Henry Cavill (left) and Armie Hammer in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

If you’ve ever enjoyed a show or a film with two handsome male leads and made the easy mistake of tumbling down the rabbit hole of the ensuing Tumblr fandom, you’re probably familiar with slash fiction. There’s long been a tradition of typically straight female pop culture fans reading homoerotic subtext into movies and series, extracting any sexual tension between the heartthrob protagonists and transposing the glut of innuendo, stolen glances, and longing dramatic pauses over to their own prose excursions.

For some, expanding the scraps left in the gutters by the filmmakers into stand alone romance stories is corrective, a way to account for a lack of representation of LGBTQ relationships in mainstream genre fiction. For others, such experimentation is more puerile, removing the nuance in fictive, interpersonal interactions on screen and reducing them to pornographic frameworks for their favorite film stars to act out their own personal fantasy lands. But for some reason, this phenomenon is generally associated with women, specifically.

For years, I’d always viewed the world of shipping with a leery eye, suspicious of the narrow viewpoint that any hint of masculine friendship in media could only be the tip of an explicitly sexual iceberg. There’s something limiting in assuming no two men could relate to one another in any way other than violent antagonism or subverted sexual hunger. But over time, realizing that my own many man crushes in the world of cinema might be more than passing fancy, that my own attraction to Oscar Isaac in Every Movie Ever might be more than the lesser-of-two-evils answer to a truth or dare desert island hypothetical, I began to view this world in a different light.

Bisexual men don’t exactly have a ton of representation on film, so by engaging this new revelation through the world of mainstream blockbuster cinema, there’s something freeing in identifying fan-fiction lore between IMAX sized paeons to summer movie masculinity. Here are three films rife with coded subtext that at this point may as well be actual text.

Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible 2”

“Mission Impossible II” (John Woo, 2002)

John Woo’s otherwise execrable “Mission Impossible” sequel remains the worst in the franchise for a number of reasons. Chief among them, the fact that it’s a barely hidden remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” with Woo’s signature bullet ballet surgically grafted onto the spy-fi intrigue. Mirroring the spy hero/damsel/Bond villain love triangle of the Hitch classic, “MI:II’s” core romance between Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Nyah (Thandie Newton) is bifurcated by the presence of rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), essentially a bargain bin Ethan.

But the real triangle is between Ethan, Ambrose, and Ambrose’s right hand man Hugh Stamp, played by “Moulin Rouge” maharajah Richard Roxburgh. Ethan and Ambrose appear to fight for Nyah’s heart, but it’s so clear Ambrose idolizes Ethan. In the film’s opening scene, he relishes impersonating him with a signature Mission Impossible mask, and as we all know, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The way Ambrose longs to be Ethan, doting underling Stamp’s devotion to Ambrose is like something out of a Merchant-Ivory production. His quiet passion causes him to upset his master in a scene where he’s punished by having a fingertip amputated with a cigar cutter, a phallic gesture if ever there was one.

This, above all else, is a film where the expensively staged action feels hollow and inert, while every poetic close-up of dueling spooks with sexually disgruntled axes to grind is loaded with portent and verve. It reads like a Virgin versus Chad meme where the repressed Ambrose and Stamp dance around the painful reality that they’ll never be, or have, Ethan Hunt. Perhaps not the smartest flick Cruise could have made if he wanted to silence those persistent rumors.

Vin Diesel in “Fast Five”
Vin Diesel in “Fast Five”

“Fast Five” (Justin Lin, 2011)

The most heartbreaking side of the real life feud between Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was the wrench it threw into the lustful frenemy, Sam & Diane nature of the Dom Toretto/Luke Hobbs relationship in the latter day “Fast” films. Hobbs, like a roided out mountie who always gets his man, chases down Toretto’s globe trotting gang of thieves with a passionate intensity that takes the beachball homoeroticism from “Top Gun” and blows it up to Wrestlemania sized scope.

Up until this point in the film series, Toretto has been a bastion of fatherly and brotherly dynamics, presented as the patriarch of the “Fast” family and a close confidante to those he considers friends. But in each of those interactions, he’s always felt like the bigger man, both in physical stature and plot significance. Hobbs’ character represents franchise film viagra Johnson stepping into Vin’s cinematic yard, the first time he’s met his equal. Both men relish the opportunity to share screen time together, the first time either has split top billing with anyone resembling a true peer.

The movie attempts to frame the film’s first half like a pro wrestling program, depicting two equally matched foes and hyping the audience up for the potential of them eventually clashing in the film’s climax. But somehow, it doesn’t come off that way. The amped up masculinity and billboard sized breathlessness of their enmity plays so arduously that their first fight scene resembles an actual sex scene. Somewhere between Michael Bay having his brawny Transformers crash into one another and the first animalistic tent tussle from “Brokeback Mountain,” Toretto and Hobbs consummate their blood lust in an auto shop with a white knuckle intensity that exceeds anything else in the entire franchise. Once that’s out of their system, they grow to get along thick as thieves for three more films. Coincidence?

Armie Hammer (left) and Henry Cavill in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
Armie Hammer (left) and Henry Cavill in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (Guy Ritchie, 2015)

Before he was eating peaches with Elio in “Call Me By Your Name,” lanky, rhythmless hunk Armie Hammer was going tete a tete with Superman Henry Cavill in Guy Ritchie’s posh adaptation of the beloved ‘60s spy series. Through various points in the film’s development, the plan was to cast a big name movie star as American spy Napoleon Solo and a more underground, artsy presence as his Russian counterpart Illya Kuryakin, but that was a wrongheaded approach.

In the absence of a strong plot and nuanced writing, the only thing this film has going for it, other than Ritchie’s superhuman eye for style, is the megawatt charisma of Cavill’s Solo and Hammer’s Kuryakin. Their chemistry only works because they’re equals. Both men have flirted with blockbuster leading roles, but neither successfully enough to become household names. Here, they’re each given simple prototypes to play with, to show off to Hollywood that they should be big movie stars. Whether unintentionally or not, that pissing match manifests itself as the most alluring back and forth, a Cold War of the loins between two clever action figures whose mutually assured attraction swallows the picture whole.

The dark haired Solo and the blonde Kuryakin banter like a ‘30s screwball comedy while looking like a Rule 63 Betty & Veronica trapped in Bond movie cosplay. So many action movies feature a hot guy and a hot gal and, between the lines of the bombastic set pieces, aim to make you yearn for their heroic kiss in the finale, but this movie makes you absolutely ache for these two to set aside their international allegiances and just fuck already.

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