Kayti Burt

Feb 20, 2018

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has often been criticized for its less-than-memorable villains. With a few exceptions, crafting compelling villain-types isn’t the franchise’s strong suit. However, the MCU is increasingly guilty of another weakness: its half-hearted romances, an issue that isn’t entirely unrelated to its unwillingness to give female characters the character development that would make the MCU a stronger narrative universe.

Take Captain America: Civil War, for example. While critical consensus deemed this movie a success, in the weeks following its release, there were several great think pieces about the inorganic romance between Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter as one of the film’s only glaring weaknesses. It’s not hard to understand why: the relationship is shoehorned into a movie that already has enough to do without the added pressure of having to awkwardly reinforce the heteronormativity of the MCU.

Sharon has more interesting things to do as a character than kiss Steve. She is grieving her aunt, following her moral compass in helping Steve find Bucky, and trying to juggle all of this while also working as a CIA agent. It sucks that her role is instead forced into a romantic relationship when it doesn’t have to be, when there are so many other rich relationship possibilities.

Awesomely-named Tumblr user Comte De La Done With the World wonders what Captain America: Civil War would have looked like if it had prioritized a relationship between Tony Stark and Peggy Carter — whose friendship is canon in both Captain America: The First Avenger as well as Agent Carter  and, therefore, a relationship between Tony Stark and Sharon Carter. They write:

You mean to tell me that in the seventy years Steve was gone, Peggy, who was one of Howard’s closest friends, wasn’t a part of Tony’s life growing up? … Give me Tony Stark and Sharon Carter at Peggy’s funeral talking about their Aunt Peggy and everything she worked so hard to build and everything she did for them. Also give me Sharon Carter who is no one’s token love interest, who didn’t tell Steve who she was because actually it’s no one’s business.

Rather than this not-so-hard-to-imagine narrative, Sharon’s character (and Peggy’s character, for that matter) was forced to exist almost exclusively within the narrow MCU lane designed for “romantic interests,” a lane that is getting narrower and less interesting as the MCU progresses.

Steve and Sharon’s relationship is only one example of the series of lackluster romances that has partially defined the MCU. A film franchise that previously had underwhelming villains as its weakest narrative element, but has since moved onto “clumsy, forced romances” as one of its weakest narrative elements.

Let’s look at the evidence by ranking the canon romances (sorry, Stucky) of the MCU.

Ranking the romances of the MCU.

12. Stephen & Christine (Doctor Strange)

Congratulations, Thor and Jane! You are no longer the worst romance in the MCU. That dubious honor goes to Doctor Strange‘s Stephen and Christine. Stephen’s main character trait is self-involved arrogance, so you can imagine how hard it is to ship him with anyone, let alone the long-suffering Rachel McAdams, who seems doomed to a career of thankless roles as love interests who ground the needy men in their lives with an infinite degree of understanding.

This trope is on full display in Christine’s relationship with Stephen, which peaks in a scene in which Stephen mansplains his own surgery to the highly-qualified emergency surgeon Christine. Though Marvel claims this relationship was changed from a romance to a subversion of that trope, making them ex-lovers instead, that doesn’t exactly come across on screen. Christine is still completely defined as a love interest for Stephen and by her endless ability to provide his character emotional support. Rachel McAdams deserves far, far better. So do us fans.

11. Thor & Jane Foster (Thor)

Guys, can we all admit that the Thor/Jane romance is so boring? It’s so boring that, when it was announced that Natalie Portman wouldn’t be returning for Thor: Ragnarok, most people’s reaction was basically: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. This is the actress who had been in both previous Thor films as the main romantic interest and female lead. That’s not good.

This ambivalence is not Portman’s fault (though, as Attack of the Clones demonstrates, while Portman has many skills as an actress, overcoming under-written romances is not one of them). This actress has some hard, thinly-veiled damsel-in-distress tropes to deal with in Jane’s character. This is especially true in The Dark World, where Jane passes out during her escape from Asgard with Thor and Loki. That is how not-invested in this plot Jane is. Just when things start get interesting, she opts out.

