This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
Here’s a scenario: You’re the director of a major studio blockbuster that’s poised to make, say, a billion dollars or two, and you want to take the opportunity to make a statement. It’s the 22nd movie in a massive big-screen franchise that has somehow never included an openly gay character, so you decide that you’re going to include one. Not a major one, mind you—there’s no time to introduce a new superhero this late in the game, and the powers that be won’t let you do anything interesting with the sexuality of an existing character—but you can at least, in your own small way, show solidarity with gay fans and make this fictional universe a smidgen more inclusive, and realistic, in the process.
And then, without even meaning to, you sabotage it.
Congratulations, you are Joe and Anthony Russo, who fell victim to a classic mistake while doing press for Avengers: Endgame by overhyping the movie’s “exclusively gay moment.” That term comes from director Bill Condon, who accidentally coined it while promoting what turned out to be a mostly uninspired and underwhelming depiction of a gay supporting character in the live-action Beauty and the Beast. Endgame’s version of this is Grieving Man, an otherwise unnamed member of a support group being led by Captain America after the movie’s five-year time jump. He’s played in a cameo by Joe Russo himself and tells a story about going on a date with another man for the first time since Thanos wiped out half the population.
Though Grieving Man plays an even smaller role in Endgame than LeFou does in Beauty and the Beast, let’s give credit where credit is due: Grieving Man is not coded as gay or implied to be gay or kinda-sorta-maybe gay. He’s gay! In fact, it’s one of the very few things we learn about him during his brief moment in the spotlight. He’s grieving, he has a job, he misses the Mets, he’s into dudes. That’s it, that’s his entire backstory and personality, but it’s still pretty unusual for an action blockbuster to be so decisive, even when the filmmakers are going out of their way to be progressive. Star Trek Beyond edited out a same-sex kiss between its gay couple, while Independence Day’s sequel maintained plausible deniability by not going beyond hand-holding.
“We wanted it to be casual, with the fact that the character is gay tied into the fabric of the storytelling and representing what everyday life is,” Joe Russo told Deadline of his scene in Endgame. In that respect, they succeeded. As Anthony Russo stresses, the scene is one of a few in the movie that establishes the long-term effects of Thanos’ snap beyond the realm of superheroes: whales swimming in the now-cleaner Hudson River, cities with massive monuments to the people who vanished, and this one ordinary civilian still coping with inexplicable loss. It’s a tiny role, but it’s not inconsequential. Grieving Man is precisely who the Avengers are supposed to be fighting for.
If only the Russo brothers had been content to leave it at that. Instead, they’ve blown the character’s significance out of proportion, unintentionally setting viewers up to be underwhelmed. “It was important to us as we did four of these films, we wanted a gay character somewhere in them,” Joe Russo said in the same Deadline interview. To call Grieving Man a “character” at all is generous, since he has no name and only a handful of lines; even the talking raccoon has a richer inner life. If it was truly that important to include an openly gay character in the Marvel universe, the Russo brothers have, by their own admission, had three previous movies full of opportunities to do so, including Captain America: Civil War, which Joe Russo once referred to as “a love story” between two of the male leads but only in metaphorical, or at best, nonexplicit, terms.
Joe Russo said that “everyone has the right to see themselves on the screen and identify somewhere,” and he can literally see himself in Grieving Man. But it’s ludicrous to suggest that gay audience members will look up at the screen and identify not with Iron Man or Nebula or another major character but with a random guy who speaks for less than a minute and whose primary trait is that he has suffered an unspecified loss. It’s not even the gayest moment in a movie that features Captain Marvel’s butch haircut, Captain America admiring his own ass, and Valkyrie being, well, Valkyrie, even though she’s still not allowed to be openly bisexual.
Poor Grieving Man, a bit part whose creators have put the weight of the universe’s entire gay community on his shoulders. Fortunately, the MCU does already have a couple of queer characters on the small screen, like Jessica Jones’ Jeri Hogarth and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Joey Gutierrez, who can help him bear the burden. Disney will also inherit Deadpool 2’s same-sex couple as part of the merger with Fox, and there are rumors that the studio is seeking a gay, Asian actor for the Eternals movie. Maybe soon the franchise will actually have enough characters for a Pride parade. Until then, let Grieving Man be Grieving Man.