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You Create Intricate Rituals: The Homoerotic Action Movie

Since my “Top Gun Girl Summer,” my love for the action genre has only continued to blossom and deepen. I spoke about my fondness for action with Lyvie Scott in our Writers on Writers series, and since then I’ve become quite shameless about my enjoyment of all things with guns blazing, bombs exploding, and feats death-defying. That said, the genre isn’t exactly welcoming for female audiences: no matter what the myth of “strong female characters” will tell you, action films still prioritize hypermasculine and patriarchal attitudes about violence. The women in (most) action films are treated as sex objects, femme fatales, or weak individuals who need to be protected by the strong, hunky male protagonist. The Alien Franchise and Mad Max: Fury Road defy this, but on the whole they are the exception and not the rule.

But I’m not complaining too much about the action genre’s male gaze. After all, I had my first concrete lesbian moment while watching The Avengers (2012) and seeing Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff wearing that little black dress tied to a chair. However, knowing what I know now about how male directors like Joss Whedon treated Johansson — and how that extends to their female characters — action is a complicated genre for me. If you’re someone other than an aggressively jacked, masculine man who can hold himself in a fight against [insert monster, alien, bad guy, elite super soldier here]... then there’s not much to identify with, as a man or woman.

So the fact that I’ve been a lifelong Marvel fan, and the fact that I saw Top Gun: Maverick (2022) in theaters like six times last summer, really deserves an investigation. I could attempt to analyze the different aspects of action movies — chase scenes, fight scenes, finale fights, heroism, hot girls — that have made the genre so entertaining to me throughout the years, but I don’t know if all the graduate-level analysis of the genre’s tropes will get me to a satisfying answer. Especially not when I’m watching classic, iconic action movies lately because of one thing in particular: their sheer homoeroticism.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to stumble into a friend group with a similar affinity for action films. (By sheer coincidence, Nathan, Emma, and I are all femme lesbians.) Every Wednesday since January, we’ve done what we call “Femme Movie Night,” where we choose an action film and watch it through the lesbian gaze. And the phrase that comes up the most often while we watch is “those rituals are intricate” — inspired by Barbara Kruger’s seminal collage entitled “Untitled (You Construct Intricate Rituals).” The collage has been memed into oblivion — I came across it for the first time in a Maverick/Iceman variant — and has single-handedly shaped the way I and other LGBTQ folks perceive male-male dynamics in media.

Art by Lyvie Scott

It’s a simple enough collage: the words “you create intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.” are laid over a group of seven men in suits rough-housing with each other. Kruger’s collage is an expression of how men create intimate bonds — be they familial, fraternal, or erotic — via violent rituals like fighting, military service, or everyday violence. Because male homosexuality is so often demonized and feminized, Kruger argues that only in hypermasculine, violent situations can men touch each other and gain the intimate connections they crave, hence the collage’s popularity with fandom spaces focused on soldiers, superheroes, rebel fighters, and assassins. It’s a powerful piece of queer theory as it exists, because it functions as an analytical shorthand for the relationships between men that seem more intimate than what’s deemed socially acceptable.

Like I said last summer in my Top Gun piece: “maybe there’s something about men in highly-specialized branches of the military that just makes those bonds appear homoerotic to audiences.” The central relationship of William Shakespeare’s war tragedy Coriolanus is between military rivals Coriolanus and Aufidius, who can’t seem to keep their hands off each other when they meet. Whether it’s wrestling with each other to decide the outcome of a border battle, pressing knives to each other’s throats in a tense reunion, or Aufidius killing Coriolanus himself after he’s been betrayed… they’re creating intricate rituals to touch the skin of other men, so Kruger’s thesis rings remarkably true.

In my personal favorite action film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Bucky Barnes’ (Sebastian Stan) Winter Soldier conditioning breaks mid-fight with his childhood friend Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). Steve essentially allows Bucky to wail on him, as it’s the only way he can get close enough to Bucky to reach him emotionally. Bucky is close to killing Steve, until he repeats the refrain of their childhood — “I’m with you ‘til the end of the line” — reminding Bucky of the bond they used to share before being separated.

Quite intricate rituals, if you ask me.

The intricate rituals found in Predator (1987) are immortalized in Internet culture akin to Kruger’s collage — and make the film’s homoeroticism nigh-undeniable. When war buddies Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Alan (Carl Weathers) reunite, they have an impromptu wrestling match just because. You can find the screenshot or painted version circulating everywhere these days as the “epic handshake” meme, lifted from the scene which revels for several seconds (longer than necessary) in their bulging arm muscles, the popping veins, the intensity of their playful showdown… It's a subtle battle for dominance that could be transposed along “You Construct Intricate Rituals” easily. While sweaty, shirtless men in an elite military unit traipsing through the jungle to pursue a deadly alien isn’t inherently homoerotic, it’s definitely one of the stories that acknowledges the possibility of homoeroticism — especially in the relationship between Mac (Bill Duke) and Blain (Jesse Ventura).

