If you’re queer and love a romantic onscreen moment set to a perfectly selected needle-drop, 2022 was the year for you.
In June it came in the form of MUNA’s joyous cover of Britney Spears’s “Sometimes” over the final expression of love in Joel Kim Booster’s Fire Island. In September, Billy Eichner’s Bros gave us Eichner himself singing the original track “Love Is Not Love” to win over his chocolatier boo. And find me a more sob-worthy moment than Sapphic sad-girlie queen Julien Baker’s “Sprained Ankle” accompanying one of the more tear-jerking montages in Jim Parsons’s December sort-of-holiday-movie, Spoiler Alert.
I lead with these needle-drops, because they’re a key part of any good romantic comedy, and something all three of these films—despite their varied differences in many other aspects—share. The other shared thread between these three releases, of course, is their subject matter. That’s because in 2022, for arguably the first time, we got three BIG gay rom-coms in major release. And that history is worth looking a little closer at as we wrap up the year and look ahead to the future of the rom-com genre for queer and trans folks.
I covered all three films for Xtra, and it was fascinating to see them—and how they have been received—in conversation over the past year. It’s pertinent to look not only as their pitch-perfect rom-com use of tunes, but also to look back at what they can teach us about Hollywood’s relationship to the gay rom-com—if there even is such a thing.
Bros and Spoiler Alert both had theatrical releases, while Fire Island dropped on Hulu. All received plenty of media attention, and all three also featured big-ticket cast members—Eichner, Harvey Fierstein and Guy Branum (Bros); Parsons and Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski (Spoiler Alert); and Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang and Margaret Cho (Fire Island). Until now, it’s been a rare year that we got one film like that, let alone three.
Sure, there have been other queer rom-coms: 2020’s Happiest Season with Kristen Stewart, heralded as one of the first wide releases for a queer holiday movie, springs to mind, as does fellow holiday fare Single All the Way, the 2018 teen flick Love, Simon and Alice Wu’s iconic 2004 film, Saving Face. But the list is short before we start hitting more and more indie fare with lower and lower budgets.
But an old fashioned gay rom-com with draw-audiences-in stars, cheesy dialogue and enough budget for those emotional needle-drops? The queers historically haven’t had a lot of those until now. And while that bodes well for the future, there are lessons to take away from these three films’ success (or lack thereof).
That history was obviously on the minds of at least the team behind Bros, which leaned heavily into its status as the fire gay rom-com in theatrical release from a major Hollywood studio, bludgeoning prospective audiences over the head with an estimated $30-40 million in marketing from Universal. But the film flopped, taking in less than $15 million compared to its $22 million budget.
Bros flopped for various reasons, but this chief among them: not only was its target queer audience fresh off the effervescent Fire Island, but they didn’t want to be talked down to or told the pioneering films that came before didn’t matter. Coupled with marketing emphasizing the “straight” appeal of the film, such as the involvement of producer Judd Apatow, and the result was a promotional cycle that didn’t really please anyone.
This was the baggage behind all of the aggressive promotions for Bros: gays, we got in the door to make this so you better watch this movie and support it if you want more. But the resulting film was messy and trying to please everyone—overly explaining queer culture for straight folks to the detriment of the queers it was trying to suck in. It suffered from assigning itself that standard-bearer role.
Contrast that with December’s Spoiler Alert, a much smaller film I watched again this weekend with my partner and her mom for our holiday visit (seriously, it’s the perfect film for that exact scenario). The gayness of this one took a back seat to its tear-jerker status, and some of the film’s best jokes and commentary about being queer (like a very funny scene of one character “de-gaying” another’s apartment) felt very intentionally left out of the trailer. The film has ended up outperforming expectations in its first few weeks of release, but those expectations were, to be frank, realistically small. The film had a limited theatrical release, and marketers likely understood that running up against Avatar: The Way of Water was destined for a losing battle. It’s a small, personal film that got a small, personal release: it didn’t promise to change the world like Bros did, and frankly, it didn’t change the world. But in my review, I wrote about how I felt like it’s the sort of queer movie we’ll hopefully get more of: a story about people who happen to be queer.
If Spoiler Alert was a story that just happened to be queer, Fire Island was a capital-Q Queer story, and largely seen as a breakout surprise upon its Hulu release. Joel Kim Booster, and his gay party twist on Pride and Prejudice, is the new kid on the block compared to industry stalwarts Parsons and Eichner. And the film reflects that, bringing in a wave of the rising queer talent in Hollywood—Booster, Yang, Matt Rogers, Tomás Matos, Zane Phillips—alongside a legendary icon like Cho. But this, with its hyper-specific gay references, party drugs and investigation into the interpersonal dynamics of queer men, is not necessarily a film to bring my mother-in-law to watch. And that’s okay! It succeeds in a different way, and will springboard Booster and that roster of young stars to further make their mark in the industry, telling queer stories—just look to the cast winning the ensemble special award at the Gotham Awards. And not for nothing, the film’s racially diverse cast and crew also served to represent actual queer communities, rather than an aggressively white image of them.
And let’s be clear: to a certain extent, this is comparing apples to oranges to bananas. In the straight world, no critic would really spend this much time putting Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Mean Girls and The Big Sick together in conversation. But, while so much progress has been made in LGBTQ2S+ representation on the silver screen, we are unfortunately still in a place where three gay rom-coms (that feature conventionally attractive cis men) signal a huge win, and as a result are essentially standard-bearers for future mainstream queer and trans film success.
The fact that we got three new explicitly queer films in major release—whatever your stance on their quality—in one year alone should bode well for the future of the genre. Hopefully we get even more in 2023 and beyond (and please, get me some lesbian, bi, trans and more folks falling in love too!). But there are lessons that audiences and the industry likely took away from this unprecedented year that will inform the future of queer mainstream cinema.
Part of me really hopes that subsequent gay rom-coms of all kinds get the room to breathe and simply exist in ways Bros did not, because of the burden put upon it of being “the first.” I hope we get a string of bring-your-mom-to films like Spoiler Alert that integrate queer characters and stories in organic and realistic ways. And I hope that the success of Fire Island spurs studios to take chances on young creatives with exciting and innovative ideas for the future of queer and trans folks in film. Because of these three films in 2022, that hope actually feels realistic.
To quote “Sometimes,” that truly iconic needle-drop in Fire Island: “Baby, all we need is time.”