Why Legends of Tomorrow’s Depiction of Male Friendship Matters
More TV shows could learn from the way Legends of Tomorrow lets male best friends Nate and Ray love each other.
Though few fans were happy about the news that real-life spouses Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford were leaving the show, Legends of Tomorrow did its best to send the pair off in a way that befitted both their characters. Onscreen couple Ray Palmer and Nora Dahrk tied the knot before deciding to depart the Waverider, and while there’s certainly a conversation to be had about the rushed nature of their trip to the altar, the end result feels earned enough.
Interestingly, however, the focus of the pair’s final episode isn’t on their love story or even the reasons behind their choice to return to life in the real world. Rather, Ray’s relationship with his bestie Nate Heywood takes center stage in “Romeo vs. Juliet: Dawn of Justness,” reminding us all that for all the things Legends does right (of which there are many), its depiction of male characters and the friendships between them is one of the things that truly sets the show apart.
For all the much-needed progress that the television industry has made when it comes to issues of representation in other areas, its portrayal of masculinity is still painfully traditional. Far too often, male characters are depicted as tough, stoic types – emotionally repressed, stubborn, too often angry or violent. They are rarely allowed to express genuine feelings, and certainly never toward each other, lest some wayward viewer misinterpret their affection as some sort of sexual interest.
Thankfully, Legends of Tomorrow isn’t a show that particularly cares about any of that.
The men of Legends are varied and complicated, running the gamut from science nerd to former criminal, from sorcerer to office assistant. And every one of them subverts some sort of trope that we’ve come to associate with male characters, proving that it’s more than possible for three-dimensional, emotional men to exist in the genre space.
Ray is a billionaire techbro, but his role on the Waverider team is defined by his optimism and kindness rather than his gadgets and money. Nate’s superpower literally allows him to become physically impervious to harm, but his history-nerd brain saves the day much more often than his steel physique. Even Mick Rory, the crass, gruff pyromaniac of the group, moonlights as a romance author in his spare time, writing about the power of love, vulnerability and connection.
These men contain multitudes. And, best of all, the relationships between them do too.
Ray and Nate’s friendship is truly the stuff that bromance legends are made of. Not only can the pair finish each other’s sentences and high five with the best of them, the two men clearly and obviously care about one another. They’re openly loving, and entirely unselfconscious about it. In fact, each of them is willing to be truly vulnerable with the other in a way that neither is with anyone else, even their respective love interests. Their friendship clearly holds a necessary place in both their lives, separate and apart from but clearly just as important as any romance they might be involved in.
Most importantly, perhaps, the relationship between Nate and Ray is never treated as silly, or played as the butt of a joke. They’re not mocked for their feelings, and their emotional moments are never belittled by characters within the narrative. And while their affection is obvious enough to provide endless grist for fanfiction writers, the show itself doesn’t use their connection to queerbait audiences into expecting a romance that will never come. Heck, this is Legends of Tomorrow. If Nate and Ray felt that kind of way about each other—or were even vaguely curious—this is the show that would probably just go for it, after all.
Instead, their relationship remains strictly platonic. But that doesn’t mean it’s not just as full of feeling–and at times just as romantic–as any sexual pairing. There’s a reason that Ray’s final episode doesn’t revolve around his relationship with Nora, but rather his friendship with Nate.
And Legends doesn’t merely pay lip service to the idea of their bromance either. We see Ray and Nate have real, difficult conversations about life and relationships as often as they concoct crazy mission plans together. They’re brotastic, to be sure, but their connection isn’t a shallow one. Heck, Nate realizes Ray’s possessed by a demon during one adventure precisely because he won’t hug him. All those famous stoic action types out there could never.
That their final goodbye should so pointedly subvert established gender expectations by recreating a traditional romantic comedy airport chase through the Waverider honestly feels like the perfect tribute to their friendship. The sequence is earnest, emotional and, yes, downright romantic. Nate chases after Ray, realizing that he needs to tell his friend how he feels, fully knowing that it won’t stop him from leaving. That, in fact, Ray is making the right decision for his life and his new marriage. But sometimes, you really just do need to tell someone how much they mean to you.
Both men get the chance to say I love you to the other, to cry, and hug it out, in a completely unselfconscious and unironic way. No one’s the slightest embarrassed by what they’re feeling, neither holds anything back, and the end result is something rare and lovely.
If only more male characters–especially in genre properties–were as in touch with their feelings as these two. Too often in superhero shows, we’re given leads that are brooding and mysterious, the kind who only engage with feelings at the bottom of a bottle or in the gym with a punching bag. This, of course, reflects a broader society that too often considers emotional vulnerability a weakness, and which tells its men that to be anything other than closed mouth and closed off is to be less than. (Or, even worse, “feminine”.) Things like tears and hugs and sincere confessions of love are the territory of women and children, and “real men” don’t need to bother with all that mushy stuff.
Except when they so clearly do.
As Legends best bromance shows us time and again, vulnerability doesn’t make you weak. In fact, it makes you stronger than you could otherwise ever be. Ray and Nate challenge and encourage one another to be their best selves, and in doing so, grow in ways they never would have on their own. Both have saved one another many times, and both are better people for knowing each other. It’s harder to think of a better testament to their friendship than that – or a more clear example for other men in the Arrowverse, and genre television generally, to follow.