Over the weekend, The Falcon & The Winter Soldier star Anthony Mackie drew backlash when talking about fans of the show "exploiting" what he called, "something as pure and beautiful as homosexuality" by shipping his character Sam Wilson with Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).
"It used to be guys could be friends, we could hang out, we could do this, and it was cool," Mackie said on the Variety Awards Circuit podcast when asked about Marvel fans' interpretations of the relationship. "You would always meet your friends at the bar, but you can’t do that anymore, because something as pure and beautiful as homosexuality has been exploited by people who are trying to rationalize themselves."
Aside from the absolutely bizarre premise that being gay is "pure and beautiful," Mackie’s answer also points to what can be perceived as uncomfortableness with being seen as gay and with portraying queer characters. Or, at least, uncomfortableness talking about the subjects. But the real problem comes from the question needing to be asked in the first place. For thirteen years the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been pumping out movies and TV series with barely a single queer character in sight. And that’s not Anthony Mackie’s fault.
In 23 movies and lots of shows, the MCU has only barely touched on including LGBTQ+ characters and has done even less to include LGBTQ+ creators. (To date, no LGBTQ+ directors or writers have helmed MCU movies.)
Early glimpses at representation in the MCU included a lesbian character who died in her first appearance in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., some queerbaiting on Agent Carter, and straight director Joe Russo playing a gay man for a minute in one scene in Avengers: Endgame. Things are (slowly) starting to get better. With Brian Tyree Henry playing a married gay superhero in The Eternals and Tessa Thompson (who is queer in real life) as Valkyrie in Thor: Love and Thunder, we’re beginning to see some actual queer representation in these films.
But as long as there are no queer creatives driving this world, these problems are going to keep coming up, just like they have been.
When Captain Marvel came out in 2019, many fans picked up on the romantic and sexual tension between Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), but that was squashed by the film’s directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.
"It wasn’t like there was a philosophical opposition to pursuing that storyline; it just came down to real estate in the story we were telling," they said. "We knew we were telling a story of self-discovery and we wanted friendship, and her friendship with Maria, to be a huge part of that. There was no room for any romantic storyline for us."
In January of last year, Marvel boss Kevin Feige seemed to say that trans characters would be coming to the MCU soon, but it turned out he was only referencing LGBTQ+ characters overall, and not specifically trans ones.
The MCU is also introducing young queer characters to audiences, but it’s making them even younger than their comic book counterparts. In WandaVision, Billy and Tommy, Vision and Wanda Maximoff’s two queer children, were introduced, but they never aged past pre-teens.
Similarly, America Chavez, who is one of Marvel’s most famous lesbians, is set to debut as a character in 2022’s Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness. She will be played by 15-year-old actress Xochitl Gomez, making her much younger than the actresses playing the characters Chavez is known for flirting with in the comics. By aging down Chavez, Marvel is essentially de-sexualizing her, taking away one of her main character traits. In the comics Chavez isn’t just loved because she’s queer, she’s loved because she’s also a huge flirt who can charm any lady in the MCU. Obviously, a 15-year-old won’t be portrayed the same way.
Really, it’s not Mackie who has a problem with Sam and Bucky being gay, it’s Marvel. And unless they start letting some queer people make creative decisions, the problems facing LGBTQ+ representation in the MCU (or the lack thereof) are only going to continue.