Tom Holland has announced he would be open to a gay Spider-Man, sparking online excitement among those who have long speculated over Peter Parker’s rumoured bisexuality.
A young, heterosexual actor opening up this discussion is significant. As a role model for many young comic book fans, the 23-year-old actor’s open-mindedness will no doubt encourage and inspire teenagers to interpret characters in less obviously ‘cookie cutter’ ways.
Teens currently struggling with their sexuality will perhaps be cheered by the likeable star celebrating queer superhero narratives. But with so many LGBTQ+ characters waiting in the wings, this well-meaning speculation doesn’t bring the LGBTQ+ representation the Marvel Cinematic Universe has so far lacked.
Speaking with The Times, Holland agreed he would be open to a gay Spider-Man, stating:
Yeah, of course.
Holland went on to hint at a more representative MCU phase to come:
I can’t talk about the future of the character because, honestly, I don’t know, and it’s out of my hands. But I do know a lot about the future of Marvel, and they are going to be representing lots of different people in the next few years.
The world isn’t as simple as a straight white guy. It doesn’t end there, and these films need to represent more than one type of person.
Holland is of course correct. The world isn’t simply populated by straight, white men and a wide array of super voices are needed to truly resonate with the cinema-going audience.
However, rather than reinterpreting a straight character’s sexual identity, it would be a far more interesting to draw from the wealth of LGBTQ+ narratives already coursing through Marvel comicbook history.
The MCU has repeatedly disappointed LGBTQ+ fans by choosing to ignore or brush over queer characters whose identities have long been part of comic book canon, leading to widespread accusations of ‘straight-washing’.
Loki, a major MCU character, has long been established as being part of the LGBTQ+ community in comic book lore, being both pansexual and gender fluid.
Comicbook Loki shifts between genders with ease, a skill which dates back to the character’s Norse mythology roots. He is known to sometimes use female pronouns, and has taken on female forms.
However, although Tom Hiddleston himself has previously said he regards his character to be bisexual, this has not been made clear with the God of Mischief’s Hollywood incarnation.
How do I know Spider-Man is bisexual? He swings both ways. pic.twitter.com/LgrZSraXKi
— goth bi captain america (@SaraHerself) July 4, 2019
Korg, the Kronan gladiator, is known to be gay in the comics, with an issue of The Incredible Hulk revealing Korg’s ‘beloved’ to be the (male) warrior Hiroim. As reported by Wired, Thor: Ragnarok director and Korg actor Taika Waititi said he didn’t think of Korg as being gay, but reasoned, ‘he could be’.
Over in the X-Men, Mystique has also been depicted as being less radical in her movie form. In the comicbooks, she was able to shift between genders, even fathering a child at one point.
A cape is also thrown over Mystique’s bisexuality, with her sweeping, decades long romance with fellow mutant Destiny nowhere to be seen.
There are also multiple LGBTQ+ characters left gathering dust on the comicbook shelf during the first three MCU phases, despite having plenty of interesting potential for screenwriters to explore.
With Disney’s re-acquisition of character rights with the purchase of 20th Century Fox, the next phase of Marvel films could open a world of possibilities.
Martin Calvert, from the marketing agency Blueclaw is a fan of one of the longest-established gay Marvel characters – Northstar of the X-Men, telling UNILAD:
Like many Marvel characters, Northstar has a lot of dimensions to his character so in addition to being the first hero to come out in 1992, he’s probably more defined by his personality, family dramas and ego.
I love comicbook characters that can be quite full of themselves – I think would be amazing for someone to have superpowers and NOT be pretty egocentric.
He’s not an A-list superhero but I’ve enjoyed his runs in X-Men and Alpha Flight, and Northstar becoming the first Marvel hero to get have a same-sex wedding felt like a natural evolution for the character, rather than something more cynical.
As a character he’s a snob, pretty powerful and has a questionable costume but he fully deserved this ‘first’. I’d love to see a movie version of Northstar – maybe his fellow-Canadian Justin Bieber in his first proper acting role?
Sooo…we just gonna forget about all the LGBT characters marvel already has and just make all the straight characters gay?
— Donovan (@Ran_logic) July 5, 2019
Northstar was first openly gay character to come out in a Marvel comicbook, making him a significant queer character.
In June 2012, North Star married his husband, Kyle Jinadu, in Astonishing X-Men #51, marking Marvel’s first ever same-sex wedding in the very same year Maine, Maryland, and Washington became the first US states to legalise same-sex marriage through popular vote.
Sadly, pioneering North Star- who has superhuman speed as well as the ability to fly, and project photonic energy blasts – has yet to make his cinema debut. Sadly, he isn’t the only one.
