More than any other Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Thor: Love and Thunder arrived with a certain level of queer expectation. Some fans hoped the second film from Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi would bring considerably more of what the previous film did well — not just in terms of wit and color, but also an expansion of Ragnarok’s rich subtext, a surprising amount of which can be read as queer. In Hollywood, blockbuster success is typically rewarded with creative freedom. Queer audiences could understandably infer that Ragnarok awarded Waititi and his collaborators a stack of chips that could be cashed in, at least partially, on the queerer story he says he wants.
Waititi and the film’s cast leaned into that reading on the Love and Thunder press tour, eagerly replying to fans who ask “How gay is it?” with quotes like “So gay.” But in the finished movie, it’s hard to see this queerness taken seriously. The most explicitly gay relationship is between fictional rock aliens that are all male and reproduce by holding hands over a lava pit. While that isn’t nothing — especially in the current political environment, where the very suggestion of something other than heteronormativity sends a reactionary media apparatus into a tizzy — it’s also cowardice. It’s a way to queer up a story without including actual queer people. (Valkyrie, an established bisexual character, does some flirting, but doesn’t really get a story of her own.)
Taken in isolation, the latest in a series of broken promises about screen representation in Disney films is disappointing, as it is when any art squanders what appears to be clear potential. But as the latest instance in Disney’s long history of queerbaiting, it’s absurd. As a company, Disney is playing a ridiculous game of inches with LGBTQ inclusion, wanting vast credit for the smallest nods, but only articulating serious support when forced to, the way the company didn’t voice any opposition to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill until it faced tremendous backlash.
The company has effectively made queerness a marketing line item, using endless teases about groundbreaking gay characters to promote its films, the same way an award-winning actor’s casting gives a product some added heft. At the same time, it’s never once showed interest in telling an explicitly queer story. Disney profits from fans who elevate what queerness can be found in the text, and the company arguably gets good press when its meager offerings — a brief peck on the cheek here, a quick mention of a girlfriend there — still gets its movies banned by autocratic regimes that are hostile to all queer content.
This is a disservice to queer people on both sides of Disney’s pop culture empire — its audience and its creators alike. The former group is left adrift when the company line rejects entirely understandable queer readings of its films, like Pixar’s Luca. The latter group can also feel trapped in a Sisyphean struggle. As Owl House creator Dana Terrace said last spring, creators working to widen the inclusivity of Disney’s offerings are naturally frustrated, knowing their efforts are effectively burnishing Disney’s reputation but that the company can still burn them at any time.
On some level, Disney’s approach to queerness is shrewd and utilitarian, not unlike its approach to other kinds of representation. The company has learned it can add newfound longevity to the standard stories that built its modern brand — superheroes, fairy tales, and animated stories of belonging and discovery — by exporting them to other marginalized groups. Turning Red, Raya and the Last Dragon, Ms. Marvel — the thrill of works like these is that they stand in opposition to a reactionary, polarized culture, reminding audiences that stories about characters from marginalized groups can be and are universal. But that cuts both ways, because as far as Disney’s concerned, everyone’s money is just as good for its bottom line.
With that in mind, courting identity politics in mainstream pop culture is a bit of a devil’s bargain. People who are marginalized want to be brought into the wider pop cultural conversation, and the corporate gatekeepers of that conversation are happy to facilitate, so long as it adds to their profits. Everyone will have different thoughts on whether that trade-off is worthwhile for them, either as consumers or creators. But one thing is clear: Disney’s track record implies that it believes its queer audience can be bought more cheaply than others.
That can only work for so long. The economic advantage to being coy about queerness is rapidly drying up. Even the cursory gestures Disney has been making more and more often over the past five years are snowballing into right-wing blowback and angry punditry. So it’s worth wondering: If Disney’s shallow queerbaiting is enough to rile up reactionaries, shouldn’t it also be enough to earn the ire of an audience that has every right to demand more than empty lip service?