Art by Lyvie Scott

The Predator murders Blain, leaving Mac entirely inconsolable. He weeps over the loss of his partner. When Dutch says that Blain was a good man, Mac hesitatingly responds: “He friend.” He holds Blain tenderly in his arms, unwilling to let go, and it’s like a scene ripped out of Brokeback Mountain — something many others have compared the moment to. It appears that Mac doesn’t want to out their relationship, or that he doesn’t know if the word “friend” could ever encapsulate the enormity of their connection. In these kinds of situations where your life is literally in your buddy’s hands, of course bonds that read homoerotic (and ones that explicitly are) will be present.

Venom (2018) takes the intensity of the male-male relationship in the midst of life-and-death situations to the extreme. Upon the first film’s release, fans were quick to point out that it was less like the body horror-inflected superhero flick it was marketed as… and more of an “opposites attract” romantic comedy between the human Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and the alien sludge he lives in symbiosis with, Venom (also Tom Hardy). They don’t create intricate rituals to touch each other’s skin because they are one flesh — literally. Venom lives inside Eddie’s body (Eddie affectionately calls him “parasite”) and they have a working relationship as vigilantes on the streets of San Francisco when they aren’t bickering about how to arrange the apartment or where to get their next meal.

The only reason Eddie’s head doesn’t explode is because he and Venom are a perfect pair bond, two beings in complete symbiosis. Venom even says that Eddie is the only reason he doesn’t hate humanity, and he wants to be reformed as a hero because of their bond. What makes all of this even better is the fact that in the sequel, Let There Be Carnage (2021), the creators didn’t try to “no homo” their way out of anything: director Andy Serkis fully embraces it and throws the characters into a second chance rom-com, with all the “take your shit and leave!” arguments and pleading-for-the-other-back apologies that come with it. They can only defeat their infernal son — yes, son — Carnage (Woody Harrelson) once they’ve come back into symbiosis and act as one.

One of the most explicitly homoerotic action films in recent memory is the iconic (to me, at least <3) Gerard Butler–Aaron Eckhart film London Has Fallen (2016). In fact, it might unironically be one of my favorite queer texts after Brokeback Mountain and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2020), and it doesn’t take much to see what makes it so undeniably homoerotic. It starts with Butler, who plays Secret Service agent Mike Banning, torn up over whether or not to resign from President Ben Asher’s (Eckhart) detail to be home with his family. All that changes when Ben is whisked away to London for the Prime Minister’s funeral, but the state affair quickly devolves into another one of those classic life-or-death missions as they try to escape a terrorist attack through the streets of London.

Art by Lyvie Scott

The members of Femme Movie Night found it fascinating that the President was centered as a figure of relative weakness who needs to be protected and — for all intents and purposes — the only person who can do that is just some guy. London is Falling is more like the Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner film Bodyguard (1992) than anything else because of how it depicts Mike as the strong, know-all protector and Ben as the damsel in distress who has to be protected at all costs. Mike is the one holding the guns and grenades, Mike is the one covering Ben with his own body, Mike is the one who consistently puts himself between the bullet and Ben. Yes, it’s his job, but Mike and Ben are incredibly close; the nature of their dynamic is deepened because they are Secret Service and President. Ben insists that if it came down to it, he’d rather Mike shoot him than be made an example of by the terrorists on the Internet forever. Of course, that never happens, but the sentiment shows the incredible amount of trust that Ben has in Mike, and the stakes of their relationship. It’s all but explicitly gay, and heightened only by the fact that Ben is widowed and relies on Mike for emotional support and physical protection now.

There’s something that London Has Fallen has that the other action films in this essay and its accompanying Letterboxd list don’t have. Where they might feature some particularly damning physical interactions and lines that all but profess undying love, they don’t comment on themselves as homoerotic texts the way London does. Ben and Mike are hiding out in an MI-6 bunker when they’re sabotaged, and Mike forces Ben to hide in a closet with a gun to protect himself just in case. When it’s looking dire for Mike in his tussle, Ben swoops in and saves Mike for a change — to which Mike quips, “I was wondering when you were gonna come out of the closet.”

