What the MCU Needs Now…Is Love, Sweet Love
It’s a familiar scene. A female reporter waits on a rooftop, staring at her watch, slowly losing hope that who she’s waiting for will ever arrive. Then a man, the “who” she’s been waiting for, descends from the night sky with a cape flowing behind him.
“Good evening, Miss Lane,” he says as he lands on the rooftop. What follows is a six-minute scene of a man and woman talking, flirting, and getting to know each other. She compares him to Peter Pan, to which he responds, “Peter Pan, huh? Peter Pan flew with children, Lois. In a fairy tale.” And they gently float off the roof into the clouds as one of the most iconic music scores plays over their evening flight.
This is, of course, a scene from Richard Donner’s Superman (1978). The entire scene, interview, and flight, lasts twelve minutes. It doesn’t advance the overall plot of the movie and there are no pyrotechnics in sight. It only serves to bring two characters together and show them connecting as human beings. The audience gets to know Superman (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) a bit better and also gets to see a relationship forming.
Compare that to a scene in Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time and a culmination of Marvel’s grand shared universe experiment. In the midst of the film’s climax, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) sees his ostensible love interest, the green-skinned warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), on the battlefield. He reaches out his hand to her cheek, softly saying, “I thought I lost you.” She instinctively twists his arm and knees him in the crotch…twice.
Maybe it’s not a fair comparison, but I think it’s indicative of how audience expectations around superhero movies have changed in the last forty years. The people making these gigantic blockbusters assume that viewer attention spans can no longer handle twelve-minute scenes that exist purely for two people getting to know each other. Interactions even approaching romance must be undercut with a joke, lest the script commit the worst superhero sin imaginable: absolute sincerity.
Now I’m not pooh-poohing the idea of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general. In fact, going to see these gigantic visual rollercoasters in a theater is a highlight for me every year (you know, when our nation isn’t waging war against a pandemic). The jokes are usually solid, the special effects are spectacular, and did I mention how cool the shared universe thing is? However, I do think there’s an empty space at the center of these movies where human relationships ought to go.
Let’s start at the beginning. I’d pinpoint the problem starting in the first undeniable genre blockbuster franchise, Star Wars. In the audio commentary for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), director Irvin Kershner states, “Now here we have the love scene…and, of course, what he wants is to kiss her. And a kiss in this film is almost equivalent to intercourse.” It’s a scene where Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are fixing the Millennium Falcon and, as soon as they start to kiss, they’re interrupted by the droid C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels). It’s not too dissimilar from Gamora kneeing Peter Quill in the crotch. A moment of romantic sincerity undercut by a joke.
It’s not particularly surprising. The modern MCU films have much more in common with Star Wars than the Christopher Reeve-era Superman. They’re filled with galactic intrigue, witty one-liners and, most importantly, shy away from romance instead of fully embracing it.
Let’s look at one more MCU precursor, the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007). The famous upside-down kiss scene between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the first film is effective not just because of the striking visual it presents, but the amount of joy that Mary Jane (Dunst) feels after the kiss. Whether it’s MJ smiling in the rain or Peter Parker hooting with excitement after a climactic kiss while web-slinging in Spider-Man 2, the Raimi trilogy prioritizes their relationship. It’s hard to find a similar moment of joy in the MCU catalogue. It’s even harder to find a similar scene of two characters kissing.
In Iron Man 2 (2010), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) get their first big romantic kiss at the end of the film on a rooftop after he’s flown her to safety (calling the imagery of Superman to mind), but it’s quickly interrupted by James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who’s been watching them from afar. An interrupted kiss is about as much romance as audiences can expect from the MCU. The joy characters feel afterward seems irrelevant to the overall proceedings, and by constantly undercutting instances of two humans connecting with humor, it makes the whole endeavor pretty soulless.
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) is a film that I think largely gets the romance right. Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman genuinely have chemistry. I’d argue the scene where Thor explains the connection of science and magic to Jane Foster is the closest the MCU gets to the Superman dynamic. Its two characters on a rooftop at night, talking to each other for an extended period of time while light from a fire is cast on their beautiful faces. It’s a touching scene and a promising start to their relationship.
Too bad they spend the sequel, Thor: The Dark World (2013), bickering about Thor being a terrible boyfriend and the third film, Thor: Ragnarok (2017), cuts out Portman’s character altogether. It doesn’t help that Ragnarok is the most financially successful Thor film, further incentivizing Marvel to extract love interests from their films like a pesky appendix.
MCU producer Kevin Feige reveals in the audio commentary for Dark World that the momentous kiss at the end of the film isn’t even between Hemsworth and Portman. “We wanted people to know they [Thor and Jane Foster] were getting back together and having a passionate kiss…and this was shot in Hong Kong with Chris’s wife, Elsa, in a Jane wig.” It’s a troubling sign when the mastermind behind the entire MCU sees no problem substituting the actress playing the lead’s love interest for the most romantic scene in the film.
It’s equally troubling that the only two women who’ve headlined a Marvel movie, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), don’t even get to have a love interest. They don’t even get to have the bland, perfunctory love stories of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). It’s a problematic message Marvel’s sending that if women want to be heroes, they can’t spend any time on romance.
Also, there’s been a general fan outcry over the lack of LGBT characters in the MCU. I’d argue that you can’t really have LGBT characters exist in a world without sexuality. If you were to bring that basic piece of the human experience to the MCU, however, you’d open up a world where LGBT characters could thrive. Though right now I’d argue that there’s more eroticism on screen in a Captain America/Bucky Barnes interaction than any scene between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter.
Lastly, let’s examine the recent series WandaVision (2021), the MCU’s first big swing at television (sorry Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., you were never a big swing). On paper, it seems like a show where romance would be built into the foundation. The titular characters, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) live together in domestic sitcom bliss. However, it’s no big spoiler to note that their bliss can never come to complete fruition because Vision died in the events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Instead of romance built into the foundation of the show, the audience gets Wanda’s grief at the loss of the love of her life. But therein lies the reason why the show doesn’t really work.
To really feel Wanda’s grief, it would be helpful to experience the love that she and Vision shared before he perished. Their relationship is built upon a (literally) two-minute scene in Infinity War where the two characters walk around Scotland together, not even close to the twelve minutes set aside for Superman and Lois Lane. Fundamentally, the Wanda/Vision relationship is incredibly undercooked and the grief Wanda feels at Vision’s loss can’t possibly serve as the foundation for a TV show, no matter how good Olsen and Bettany are at hamming it up in sitcom parodies.
I hope I don’t come across as some strange version of Sesame Street’s Count von Count, sitting in a movie theater, counting all the kisses I see in superhero films and recording them in my Kiss Count Journal. The reason I’m writing this is to critique a franchise I really enjoy and hope that they can move forward with more of a soul at the center of their films. I’d like the movies that society collectively embraces as mainstream entertainment to be less “Peter Pan flying with children” and more “Superman flying with Lois Lane.” That’s what I think audiences deserve and I think they’re ready for it.