Remember that time Marvel boss Kevin Feige said we’d have a gay superhero within the next decade and we were supposed to clap? Or the time Marvel gave us a bisexual Thor: Ragnarok character but then failed to make her sexuality explicitly clear in the actual movie? Or the time DC made countless Batman movies that deny the obvious fact that the caped crusader and Robin are totally, completely, and gloriously gay?
Superhero films have a long legacy of squeamishness when it comes to any whiff of queerness. In recent years, as viewers across all genres call for better representation of all identities, studios have littered their films with moments and characters they insist are queer—while refusing to make that known within the movies themselves. As E. Oliver Whitney noted in his excellent survey of the genre, studios think, even now, that casting a gay lead in a superhero film is a financial risk.
So thank the gay gods for Netflix’s most recent smash hit The Old Guard—a superhero movie that stars not one but multiple queer leads, and has already made its way into the streaming giant’s Top 10 most-watched titles list.
Although Netflix’s de-contextualized viewership statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt, they remain a useful tool to measure the comparative success of various titles against one another. And as Netflix has confirmed, The Old Guard has already cracked into its Top 10 list within just one week of its release. Netflix estimates that the film is on track to reach 72 million households within its first four weeks on the platform.
Granted, Netflix figures make it impossible to measure how many households watched an entire film, rather than just the first two minutes. And given that the film would be available to any Netflix subscriber free of charge, we cannot equate those numbers to possible ticket sales. Still, The Old Guard’s buzzy debut—and the effusive conversations it generated about its gay leads—seems to prove that any squeamishness around queer superheroes is as unfounded as it always seemed.
As my colleague Kevin Fallon noted in his rave for The Old Guard, one could wring their hands over whether or not the film really counts as a superhero joint. The film follows a crew of fighters who do not fly around in the sky or wear spandex. But Charlize Theron and her crew are also immortal—and the film’s central focus, apart from its action, is the existential question of what one should do with immortality, and how to reconcile the isolation it inevitably breeds. That’s a theme straight out of Superhero 101.
But what’s really remarkable about The Old Guard is that director Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn’t just feature gay characters, but also tells their stories convincingly and empathetically. The film’s central gay couple, Joe and Nicky, constantly express concern and affection for one another in ways that feel genuine. And when they’re captured, Joe refuses to allow their homophobic captors mock their love for one another by calling Nicky his “boyfriend.”
“This man is more to me than you can dream,” he says, calling the guard a “child.” “He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness and warmth when I shiver in cold. And his kiss still thrills me, even after a millennia. His heart overflows with the kindness this world is not worthy of. I love this man beyond measure and reason. He’s not my boyfriend. He’s all and he’s more.”
And as Fallon notes in his review, Theron’s world-weary character, Andy, might not be explicitly queer, but her bond with her fellow immortal and longtime friend Quynh sure rings like a broken queer romance. (I’m guessing things will get a lot clearer on that front whenever The Old Guard’s inevitable sequel debuts.)
It’s undeniable that The Old Guard’s exquisite queerness is largely possible because it came from outside the DC and Marvel machine. But now that out-and-proud gay characters have smashed their way through the superhero genre’s gates, there’s no going back. It’s time for major studios to unleash the gays!
In encouraging news, Marvel’s first gay character is already on his way. 2021’s The Eternals will feature Atlanta and Widows actor Bryan Tyree Henry as a married gay hero, Phastos, who also has a family. The film will also feature Marvel’s first gay kiss. But given Disney-owned franchises’ history with talking up disappointing gay kisses, you’ll have to forgive me for remaining skeptical until I see the film for myself. In the meantime, three cheers for The Old Guard.