Every time a new Marvel film is out, it feels like we have the same exact debate. When we learn that an LGBTQ character is featured in a film, we want them to be an important part of the story, even if their abilities aren’t directly related to their sexuality or gender. However, practically every time this occurs, they are readily tossed or disregarded entirely. Perhaps they draw their partner in for a quick kiss, shot from a distance, and that’s all you see of them. It begs the question, why even say a character is LGBTQ if they aren’t going to be featured at all?
You’ll have to pose that question again after seeing “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” While it’s hardly unexpected that Dora Milaje officer Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and battle fighter Aneka (Michaela Coel) aren’t the film’s major emphasis, both they and their love are unfairly shelved. Not only do they share only two scenes, but neither character is given enough screen time or development to seem like anything more than background characters. Given the significance of their comic relationship, as well as the sociopolitical tensions that their love signifies, this is only one of many betrayals that the MCU has committed against the LGBTQ community, which has often requested stronger representation from the series.
Ayo and Aneka’s story deserves to be told
To understand why their absence is so frustrating, you must first understand the history of Ayo and Aneka’s relationship. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2016 tale “A Nation Under Our Feet,” the two were seen to be in a relationship after Ayo got Aneka out of jail, where she was incarcerated after slaying a predatory chieftain. After being shunned by the Dora Milaje and Wakandan society as a whole, the two establish the vigilante team known as the Midnight Angels.
This fascination had to originate from someplace, right? Coates collaborated with writer Roxane Gay on the “Black Panther: World of Wakanda” miniseries to explore their developing love story. If you’re looking for some true, non-toxic rivals-to-lovers stories, read this series for its emotional romance and many societal topics.
Because their tale, both as individuals and as a couple, is so compelling, their cameos in “Wakanda Forever” are all the more sad. Their single scene of closeness occurs at the end of the film, when Aneka hastily kisses Ayo on the cheek. This would be OK if they were more established as unique personalities previously, but they aren’t – Aneka is seen conversing with Shuri before a critical incident, while Ayo occasionally appears as the Dora Milaje’s successor for the expelled commander Okoye (Danai Gurira). They appear to be background stock characters, which is quite dishonest.
This isn’t the first time
Perhaps what makes this so frustrating is that it is far from an isolated incident. The MCU has had a bad history of hyping up the introduction of LGBTQ characters, only for the payoff to not be worth it. Remember when the Russos said there would be a gay character in “Avengers: Endgame,” only for said character to be a throwaway support group member played by Joe Russo himself? Remember when America Chavez was finally introduced to the MCU, but her mothers were killed seconds after they were introduced — and her own sexuality was never acknowledged? This isn’t even taking into consideration Loki’s passive coming-out, Valkyrie’s unnamed lover getting killed, and Phastos being both openly gay and also sort of responsible for the concept of nuclear warfare.
This is all to say that, despite releasing movies since 2008, there have arguably been no fully developed LGBTQ characters or relationships in the MCU, despite them constantly promising their inclusion. It’s not like these characters are only defined by their sexuality, but they need to feel like actual humans you can connect with on a level that isn’t shallow. It isn’t enough to say that characters are gay during promotions and not have them follow up on that in a meaningful way in the finished product. A character kissing another on the head means nothing when they only exchange two lines of dialogue with each other, nor when either character only has a few minutes of screen time each.
Is sociopolitical bigotry a factor?
Of course, discussions around LGBTQ representation deserve to be as nuanced as possible. There is the possibility that Ayo and Aneka’s relationship was significantly trimmed down due to homophobic international laws. Marvel has previously had issues with countries such as Saudi Arabia for their inclusion of LGBTQ characters, and the fact that 33 countries in Africa criminalize same-sex relationships through outdated colonial laws (via Human Rights Watch) could have also contributed to their exclusion in “Wakanda Forever.” This hostility is actually part of the reason why Michaela Coel, who is British-Ghanaian, signed on for the role. Ghana is among the 33 African countries that criminalize LGBTQ individuals.
“I thought: I like that, I want to show that to Ghana,” the actor and Emmy-winning writer told Vogue. “It felt important for me to step in and do that role because I know just by my being Ghanaian, Ghanaians will come.”
However, it is unfair to lay the blame entirely on these countries. After all, it’s not like the U.S. is any better – while same-sex relationships and marriages are legal, homophobic policies like Florida’s HB 1557/”Don’t Say Gay” Bill and major social and political figures spouting dangerous transphobic rhetoric have contributed to a tense environment for queer Americans. Disney itself faced backlash for its political donations against homophobic and transphobic Republicans earlier this year. The erasure in “Wakanda Forever” seems to be a combined effort of domestic and international beliefs that LGBTQ stories aren’t necessarily important to tell.
Can the MCU actually deliver?
For a franchise that has been going on for as long as the MCU has, it’s terrible that we still haven’t received a properly developed and nuanced LGBTQ character. If we’re being honest, it’s hard to imagine such a character actually being introduced nowadays – if they were serious about representing marginalized communities in defiance of domestic and international bigotry, they would have done it by now. However, Disney and Marvel have not delivered the characters, stories, and representation fans deserve.
While a lot of “Wakanda Forever” is great, its two-hour and forty-five-minute runtime shouldn’t only have five seconds of queer intimacy. Ayo and Aneka’s relationship in the film was specifically designed to be kept ambiguous or even cut out if need be. That does a massive disservice to queer MCU fans, especially those in deeply homophobic or otherwise intolerant environments. The promises of representation they make need to be kept more than ever before, and if they are, then that very representation needs to be more than just a throwaway character. If they are queer in the comics, then their story needs to be properly adapted. It’s as simple as that. Until then, the saying about getting queerbaited by the MCU being similar to losing a game of chess to a dog will remain eternally true.