Movies & TV

The Return of Bill & Ted and the Complicated, Homophobic History of Bromance Movies

The seemingly throwaway genre has reflected social attitudes over the years.
IMAGE PATTI PERRET/MOST EXCELLENT PRODUCTIONS, LLC
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Bill and Ted are used to showing up in the wrong era. But as the goofy twosome make their screen return after a three-decade hiatus, they arrive into a world where the one art they truly mastered—the art of the Hollywood bromance—is unrecognizable from what it looked like in their day.

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Bill and Ted, whose two previous outings came in 1989 and 1991, made their name in the screen bromance’s golden era. While it had taken off two decades earlier with The Odd Couple and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hitting cinemas within six months, and was rejuvenated a decade after that by The Blues Brothers, it wasn’t until well into the Eighties that Tinseltown’s menfolk started to really fall for each other. They did so in two very distinct ways, and with wildly varying levels of platonic distance.

Photo by SILVER SCREEN COLLECTION / GETTY IMAGES.
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Oddly enough it was in the most macho genre of them all in the most macho era of them all—the Reaganite action movie—where things reached their most luridly homoerotic heights. It was here that the previous template of weary bickering gave way to the oiled-up volleyball of Top Gun, the spiritual sweet-talking of Point Break, and, most hilariously of all, the beachfront frolics of Rocky 3.

At the same time as those guys were catching waves, pumping iron, and saving America from the commies, another subculture of young men were doing… well, pretty much nothing at all. Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butthead, Jay and Silent Bob: these were men who barely knew a day’s work between them, preferring the sofa to the surfboard, dope to dopamine. But the fact there was less adrenaline coursing through their veins didn’t mean they were any less enamored with each other. Or less inclined to trust each other with their most intimate secrets: as Garth confided in his old pal, “That bass player’s a babe. She makes me feel kinda funny, like when we used to climb the rope in gym class.”

But as the Nineties ticked on and the family values of Clinton replaced the bullish bravado of Reagan, the bromance was forced to take a back seat as the rom-com became the mid-budget popcorn genre du jour. Aside from some leftfield exceptions—the family-friendly exploits of Woody and Buzz, the no-budget genius of Swingers, the self-reflective meta-friendship of Fight Club – the bromance went into something of a hibernation.

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Fight Club

When it was lured back out into the open by the Judd Apatow explosion midway through the Aughts, it did so in an entirely new form—the stoner comedy—with the bros in question all too aware of their heroic predecessors’ uncomfortable coziness. Far from the muscle-bound action men who cavorted together semi-naked, these guys were schlubby wasters who were mortally afraid of male-on-male intimacy.

They were the spiritual successors of the early-Nineties idlers but with a Tarantinoesque pop-culture fixation, a goofy self-deprecating streak, and a strange penchant for homophobia. The rebirth of the Hollywood bromance—which began with Wedding Crashers and encompassed the likes of Knocked UpHarold and KumarSuperbadStep BrothersPineapple Express, and Ted – were notable for characters who spent much of the film in active denial about the affection they held for each other, often expressed in the anti-gay insults that peppered the scripts. On the one hand, this was their own implicit, protesting-too-much acknowledgment of where their real affection lay. On the other, it made for jarring viewing that has only worsened with time.

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Ted

This spate of movies, at once hilarious and galling, laid bare the double-edged sword at the heart of the Hollywood bromance: at their best, they collapse alpha-male stereotypes of masculinity, but at their worst, they reaffirm the very ideas they seem to be pushing against. “There are probably some jokes in Superbad that are bordering on blatantly homophobic,” said Seth Rogen in 2016. “They’re in the voice of high school kids, who do speak like that, but I think we’d be silly not to acknowledge that we also were to some degree glamourizing that type of language.”

Not every film of this era left the gay-anxiety undercurrent beneath the surface. The best ones—namely I Love You Man and to a lesser extent 21 Jump Street – acknowledged and even deconstructed it, although you could argue that recognizing this latent fear and still mining it for laughs is simply an attempt to have it both ways. (The little-seen 2015 gem The D Train went one step further, taking things to their logical conclusion, as did the 2009 indie drama Humpday. And Alfonso Cuaron’s great road movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien, delivered perhaps the truest screen bromance movie of them all.)

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I Love You Man

Slowly but surely, the well-meaning element at the heart of these films became buried ever deeper as the genre curdled into the franchisable misogyny of the Hangover and Entourage series, and the outright bigotry of Get Hard. It was no coincidence that as the films’ insensitivity rose, their quality steeply dipped. Ticket sales sunk accordingly, and by the middle of the millennium’s second decade, the bromance as we knew it had been ushered out the back door, for everyone’s benefit.

So how does the landscape look in 2020, a time when gender dynamics are under unprecedented scrutiny—in public life in general and in Hollywood in particular? Well, look closely, and the genre seems to have once again been reborn to reflect its times: first in female-led form, with BooksmartGirls TripThe Heat, and Lady Bird among those to pick up the baton left by Bridesmaids nearly a decade ago.

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Photo by FRANCOIS DUHAMEL / ANNAPURNA PICTURES.

And second in a new-look male-led setup where the leads’ youthful virility has withered into middle-aged grouchiness. The TripMortimer and Whitehouse: Gone FishingBad Boys for LifeOnce Upon a Time in Hollywood. They vary in format, tone, and quality. But at heart, they are all stories of aging men anxious that the zeitgeist has left them behind. This may not be an entirely new phenomenon—Danny Glover was complaining he was too old for this shit a full 33 years ago—but as much as the bromance is alive today, it’s a genre of receding hairlines and expanding beltlines.

Whether Bill and Ted—now well into their 50s—are able to get on board with this new mood of downbeat unease remains to be seen. But if not, then perhaps Hollywood could do with a reminder of just how the genre was originally envisaged: heartfelt, unthreatening—and generally pretty excellent.

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This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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