This article contains Deadpool 2 spoilers.
If you told comic book fans growing up way back in the ‘90s that their nerdy passions would inherit the earth, you’d receive a raised eyebrow. Sure we might one day have an X-Men or Spider-Man movie, maybe even Green Lantern, but never Deadpool, much less a Deadpool 2 that also acts as a backdoor kickstart for an X-Force movie. That’s sheer lunacy!
Yet here we stand, 10 years after Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe launched and over 30 superhero movies later between them, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros. For most superhero fans, it’s been a lifelong dream come true to see their favorite fantasies embraced by the mainstream. For most superhero fans, but not all.
Since this century’s modern superhero craze exploded after the release of X-Men, we’ve had about 50 superhero movies based on major Marvel or DC characters. And yet, with all those capes and cowls flying around, none have been explicitly coded as LGBTQ characters. This makes the brief but endearing relationship between Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna) in Deadpool 2 the real marvel. While definitely supporting characters (perhaps too much so), the pair are among the most memorable players in an ensemble stacked with charismatic charm from all comers. They also represent a major (and unfortunately necessary-by-default) subversiveness within the superhero movie landscape.
In this vein, the pair is introduced in a fitting location: Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. It is there during the movie’s first act that Ryan Reynolds’ smugly lovable Wade Wilson is recruited against his will by Colossus into the iconic superhero team. But it’s obviously going to be a short tenure given that Wade can’t stop referring to the X-Mansion as the “Château de Virgin.” Still, some major developments occur for Wade and the franchise. First he is allowed to break the fourth-wall and has most of the X-Men: Dark Phoenix cast cameo (as opposed to being “stuck” with only Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead from the first Deadpool), and second he meets one other supporting X-Man: Kutsuna’s Yukio.
All bubbly smiles and implicit ready-made satire of anime characters, Yukio is introduced immediately and specifically as Negasonic’s girlfriend. Unfortunately, that is the extent of her role in the film other than awesomely taking down the Juggernaut when Colossus couldn’t. Nevertheless, this bit of superhero movie taboo-breaking is important, not least of all in how it’s handled. Rather than going for the obvious angle of Wade Wilson making a series of lesbian jokes at Negasonic and Yukio’s expense, he surprisingly doesn’t make any quip whatsoever, nor does he turn it into a condescending gag. Instead he continues his love-hate relationship with Negasonic from the first movie by simply being buddy-buddy with Yukio. Like the co-worker who is extra-extra nice to a frenemy’s significant other, he once more gets under Negasonic’s skin by being super sweet to Yukio. One of the many running jokes in the film becomes them just happily greeting each other while making Negasonic’s skin crawl.
To be clear, this does not qualify as equal representation for LGBTQ characters—they’re barely in the movie, which is all the poorer for it—but the fact that a film based on cynical humor like Deadpool 2 elects to not mock the insertion of a lesbian couple into its franchise, nor even really address it as anything other than natural, is a good start for the genre and its wider franchise. After all, the X-Men side of the Marvel Universe has always been popular among marginalized adolescents. As Ryan Reynolds hilariously snarks in Deadpool 2, “Make way for the X-Men; dated 1960s analogy for racism coming through.” Sure it’s a “dated analogy,” but one that’s been updated throughout the years, most specifically to connect with the franchise’s considerable LGBTQ audience.
The first explicitly gay superhero in Marvel Comics was North Star, a mutant and X-Men off-shoot from Alpha Flight #7 in 2011. Since then, one of the original X-Men, Iceman/Bobby Drake, was revealed to be gay in last year’s Iceman series. This was in turn likely influenced by Bryan Singer’s still popular X2 (2003), the X-Men sequel in which Shawn Ashmore’s Bobby Drake memorably “came out of the closet” as a mutant to his parents. The scene was subversive to the mainstream, and endearing to many young and alienated LGBTQ geeks, because it was an obvious metaphor for gay pride—and the poison of homophobia—during the height of the Bush Years when gay bashing and homophobia went very mainstream. (The next year, George W. Bush would run a successful reelection campaign that, among other things, falsely promised to create a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.)
