The male lead in a new studio comedy loves unicorns and rainbows almost as much as he adores George Michael’s seminal ’80s band Wham! When he goes to work, he dons a form-fitting tank top emblazoned with the face of Golden Girls star Bea Arthur; at home, while casually relaxing, he’s more likely to wear a T-shirt touting the musical Rent. Our protagonist has got a girlfriend, but he’s not afraid to lightly flirt with a male baddie or two, and by the time the closing credits roll, he’s even willing to admit that the film’s hunky villain is hotter than his live-in love. And while he ostensibly presents as straight, his sexual fantasies involve Tony-winning gay icon Bernadette Peters, and he’s pretty open-minded in bed: In the film’s most memorable moment, he gets on all fours and lets his girlfriend plow him with a strap-on.
Somehow, this all happens in Deadpool, a film that’s aimed at 13-year-old boys and is likely to become the New Year’s biggest blockbuster in its opening weekend. While Deadpool is based on a comic-book superhero who’s been described as pansexual, I was surprised to find just how many queer details survived the jump to the big screen, given that comedic protagonists — especially those who wear superhero suits — don’t generally leave room for nuance. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked: Over the last year, when it comes to the movie comedies you’d expect to be stuffed with gay jokes, it seems like heteroflexibility is the new homophobia.
This trend first started to pick up steam last summer, with a pair of indie comedies starring mainstream leading men whose stated sexual orientation wasn’t going to get in the way of a little experimenting. In Patrick Brice’s The Overnight, Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman are both married to women, but after a rambunctious, confidence-building night, one comes on to the other, and the serene make-out that follows is presented as both sweet and empowering. Things go a step further in The D Train, where nebbishy Jack Black reconnects with his high-school idol James Marsden during a business trip. After a wild night out on the town together, Marsden screws Black, but this surprise development isn’t just a pit stop on the way to a traditional coming-out plotline: Black’s character is a straight family man who’d rather not reprise his one-night-only walk on the same-sex side, yet still feels all sorts of complicated feelings arising from it, including an intense surge of self-esteem that the hottest jock in his high school found him sexually desirable. The fact that he got drilled actually makes him a more confident, empathetic straight guy in the end.
Even studio comedies, formerly the last bastion of gay-baiting humor, have been getting in on the act. In The Night Before, released last December, Seth Rogen is a happily married man who goes on one last bender with his friends, during which he accidentally trades phones with a woman played by Mindy Kaling. Rogen is too stoned to realize the mix-up, so when Kaling’s phone starts blowing up with dick pics from an unknown male caller, Rogen thinks, in his drugged-up haze, they’re actually meant for him. What’s more, he’s kind of intrigued by the sexual braggadocio of this sexting partner, and increasingly eager to entertain the notion that the two of them could get together. That this subplot leads to a cameo from James Franco — the most heteroflexible movie star in Hollywood right now — is the inevitable icing on the cake, but it’s Rogen’s casual consideration of a man-on-man hookup that proves to be the the film’s full-circle moment. Ten years ago, in The 40-Year-Old Virgin’s most famous scene, Rogen and Paul Rudd claimed that merely liking Coldplay meant that a man was gay, but now one crazy, sexual night with another man isn’t necessarily out of bounds for Rogen, and it’s no cause for gay panic — or even gay self-identification.
Comedies have been inching this way for a while now — think of the extended kiss between Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen that closes Talladega Nights, or the they’re-really-going-there sex scene between Bradley Cooper and Michael Ian Black in Wet Hot American Summer — but Deadpool’s ease with being perceived as something more than straight still feels like a watershed moment. (He’s not the only movie lead this week to flirt with heteroflexibility either: Zoolander 2’s Owen Wilson is willing to hook up with just about anyone, including Kiefer Sutherland, without putting too fine a point on his sexuality.)
The least charitable read on this trend is that it’s a way for movies to have their cake and eat it, too: These films are still relying on the gay jokes that have provided a lazy punch line since time immemorial, but in a more advanced, politically correct era, the humor now comes from how far the actors are willing to take it without flinching. It’s gay chicken, a way to subvert your comic expectations by fully committing to what used to be taboo.
But that’s progress, at least. A movie like Deadpool or The D Train may be mining “can you believe we’re showing you this” shock value for laughs, but the simple act of showing that heteroflexibility is important, and even inadvertently inclusive. The genius part of that Wet Hot American Summer subplot isn’t just that they made the (surprisingly hot) Cooper/Black hookup so full-fledged that you let out a laugh, it’s that afterwards — when you keep expecting the characters or the film itself to condemn these two gay lovebirds — those expectations are continually subverted. Even the bro-iest guys at the summer camp, who aggressively call out Black and Cooper after learning of their relationship, aren’t actually put off by it: Instead of their callout serving as the prelude to a homophobic prank, they just wanted to get everyone’s attention before they give their gay friends a well-considered wedding gift.
That’s one kind of joke for straight audience, and it's in line with the film’s subversive sense of humor, but it’s a joke that hits home in a whole other way for gay men in the audience who are used to steeling themselves for the worst while watching a big-screen comedy. There still remain some last vestiges of homophobic cringe humor out there to keep a gay guy on guard — watch a Michael Bay movie, or Will Ferrell’s recent misbegotten Get Hard, if you must — but fortunately, those movies already feel musty, like they’re part of a bygone comic era. In new-school comedies like Deadpool, straight characters are unbothered by the traditional signifiers of gay panic, and maybe they're even a little willing to poke the boundaries of their sexuality. I’d still prefer full-fledged gay characters over occasional flashes of gay humor, but for once, it’s nice to feel in on the joke rather than the butt of it. And while I’ve got no doubt that Deadpool would seize on that sentence-closing double entendre, at least I’d be willing to trust him with its comic potential.