Thor and Jane’s relationship is not an organic one based on on-screen chemistry or artful writing. It is the most blatant example of Because They’re A Thing in the Comics, but not even the giddy-making degree to which Darcy Lewis ships Thor and Jane can make us care about this chemistry-less romance.

10. Steve Rogers & Sharon Carter (Civil War)

I’m not going to spend much time rehashing this one as it got some play in the intro, but will reiterate that this “romance” is totally unnecessary within the larger plot. This movie has about one million more interesting things to do than explore a romance between Steve and Sharon.

Best case interpretation of their kiss: this is a boring pairing that nobody asked for and Marvel spent almost no time developing. It’s an obligatory nod to the romantic history of their comic book counterparts. Worst case interpreation of their kiss: this is MCU’s homophobic reaction to Stucky shippers in a movie where Steve chooses Bucky above all else. Either way, it’s a disappointing storytelling decision.

9. Bruce Banner & Natasha Romanov (Age of Ultron)

The romance between Bruce and Natasha explored in Age of Ultron has similar problems to the romance between Steve and Sharon in Civil War. It feels like it was hatched not out of a natural, well-developed chemistry between these two characters, but rather the idea that someone in this movie should have a romance.

The romance between Bruce and Natasha works a bit better than the one between Steve and Sharon, however, because we have seen much more interaction between their two characters. Natasha is the one who S.H.I.E.L.D. sends to retrieve Bruce in The Avengers, and the two have some interesting conversations about the responsibility of having the skillset (or brute strength, in Bruce’s case) to murder someone.

In another, less busy movie, perhaps this romance could have worked, but, as part of an already-overstuffed Age of Ultron, it felt like an unnecessary distraction.

8. Vision & Wanda (Civil War)

Besides Steve and Sharon, the other burgeoning romance in Civil War is the one between Vision and Wanda. This might be a controversial one to add to the list given that it isn’t technically canon, but it seems like a romance the MCU is building, so I’m gonna go with it. I liked a lot of the Vision/Wanda interaction in Civil War. These two characters are both outsiders feared by the world — including some people they consider friends. This forges a believable bond. I’ll bite, Marvel.

7. Peter & Liz (Spider-Man: Homecoming)

While it’s obvious that Peter and Mary Jane are actually endgame here, Liz Allan is the person Peter has a massive crush on in his MCU standalone debut.

Unlike most of the other romances on this list, the high school flirtation between Peter and Liz is played with relatively low stakes—though it does tie into an extremely high-stakes situation, that is really more about Peter’s role as a superhero, rather than as a high school boy trying to go with the girl he likes to the homecoming dance. This gives the relationship more room to breathe, and makes it feel more realistic. This isn’t a life-or-death, star-crossed love situation; it’s just two sweet, well-intentioned high school kids who like each other.

By the end of the film, it’s obvious things are not going to work out between these two, but Spider-Man: Homecoming does something incredibly smart by treating Liz like a real, complex person, and giving her a moment of angry empathy during their, for want of a better descriptor, break-up scene. Liz doesn’t let Peter off the hook for how he treated her, but she also recognizes that he is someone with a lot of difficult issues to work through. It’s a moment of complex humanity that MCU doesn’t usually award its female love interests.

6. Peter Quill & Gamora (Guardians of the Galaxy)

Like Vision and Wanda and Scott and Hope before them, Peter and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy haven’t really happened yet — and maybe that’s why all three of the aforementioned romances are so much better developed than the Steve and Sharon or Bruce and Natashas of the MCU?

Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t in any rush to get these two together, and their relationship has, thus far, felt much more organic because of that fact. In the first film, they are reluctant allies from opposite sides of the galaxy who actually have a lot in common when they stop to chat about it. Not that they have much time to chat about it. This is an action adventure film, after all. Rather than get them together in the sequel, which would have been the predictable thing to do, Marvel continues to play it slow with these two.

