We all love a mystery. That’s the central thrill of a whodunnit, after all. Tell the audience there’s been a murder, trap a group of shifty archetypes in a room, and just keep pulling at threads until the whole thing unravels. It’s an old-fashioned genre that’s undergone something of an unlikely comeback in the past few years, with Rian Johnson’s slick, amusing 2019 puzzler Knives Out sitting among efforts like Murder on the Orient Express, Murder Mystery and See How They Run at the crest of the whodunnaissance. But Johnson knows that when it comes to some things – like the sexual identity of your main character in a buzzy new movie franchise – mystery simply won’t cut it.
Knives Out saw Daniel Craig play Benoit Blanc, a drawling southern private eye brought in to solve the murder of a wealthy crime novelist. Pastiching a long tradition of preternatural screen sleuths, from Sherlock to Columbo, Blanc (in part through Craig’s enjoyably ridiculous characterisation) nonetheless managed to establish himself as a breakout character and a worthy original creation. This week sees Blanc return in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a standalone sequel pitting the character against a whole new set of eccentric maybe-murderers. In the film, Blanc is shown to be living with another man (played in a cameo by a very famous movie star). At a press conference ahead of the film’s festival premiere last month, Johnson, who also wrote the script, was asked whether the character is queer. “Yes, he obviously is,” came the response.
Now, on the surface of it, this proclamation seems like yet another iteration of the empty and performative “representation” trend that is rife in big media franchises. (It is often referred to as “queerbaiting”.) You see it happen time and again: a filmmaker, or actor, will declare this or that popular character to be canonically queer, while refusing to make this explicit in the work itself. Think of Donald Glover’s “pansexual” Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Ryan Reynolds’s “pansexual” Deadpool. Marvel’s Loki, whose much-vaunted on-screen bisexuality has thus far amounted to a single tossed off line of dialogue. Even lesser-known films have tried to get in on the hustle: does anyone remember the embarrassing attempts to ballyhoo Jack Whitehall’s insipid gay sidekick in Disney’s Jungle Cruise? It’s a veritable epidemic in the mainstream film industry: studios desperate for the plaudits of progressivism (and the money that flows therefrom) but unwilling to actually take a risk with queer-centred stories. So is Glass Onion really that different?
Well, it might not be. It’s true that the film does not strain to explicitise Blanc’s sexuality; his partner could easily just have been written off as a roommate. Like everyone else, this person calls him “Blanc” – a joke, but also, to a cynical eye, a crafty obfuscation. Blanc’s queerness is, however, there on the screen to some extent: in the way he dresses (particularly in this balmy Greek island-set sequel) and in the tenor of some of his interpersonal dynamics. Glass Onion may ostensibly seem like just another entry from the Hollywood queerbaiting playbook, but there is, I’d argue, something different about Blanc. He reads as queer in a way that, say, Deadpool does not.
Perhaps what distinguishes him from the empty-gesture queer characters in films like Deadpool or Thor: Love and Thunder is simply the fact that he is well-written. Blanc is a distinct and thoughtfully constructed character; despite the contrivances of Glass Onion’s plot, you always have a clear sense of Blanc’s personality, his values. The problem with, say, Deadpool or Lando Calrissian supposedly being queer is that they don’t feel like people at all. It is not that they appear straight per se, but that they are devoid of sexuality entirely: they are inane quip delivery machines, swaddled in alienating computer graphics. If all I’m watching is a man shooting lasers into falling debris while muttering, “so that just happened”, I couldn’t care less what their sexual preference is, frankly.
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 absolutely saturated with franchises and adaptations – where “existing IP” is not just a buzzword but a whole corporate religion – Knives Out was a rarity as a completely original commercial hit. When the news came in that Netflix was spending $450m on two sequels, it could have been seen as a capitulation to the modern “bleed-’em-dry” franchise ethos. Instead, it was welcomed as a blessing: Johnson and Craig had struck on a good thing, and who knows where it might lead?
Blanc follows a long tradition of screen sleuths, comprising a number of the most beloved and enduring characters in fiction: figures such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Columbo. They are all straight, of course. (In 2015, Benedict Cumberbatch hinted that his version of Sherlock might in fact be gay, though this idea was fairly quickly abandoned.) Blanc’s sexuality may be what sets him apart from the pack – not his sole defining feature, but maybe a defining one.
Ultimately, queer representation is being held back by a number of stubborn realities of the modern film industry – not least a regressive prudishness when it comes to sex in general. A frivolous whodunnit certainly isn’t going to change anything about that. But who knows? Maybe 30 years from now, Benoit Blanc will be a household name. For now, at least, we make do with what we get – a heartening suggestion that straightness in mainstream fiction need no longer feel like the default.
‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ is in cinemas until 29 November, before arriving on Netflix on 23 December