Twentieth Century Fox
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May 18, 2018 at 07:35 PM EDT

Something felt different about Deadpool 2 the day Céline Dion dropped her music video for “Ashes.” It was (arguably) the most ambitious crossover of all time when the foulmouthed merc sashayed around the Canadian queen of pop. More seriously, it felt like Ryan Reynolds and his team behind the sequel were attempting to acknowledge a long-festering issue.

Deadpool is one of the relatively few LGBTQ superheroes we have in comic books. He’s flirted with Spider-Man half a dozen times on the page and found his eye wandering up the supple thighs of Punisher, Thor, and his buddy Cable (played in Deadpool 2 by Josh Brolin). But his pansexuality, as some critics were quick to note, had never actually been addressed on screen — pointing to a much larger problem about the erasure of queer characters from comic book-based blockbusters.

Then came Deadpool by way of Yanis Marshall. The openly gay choreographer has become a viral sensation for his YouTube videos in which he and other men fiercely dance to the diva discography of Beyoncé, Rihanna, and fellow icons — in heels no less. His presence underneath the red suit in “Ashes” felt like a declaration of Deadpool’s “fluid” (as Reynolds would say) identity. Deadpool 2 channeled the spirit of this video to make its own statement by introducing the first openly LGBTQ heroes in a Marvel film, and it’s not Shatterstar, as some headlines suggested.

The move is both a groundbreaking moment that raises the bar for inclusion in Hollywood, but also speaks to certain problems that still linger in the industry.

Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), the mutant with “the coolest name ever,” according to Deadpool, reemerges in Deadpool 2 after her scene-stealing shade in the first film. She has an announcement to make: “This is my girlfriend,” she tells Wade Wilson at the X-Mansion, motioning towards Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna). She doesn’t beat around the bush the way so many other characters in studio films have in the past. With the same ease as Negasonic flips Deadpool the bird, she comes out of the closet to the world and makes cinematic history.

The words here matter.

Wonder Woman literally grew up on an island solely populated by women, but in her big-screen debut there’s never an explicit mention of any same-sex relationship. Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok is supposed to be bisexual, confirmed by Tessa Thompson, but director Taika Waititi revealed he had to cut out a scene that would’ve made that clear to the audience. The X-Men comics, meanwhile, have long been seen as an allegory for LGBTQ oppression: Just like in the queer community, mutants must “come out” as mutants to the general public and are often met with fear and violence as a result. It’s only now that we finally have two characters who can make that clear to a superhero movie audience.

Joe Lederer/Twentieth Century Fox

Negasonic and Yukio, however, don’t satisfy the Vito Russo Test. Like the Bechdel Test, which examines female representation on film, the Vito Russo Test helps determine if LGBTQ characters are given their dues at a time when GLAAD reports only 23 studio films in 2017 featured an LGBTQ character. (Most of those films didn’t pass the Vito Russo Test, by the way.) Deadpool 2 checks off two boxes: “The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender” and “That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.” The film does not, unfortunately, tie these characters to the plot “in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect.”

Negasonic and Yukio barely serve any function other than to continue the jokes. If anything, they’re sidekicks to Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), who does most of the heavy lifting — even in the final-act battle when they have the most to do.

Still, GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis praised the film for this coming out moment: “20th Century Fox have finally given countless moviegoers around the world what they’ve longed to see — LGBTQ superheroes in a relationship who protect the world together. Negasonic and Yukio’s storyline is a milestone in a genre that too often renders LGBTQ people invisible, and should send a message to other studios to follow this example of inclusive and smart storytelling.”

Then there’s Deadpool himself. The first film got a lot of flack — including from GLAAD — over its “veiled references” to the character’s sexual identity, as producer Simon Kinberg once described. It was another case where, if you hadn’t read the headlines about director Tim Miller confirming his pansexuality, your average audience member wouldn’t have been able to figure it out.

The sequel had more fun with this. Wade doesn’t hesitate to cop a feel of Colossus in Deadpool 2 and, later in a delirious state, caresses the metalhead’s face. Deadpool’s girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) picks up on this attraction and mentions, “Don’t f— Colossus.” Though these bits are also played for laughs, they are a more clear attempt to be authentic to the exaggerated Deadpool in the comics. Wade isn’t one for such declarations, but he would just as happily hump his truly beloved as he would Colossus or a unicorn plushy. It just happens to be that he’s in love with Vanessa.

Twentieth Century Fox

Even with its slips, Deadpool 2 is a step forward in the right direction — which should also convey how desperate some audiences are for this kind of visibility. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said in 2015 that LGBTQ characters could appear in an Avengers movie “within the next decade.” Apparently, gay characters are already in the MCU, according to Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. We just haven’t seen them yet.

Queer characters have remained invisible in the most lucrative Hollywood franchises most likely due to the international box office, since some countries where LGBTQ rights are more severely attacked have censorship laws around entertainment. With Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, Russia threatened to pull the film from theaters because media had reported Josh Gad’s LeFou would come out as gay. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene arguably didn’t register with most viewers, but the film was still released in Russia with a 16+ rating — meaning no child under the age of 16 could see it. Similarly, the Power Rangers reboot, a film that received a PG-13 rating in the U.S., got an 18+ restriction after news of Trini’s bisexuality came to light — though she never fully came out. Fewer audiences: fewer dollars. Reynolds told Variety in 2017 that these international restrictions weren’t an issue with Deadpool because they had already taken a hit in some marketplaces. “We were banned in China,” 
he said. “We were rated ‘f— you!’ in China.”

In that sense, the inclusion of openly LGBTQ characters in an R-rated studio film is a safe play. And because it’s safe, it raises the question: Why can’t directors and producers do more with this? At the very least, Hollywood could try to be more inclusive with its PG-13 fare.

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