Arts, Culture & Entertainment

The epic highs and lows of LGBTQ representation in Marvel’s ‘Eternals’

The company’s latest movie features the first openly gay named superhero, Phastos. While some celebrate this as a win for the community, others question whether this representation is more visual than substantial.

A photo of a Black man gazing sidways off screen.

A lot more firsts are expected to come out in the Marvel Universe movies next year. The film that dropped this month has been generating a lot of reaction because it features a first onscreen gay kiss. “Eternals” is directed by Academy Award-winner Chloé Zhao.

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Loki. Wiccan. Miss America. Marvel’s comic book canon includes many LGBTQ superhero icons. But on November 5, Phastos became the first openly gay one to debut on movie screens across the country in “Eternals.”

The latest Marvel movie installment features a star-studded cast, including Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. The film opened to mixed reviews. However, it earned praise for its diverse cast, including Phastos.

For many viewers, this representation marks something to be proud of. For Kevin J. Nguyen, who is a queer film writer and director, it means the world.

KEVIN J. NGUYEN: I grew up watching so many superhero TV shows or movies. I love these superheroes, but I could never see myself as a superhero. It just makes me feel so much joy in that, like, my inner child is finally seen in a way that he’s never been seen in the past.

Still, some fans don’t believe the presence of gay characters alone counts for positive representation. According to artist Olivia Campbell, representation can sometimes come across as more visual than substantial.

OLIVIA CAMPBELL: The representation cannot be the whole movie. You can’t treat it as this really super special thing, because in that way you are treating us who have those identities in real life as if we are special and we are rare — as if we have to be uplifted in very specific ways because we cannot take very normal narratives.

On Brian Tyree Henry, she says,

CAMPBELL: When eventually war happens, as is inevitable in the Marvel Universe from their point of view, he ends up blaming himself for the advancement. And I was thinking, What does it mean to have a black gay man feel like he is at fault for all of this destruction?

Considering the amount of representation in Marvel comic books, LGBTQ fans are not asking too much. Here’s Professor Blair Davis, who teaches Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University.

BLAIR DAVIS: When it comes to LGBTQ representation, it’s been a long time coming in cinema. In 1992, you had a character called Northstar, who was part of a group called Alpha Flight and actually became linked up with the X-Men world.

After coming out back then, he became the first depiction of a gay wedding in mainstream comics in 2012.

However, even this small step for LGBTQ representation in 2021 has already met with resistance. The film is now banned in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. According to The Hollywood Reporter, this decision is likely based off of the depiction of Phastos’s relationship with his husband, which Marvel refused to cut.

Marvel’s decision is a big one. In the words of Professor Davis,

DAVIS: It’s basically up to Marvel and in turn, Disney, to weigh the needs of financial profit in a global market versus the need for authenticity on any sort of cultural level.

“Eternals” marks the beginning of Marvel’s shift outside of their financial safety net. The questions then become: Did “Eternals” prove that Marvel can still profit when they take the risk? What’s next for LGBTQ representation?

For Campbell,

CAMPBELL: I honestly would hope that the question of what I want from representation from Disney actually turns back on us and we ask ourselves, ‘Why are we putting so much power in the hands of this corporation who has their own agenda? What do we hope to gain?’

Marvel and its fans will have to contemplate these questions as a lesbian superhero and bisexual warrior prepare to hit the big screens in the company’s 2022 movie lineup.