According to data provided by SEMrush, Spider-Woman was the most searched for Marvel LGBTQ+ character from May 2018 to 2019 (with 79,000 average monthly searches). However, she has yet to swing into the MCU franchise.
hi guys this is jean-paul beaubier AKA northstar, a canonically gay character in the x-men with a poc husband! pic.twitter.com/gU5aXAVLZc
— rayne (@MAXElSENHARDTS) May 24, 2016
Emitting or changing characters who identify as LGBTQ+ is a depressingly clear example of queer erasure, and gives fans a far narrower interpretation of their comicbook heroes.
UNILAD spoke with Meg-John Barker, author of Queer: A Graphic History and self-professed ‘massive Spider-Man fan’:
My take is that it would be great to see characters who are already queer in the Marvel universe being more explicitly represented as such.
However, given that these are often not the main characters who whole films are built around, it would also be great to represent some of those main characters as queer too. Superhero universes mostly began at a time where virtually all main characters were straight, white, men.
The only way to continue drawing on these universes in an ethical and representative way would be to change many of the existing straight, white, male characters to be women, queers, and people of colour – at least enough to be representative of wider culture.
News: Tom Holland is open to Spider-Man being gay.
— RaisedByMusic |-/ (@NeonTravesty) July 2, 2019
Addressing the possibility of a gay Spider-Man, Barker continued:
Given that over 40 per cent of young people now state that they are somewhere between exclusively gay and exclusively straight, a better bet on sexuality would be for around half of superheroes – particularly the younger ones like Spider-Man – to be represented as queer, bi, or pansexual.
Spider-Man would be an excellent option for a queer, bi, or pan superhero given his age and the generation he’s part of, as well as his geekiness and gentle masculinity which feels like a good fit for that representation.
We should definitely also see a more explicitly queer Loki – a great bet for a non-binary gender character given his shape-shifting abilities and embodying different genders in the comics.
Those involved with the MCU have regularly used interviews to tease same sex relationships between characters. However, these hints have yet to bear much fruit on the silver screen.
In November 2018, Tessa Thompson – who plays Valkyrie – spoke with The Independent about her character’s bisexuality, which was made explicitly clear in a deleted scene from Thor: Ragnarok.
Thompson told The Independent:
It wasn’t Marvel or Disney or anyone extracting that because it was an issue, it just was like, that particular moment didn’t make sense in the context of the scene. And there were other beautiful things where you get a sense of her back story.
The woman that dies is her lover. In performance we were, like, ‘That’s your lover.’ So in my mind it isn’t cut; I played her as a woman that’s queer.
I hope that we get to a space, in terms of the stories that we tell, where that’s something that gets to exist, and it doesn’t have to be noteworthy.
Thompson has clarified the scene wasn’t chopped because it was controversial, however it’s still a shame this moment didn’t make the cut. A brave, dedicated character, the Asgardian queen’s open bisexuality would have made a powerful statement.
So, admittedly, I get annoyed when people say there are ‘plenty of lgbt’ or ‘plenty of POC’s’ to play. This is especially true in both DC and Marvel comics verses.
Starting with DC Comics, there are a total of* 392 LGBT people within multiple universes, some of them repeating.»
— Maria (@marysonomura) July 5, 2019
This wasn’t the only gay moment which ended up being hacked out of a Marvel film, creating an awkward question mark over the space left behind.
As reported by Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, Black Panther initially featured a flirtatious moment between Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), a scene which would end up on the cutting room floor.
Kasumba later told Vulture how she wasn’t informed why the scene was given the chop, explaining, ‘What their reason is, I can’t tell you, because nobody told me about whether it’s in or not.’
To date, the MCU has only ever had one actual on-screen representation of an openly gay character, a minor character who appeared in a brief post-snap support group scene with Captain America in Avengers: Endgame.
The unnamed ‘Grieving Man’ – played by straight director Joe Russo – was portrayed as mourning his boyfriend who had vanished during the snap.
Despite gaining media attention, little is known about his personality, aside from his sexuality and affinity for the New York Mets. Indeed, his existence appears to be a means of showing how a traumatised Cap would interact with another devastated character.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing intrinsically wrong with having background characters identify as being gay. Indeed, such banal representations help to illustrate just how ordinary same-sex relationships are.
However, we’re talking about a universe populated with superheroes; where characters embark on incredible adventures and possess an abundance of powers. The fact that the one openly gay character is (sorry Joe) being portrayed as a tad dull is significant.
And it isn’t as if Marvel have to magic queer superheroes out of thin air or even go against canon to bring about greater representation; there is a library full of them looking to be set free.
