Guy Ritchie’s 2015 retro spy flick The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a fantastic and fundamentally bisexual movie, and I will die on this hill.
As a bisexual cinephile, I find mindself queering most films I watch. Unless and until I’m told otherwise, all movie characters are bi. Still, some movies stand apart. Not because they explicitly embrace queerness, but because they feel queer on some deeper level. They exhibit queer themes, queer aesthetics, queer politics. They lend themselves to queering by the audience—the Babadook didn’t become a gay icon by declaring his love for a man or wearing a rainbow hat. It’s in the subtext, people!
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is one such queerable film. A remake of the 1964 series of the same name (which itself didn’t exactly scream ‘straight’), the film exudes bisexual energy at every turn, both narratively and in the chemistry, between not only its three protagonists but virtually everyone they come into contact with.
To be abundantly clear, I know the characters weren’t written bi. I know there’s nothing explicit in the film. Don’t @ me with some interview quote or leaked production notes, because that’s not the point. I couldn’t care less what the people who worked on the movie intended. Like any good parent, their job is now to support their beautiful queer baby.
U.N.C.L.E. opens in 1963. Suave CIA agent Napoleon Solo (a dapper Henry Cavill effortlessly channelling James Bond) is on an extraction mission in East Berlin. He’s looking for fast-talking car mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose former Nazi scientist father may be helping a group of international terrorists build a nuclear weapon. Hot on their tail is no-nonsense KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin, played by tall, broody, square-jawed Armie Hammer. Soon the two spies are tasked with working together to find and stop Teller, with Gaby along for the ride and more or less on their side.
The plot doesn’t really matter though. The pleasures of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.—and there are many—come down to the quick repartee, charming flirtation, gorgeous mise-en-scène, and constant turning of tables, where any back can be stabbed by anyone at any time.
The actors deserve a lot of credit for how bisexual this whole endeavor is. The three protagonists bicker to no end, and while Ilya and Gaby’s playful fighting (sometimes literal wrestling) does explicitly lead to and connote romance, Ilya and Solo exhibit an almost identical tension (wrestling included) that seems hardly limited to the bromance the filmmakers might have intended. Solo and Ilya are jealous of each other’s love interests when they’re not comparing gear and bugging each other’s rooms (the double entendres are hard to keep up with). Add in the overt flirtation between Solo and Gaby when they have their own meet cute, and you have a rather perfect love triangle between the three.
The villains get in on the action too, each as universally flirtatious as the next. Femme fatale Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), while attracted to Solo, vamps it up for everyone else too, including maids and servers. Sometimes the inclusive attraction is played less positively, as when Gaby’s evil uncle Rudi is palpably aroused at the chance to torture Solo (after Victoria is called away and left unable to “finish him off”). Hey, we can’t all be good guys.
In hindsight, casting doesn’t hurt either. U.N.C.L.E. stars queer ally Armie Hammer. Hammer played down his onscreen kiss with Leonardo DiCaprio in 2011‘s J. Edgar as a normal part of acting, and was visibly and physically affectionate with his co-star Tomothée Chalamet during promotion of their queer coming of age hit Call Me By Your Name in 2017. Accusations of self-satisfied queer-baiting are not unreasonable, but for what it’s worth, Hammer’s enthusiastic allyship has always come off as entirely sincere to me.
Beyond Hammer, the entire cast is just absurdly good looking to the point of distraction. It’s not just that any pairing could work, it’s that they all seem so darn appealing—I can only assume the film itself left more than a few impressionable viewers with questions about their own chaotic scattershot of attractions.
I’m not alone in my thinking. I’ve found ample common ground when bringing this film up with bisexual friends. The world of fan fiction, well known for queering pop culture, has also embraced U.N.C.L.E. As I write this, popular fan fic database Archive of Our Own lists 2,702 works of Man From U.N.C.L.E. fic. For comparison’s sake, 2013’s Man of Steel has just 543 entries, and the whole Die Hard franchise has 623.
Even a handful of film critics could see, if not the full bisexual potential of U.N.C.L.E., at least some hints of homoeroticism. None really followed the queer breadcrumbs all the way to any satisfying conclusions though.
In one particularly dismissive review from Wired, Daniel Smith suggests that any homoeroticism applied after the fact should be disregarded. The question “are they gay?” Is irrelevant. Instead, men—straight men, presumably—should be inspired to emulate the warm camaraderie of Solo and Ilya as some kind of model for healthier masculinity, says Smith.
What a cop out, and what a heteronormative view of male bonding. Healthier masculinity is a noble pursuit, no doubt, but why should it come at the expense of attraction between men? Non-straight men aren’t magically exempt from toxic masculinity, and our experiences shouldn’t be passed over in the name of educating straight dudes.
But there’s more to it than that. The dismissal of the hints of attraction between Solo and Ilya (who also both display attraction to many women) leads critics to pass over U.N.C.L.E.’s fundamentally bisexual—rather than gay—themes.
The whole premise is one big Kinseyian metaphor. Alfred Kinsey famously established the concept of the Kinsey scale, whereby human sexuality exists on a spectrum. Your sexual orientation can be measured from zero (exclusively heterosexual) to six (exclusively homosexual). It’s a relatively blunt instrument for measuring sexual attraction, but it gets at the basic notion that sexual attraction exists on a spectrum rather than being binary.
Our two Greek God-inspired super spies similarly find themselves somewhere between two polar extremes when they decide to collaborate for the greater good (the expression “playing for both teams” comes to mind).
The basic Cold War tension between East and West is extremely binary in nature. The film’s opening credits graphically illustrate this by drawing straight, hard lines on animated maps between East- and West-Berlin. But the entire narrative undoes this division by bringing the CIA and KGB together in a murky space somewhere in between American and Soviet politics.
In one early scene, we see Solo ziplining across the border between East- and West-Berlin. When Ilya attempts to follow, Solo lowers the wire, and the Soviet spy is caught right in the middle of the two extremities. It’s a beautiful bit of imagery that sums up my entire argument. This is a film so conspicuously invested in exploring the middle ground of things that it thematically lays the groundwork for queering its characters.
One can only hope that a more overtly queer sequel might one day grace our theatre screens. Or a more explicitly queer sequel. Solo and Ilya are paired up by their superiors as they tussle in a men’s room, for God’s sake. The messaging is clear, just not stated in so many words.
Rumours of a sequel have circulated for years, but unfortunately U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, despite how incredibly fun the damn thing is. One potential explanation for its failure is that 2015 was a pretty crowded year for 60s spy nostalgia, and it had to compete with the latest entries in the more well-established Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises.
Nevertheless, Hammer has pointed to the film as one of the roles he’s most often asked about by fans, and he once even suggested he’d talked screenwriter Lionel Wigram into starting on a sequel. I’m still skeptical, as nothing definitive has been announced yet.
For now, I’ll hold on to what we have and cherish The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as a resounding bisexual anthem. Anyone who refuses see it as such is frankly missing out on some of the film’s most rewarding features.
In short, it’s ours and we’re keeping it.
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