In a Facebook live video Q&A, director James Gunn said of the reason why the two didn’t kiss in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2:

“[Gamora] is not someone who is going to just give in to the moment of a lustful, passionate moment. That’s just not who she is. But what she did do: She loves Peter Quill. That’s very obvious at the end movie. And she admits that to him and their love is based on something much deeper than sex. It’s based on a profound friendship between the two of them. They are the heads of this family in a lot of ways.”

5. Bruce Banner & Betty Ross (The Incredible Hulk)

It says a lot about the competitiveness of this list that Bruce and Betty managed to make it into the top four. The Incredible Hulk was a pretty forgettable movie (although not, actually, a terrible one) — so much so that most people generally forget it’s technically a part of the MCU (something Marvel sometimes seems to actively encourage).

That being said, The Incredible Hulk is arguably the standalone installment that most integrates a love story into its central plot, with Bruce and Betty going on the run together from General Ross, Betty’s father (who, yes, also showed up in Captain America: Civil War). Rather than most of the other MCU romances, Betty and Bruce don’t meet in The Incredible Hulk, but rather catch back up after a period of Hulk-induced estrangement. This is a good narrative cheat for crafting a convincing romance between two characters when you don’t have a lot of time.

Cons of this romance include the fact that Liv Tyler’s Betty doesn’t really get to be a character outside of her identity as Bruce’s love interest. It’s also kind of awkward that Bruce has mentioned nothing of Betty in his later, Avengers-based appearances as Mark Ruffalo.

4. Scott Lang & Hope van Dyne (Ant-Man)

Scott and Hope have a relatively traditional action film romance. Hope kind of hates Scott. Banter, banter, banter. She eventually sees through his tough guy persona to the heart of gold underneath. They eventually admit that they kinda, sorta have a thing for each other. It’s totally watchable, especially because Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly are charming actors.

It helps that Hope has a lot going on character-wise. Part of the reason she first dislikes Scott is because she justifiably sees him filling a role that she is arguably much more qualified to fill. She is a female MCU character who knows her worth (Peggy Carter would be proud). And Scott is man enough to admit that Hope is a terrifying badass. Even before they fall for each other, he respects her. There’s not enough of that in movie romance.

3. T’Challa & Nakia (Black Panther)

The romance between T’Challa and Nakia is gloriously subtle and organic in Black Panther. While these two were once together, they broke up sometime before the start of the film—not because they don’t love one another, but because Nakia couldn’t stand to stay in an isolationist Wakanda when there are people all over the world who need her help. It’s a very mature, not at all contrived reason to keep these two apart.

Given that much of this movie takes place in the direct aftermath of T’Chaka’s death and T’Challa is busy both grieving his father and trying to hold onto the throne, there isn’t much time for the rekindling of romance. Instead, we get a chance to see the depth of love and respect these two have for one another. It is Nakia, along with Erik, who convince T’Challa to change Wakanda’s historic policy of staying largely uninvolved from the rest of the world—a mark of how much T’Challa respects his friend and ex-lover.

T’Challa obviously adores Nakia (who wouldn’t?) and it will be exciting to see how Nakia’s character continues to contribute to the rich world of Black Panther and of the larger MCU.

2. Steve Rogers & Peggy Carter (The First Avenger)

This is another MCU romance that gives us a well-realized female character who has ambitions and character traits outside of her romance with Steve Rogers. It helps that Peggy Carter has appeared in her own TV show (R.I.P., Agent Carter) and one-shot before that, in addition to appearing in both Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: Civil War (she also appears as a hallucination-dream in Age of Ultron).

From the very beginning, the dynamic between Peggy and Steve was something special because Peggy was better realized than most other female characters in the MCU put together. (The Captain America films tend to do a better job with female characters than other narrative strains of the MCU. Exhibit B: Natasha’s arc in The Winter Soldier.)