I totally forgot this line was in the movie when I rewatched it most recently. My jaw dropped astronomically low, and it sparked a whole line of discourse about what it means for a homoerotic action movie to actually recognize that the story it’s telling, the character dynamics they’re presenting, and the themes the narrative’s representing, are explicitly homoerotic. Does it leave open a door for accepting and understanding that relationships can’t always fit into some neat little box of “platonic” or “romantic” or “erotic?” And how do declarations like this, in the midst of a story about men, for men, change the way we view those dynamics?

Whatever they are, it makes for an even more intense movie-watching experience; your heart’s already hammering from the action set pieces and explosions, so to show these incredibly intense bonds (and almost always between men) gives the action purpose and meaning. It’s about protecting the man who’s always had your back, or the man you’re beginning to respect and appreciate, or the man you’re stuck in literal Hell with. Without these male-male bonds, the violence is merely there for the sake of it; it’s hollow, it’s unfocused, it’s mindless. The action movie literally does not exist without homoeroticism, since the heart of them is founded on the intensity of male-male bonds.

I could continue go down the list of all my favorite action movies and talk about the homoerotic moments that make me laugh or smile or bite my lip — Hangman saying “give ‘em hell” to Rooster and (probably) defying orders to rescue his rival from certain death in Top Gun: Maverick, Ethan Hunt kidnapping the British Prime Minister in the hopes he’ll be able to rescue Benji from international baddies in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the Protagonist and Neil always managing to find and save each other despite being at the disparate ends of their timelines in Tenet, the entirety of Batman and Robin — but we would genuinely be here all day. The sheer amount of gay joy I get in moments like Aragorn kissing Boromir’s forehead as the latter dies in Fellowship of the Ring or Legolas and Gimli putting aside their people’s ancient rivalry to fight side by side “as friends” is truly unmatched, and controversially? They make me feel a hell of a lot more “seen” as a lesbian than most other explicitly queer media. They’re a recognition that relationships — gay or not — are always a little more complicated and difficult to define than not. They recognize that there’s a closeness between friends or partners (or men in highly-specialized branches of the military) that can even rival romantic connections because of the depth of their intimacy.

Art by Lyvie Scott

After we watched London Has Fallen, I made a comment to Femme Movie Night about wanting to write about how much the film’s queer elements confused me in the context of the narrative. While London Has Fallen might have been a bit too niche (and for a pride essay to boot), Nathan responded with the spark that would become this essay: that they would like to read an essay exploring how homoeroticism in action films is more potent than dramas or comedies because of the heightened life or death circumstances in action. And reading that was like whole avenues of information were opened up to me. It made it all click into place: the reason why those rescues between men are so homoerotic is because it forces one man to be vulnerable and allow himself to be rescued/protected by another man, who in turn must use those masculine rescuer/protector instincts not on a woman but on another man. And he wouldn’t have rescued that man had he not felt extremely close emotional or duty ties—like in the case of the Top Gun finale rescue scenes. Eddie and Venom cannot live without each other for that reason, too. And Mac dies shortly after Blain’s death because he has nobody left to live for, we are led to assume.

There is a genuine shift, though, towards sapphic homoerotic films — and in a franchise I’m more than happy to say I was glad to find it. There was the- less-than-platonic relationship between Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), former test pilots in the Air Force in pre-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell days who raised a daughter together in Captain Marvel (2019). The central characters of Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) — Sarah Connor, cybernetically enhanced soldier Grace, and emerging rebel leader Dani — are all women; Sarah Connor functions as the group’s queer elder, and she provides a sort of lesbian mentorship to the two younger women that’s not typically seen in media — sapphic or otherwise. Sarah and Grace tussle over how best to protect Dani, and it screams “in love with a high school English teacher in a chaste, academic way” as they argue about their respective missions to protect humanity and Dani alike.

Even when the Terminator shows up halfway through the movie, these women have already gone through numerous chase scenes and near-death brushes with REV-9 and constructed some fairly intricate rituals of their own, including but not limited to: Grace telling Dani she’s a powerful woman and leader, Sarah recklessly driving a car while protecting her young partners, Grace covered in melted ice to reset her circuits… It’s a movie made for the female — and I would say the sapphic — gaze through and through.

With women’s roles in classic action films like Terminator and Alien finally getting the recognition they deserve, and more recent action films starting to recognize women as the primary leads of these action films, we will hopefully start to see an embrace of sapphic homoeroticism in the genre. Male-male homoeroticism in action will continue to be a mainstay, if the success of Top Gun: Maverick and the Mission Impossible franchise are any indication. And who knows? Maybe one of these days, we’ll have an action movie that fully embraces the heightened intimacy of the intricate rituals found only in life-or-death situations where the leads recognize the complexity and intensity of their bond and become lovers.

To see the rest of Rebecca's picks, visit Blossom on Letterboxd.

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