However, that scene in X2 has always been as far as superhero movies would take it. While CW’s superhero television shows have actually been carrying the flag in recent years by making a number of main characters gay, lesbian, and bi on Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Arrow, and Supergirl, those series are still targeted to a relatively small, young, and socially liberal (read: likeminded) audience in the U.S.
Superhero movies have a far wider audience, and by their four-quadrant nature are meant to be seen by everyone. At least by everyone who sees superhero movies, which increasingly becomes a huge chunk of the world considering that Marvel’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War have both crossed $1 billion in this year alone. Yet as superheroes become more of a global export of pop culture fantasy in this century, the more unlikely it’s become to see LGBTQ characters in a genre dominated by straight white males. Before February’s game-changing Black Panther, the only black superheroes in the MCU have been supporting sidekicks (with Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter recasting one of these parts while bleakly saying, “They all look the same.”) We still haven’t had a female-led superhero film in the MCU nearly 20 movies in either, although this will finally change with 2019’s Captain Marvel.
But, with increasingly incredulity, there have been zero LGBTQ superheroes. Anywhere. While Wonder Woman has been coded as a bisexual character in DC Comics for years, there is not a hint of that in last year’s groundbreaking Wonder Woman movie, nor any of the implicit lesbianism of the Amazons on her Paradise Island, which is a crucial aspect in Wonder Woman’s creation as a character, never mind the in-canon aspect of it.
Further Marvel’s own version of the Amazons, the Valkyries made an appearance in last year’s Thor: Ragnarok, with Tessa Thompson playing the last Valkyrie in the film. Apparently director Taika Waititi and star Tessa Thompson sort of, kind of, maybe hinted at this in a scene that featured a woman leaving Valkyrie’s bedroom in the film. If you don’t remember it, that’s because Marvel ultimately chose to delete the subtlest of innuendos from the film, much to Thompson’s chagrin.
This is because, unlike CW television, superhero movies are a major export. And increasingly in our globalized world, foreign markets are where superhero movies and other American tentpoles have their fortunes made or broken. No billion-dollar grosser in this decade got to that number without a sizable push from markets like China. But China, and its government’s censors, are notoriously behind on gay rights. Gay relationships were a punishable offense until 1997 in the People’s Republic, and those who participated in them were still recorded as suffering from a “mental disorder” until 2001.
To this day, movies with explicitly gay relationships are banned in China, as well as other smaller markets. Earlier this year, Call Me by Your Name was banned from appearing in the Beijing International Film Festival. This follows in the footsteps of some notable films, including Brokeback Mountain, Mad Max: Fury Road… and Deadpool.
Yep, 2016’s Deadpool was also banned by Chinese censors. The official reason for the banning was the violence, however the sexual fluidity of the film likely didn’t help. In the comics, Wade Wilson is actually a pansexual character with an eclectic bedroom appetite. While this is not explicitly stated in either 20th Century Fox film, Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool certainly has a strong passion for showtunes (but who doesn’t?), as well as a collection of Barbara Streisand and Bernadette Peters records. And beyond this winking stereotyping, Reynolds’ Merc with a Mouth also marks International Women’s Day by allowing his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) to “peg” him with a strap-on in the first film.
It is easy to imagine this won the film no favors with foreign censors. But it also gave Reynolds and company the room to be more defiant and explicit in Deadpool 2. Because unlike any other superhero movie, Deadpool 2 is the first to feature explicitly lesbian characters as superheroes. And it is not a punchline or form of titillation; it is just a remarkable case of inclusion being treated as something unremarkable.
Whereas most other superhero movies force the LGBTQ demographic to “assume” (or use the fan fiction term of “head canon”) that the unnamed Amazonian warrior crying over Robin Wright’s body in Wonder Woman might be her lover, or that Valkyrie maybe swings both ways—at least according to a deleted scene we’re not shown—Deadpool 2 explicitly supports inclusion by not making a big deal about it. In keeping with franchise’s unique tone, it uses a healthy layer of snarkiness to hide the genuine earnestness that lies at the core of both movies. For unlike most other superhero movies, they’re not about magic stones or saving the universe; they’re just focused on very flawed people learning to make their dysfunctionality functional.
In that sense, the Deadpool movies might be the most humanist superhero franchise yet. Hence why Negasonic and Yukio should be celebrated… as a very small baby step to true big screen equality. Maybe in X-Force…