Avengers: Endgame is a celebratory victory lap that brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first universe-spanning epic to an end, and establishes a number of beginnings for the franchise’s future. But one moment left much to be desired, especially when you consider the context surrounding it.
Even though Marvel’s been resolute about not spoiling the movie, co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo began speaking about one of Endgame’s more curious details last week in an effort to draw attention to what they considered an example of how the MCU’s become a more inclusive space. To much fanfare, Endgame gave the MCU its first Exclusively Gay Moment™, which...isn’t the shining achievement Marvel seems to believe it is.
After Endgame’s opening act in which the heroes who survived Thanos’ snap regroup, find the Mad Titan, and kill him only to learn that he’s destroyed the Infinity Stones and there’s no way to undo what he’s done, the movie jumps five years into the future when everyone’s gone their separate ways in order to try and move on. While Black Widow oversees the remaining Avengers’ various missions to maintain peace on Earth and other planets, Steve Rogers spends his time leading a support group for regular civilians who survived the snap.
The point of the group, Steve explains, is to work towards becoming whole again even though half of the world is gone. Perfect example: leaving the house and going out on a date. Steve and the rest of the group listen as a character credited only as Grieving Man (and played by Joe Russo) describes how he mustered up the strength to ask a guy out, and even though their date was understandably somber and a little awkward, they’re going to see one another again in the future. Sweet as the scene is, it’s got no impact on Endgame’s plot, but outside the film, the Russos have framed it as the introduction to the MCU’s first queer character, which reopens the conversation surrounding Marvel’s (and Disney as a whole) representation issues.
In an interview with Deadline, the directing duo discussed how important the idea of on-screen representation and diversity is to them as filmmakers, and emphasized that they wanted Endgame to feature a queer character. Joe Russo said:
It was important to us as we did four of these films, we wanted a gay character somewhere in them. We felt it was important that one of us play him, to ensure the integrity and show it is so important to the filmmakers that one of us is representing that. It is a perfect time, because one of the things that is compelling about the Marvel Universe moving forward is its focus on diversity.
As much as we all enjoy the MCU, it’s impossible to deny that Marvel Studios absolutely dragged its heels when it came to giving characters who aren’t straight, white men significant amounts of screen time. As fans have pushed for more on-screen diversity, particularly in terms of including queer characters, Marvel’s repeatedly expressed its plans to bring them to the big screen. But repeatedly, the studio’s decided to seemingly go out of its way to avoid making good on its word. Though there was the possibility Thor: Ragnarok would allude to Valkyrie’s bisexuality, the movie sidestepped any mention of the warrior’s personal life. After early rumors that Black Panther was set to feature queer Dora Milaje, nothing.
As disappointing as those missed opportunities for queer representation were, none of them stung anywhere nearly as much as the Grieving Man’s introduction inadvertently does, because his presence comes across like an inconsequential afterthought, and it doesn’t help matters that the Russos and Marvel appear to be quite pleased with the creative decision.
Making a big fuss about the Grieving Man’s presence in Endgame would be like pointing to Terrence Howard’s first run as James Rhodes or Scarlet Johansson’s first appearance as Black Widow as watershed MCU moments for black people and women. In the case of those heroes, the argument would be somewhat stronger, because they actually have names, and went on to become integral parts of the Avengers movies, but it’s highly unlikely that the same will be true of the Grieving Man.
But really, though, let’s be frank. When we talk about milestones of on-screen representation in multimillion-dollar franchise’s like Marvel’s, nobody is talking background characters who get a few lines before vanishing into the cinematic ether. What we’re talking about is the importance of seeing (in this instance) queer characters being consequently placed front and center the way characters like Black Panther and Captain Marvel have in their respective films and those connected to them.
The Russos’ idea that Endgame would be the ideal time to start gaying up the MCU isn’t at all misguided, as the film is also about one generation of heroes passing the baton to the next as a new phase of Marvel’s movies begins. But the Grieving Man isn’t the character for the occasion, especially considering that Endgame is one of the few movies that features literally most of the franchise’s major characters. Fitting a coming out narrative into the film Endgame currently is might seem like a messy prospect, but it’s much easier to imagine a version of the film that built to that moment for any number of the MCU’s heroes in a more organic way.
For example, there’s one moment later on in the film when an emotional Peter Quill comes face to face with a version of Gamora from earlier in their timeline. He’s overjoyed to see her, but because she doesn’t know him, she knees him in the groin and asks Nebula how she ever could have come to love someone like him. The scene ends in a joke about Gamora’s only choices being Quill or a tree, but it could have just as easily incorporated a mention of Gamora, say, having settled because her only options were Quill, an animal, a tree, a fool, or Drax. An even simpler alternative: let’s see Valkyrie in New Asgard in a relationship with a woman. Point is, there were plenty of other ways to approach this, but the Russos went for the most milquetoast, hollow option.
The Grieving Man is quite literally Captain America’s one gay friend who, at least within Endgame, only exists so that Marvel can point to the film as an example of doing the bare minimum. It isn’t surprising that Endgame doesn’t incorporate any characters from Marvel’s television shows where queer characters like Jessica Jones’ Jeri Hogarth and Agents of SHIELD’s Joey Gutierrez have popped up, and to be honest, plopping them into a film this late into the game when the movies and shows don’t intersect wouldn’t have made any sense. And so, short of revealing that one of the movie’s central heroes has been queer all along, there wasn’t exactly a way for Endgame to go for this kind of representation without it feeling half-hearted.
While there’s buzz that Marvel’s considering including a queer lead character in its upcoming Eternals movie, the way Kevin Feige’s spoken about queer representation in the MCU makes it seems as if the Grieving Man in Endgame might be the character the studio’s been telling everyone to wait for all these years, which would suck, quite frankly.
Avengers: Endgame is a film that’s chiefly concerned with giving audiences the kind of fan service worthy of a franchise more than a decade in the making. In many respects, that’s exactly what it does and then some, but when it comes to making it feel like queer people are a significant part of the big screen MCU, the “service” was nothing to brag about.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.