Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s Lack of Queer Representation Isn’t On Anthony Mackie

Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s Lack of Queer Representation Isn’t On Anthony Mackie

Falcon and The Winter Soldier might be in the rear-view mirror for Marvel and Disney as the company turns its eyes to Loki, but the discourse around the show returned to the forefront of fandom last night in the wake of a new interview with Captain America himself, Anthony Mackie. But the furore around Mackie’s answers to a pointed question aims its frustration in the wrong direction.

As part of Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast series, Mackie discussed the timeliness of his ascension to the Captain America mantle in Falcon and The Winter Soldier’s finale, but was also asked about the series’ portrayal of the relationship between Sam Wilson and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, and why the show had not presented the duo’s relationship as more than just friendly.

“So many things are twisted and convoluted. There’s so many things that people latch on to with their own devices to make themselves relevant and rational,” Mackie said when asked about playing their relationship as male friends, rather than as potentially romantic. “The idea of two guys being friends and loving each other in 2021 is a problem because of the exploitation of homosexuality. It used to be guys can be friends, we can hang out, and it was cool. You would always meet your friends at the bar, you know. You can’t do that anymore, because something as pure and beautiful as homosexuality has been exploited by people who are trying to rationalise themselves.”

“So something that’s always been very important to me is showing a sensitive masculine figure. There’s nothing more masculine than being a superhero and flying around and beating people up,” Mackie continued. “But there’s nothing more sensitive than having emotional conversations and a kindred spirit friendship with someone that you care about and love.”

The comments were further ignited on social media when the trade broke down Mackie’s response into a series of threaded tweets. In doing so, many of Mackie’s points about both his aversion to discussing fandom topics like shipping as well as his commentary about the exploitation of queerness on a corporate level, were presented in isolation, leading to commentators picking choice excerpts from Mackie’s response to dunk on.

Audiences looking for more queer representation from Marvel’s cinematic and televisual output have more than a right to be annoyed at Mackie’s response, given the studio’s lacklustre approach to including prominent LGBTQIA characters in over a decade of output so far. And, even read at its most diplomatic, Mackie’s response is perhaps clumsy at best, and dismissive of genuine concern and disappointment from audiences at worst.

But at the same time, it’s clear that the actor is uncomfortable responding to questions about fandom interpretations of his character — “I try to stay away from fan stuff,” Mackie says in the run up to the question about the show’s lack of queerness in the podcast, “the fandom is a very dangerous place, so I just let it be what it is and move on.”

Whether or not his answer should be clumsy is a different question. The push for larger conversations around diverse representation in tentpole franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars and other myriad Hollywood blockbusters has been an ongoing process for years at this point. It’s a point where, perhaps, actors — or more specifically their PR agents — should be aware that critics and journalists are going to want them to handle questions about representation, queer or otherwise, so they should be prepared formulate a response to those inquiries.

Even if that answer is as simple as “it’s not something I get a say on, but there should be more and better representation in our media to reflect the society we live in”, it’d better than the kind of hot water Mackie found himself landing in as a trending topic on Twitter last night.

Speaking of Star Wars, case in point: John Boyega and Oscar Isaac’s history of discussing the potential for their sequel trilogy characters Finn and Poe Dameron to be in a relationship together. Bothe were supportive of the push, but non-committal about the actuality of their characters being queer until someone who did have control about that kind of creative decision could come along and answer (in their case Rise of Skywalker director J.J. Abrams, who shut down the possibility in the run-up to the film’s release, to much disappointment).

Image: Marvel Studios
Image: Marvel Studios

Yet despite Mackie’s unpreparedness to field the critique — a valid critique of both Falcon and Marvel’s wider output — the resulting fandom ire at him feels like misdirected anger, especially considering the way Variety framed Mackie’s answer on social channels, a decision that ended up in maximum frustration at the actor himself.

The real question is not whether we should hold these massive shows and movies to task for their occasional platitudes about diverse representation, queer or otherwise, but to aim those questions at the people who actually control the output of these studios: writers, directors, and producers. In particular at an institution like Marvel Studios, where higher echelons of management have a very public face in the form of Kevin Feige, the role of producers as forward-facing architects of these films and shows is an idea the public is already familiar.

After all, they’re not just the people who get to make creative decisions like whether or not to portray a previously ambiguously straight character as queer, or frame a moment between two characters with homoromantic undertones. In Falcon’s case in particular, they’re the people who have a history of teasing the show’s chances of queer representation in the first place, and therefore are the people who should be held to task when that teasing turns out to be nothing more than just that.

Malcolm Spellman, one of the show’s lead writer’s and now a co-writer on the Mackie-starring Captain America 4, told press and fans alike that they should “just keep watching…” when asked about theories that Bucky Barnes could be portrayed in Falcon and the Winter Soldier as bisexual in an interview with NME — only for that viewership to be rewarded with nothing at all.

The aforementioned Kevin Feige, who also has producer credits on Falcon as he does most on Marvel Studios output, has a history of offering lacklustre answers to “wait and see” incidents of Marvel’s lack of diverse characters — like in the run up to Avengers: Endgame when he said that fans had a right to see themselves in Marvel’s movies, only to back track and say that he didn’t think it would be such a big deal that fans would be outraged that Endgame gave the MCU its first explicitly queer character in the form of a minor cameo by director Joe Russo.

It’s clear that, in spite of what feels like years of promises that change is coming on this front (the first on-screen queer relationship and kiss in a Marvel movie is set to come in Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals later this year, and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie will be portrayed as a bisexual woman in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder next year), a lack of queer representation is still an ongoing problem in Marvel Studios films and shows. Fans have every right to be frustrated by that issue as long as it continues to persist, and reporters should hold people at the studio accountable to answer why their material fumbles when it does.

But the people who do need to be held accountable on this issue, and others like it, are not necessarily people like Mackie — actors who can at most lend support to those frustrations and hope for positive change. Instead these concerns need to be addressed by people who actually can change them.

We’re talking about the architects of a system that has failed up to now in bringing queer characters to prominence, at studios like Disney, such as Spellman and Feige. Perhaps especially so at a studio like Disney, which has a long history of struggling to present LGBTQIA+ characters at the forefront of its stories.