TV's Radical, Bisexual Comic-Book Antihero

Characters who are attracted to both men and women are rare enough in pop culture. But DC’s Legends of Tomorrow has done something unique with John Constantine.

Nick Zano as Nate Heywood/Steel and Matt Ryan as Constantine
The CW

The superhero genre has long been a natural place for fantastical explorations of identity. So it’s no surprise that many comic-book shows of late—Black Lightning, Supergirl, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Legion—have garnered praise for investigating the nuances of identity in all its forms, including through the lens of race, gender, and ability. Last month, the CW series DC’s Legends of Tomorrow entered new territory with the episode “Daddy Darhkest.” The hour revolved around the guest appearance of John Constantine (played by Matt Ryan), a mystically empowered, chain-smoking, trench coat–wearing warlock—who is also bisexual.

For the show to openly explore his attraction to both men and women onscreen was a big deal given how the character had previously been portrayed. Constantine’s bisexuality was first alluded to in John Smith’s 1992 issue Hellblazer: Counting to Ten and then touched on periodically in subsequent comics. But other adaptations—including the 2005 Hollywood film Constantine and the short-lived NBC television series by the same name (starring Ryan)—either erased or ignored the character’s sexual history. Fans who were frustrated by this consistent “straight-washing” may have felt some relief when the Legends executive producer Phil Klemmer promised his show wouldn’t repeat this mistake.

And indeed it doesn’t. The plot of “Daddy Darhkest” revolves around Constantine seeking the help of the Legends, the show’s eponymous group of superheroes, to battle a demon named Mallus, who has possessed a young woman. But the episode also carves out space in the plot to organically bring to the fore Constantine’s bisexuality, deepening the audience’s understanding of his character and those around him.

“Daddy Darhkest”—as well as a follow-up episode featuring Constantine, airing Monday—comes at a time when television is seeing a surge of complex bisexual representation, as Kathryn VanArendonk wrote recently for Vulture. But the Legends episode goes, to my mind, beyond any previous pop-cultural representation of a sexually fluid male superhero, specifically. “Daddy Darhkest” notably portrays bisexuality as an expansive form of desire, rather than as a rigidly defined identity—and it’s a notion that runs counter to the mythology of authentic selfhood that has long dominated superhero stories.

Read enough superhero comics or watch enough Marvel and DC movies, and you’ll notice that bold proclamations of identity are everywhere.

“My name is Wally West. I’m The Flash. The fastest man alive.”
“I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman.”
“Who am I? I’m Spider-Man.”
“I am the Immortal Iron Fist.”
“I am Iron Man.”

These declarations often follow a swift process of self-discovery. After mastering his powers and pledging to protect the common good, the hero can confidently and unambiguously present himself to the world: This is my name. This is my costume. I know who I am. Of course, the genre as a whole regularly challenges the notion of a fixed identity (just think of all the metamorphosing mutants). But this trope of heroic self-revelation is alluring because it romanticizes the idea of an authentic, clearly defined, hidden self. It is, in a way, a coming-out metaphor—one that suggests a hero’s ultimate goal should be to uncover and better understand who he or she really is.

This narrative leaves little room for ambiguity, a fact that’s especially clear when it comes to sexuality. Fans of comic-book stories have seen first-hand how, for a traditional superhero to know who he truly is, he must also know who he is sexually. And the heroic self that “comes out” is nearly always monogamous and monosexual: someone who has eyes for only one gender and one person. A hero who must, in short, choose.

Consider the romantic (and still mainly heterosexual) motives, plots, and displays of intimacy at the core of many on-screen superhero origin stories: Spider-Man’s web-slinger identity is sealed with a kiss from Mary Jane. A romantic embrace with Lois Lane in midair confirms that Superman can fly. Making out with Elektra Natchios in the rain demonstrates Daredevil’s extrasensory abilities. In moments such as these, the love plot not only crystallizes a hero’s straightness, but also reassures the audience that there’s no ambiguity in his desires.

While this narrative tendency isn’t gender-specific, bi male superheroes are more rare to see than bi female ones. (Lists of queer superheroes indicate that women in comics are represented as bisexual more frequently.) This is likely due in part to the fraught idea that women are naturally less sexually binary than men, and the fact that comics still cater largely to the interests of straight men, who might find sexually fluid women appealing but fluid men threatening. Beyond Gail Simone’s Catman, Prodigy from the Young Avengers, and (if we take him seriously) Deadpool, it’s hard to come up with examples of bisexual men in the superhero world.

And then, of course, there’s Legends of Tomorrow’s Constantine.

From the moment he steps foot on the Legends’ time-travel ship known as the Waverider in “Daddy Darhkest,” the warlock sweet-talks both men and women of different backgrounds, sexual preferences, and, yes, relationship statuses. When he first introduces himself, Constantine hits on both Leonard “Leo” Snart, a gay hero from another Earth, and Vixen, a woman from the past who can harness the spirits of animals. Constantine also has eyes for the team’s leader, Sara Lance, a.k.a. the White Canary, a bisexual assassin whose romantic history includes, across multiple timelines, a variety of men and women.

