Weveryone loves a mystery. That, after all, is the central thrill of being a whore. Tell the audience there’s been a murder, trap a group of shapeshifting archetypes in a room, and just pull the strings until the whole thing unravels. It’s an old-fashioned genre that’s made something of an unlikely comeback in the last few years, with Rian Johnson’s neat and fun puzzler for 2019. Knives Out sits between efforts as Murder on the Orient Express, A murder mystery and Look how they run on the ridge of horror. But Johnson knows that when it comes to some things — like the sexual identity of your lead character in a buzzy new movie — mystery just doesn’t cut it.
Knives Out saw Daniel Craig play Benoit Blanc, an attractive Southern private detective called in to solve the murder of a wealthy crime novelist. With a long tradition of supernatural detectives on screen, from Sherlock to Columbo, Blanc (thanks in part to Craig’s pleasantly ludicrous characterization) still managed to establish himself as a breakthrough character and a worthy original creation. This week, Blanc will be back The Glass Onion: The Mystery of the Knives, the standalone sequel pits the character against a whole new set of eccentric would-be assassins. In the film, Blanc is shown living with another man (played in a cameo by a very famous movie star). At a press conference before the film’s festival premiere last month, Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, was asked if the character was queer. “Yes, it obviously is,” was the reply.
Now, on the surface, this proclamation looks like another iteration of the empty and performative “representational” trend that is prevalent in major media franchises. (It’s often called “queerbaiting.”) You see it happen time and time again: a filmmaker or actor declares this or that popular character to be canonically queer, while refusing to explicitly say so in the work itself. Think Donald Glover’s “pansexual” Lando Calrissian Solo: A Star Wars Story. Ryan Reynolds’ “Pansexual” Deadpool. Marvel’s Loki, whose much-vaunted on-screen bisexuality has been the only throwaway dialogue so far. Even lesser-known films tried to get in on the hustle: does anyone remember the awkward attempts to beat up Jack Whitehall’s stupid gay sidekick in the Disney movie? Jungle cruise? It’s a veritable epidemic in the mainstream film industry: studios are desperate for the accolades of progressivism (and the money that comes with it), but they’re unwilling to actually take chances with weird stories. So it is Glass onion really that different?
Well, maybe not. It’s true that the film doesn’t try to explicitly highlight Blanco’s sexuality; his partner could easily be written off as a roommate. Like everyone else, this person calls him “Blanc” – a joke, but also a sly confusion to the cynical eye. However, Blanco’s weirdness is somewhat present on screen: in the way he dresses (especially in this tepid sequel set on a Greek island) and in the tenor of some of his interpersonal dynamics. Glass onion may seem like another entry in the Hollywood queerbaiting playbook, but I’d say there’s something different about Blanco. It reads as weird in a way that, say, Deadpool doesn’t.
Perhaps what sets him apart from the empty gestures of queer characters in films like Deadpool or Thor: Love and Thunder it’s just the fact that it’s well written. Blanc is a distinctive and thoughtfully constructed figure; despite the fabrications Glass onion‘s plot, you always have a clear sense of Blanc’s personality, his values. The problem with, say, Deadpool or Lando Calrissian being supposedly queer is that they don’t feel human at all. It’s not that they look like it, it’s that they’re completely devoid of sexuality: they’re dumb joke-delivery machines wrapped in alienating computer graphics. If all I’m watching is a man shooting lasers at falling debris while muttering, “So that it just happened’, I didn’t care what their sexual preferences were, honestly.
There is a sense that in Benoit Blanc we are witnessing the rise of an original film character with real lasting potential. In an industry oversaturated with franchises and adaptations—where “existing IP” is not just a buzzword but an entire corporate religion— Knives Out was a rarity as a completely original commercial hit. When the news came that Netflix was spending $450 million on two sequels, it could have been seen as a capitulation to the franchise’s modern “bleed-’em-dry” ethos. Instead, it was hailed as a blessing: Johnson and Craig hit on a good thing, and who knows where it could lead?
Blanc follows a long tradition of film detectives that includes a number of the most popular and enduring characters in fiction: characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Columbo. They are all equal, of course. (In 2015, Benedict Cumberbatch hinted that his version of Sherlock might actually be gay, though that idea was pretty quickly abandoned.) Blanco’s sexuality may be what sets him apart from the pack—it’s not his only defining trait, but perhaps AND defining one.
Queer representation is ultimately held back by a number of stubborn realities of the modern film industry—not least a regressive prudery about sex in general. A reckless detective certainly won’t change that. But who knows? Maybe in 30 years Benoit Blanc will be a household name. For now, we’ll make do with what we have—the encouraging suggestion that straightforwardness in mainstream fiction may no longer be the norm.
‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ is in theaters until November 29 before arriving on Netflix on December 23