The Gay Superhero in ‘Eternals’ Is ‘What Audiences Have Been Waiting For,’ Says GLAAD (Guest Column)

Brian Tyree Henry Phastos Eternals
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

LGBTQ comic book and superhero fans have long been waiting to see themselves reflected in the pages and stories of the heroes they love. While progress has been made in the books themselves, that content has often been minimized or entirely erased when it comes to adapting those stories for the big screen. Now, in 2021, all that is finally beginning to change. Most notably, this week’s release of “Eternals,” which features the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first ever LGBTQ superhero, is a powerful step forward for the genre, one that will hopefully pave a new path for LGBTQ inclusion on the big screen.

Queer heroes in the pages of comics have made plenty of headlines this year alone.  Recognizable and iconic heroes including those who take up the mantle of Superman, Green Lantern, Robin, and a new Captain America all had comic stories exploring their characters’ queerness. All of these moments garnered major media attention and fan excitement from readers, highlighting that these stories are not only highly anticipated, but that they are also being embraced and celebrated by audiences everywhere.

In recent years, television has also begun to introduce meaningful LGBTQ heroes. Most have appeared in the Berlanti universe of series, with highlights including the introduction of Dreamer, television’s first transgender hero, on The CW’s “Supergirl,” as well as a Black lesbian hero leading “Batwoman.” In its second season, HBO Max’s “Harley Quinn” centered its plot on the romantic relationship of Harley and Poison Ivy, while the titular character in Disney Plus’ “Loki,” released this year, came out as bisexual.

Despite all this progress, the LGBTQ inclusion seen on the page and on the small screen is still severely lacking when a character makes the jump to the big screen (and the big budget).  DC’s “Birds of Prey” (the only major studio theatrical release in 2020 to include a bisexual character) included the long-awaited film confirmation that Harley Quinn is bi, a moment so quick that many audiences could have missed it. The “Wonder Woman” films continue to portray Diana as straight – despite her bisexuality in the comics – and there were scenes cut from “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Black Panther” which would have confirmed the identity of queer characters. “Deadpool 2” and “The New Mutants” are two examples of films in recent years which did introduce queer heroes with some significant story impact, but neither films were part of larger cinematic universes at the time of release.

Luckily for queer comic and hero fans, things are changing.

This Friday, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to include a LGBTQ hero will hit theaters. “Eternals” introduces audiences to a new team of heroes, including the brilliant Phastos, an unmatched genius and inventor, as well as a loving husband to Ben and father to their son Jack. The couple’s relationship is a key aspect of Phastos’ story and helps viewers to find a relatable aspect of Phastos’ life. And they even get to share a moment that is still so rarely seen between queer couples in mainstream films – a kiss.

GLAAD is a frequent advisor to Disney’s Studio on LGBTQ representation and inclusion in their films, and “Eternals” was no exception. During the premiere screening of “Eternals,” I will never forget hearing the entire theater erupt into clapping and cheering when Phastos and Ben finally kissed. It is clear that this is what audiences have been waiting for.

We know that the LGBTQ community is quickly growing, with one in six members of Gen Z Americans self-identifying as LGBTQ. Data also shows that LGBTQ audiences are 22 percent more likely to go see a new theatrical release, and that seeing LGBTQ characters is one of the key factors in a person’s support for the community outside of personally knowing someone who is LGBTQ.

Seeing a powerful gay superhero kiss his husband and feeling the reaction in that theater was a real-life example of why it is important for our stories to be told – especially in films that travel to big cities and small towns around the world.

GLAAD’s most recent Studio Responsibility Index study found only 10 theatrically released films from eight major studio distributors included LGBTQ characters in 2020, and only 22 of 118 in 2019 – the most recent study which was not impacted by COVID. Of the 22 LGBTQ-inclusive films GLAAD counted in 2019, more than half of LGBTQ characters (28 of 50, 56 percent) received less than three minutes of total screen time, with 21 of those appearing for less than one minute including “Avengers: Endgame’s” “Grieving Man.”

“Eternals” marks a new path forward for Marvel – expanding the idea of who can be a hero in a way not yet seen in film, especially at the scale or budget of an MCU project. Moreover, the announced plans for the MCU’s future seem to make it clear that introducing heroes who look and love more like those in the world they defend is a sustained focus for the studio moving forward.

America Chavez, a Latina lesbian hero, will be introduced in the 2022 flick “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and next summer’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” is set to bring a renewed focus on Valkyrie, the new King of Asgard, who “needs to find her queen.” Even beyond these confirmations, there are so many opportunities on the pages of comic books for queer heroes to reign supreme on big screens worldwide.

Entertainment remains our biggest cultural export and it is essential that those stories include LGBTQ people. Most importantly, they must reflect the full diversity of our community and experiences, from heroes to villains to the office employees who just wish they could go to work without aliens and Avengers destroying the city. “Eternals” may have been the first time I got to see a queer super hero live out his best life in the theaters, but I know it won’t be the last.

Megan Townsend is GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Research & Analysis, and the lead author of GLAAD’s annual Studio Responsibility Index and Where We Are on TV studies on inclusion in film and television. As a dynamic media force, GLAAD tackles tough issues to shape the narrative and provoke dialogue that leads to cultural change.