To reinforce Constantine’s sexual fluidity, Legends engages in a playful subtext. Throughout the episode Constantine alternately asks Lance and Snart to light his cigarette—calling to mind the old Hollywood trick of using shared cigarettes as an indirect way of suggesting physical intimacy. The message: Man or woman, past or present, this Earth or another, bisexual, gay, or straight—anyone can get Constantine fired up.

Some viewers might worry that depicting Constantine’s attraction as wide-ranging and unpredictable risks reproducing a couple of stereotypes: There’s the promiscuous bisexual, who wants to have it all, and the confused bisexual, who doesn’t know what he wants yet. But it’s precisely Legends’s reluctance to foreclose on the ambiguity of Constantine’s desire that I, and many other viewers, find bold and exciting. This decision allows the show to navigate some of the trickier aspects of bisexual representation. Because of a common assumption that the gender of someone’s love interest determines that person’s sexuality, viewers can often read characters as either straight or gay only. As the author Maria San Filippo writes in The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, “At any given moment a bisexual person or film character might appear heterosexual or homosexual depending on his or her present object choice.”

By showing Constantine as shifting between men and women, Legends actively pushes against the inclination to read him as either straight or gay. This strategy, which leaves his ambiguity intact, is reinforced by the classic trope of the “bisexual love triangle” that Constantine forms with Sara Lance and Leo Snart. At one point in the episode, Constantine stands between Lance and Snart, as the three attempt to bind magically and exorcise Mallus from the young woman he possesses. By placing Constantine in the center of this configuration—next to a gay man and bisexual woman—the show emphasizes the warlock’s simultaneous expression of same-sex and opposite-sex desire. In short, he isn’t forced to choose.

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Legends of Tomorrow’s warlock is a meaningful addition to queer representation on TV in general, even beyond the superhero genre. A GLAAD report on the 2017–2018 TV season found that bisexual characters make up 28 percent of all LGBT characters onscreen—but 75 of those characters were women and just 18 were men. And when such men do appear on TV, they often uphold worn stereotypes of bisexuals as unhinged or reckless, like Game of Thrones’s Oberyn Martell and House of Cards’s Frank Underwood.

But the lack of bisexual men in the world of superheroes is a peculiarity because, unlike some other TV genres, there’s a significant precedent for the queerness of caped crusaders. Superheroes have, in some sense, always been nonbinary. As the scholar Ramzi Fawaz argues in his book The New Mutants, after World War II, superheroes shifted away from their early roles as provincial do-gooders, as emblems of hypermasculinity committed to serving the nation. Shaped by the rise of counterculture liberalism and the atomic age’s redefinition of human biology, superheroes in the early ’60s started to move toward less mainstream understandings of body and identity.

In contrast to nationalist icons like Captain America, postwar heroes such as the Fantastic Four were grotesque and unstable. Their bodies refused to conform to gender and sexual norms. The hero evolved into what Fawaz calls the “new mutant”: someone who’s an outsider to traditional understandings of gender, sexuality, and race. These characters expanded the definition of what counted as human and also served as metaphors for queerness. The queer evolution of the superhero is at the root of the contemporary push by writers and fans for greater LGBT diversity in the genre, and for the reimagining of originally straight characters as gay.

But even as the genre grows more inclusive, it also continues to overlook its own historical emphasis on fluidity, at least in terms of representing sexuality. This all goes back to that rigid “I” that sits at the heart of heroic identity. As long as superhero tales romanticize simplistic narratives of self-knowledge and expression—the cultural mandate to choose who one is, and whom one loves—the genre will continue to resist bisexual desire.

Fortunately, for now, there’s Constantine. The question remains how the Legends writers will move forward with a character whose popularity seems to be resurging as of late. This month, David S. Goyer, the writer and co-creator of the short-lived NBC series Constantine, will revive the warlock in an animated CW web series (debuting March 24). Since the series will be a continuation of the NBC show, and Goyer stirred up controversy in 2014 by disavowing Constantine’s bisexuality, there’s a chance the character’s orientation will again be rendered invisible—or reduced to a stereotype.

However, in light of the CW’s recent efforts, there’s also reason to be hopeful. At the end of “Daddy Darhkest,” Constantine, defying the myth that bisexual men are just men who have yet to realize they are gay, hooks up with Sara Lance. (The steamy moment is the “hot sex” that Klemmer promised before the episode aired.) Still, the significance of the scene will depend on how Legends of Tomorrow’s writers will treat Constantine’s sexuality going forward, when he returns to the show in Monday’s episode, “Necromancing the Stone.” Will his hookup with Lance lock him into a straight narrative? Will it be balanced with a moment of same-sex intimacy that adds to the ambiguity of the character? Will Constantine continue to go both ways? Or, will he have to choose?