“It was such a part of normal conversation that I actually didn’t pick up that this was the moment,” she tells Newsbeat.
“It didn’t have that neon sign, which in one way is good. It normalises this thing that is normal, but on the other hand there wasn’t enough throughout the film to make that feel like it was really something they cared about.”
There may already be an LGBT Avengers in our midst, however. Tessa Thompson’s has always maintained she’s played Valkyrie as bisexual, whether it was in the script or not.
“I think it matters in a sense that, as part of the acting craft, she’s bringing that to this character,” says Gabriella.
“So even if it’s not written into the script, the way that she interacts with the world around her comes from a place of being a bisexual woman.”
Gabriella wishes Marvel changed their movies for Tessa’s take on the character in the same way they did for Robert Downey Jr when he improvised a game-changing line in the first Iron Man movie.
Philip says there needs to be a gay version of The Bechdel Test that we can apply to movies and literature.
“Your gay character needs to have a name and be shown kissing a member of the same sex,” he says.
“A meaningful look or a throwaway line of dialogue really, at this point, doesn’t cut it.”
Marvel may introduce a gay hero in The Eternals
But in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we are still in an era of firsts – with black and female characters only getting to lead movies in the past 18 months.
Both Black Panther and Captain Marvel made more than a billion dollars at the worldwide box office – far more than Thor: Ragnarok, Spider Man: Homecoming or Doctor Strange.
And in Captain Marvel’s case, that was in the face of some fierce backlash from fans of the Marvel franchise.
The next first for Marvel looks set to be an LGBT character, played by a gay actor, in a lead role in their planned movie, The Eternals – which is about an ancient race of super-powered beings who gained powers due to experiments by an alien race called The Celestials.
“It would be quite disappointing if they go with a very traditional, masculine, Captain America-type who’s gay in name only,” says Philip.
“White men are seen as a default, both in pop culture in general and in the LGBT community. I would just like to skip ahead to having a queer woman of colour in the lead role or a non-binary hero.”
Gabriella says that the key to accurate portrayal of LGBT characters in The Eternals or any other Marvel movie rests on the writers, producers and director and their understanding of the LGBT community.
“When you’re developing a character that is LGBTQ+, do the research, get writers who know what that experience is like,” she says.
Philip adds that he’s already “dreading the pushback” the planned Eternals movie will get from places like China, where LGBT content in movies is heavily censored.
“It shouldn’t, but it does require a certain kind of creative bravery to tell these kinds of stories and include these kinds of characters,” he says.
“It’s going to be interesting and probably quite messy when we have these first big queer characters rolling out in such a giant franchise.
“Even in a severely edited version, you’ve got people who are queer and marginalised in places like Russia and China and they deserve to see themselves on screen as well.”
‘We assume characters are straight unless we are told otherwise’
And while The Avengers franchise is about galaxy-spanning, world-saving heroics, romantic relationships have played an important part of many of its characters’ storylines.
The Scarlet Witch’s relationship with Vision is a key part of Infinity War and results in one of the most action-packed scenes in Endgame.
Captain America’s love for wartime crush Peggy Carter is what leads him to end his time with The Avengers at the end of the recent movie.
And while Gabriella says she’d like to see a superhero movie which focuses on a hero coming to terms with their abilities at the same time as their sexuality and would like to see LGBT relationships presented with the same importance – and normality – as heterosexual.
“We come into these movies assuming all the characters are straight unless we’re told otherwise,” she says.
“Unfortunately, until society gets to a point where we don’t assume that, I think you’re always going to have to make a little bit of a statement about a character and their sexual orientation.”
Black Panther and Captain Marvel brought black and female-led stories to the cinema screen, and Philip says next it’s important that young Marvel fans see LGBT heroes on the screen.
“To see a superhero who is openly gay, living his best life, saving the universe would be inspirational for a younger generation to see,” he adds.
“Or perhaps saving the world with his boyfriend or saving the life of his male love interest. All of the things that we’ve seen Captain America and Iron Man do for years – just be a superhero.”