How ‘WandaVision’ Continues Marvel Studios’ Problematic Legacy of Queerbaiting
Flirting with homophobic tropes and skirting around meaningful representation is nothing new for Disney or Marvel Studios.
Marvel Studios’ first real foray into the world of television shattered conventions in so many ways. Not only did Disney+’s WandaVision deliver on studio head Kevin Feige’s promise that fans would finally see cinematic, MCU-quality production value grace our small screens, it also took two of the Avengers franchise’s highest profile supporting heroes and gave them a unique corner of the multiverse all their own. And it did so in a really clever, super meta way that made each passing week feel like a twisted trip down memory lane, exploring classic sitcoms of old and revisiting some of the most iconic moments from the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far.
But as much as the past factored heavily into this new superhero story, we also got several exciting glimpses into the future. Social media buzzed each week with many fans treating the event series like some kind of epic scavenger hunt, searching for clues and Easter eggs that could give new insight into what the post-Avengers: Endgame landscape might look like heading into Marvel’s much-anticipated Phase 4. Among the brightest of those teases came in the form of Wanda’s supernaturally conceived twin boys — Billy and Tommy. But that’s also precisely the problem: they were just teases.
Better known by their superhero monikers Wiccan and Speed, the twins are members of the hugely popular Young Avengers — a team created by openly gay writer Allan Heinberg, whose initial run won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book in 2006. Like their creator, both characters are also members of the LGBTQ+ community; Billy is gay, Tommy is bisexual. With the Young Avengers reportedly already being assembled behind the scenes according to recent industry scoops, Wiccan and Speed are poised to be two huge new additions to the MCU. And that’s a pretty big deal, especially for a franchise with such an unfortunate history of queerbaiting, minimizing the queerness of its precious few gay characters, playing their existence for laughs or outright choosing not to bring them to the screen at all.
You might recall Disney’s highly touted “first openly gay character in the MCU” moment from Avengers: Endgame, which ultimately amounted to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by the film’s co-director Joe Russo as an unnamed gay man speaking in group therapy about his struggles to move on after the loss of his partner in the wake of Thanos’ snap. This brief exchange was so vague and inconsequential that most moviegoers didn’t even pick up on the “importance” of the information being conveyed. And several foreign language dubs released in more homophobic territories were easily able to omit any gay undertones from the scene without even having to change its context. But regardless of how well-intentioned it might’ve been, this fruitless attempt at virtue signaling was not the MCU’s first acknowledgement of queer characters or relationships (though maybe they prefer it had been).
Way back in Marvel’s “one-shot” short film All Hail the King, a pair of bumbling Iron Man villains were used as vehicles for uncomfortable jokes about their sexuality while incarcerated. Trevor Slattery makes a passing comment alluding to sexual experimentation in prison being similar to his experience at drama school. It’s not super funny or tasteful, but also not particularly offensive on its own. The latter cannot be said about a mid-credits scene showing military contractor Justin Hammer rebuking his younger, effeminate cellmate for showing physical affection in front of the other prisoners. Unfortunately, the MCU’s first depiction of gay characters wasn’t a touching scene showing our humanity or capacity for love, nor was it a thrilling action sequence presenting queer people as every bit as strong or heroic as their straight counterparts. Instead, we were a punchline.
More recently, Marvel’s mishandling of gay characters has evolved past bad representation and into complete erasure territory. Thor: Ragnarok saw Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie have her queerness scrubbed from the final version of the film entirely when the lone scene acknowledging her bisexuality was left on the cutting room floor. Similarly, in Black Panther, Okoye and Ayo — members of Wakanda’s all-female Dora Milaje — were originally going to be depicted as lesbians. Any reference to this was removed from the final cut of the film as well. Another character introduced in Thor: Ragnarok, Korg (voiced by director Taika Waititi), is also queer in the comics, yet his sexuality likewise remains unexplored in the MCU so far.
There’s also the unresolved, mostly unacknowledged queercoding of Captain Marvel and Maria Rambeau — as well as Captain America and his sidekick Bucky (a pairing affectionately dubbed “Stucky” by shippers). And while we’re only a few episodes into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we’ve already gotten several homoerotic moments between the titular duo. Sure, that might just be an outdated trope of the buddy cop genre rooted in comedy, but it also recklessly and irresponsibly adds even more fuel to a fire that will seemingly never have any tangible resolution whatsoever for fans.
“We’re 23 movies into the MCU, and we still don’t have a single, solidly confirmed gay superhero to show for it.”
It’s with this context in mind that WandaVision’s finale proves especially frustrating when [SPOILER ALERT] Billy and Tommy are “killed off” at the end, presumably to help launch Wanda’s chaos magic-fueled grief trip through the multiverse in future films. Sure, the twins’ “death” (and subsequent rebirth) certainly has precedence in the source material. But we’re 23 movies into the MCU, and we still don’t have a single, solidly confirmed gay superhero to show for it. After waiting so long for meaningful queer representation, do we really have to take the long way around, even flirting with TV’s shameful “bury your gays” trope — the casual killing of queer characters to service the story arcs of straight ones — in the process?
Immediately sidelining Wiccan, arguably the most popular gay superhero from either of the big two companies, is particularly egregious. And given that we had already seen the brothers age themselves up twice during the series, the question must be asked: why not simply have the twins exit the finale as fully formed heroes, ready to march on towards their inevitable Young Avengers spin-off? Though the MCU’s mishandling of LGBTQ+ characters and stories predates Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Studios, this just feels like yet another instance of the mouse house equivocating, delaying or making excuses when it comes to committing to its queer characters on film.
It’s been a long, frustrating road for sure, but there are some positive signs that actual, on-screen queer inclusivity might finally be on the horizon. WandaVision’s post-credits scene already sews the seeds for Billy and Tommy’s eventual return, hopefully alongside fellow Young Avenger America Chavez, herself a lesbian, set to debut in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. There’s also at least one gay superhero (for real this time) reportedly showing up in Chloé Zhao’s forthcoming Eternals movie. But that’s not all — Valkyrie’s sexuality is rumored to finally be explored in the appropriately titled Thor: Love and Thunder, and Disney+’s Loki series is also rumored to tackle the titular character’s gender fluidity from both the comics and his Norse mythology roots.
For now, Marvel Studios appears to be in the process of turning a new page when it comes to queer representation in the MCU. With one of the biggest platforms since the dawn of cinema at their disposal, there’s an obligation to use that influence to make a positive difference in the world. By giving queer stories authentic, earned and equitable treatment on the big screen and beyond, they have an opportunity to show audiences across the globe that it’s possible to be both gay and one of Earth’s mightiest heroes — that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Prove that our community has a place in this sprawling cinematic universe beyond just buying tickets, that we’re worth acknowledging outside of scrapped storylines, deleted scenes and being the butt of the joke.