When I said I wanted The Falcon And The Winter Soldier to generate more conversation amongst the MCU fandom, queerbaiting discourse was not what I had in mind, I’ve got to be honest. Mostly because I had gone into this series basically resigned to the fact that the character of Bucky Barnes would probably never be revealed to be LGBTQ+ either in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier or anywhere in the MCU, even after years of fans pleading for him to be. Yet here we are, a mere two weeks into the series’ run, already heading down an all-too-familiar path…[*sighs*]…so let’s talk about it.
Bucky Barnes’ sexuality has been a subject of fervent – and occasionally heated – debate for years. Fans took one look at his intense relationship with Steve Rogers, and realized what Marvel and the Russo Brothers either hadn’t, or didn’t want to admit: it was heavily queer-coded, and that was what made it alternately so compelling and so frustrating…because once Marvel saw what they’d done in creating the pairing commonly known as “Stucky”, it felt to many fans like the studio went out of their way to squash it.
Bucky had always been just as central to Steve’s character arc as Steve’s “best girl”, Peggy Carter…if not more so, given how little the Russo Brothers actually utilized Peggy when they had the chance. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was literally named after him, and revolved around the reveal that Bucky didn’t die in WWII, but was reborn from a potentially fatal injury as an emotionless assassin brainwashed by HYDRA to assist in the overthrow of democracy. Steve couldn’t bring himself to give up on Bucky, instead spending two movies chasing him down, doing everything in his power to save him from his own demons, and from those who would hurt and manipulate him.
Ultimately Steve is successful, but then Bucky – and by extension, Stucky – kind of disappears. In Endgame, he only has a few lines of dialogue at the end of the movie…just before Steve decides to go back in time and live out the rest of his life with Peggy, whose entire character arc in her Agent Carter series (which Endgame canonized earlier in the movie!) is thus scrapped. Some people like this ending for Steve and Peggy, which is fine. But whether you like it or not, there’s no denying it marked the death of Stucky, with Steve confirming through his actions that Peggy was his one true love.
So you can see why, going into The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, I wasn’t expecting much when it came to the matter of Bucky’s sexuality. Yeah, Marvel has talked a lot recently about the responsibility they feel to better represent the diversity of the modern world. But when it comes to finally getting an LGBTQ+ superhero onscreen, their policy has always been one of “maybe next time”, and it’s getting really old at this point.
Maybe in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2…no, to be honest, I don’t even know what James Gunn was referring to in that case. Maybe in Thor: Ragnarok…nope, just a deleted shot of a woman walking out of Valkyrie’s bedroom. Maybe in Black Panther, then?…nah, just a deleted scene of ambiguously gay flirting between Okoye and another woman. Well then, maybe in Endgame…of course not, just an unnamed civilian character who mentions going on a date with a guy. Maybe in WandaVision…no, Billy and Tommy Maximoff, both queer characters in the comics, have yet to be confirmed as such onscreen.
So even though The Falcon And The Winter Soldier featured plenty of lightly queer-coded scenes of Bucky and Sam Wilson tumbling on top of each other in the grass like Anakin and Padmé in Star Wars, or going to couples counseling to work out their problems…I wasn’t prepared to read anything into that. Sure, it felt like queerbaiting, but at the same time it felt like affection between men was being used as the joke in all those scenes, and I said as much.
There was, of course, that one puzzling line in the premiere where Bucky goes on a date with a woman, and mentions that he tried online dating but couldn’t get past all the “tiger photos”…something that confused the heck out of me, because I was not aware of the fact that tiger photos are a real thing on dating apps (or at least, were, before some apps banned the practice), and that specifically, they are a real thing almost exclusively found on men’s dating profiles. Men apparently pose, often half-naked, with tigers and other large cats. I don’t know why, but it’s apparently common enough information to spark a whole conversation on Twitter about the subject.
So of course, in a recent interview with NME, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s showrunner and head writer, Malcolm Spellman, was asked about whether that subtle reference was meant to imply anything about Bucky’s sexual orientation. And Spellman opted to answer as follows: “You just gotta…I’m not…I’m not diving down rabbit-holes but, uh, just keep watching.” It’s a non-answer, in line with non-answers Marvel content creators have given to questions before. But this wasn’t a question about Mephisto being in WandaVision. And this answer merely teases us with the infinite possibilities of an incredibly vague “maybe”.
Because a “maybe” isn’t exactly reassuring, but it holds out a lifeline to fans who are desperate for any LGBTQ+ representation…and if you’re gonna extend that lifeline, you can’t tug it away at the last minute. Because that is the definition of queerbaiting: the tried-and-true process of luring queer audiences into a show or film with the promise of meaningful LGBTQ+ representation, then never following through in any substantial way, or else revealing in the end that “surprise! They were straight all along! Fooled ya!”
I want to give Spellman the benefit of the doubt and dare to hope that maybe, maybe, he really is hinting that Bucky is queer, because that kind of reveal would be incredibly powerful and important: and because I don’t want audiences to use this conversation about queerbaiting as a way to ignore or actively undermine everything this series has already done for Black representation in superhero media – although confirmation of Bucky’s queerness would inevitably be weaponized for roughly the same effect. Even leaving potential queerness aside, Bucky is already used by some audiences to distract from Sam’s character. It’s racist, and needs to be called out.
And if fans “keep watching” only to come out the other side with nothing, what then? If it hadn’t been for Spellman’s non-answer, I’d probably be regretful but unsurprised. Mark me down as frustrated and unsurprised now if we don’t even get another “exclusively gay moment” akin to LeFou dancing with a guy for about 0.1 seconds in 2017’s Beauty And The Beast. Because up until now, I was prepared to write off every instance of queer-coding in the series as simply being interpreted differently by fans than by the creators.
So a word of advice to Marvel, and all of Hollywood: don’t tease what you can’t or simply won’t follow through on, when it comes at the expense of queer fans who are still looking for representation in mainstream media, and keep being lured in different directions by series’ and films each promising to be the one that finally gets it right…but only if you “keep watching.”