Last Wednesday night, I attended the most recent production of VStheUNIVERSE at Stage 773 in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, just a few blocks away from long-standing queer-friendly dance club Berlin. Tickets had sold out twice in anticipation, and the lobby was bustling with people sporting buttons of their favorite Marvel characters, Stark Industries jackets, and Spider-Gwen hoodies. The bartender was dressed as Jessica Jones and offering whiskey as the soup of the day. We were eventually ushered into a small theatrical space with a raised platform for a stage on which a pair of comfortable armchairs had been placed beneath a blank wall that doubled as a projection screen. The mood was friendly, engaging, and light.
Hosted by Aaron J. Amendola, a “more attractive, less famous Chris Hardwick” in his words, it was a geeky, Marvel-themed variety show that included songs, interviews, videos, slideshows, and a game of “Who Said It? Donald Trump or Dr. Doom” that proved more difficult than one would expect. If the audience’s enthusiasm ever threatened to wane, Amendola knew to get it back by announcing that Captain America: Civil War would be coming out soon. That drew cheers every time.
The queer-friendly content peaked early, starting with a slideshow presentation entitled, “It’s Shippin’ Time.” Beginning with the definition of the verb shipping from Urban Dictionary—a far more reliable resource for this purpose than Merriam-Webster—Amendola provided a run-down of some of fandom’s favorite hypothetical relationships in the MCU.
First came “Clintasha,” the name for Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Natasha Romanova (Black Widow). This was the only heterosexual couple presented and also the one with the most hostile reception from the audience. I’m pretty sure I heard someone call out, “He’s married!” and another person reference their failed chemistry in The Avengers, but I think it had as much to do with the fact that we’ve already seen this pairing (and dozens more just like it).
Next up was “Black Pepper,” or Black Widow and Pepper Potts, a pairing I will admit I did not see coming. Amendola pointed out that they could also be referred to as “Red Pepper,” since “Black Widow is a ginger.”
The third pairing highlighted was “Freebird,” or Captain America and Falcon. This was probably my personal favorite, though I think that says more about me than the audience or the likelihood of it happening. They could also be known as “American Airlines,” per our gracious MC.
“Science Bros” was the name given to Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, which “feels so right.” Indeed, plenty of fans of both Avengers films have noted how well the two characters get along. It’s a natural pairing and they have plenty in common, first and foremost of course being “science.”
Finally, and to the delight of everyone, was “Stark Spangled Banner,” a name that needed some explaining but was no less satisfying for it. A three-way relationship between Tony Stark, Captain America, and Bruce Banner would have made Avengers: Age of Ultron much more tolerable in my opinion.
If there was one ‘ship that was conspicuous by its absence, that’s only because the next act was devoted to it entirely. Frequent collaborator Willie Opper from the group Clown Car to Sicily came onstage with what looked like aluminum foil wrapped around one arm, joined Amendola, and, with Aasim Choudry accompanying on guitar when not asking for sandwiches, they serenaded each other as Captain American and Bucky with “A Whole New Ship,” a reworking of Aladdin’s “A Whole New World.” While all extremely funny, these bits highlighted the lack of diversity and representation in the MCU. The punny names and histrionics were what made this speculation funny; most people in attendance would have accepted such a pairing and even seemed ready to encourage it. And everyone knows Steve and Bucky belong together.
What followed was a documentary-style video that gave Captain America: Civil War the Ken Burns’s Civil War treatment with a talking head interview and sepia-tinted clips from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Featuring a gay man talking about his honeymoon in Sokovia, it led up to the punchline of why he hates Iron Man so much. (In the interest of fairness to Iron Man supporters, the second half of the show featured a video with a straight man explaining why he hates Captain America so much.)
After a brief interview with DoomRocket founder Jarrod Jones, who discussed his inspirations, his website, and Batman V Superman, singer Matt Payne treated the audience to a soulful tribute to the Marvel Universe’s most underserved African priestess with “Strong Like Storm.” Then came the aforementioned timely edition of “Who Said It?” hosted by cast member Jessica Kent, and played by two audience members who had to determine the source of random quotes between “a megalomaniac supervillain and Dr. Doom.” There were some easy ones, if only because references to the Fantastic Four or “other candidates” made them easier to parse, though Kent shared this one with me, which I could not guess: “When someone crosses you, my advice is ‘Get Even!’” (It was Trump.)
There was a brief intermission at that point, after which was the second Civil War video and a slideshow from cast member Rachel Goffinet about Marvel cartoons. The penultimate guests were Caitlin Rosberg from The A.V. Club and Molly Jane Kremer of G-Mart under the title “How Do We Fix Marvel?” Answering questions from the audience that had been previously submitted via Facebook, they touched on the diversity problems that have plagued the MCU, hinted at in the opening sketches. Kremer admitted she despairs of female characters being added at the same rate as male characters. Rosberg expressed disappointment at squandered opportunities to represent disabilities, both physical and mental. The question “Why is the Ancient One [from Doctor Strange] a white female?” was met with a head shake and a shrug. It ended on a positive note, as both were asked to pick a side in Civil War. Rosberg chose “Team T’Challa” to make sure Black Panther could protect James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Sam Wilson from their respective boyfriends. Kremer chose “Team Black Widow.”
When the show was over, the crowd filed out while “Stop Talking About Comic Books (or I’ll Kill You)” by Ookla the Mok played. The bar was closed, but spirits were high.
Photos courtesy of Gavin Rehfeldt and Molly Jane Kremer, who was wearing a Captain Marvel dress designed by Dani Vulnavia for Super Suckers (currently on hiatus).