Having earned a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 90% and just under a billion dollars worldwide since its May 6 release, the latest Marvel superhero movie Captain America: Civil War has rightfully won over critics and audiences alike. Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair was one of those impressed critics, calling CA:CV great; but she is oddly disappointed by what she considers one nagging flaw: the filmmakers did not make the relationship between the movie’s titular hero – real name Steve Rogers – and his close pal Bucky Barnes explicitly gay.
Robinson seems to be part of what she calls “the intensely devoted section of the Captain America fan base who consider Bucky, not Peggy Carter, to be the true object of Steve Rogers’ affection.” I’m not enough of a Marvel fanboy to know the full history of Cap and Bucky’s relationship, but I suspect it’s fair to say that from its comic book origins up through its cinematic iterations, it was never intended to be homosexual, regardless of how much actors Chris Evans (Capt. America) and Sebastian Stan (Bucky) have enjoyed teasing fans about that possibility during the movie’s publicity tour. Director Joe Russo himself, shrewdly keeping the titillation simmering, has remarked, “People can interpret the relationship however they want to interpret it.”
But the movie itself leaves little room for interpretation: the fictional friends are clearly straight, frustrating as this may be for those fans itching for a little gay onscreen flirtation. Romantic sparks fly between Cap and Peggy Carter’s niece, and there is a scene in which Steve and Bucky get nostalgic about their days chasing girls in pre-war Brooklyn. Vanity Fair’s Robinson dismisses this as “a sweet, human bonding moment, but one that also bristles with heterosexual virility.” [Emphasis added]
Robinson feels that a heterosexual romance is predictable, boring and flat. She swoons that “there was more juice in Bucky ogling Steve’s bulging bicep as Cap struggled to ground a helicopter.” It takes an especially fevered and salacious imagination to look right past Capt. America’s awe-inspiring, heroic effort in that tense action sequence and focus instead on what she imagines to be Bucky’s lust for Steve’s muscles. That says something about our culture’s profane and ignoble obsessions.
Robinson goes on to complain that “Marvel seems to think it has to have its heroes in heterosexual love affairs in order to maximize audience appeal.” In fact, Marvel doesn’t just “seem to think” this – it is a demonstrable fact that an overwhelming proportion of the world audience is heterosexual. As readers at the Twitchy website noted, it would have been a huge mistake for Marvel Studios to flip the characters’ sexuality. “When [writers] alter an existing character with decades of history to make the PC crowd happy, then it’s complete garbage because it’s blatant pandering,” said one reader.
More importantly, making the heroes’ sexual orientation the central focus of their relationship diminishes the profound nature of friendship, particularly between men. Great fictional male heroes from the earliest beginnings of literature have had close, nonsexual bonds with other men: Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, Hamlet and Horatio, Holmes and Watson, Frodo and Sam, all the way up to Batman and Robin, and now Captain America and Bucky. But today we seem perversely insistent on sexualizing everything and then pushing the envelope of traditional notions of sexuality. For Robinson and her ilk, heroism and committed friendship in superhero flicks are less compelling than bringing a perceived homosexual subtext to the forefront of the film.
“Would it really have hurt,” Robinson yearned, “to keep their relationship more ambiguous?... If Disney isn’t inclined to give audiences a gay superhero, couldn’t they have at least left us the dream of Bucky and Cap?” It’s revealing that a critic at a pop culture outlet of Vanity Fair’s stature would express such frustration that a powerful friendship between two men isn’t sexualized. It shows a shallow appreciation for that bond and a subversive desire to undermine what the magazine’s critic dismissed as “heterosexual virility.” She doesn’t seem to object to virility per se, only the heterosexual kind, because that is, in today’s politically correct parlance, heteronormative, and anything “normative” must be oppressive and outmoded.
In the end, Vanity Fair fatalistically accepts that Marvel never intended to bring out “the homoerotic subtext of Cap and Bucky.” Again, that subtext exists only in the minds of those desperate to find one. Perhaps if the Joanne Robinsons in the audience could elevate their sights above an imagined sexual subtext and focus on the nobler nature of the characters’ friendship, they might have found Captain America: Civil War as uplifting and inspiring as everyone else.
From Acculturated, 5/23/16