Opinion: Finally, A Major Hollywood Movie With A Gay Romance

Opinion: Finally, A Major Hollywood Movie With A Gay Romance

Originally published on The Guardian

Netflix’s glossy comic book adaptation, The Old Guard, might be led by Charlize Theron, but it’s the love story between two men that draws attention

 

Pop quiz: Name the big-budget Hollywood blockbuster released in the last decade that featured blink-and-you’ll-miss-it LGBT representation that was nonetheless touted by those involved as being a major step forward.

Answer: Where do I begin…?

Because I could be referring to Beauty and the Beast, or Ghostbusters, or Charlie’s Angels, or Star Trek: Beyond, or Independence Day: Resurgence, or Avengers: Endgame, or Alien: Covenant, or Deadpool, or Solo, or Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or Thor: Ragnarok – a high-wattage list of self-congratulatory letdowns, empty promises standing in for actual progress. Each allegedly featured some form of queerness yet each example was so prudish and so underplayed that you’d be forgiven for not realizing it was even there.

The overwhelming straightness of mainstream cinema has gone mostly unchallenged for years, studios unwilling to allow gay characters into the multiplex, leaving them to flourish in the arthouse instead. While it’s been gratifying to see films like Moonlight, A Fantastic Woman, Call Me by Your Name, Weekend, Tangerine and Portrait of a Lady on Fire excel, there’s something uneasy and othering about always seeing our lives on the outskirts, usually within films where being queer is the central thrust of the plot. The aforementioned attempts to permit non-straight characters into franchise fare were viewed by some as an indication of a more accepting industry, one that was also finally allowing women and people of colour to save the world alongside straight white men.

But from Josh Gad fleetingly dancing with another man in a Disney movie (obnoxiously heralded in press at the time as an “exclusively gay moment”), to John Cho seen with what we can sort of guess is his male partner in a Star Trek sequel (a confirming kiss was cut, obviously), to being told after the fact that Tessa Thompson, Kate McKinnon, Donald Glover, Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart were playing queer characters (despite no on-screen proof), it’s all been embarrassingly and infuriatingly coy.

So imagine my surprise, having grumbled about this tiresome tactic on many occasions, when an hour into Netflix’s glossy new Charlize Theron-led summer adventure, The Old Guard, two central male characters kiss. Not as a bet, not as a joke, not because they’re possessed by some evil gay demons and not a quick peck either – but after one of them delivers a heart-swelling speech about love, they engage in a passionate movie kiss, the kind of movie kiss that’s usually reserved for straight people.

In 2020, it really shouldn’t be such a big deal, but watching a form of unfettered queer love exist within the confines of a fantastical comic book adaptation, aimed at a wide audience, felt major to me. I’ve long desired to see gay characters in genres other than “gay movie”, and seeing two men kill the bad guys while finding time to spoon and flirt provided a thrill I’d not yet experienced in my many years of blockbuster-watching. The film tells the tale of a group of immortal mercenaries whose ability to regenerate after death has made them powerful weapons across time. The team includes Joe (Tunisian-Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari, best known for playing Jafar in the live-action Aladdin) and Nicky (Italian actor Luca Marinelli who won an award at Venice last year for his role in Martin Eden), revealed early on to also be a couple, whose love is as undying as their bodies are. It’s casually embedded within scenes – a glance, a smile, small moments of reassuring affection – until halfway in, when the pair are kidnapped. Trapped in the back of a van surrounded by military goons, Joe checks to see if Nicky is alright and is promptly ridiculed: “That’s sweet. What is he, your boyfriend?”

Joe responds with such a sweet, unabashed, lengthy description of their love (“His kiss still thrills me, even after a millennium”), that it shocks both the henchmen watching and us, the audience, programmed by years of studio neutering to expect very little. Screenwriter Greg Rucka, adapting from his own source material, told Entertainment Weekly that he demanded any version of the film kept the relationship intact (“I wanted a happy queer couple,” he said). Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, the first black female director to take on a major comic-book movie, said this speech was one of the reasons she signed on. Their relationship is just one strand of a plot that’s mostly focused with a familiar good vs. evil reckoning, and that’s exactly how it should be and how it’s always been for straight characters quietly in love in the background of genre fare while the world is saved out front.

The answer to the question of how this finally happened is: Netflix. One of the many reasons why LGBT characters have been kept from films with big budgets is, depressingly, related to box office. While the invisibility of queerness in big movies means we have no way of proving that it would repel audiences as executives seem to think it will, international concerns remain paramount, and with major territories such as China removing gay scenes from Bohemian Rhapsody and Malaysia doing the same to Rocketman, studios are wary. Even Beauty and the Beast’s brief hint of queerness led to problems with its release in Russia, Malaysia and Kuwait, as did a passing moment near the end of the most recent Star Wars film in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. On Netflix, which is now more than ever the most effective way to reach the widest global audience possible, the finances are irrelevant and so any LGBT inclusion is no longer a gamble.

Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli)

The downside is that when the film does inevitably become a streaming hit this weekend, studios won’t have a box office total to use as proof, to show that people aren’t terrified by two men kissing, a dumb indicator for sure, but one that industry heads still desire. Substantive progress on the big screen is, as we’re constantly being told, on the way. Marvel’s upcoming franchise-starter The Eternals will feature a kiss between a male superhero and his husband, while Taika Waititi has suggested that the next Thor film will confirm Tessa Thompson’s character’s bisexuality. These moves will lead to eye-rolls from some who discount the need for representation within such a big arena (because they’ve never had to ask for it), but for queer teens especially, still eager to see their sexuality normalised and portrayed with gloss and ceremony, it remains of vital importance.

A friend of mine once said that talking about anything gay in front of his family would forever be seen as R-rated, that even the most innocuously romantic use of a male pronoun would lead to darting eyes and a desperate subject change, something I think many of us can identify with. Whether we like it or not, mainstream entertainment still plays a huge role in shaping how we see minority groups, and if LGBT characters are left within gay cinema, and if gay cinema is left in the arthouse, that’s how people will still see us. The Old Guard, which sets itself up as the first of a bold new franchise, makes an unambiguous statement: queerness belongs in the centre of the frame, without coyness or skittish editing telling us to be equally embarrassed about our open sexuality. It’s something many of us have wanted to see for a long time, and hopefully something we’ll get to see many times again.

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11 Comments

  1. Ken
    July 13, 07:41 Reply

    I actually shed a tear for the part where Joe gives a powerful and heart warming description of his love for Nicky. Like u hardly hear such in movies except it’s a heterosexual couple. Move over jack and rose of the Titanic, what Joe and Nick have is endless love that has resonated round the centuries.

    But again I also like that the directors and producers were skillful enough to depict real homosexual love without turning it into a gay movie. Also for once they don’t make the gay characters weak and overly girly. Seeing as how and Nick are also deadly assassins (don’t let their sexual orientation fool u) lol

    • Delle
      July 13, 08:59 Reply

      Just look at how your femmephobia jumped out. If you have a problem with feminine-presenting guys, no one wants to hear of it. It’s one thing to want general representation, but analogising femininity with weakness is silly and dare I say, retarded. You’ve never really had forwards thinking views anyway so it doesn’t come as a surprise. But you see, no one wants to hear it. Keep your chauvinist ideals to yourself, Mr Manly.

      • Mikkiyfab
        July 13, 13:32 Reply

        @delle I don’t think he meant it in a bad way but it seems you were waiting to school him
        I hate to be in your bad books

      • @@@
        July 13, 13:44 Reply

        You obviously have problems Delle. Go jump over a fucking bridge. What Ken was trying to say was that the portrayal of gay men has mostly been stereotypical where they have to play as weaker vessels and this ‘new’ direction was quite applaudable. If you don’t get that, then sorry dear, you’re just retarded

      • Obiora
        July 14, 01:29 Reply

        Like geez, you really don’t have to comment on every thread. We all have what we like and dislike, and that ain’t none of your goddam business how he chooses to express it. If you don’t like his opinion, you can take a hike. Stop coming off as some type of bad bitch or some shit, because the shoes sure ain’t your size. So stop.

    • Uzor
      July 15, 00:54 Reply

      Ken! Is this really you with sound comments today or did someone borrow your alias? 😂 I’m happy for the change oo, look at God!

  2. Anon
    July 13, 18:03 Reply

    I don’t think Ken’s comment was meant as Femmephobia. But just as they are masculine gays, they are effeminate ones too. Both wants to be represented. Besides, I think the media portrays gays as feminine a lot, and the downside to this is, most heterosexual erroneously assume once you are an effeminate guy, you are gay and that’s not true. Gay comes in all forms of acting and all want to be represented.

  3. Rudy
    July 13, 19:00 Reply

    I’m currently watching the movie and I must say it’s fresh and amazing to see two action figures kicking ass and literally “kicking ass” (no pun excluded) 😋

    It’s like watching Van dam and Arnold Schwarzenegger falling in love.
    At least that’s a fantasy of mine coming true via this movie.

    It’s a breathe of fresh air which sheds light on the fact that masculine gay men could fall in love with each other just as all the other beautiful shades of gay that we know.

    In some way I feel masculine gay guys have it tough as well with coming out because as per the stereotypes, being masculine is akin to being straight hence the pressure for masculine gay guys to conform & hide deeper under that cloak of deception and confusion which only offer temporal relief but worsened mental states and internalised homophobia because they sort of do not belong to either spectrum stereotypically speaking.

    So yeah kudos to this movie for giving us that representation.
    Every colour under the rainbow must shine!

  4. Osaze
    July 15, 14:12 Reply

    Please can we have the link so we can download the movie please.

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