We everyone loves a mystery. That’s the central thrill of a whodunnit, after all. Tell the audience there’s been a murder, trap a group of erratic archetypes in a room, and just keep pulling strings until the whole thing unravels. It’s an old-fashioned genre that has undergone something of an unlikely comeback in recent years, with Rian Johnson’s slick, amusing 2019 puzzle. Knives out sitting between efforts like Murder on the Orient Express, Moor twist and Watch them run at the height of the whodunnaissance. But Johnson knows that when it comes to some things — like the sexual identity of your lead character in a buzzy new movie franchise — mystery just won’t cut it.
Knives out sees Daniel Craig play Benoit Blanc, a handsome Southern private eye brought in to solve the murder of a wealthy crime novelist. Through a long tradition of preternatural screen detectives, from Sherlock to Columbo, Blanc (in part through Craig’s deliciously ludicrous characterization) nevertheless managed to establish himself as a breakout character and a worthy original creation. This week, Blanc returns Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, a standalone sequel that pits the character against a whole new set of eccentric maybe-killers. In the film, Blanc is shown living with another man (played in a cameo by a very famous movie star). Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, was asked at a press conference before the film’s festival premiere last month if the character was queer. “Yes, of course he is,” came the response.
Now, on its surface, this proclamation seems like another iteration of the empty and performative “representation” trend found in major media franchises. (It’s often referred to as “queerbaiting”.) You see it happen time and time again: a filmmaker, or actor, will declare this or that popular character to be canonically queer, while refusing to make it explicit 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 so far amounted to a single line of dialogue thrown out. Even lesser-known films tried to get in on the fray: does anyone remember the embarrassing attempts to frolic Jack Whitehall’s sleazy gay sidekick in Disney’s Jungle Cruise? It’s a veritable epidemic in the mainstream film industry: studios desperate for the praise of progressivism (and the money that flows from it) but unwilling to really take a risk on queer-centric stories. So it is Glass onion really that different?
Well, it might not be. It’s true that the film makes no effort to express Blanc’s sexuality; his partner could easily have been written off as just a roommate. Like everyone else, this person calls him “Blanc” – a joke, but also, to a cynical eye, a sly obfuscation. Blanc’s quirkiness is there on screen to some degree, though: in the way he dresses (especially in this balmy Greek island sequel) and in the tenor of some of his interpersonal dynamics. Glass onion may seemingly seem like just another entry from the Hollywood queerbaiting playbook, but there is, I would argue, something different about Blanc. He reads as weird in a way that, say, Deadpool doesn’t.
Perhaps that distinguishes him from the empty-gesturing queer characters in films like Dead pool or Thor: Love and Thunder is simply the fact that he is well written. Blanc is a clear and thoughtfully constructed character; despite the intent 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 being supposedly alien is that they don’t feel like people at all. It’s not that they appear straight, per se, but that they’re entirely devoid of sexuality: they’re silly quip delivery machines wrapped in alienating computer graphics. If all I watch is a man shooting lasers into falling debris while muttering, “so that just happened”, I honestly couldn’t care less what their sexual preference is.
There is a sense that in Benoit Blanc we are seeing the emergence 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 an entire corporate religion – Knives out was a rarity as an entirely original commercial hit. When the news came in that Netflix was spending $450 million on two sequels, it could be seen as a capitulation to the modern “bleed-’em-dry” franchise ethos. Instead, it was welcomed as a blessing: Johnson and Craig got a good deal, and who knows where it could lead?
Blanc follows a long tradition of screen detectives, consisting of 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 pretty quickly dropped.) Blanc’s sexuality may be what sets him apart from the pack—not his only defining characteristic, but perhaps a define one.
Ultimately, queer representation is held back by a number of stubborn realities of the modern film industry—not the least of which is a regressive prudishness when it comes to sex in general. A lightless whodunnit is certainly not going to change that. But who knows? Maybe 30 years from now, Benoit Blanc will be a household name. For now, at least, we’ll make do with what we get—a heartening suggestion that straightness in mainstream fiction doesn’t have to feel like the standard anymore.
‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ is in cinemas until November 29, before appearing on Netflix on December 23