In Wonder Woman: Earth One, Vol. 1, the fierce Amazon warrior princess is bisexual. In Black Panther #1, two young lesbians rebel against a repressive system. It’s no coincidence the two publications arrived on April 6 this year, just weeks away from the release of two blockbuster movies that feature those particular heroes — Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. Minus the LGBT characters and plotlines, of course. In fact, you won’t find a single queer character in any of the major Marvel and DC films so far. #SuperheroesSoStraight?
This isn’t just a superhero problem. On May 2, the media watchdog organization GLAAD released its annual Studio Responsibility Index and found that Hollywood movies “lag far behind other media when it comes to portraying LGBT characters.” But superhero films are Hollywood’s lifeblood right now; the first three superhero movies of 2016 have grossed a collective $2.4 billion worldwide and counting. Will there ever be a gay superhero on the big screen? Heck, will any superheroes even talk to gay people in a movie?
Not when these films have to appeal to audiences in every corner of the globe, even the homophobic ones. Studios don’t want to lose a single ticket buyer. “Any risk is scary,” explains a top studio executive. “When you are working at those megabudgets that have to work around the world and across all cultures, it invites homogeneity in a lot of ways. Every single decision has to become narrow.” Translation: When a movie costs $200 million to make, you can’t afford to scrap, say, the entire Russian market just because you want to include a transgender Green Lantern.
You could argue that comic-book superheroes have always symbolized lifestyles alternative to the straight-and-narrow culture — secret identities, a feeling of otherness. But only one of the major superhero movie franchises even toyed with those complex themes. In 2003’s X2, Iceman “comes out” as a mutant, a scene hailed for its symbolism. “In a way, the X-Men themselves are kind of allegories for that,” says Bryan Singer, who directed X2 and four other superhero films, including X-Men: Apocalypse, which is in theaters now. “[Mutants] discover their powers at adolescence. They are alone in their community and in their families.”
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Television has proved much more progressive about addressing sexual identity. “It’s never our sole agenda, but we want the shows that we work on to be representative of society,” says Greg Berlanti, the executive producer of DC-based series like Arrow, The Flash, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Those shows have been important landmarks in the history of LGBT representation with characters like Legends hero Sara Lance and Arrow’s Curtis Holt. To Berlanti, the lack of LGBT characters on the silver screen is partially a simple problem of quantity. There are a lot more TV episodes than there are movies, so the film studios “are less inclined to try new and different things for the characters,” he says. “That applies to why there haven’t been more female characters [also].”
Representation is a problem in superhero stories for everyone who isn’t white, straight, and male. And progress on the big screen has been slow. Wonder Woman finally gets her own movie next year, and Black Panther arrives in early 2018. Marvel chief Kevin Feige recently said that his company is “creatively and emotionally” committed to a Black Widow stand-alone. As for other heroes who don’t conform to archaic ideas about gender and sexuality, there may be hope, thanks to an antihero who’s racked up $762 million worldwide so far this year. “In a post-Deadpool world, the parameters are changing,” says the studio exec of Ryan Reynolds’ wiseass vigilante. “You can have a profane, sexualized, R-rated superhero character? It broke every ‘traditional’ rule, and it’s going to make more money domestically than Batman v Superman.”
Could Warner Bros. introduce a lesbian Batwoman, based on the most recent comic-book series? Might Deadpool explore his character’s avowed “pansexuality” in the upcoming sequel? “People are comfortable with gay characters in television and movies now much more than ever before,” Singer says. “The world is changing in a very good way.”
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1415, available here.