Gay Punchlines, LGBT Visibility and Marvel Studios’ One-Shot ‘All Hail The King’
All Hail The King is a short movie -- a "one shot," as Marvel calls them -- about what happened to Iron Man 3 character the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) after he went to prison, written and directed by Iron Man 3 co-writer Drew Pearce. It's light, it's funny, there are some good lines and a neat twist. For the most part, I liked it.
One thing left a bad taste in my mouth.
If you haven't watched the Marvel one-shot/short movie All Hail The King, released a supplemental feature with Thor: The Dark World on Blu-ray/DVD, and you haven't watched Iron Man 3, and you want to see either of them unspoiled, skip the rest of this post. That's your spoiler warning.
Still here? OK.
During the short film there's a moment where a character jokes about how one of the things he misses in prison is women, but, "you make do in that department, you know what I mean? We've all been to drama school, have we not? You know what I'm saying?"
For those who are too innocent to grasp the implication, he's saying he's not averse to some man-on-man action when the occasion arises.
That's not the bit that burned me. Same-sex relationships in prison are a rough topic to make jokes about, and the fact that movies still use prison rape as a punchline is appalling, but this didn't seem to be a joke about exploitation or abuse, or even about same-sex relationships creating shame or loss of dignity. It was about an actor saying -- in an airy, casual manner -- that he'd experimented before and was willing to experiment again. If anything, it was a joke about the Bohemian nature of actors.
There's also a bit where the same character claims Sean Connery once made a pass at him. And that's just funny to me.
Those bits, I could manage -- if that had been the end of it.
But then the film doubles down. In the end credits (always stay through the credits, Marvelites), we're shown that Justin Hammer -- a villain from Iron Man 2, played by Sam Rockwell -- is in the same prison as the Mandarin. And he has a young, slender, arguably effeminate male companion who tucks Hammer's napkin in for him, mutely admires him, and drapes his arm over his shoulder, only to be told, "Not here, baby. Not here."
Now, let me put this in generous terms. It is easier to read this as an imbalanced and exploitative "prison bitch" relationship presented for comedic effect than to read it as a positive presentation of a loving same-sex relationship in which everyone is accorded dignity and respect.
And this is throwback, retrograde, oh-so-'80s being-gay-is-something-that-happens-in-prison frat house humor. And this is the first presentation of a same-sex relationship or anything resembling a gay character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe across eight movies, five one-shots, and fifteen episodes of television. And that is the part that burns.
As a gay man watching this, let me tell you how I respond. I try to laugh. Why do I try to laugh? Because that is the good, obedient, go-along-to-get-along thing to do. My identity is being presented up there on the screen as something that should make the audience laugh, and I am conditioned to think that I should find this funny and laugh along and not cause a scene -- even though I am watching this movie on my own and there is no-one here to cause a scene for.
We are so used to being clowns for the majority audience that I feel like I'm letting people down if I don't laugh. I feel like I'm inconveniencing straight people if I say, "Please sir, can I not be the punchline?" Do you know how painful that is? How shameful it is? How it makes me want to cry that I would want to laugh at being dehumanised rather than stand up and protest, because I've been led to think that protesting makes me a bad person? Do you know how it stings to feel conditioned to want to betray oneself like that?
Some of you surely do. Which begs the question: Why is our entertainment making us feel like this?
And it turns out I can't laugh. Not today. Not any more. Because I am not a clown. And I want better from Marvel Studios than this.
And I've seen Marvel try to be better than this. They haven't given us the leading female heroes we want to see, or the leading heroes of color. Somehow a Captain Marvel movie or a Black Panther movie is never the next thing on the slate. But they gave us Black Widow and Sif and Peggy Carter; they gave us War Machine and Heimdall and Falcon. Credit where it's due; Marvel didn't settle for the least they could manage.
And I don't see them falling into the sort of easy, lazy, misogynistic and racist jokes that crop up in so many action movies and comedies throughout the '80s. They're smart enough to know better than that.
But if I want to see my identity presented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what do I get?
A "prison bitch" gag.
I don't get Sif being a bad-ass. I don't get War Machine blazing through the sky. I get Justin Hammer saying, "Not here, baby. Not here."
Is that what I deserve? Is that what I'm worth?
Here's what I want to see from Marvel Studios. I want gay heroes on the screen, in the movies, the TV shows, the one-shots. I want to see the LGBT community represented. I know that's a big ask, because Marvel Comics' LGBT heroes aren't exactly big names. So here's what I might settle for, at least in the short term; some LGBT people in these productions. These characters don't have to be the leads; they just need to be visible, and accorded the same dignity and respect as everyone else.
And here is the least I should be able to expect. I do not want to be the clown. I do not want to be the punchline. I do not want to be afraid to watch these movies the way I'm afraid to watch '80s comedies; afraid in case there's some sour pill in there that asks me to be complicit in mocking and degrading my own identity.
There are worse things I can find out there in the media today than a cheap and lazy gag about prison turning a man gay. But I value those few sanctuaries where I can be sure that I won't find that sort of humor.
And maybe I'm the idiot for thinking Marvel Studios' movies were a safe space.
But I am not your clown.