There are characters that you can blend to make them LGBT like Cap Marvel, Valkyrie, even some Eternals characters would be great.
Make Korg and Miek a gay couple, @Marvel don't be a coward
— Mark | NGF (@NerdGeekFacts) July 2, 2019
Being different – and more pointedly being a social outcast – has long been a part of Marvel’s DNA. Those who dismiss embracing diversity as mere ‘box checking’ are missing the point completely.
UNILAD spoke with Dr Miriam Kent, Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at School of Art, at the University of East Anglia’s department of Media and American Studies.
Dr Kent – who wrote her PhD thesis on women in Marvel adaptions – told UNILAD:
There’s always a kind of question about tokenism and box ticking and stuff. But when I think of Marvel comics, I immediately go to comics like X-Men, which has always been about using superheroes as representatives for people who are outcasts in society, or who are othered in some way.
So even beyond that, on a more literal level, you had characters in X-Men who were international. The team was international, there was a representation of a wide variety of people.
When people say there’s a tokenistic, kind of box-checking modern thing, going back a few decades can be quite revealing because Marvel has always been inclusive.
Marvel continually treats the LGBT community in such a wishy washy way. I’m also willing to bet that LGBT comic readers make up a higher proportion of the total comic audience than they do any other entertainment medium. They are literally the audience you can’t afford to lose
— John Ernenputsch (@jpooch21) June 29, 2019
What are we telling kids watching a series of movies where the superheroes are all – at least visibly – straight, with just one (powerless, unhappy) person shown to be gay?
Furthermore, what message does it send to gay teens if numerous LGBTQ+ comic book narratives have been deemed too unpalatable or controversial for a regular summer blockbuster?
Dr Kent explained to UNILAD the importance of having a diverse range of MCU superheroes, and of remaining sceptical of potentially hollow statements from actors and studio executives:
It’s always been important, and it’s always been a part of Marvel’s approach to things. And it will continue to develop as popular feminism develops and moves towards inclusivity.
But then at the same time, you have to remember it is a large corporation, it is a business. So you need to think about the motive for inclusivity.
I do think it’s not an accident that Tom Holland put out this statement towards the end of Pride Month. Quite convenient.
Studio executives have promised the next chapter in the MCU franchise will be more representative of the LGBTQ+ community, both in terms of casting and characterisation.
Marvel president Kevin Feige has previously stated the next phase of Marvel movies will include the MCU’s first openly gay star character, giving LGBTQ+ fans cause to be cautiously optimistic.
In June, Feige addressed the widespread disappointment surrounding the ‘grieving man’ cop-out, telling Gizmodo:
That was never meant to be our first focused character, That was just meant to be a matter of fact and a matter of life and a matter of truth. And I liked it that our hero, Steve Rogers, doesn’t blink an eye at that fact.
It is just truth and is heartbreaking for his loss and for the life he’s trying to put back together. It was never meant to be looked at as our first hero. I guess it’s the first reference so it does, of course, get a lot of attention.
[…] We haven’t been shy about saying that that’s coming and that there’s much more prominent LGBT heroes in the future” and that it’s “coming soon”.
Since March 2019, rumours have been circulating concerning the live-action production of The Eternals, with some fans believing the upcoming Marvel movie will feature a gay lead.
However, speaking with UNILAD, Dr Kent appeared to take Marvel promises of greater representation with a pinch of salt, noting:
Prominent people know what to say in interviews and press junkets, and Kevin Feige is particularly well-trained in terms of his media representation.
Dr Kent – who has described ‘Grieving Man’ as ‘significant in its insignificance’ – added:
I do think TV is more accommodating to more marginal identities, which is shown with Jessica Jones and Agents of Shield.
But there’s plenty of scope for representation. I’m not entirely sure it’s going to be that soon or that much, but there’s scope.
With a new phase of the MCU on the horizon, there is cause for optimism. There is still so much richly diverse and fascinating areas of this unique universe yet to be explored, and many fans long to see beloved LGBTQ+ characters given the mainstream platform they deserve.
In recent years, Marvel has made huge, commendable strides to diversify their superheroes. In 2018, they brought us their first black superhero lead with Black Panther, a film heaped high with critical praise and prestigious accolades.
Earlier this year, Captain Marvel became one of the most successful films of 2019, all while bringing us Marvel’s first female lead.
As one of the biggest franchises of modern times, the MCU’s ability to lead the way in terms of mainstream representation is a very real superpower, capable of sparking debate, conversation and change all over the world.
As we look towards phase four, we should expect nothing less than heroic in this regard.
Spider-Man: Far From Home swung into UK cinemas on July 2, 2019.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.