Peggy knew and cared for pre-serum Steve as much as she did for post-serum Steve and, even after they were separated, kept his legacy alive (don’t tell me you didn’t tear up while Steve was watching her Smithsonian interview). After he woke up in the 21st century, Steve visited an ailing Peggy in her nursing home presumably on a fairly regular basis. If that’s not love, then I don’t know what is.

(Well, love is literally starting a war to save your best friend, but I’m not here to make Steve — or you — choose.)

1. Tony Stark & Pepper Potts (Iron Man)

The MCU banter-filled romance that started them all. Unlike all of the other choices on the list, the relationship between Tony and Pepper has not only been well-developed, but sustained over the course of three films (with an additional scene in Spider-Man: Homecoming!). It’s sad that we haven’t gotten to see as much of these two together, as Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t appeared in the last few Avengers-filled movies, but this seems poised to change with Infinity War.

It’s particularly interesting to think about the importance of this relationship within the context of Civil War. It’s hard to imagine Tony going off the deep-end quite so quickly or thoroughly if things with Pepper were good. Let’s not forget that he starts his Civil War character arc not just with the reminder of his parents’ untimely death or his interaction with a grieving mother, but also with the notable absence of Pepper.

From the very first Iron Man film, Pepper has been the person Tony can and does most rely on. It’s what gave that first film so much heart (the film really makes a point of driving that heart metaphor home). The first Iron Man film is given a lot of credit for its humor, action, and tone, but I don’t think enough people pay attention to how good the romance — which is to say, interpersonal drama — is in Iron Man. 

When Tony Stark is at his most obnoxious and unlikeable, Pepper is the audience surrogate character, reminding us to give this man time and patience to become the hero he can be. People like to speculate if the MCU would be where it is today if Iron Man had sucked/flopped. I think a poorly-realized romance might have served that purpose.

What’s the MCU to do?

Marvel has to make a decision: either include romances that get proper development or eschew romantic subplots altogether. The former choice would be preferable, at least in my book. The comic books these superhero stories are adapted from so often have iconic romantic relationships (not that I would say no to a well-developed, non-comic book canon relationship). When done right, romantic storylines are a good excuse (though not the only one) for the kind of complex interpersonal drama that all too often gets de-prioritized in major action blockbusters with so many other concerns.

Either way, the MCU needs to figure out a way to include more, better-developed female characters. It’s kind of an ongoing joke that Marvel doesn’t know how to treat female fans. It’s not all that funny because, unfortunately, it’s mostly true.

(Pro tip: We like good writing, solid characterization, and well-choreographed fight scenes — just like the man-people do.)

We also just want to see ourselves reflected on screen through a diverse representation of female characters (as in: roughly half of the cast — you know, just like in real life) who actually get to do stuff. And not just romance stuff (though some romance stuff, too, please).

Personally, I find Natasha Romanov’s character arc in The Winter Soldier much more interesting and better articulated than her character arc in Age of Ultron, which is largely shoehorned into a romance with Bruce Banner. The former is a great example of what male-female friendship can look like, and a story arc that laid a solid foundation for Steve and Natasha’s relationship in Civil War — a character dynamic that was about a million times more interesting than the apparently romantic one between Steve and Sharon.

This isn’t because non-romantic plotlines are inherently more interesting, complex, or valuable than romantic ones. It’s because, all too often, when female characters are given a romantic purpose within a narrative, that romantic identity is all they get to be. This is not only lazy characterization and storytelling, but a dangerous idea to continually reinforce for the girls, boys, men, and women watching these mainstream stories. It’s the kind of cultural pattern that leads to men thinking that a woman’s purpose in real life is to serve their needs and desires. It’s the kind of cultural pattern that makes girls and women think that, too.

Marvel should start with hiring more female writers. There’s a correlation between the lack of female heroines and underdeveloped female characters in MCU and the fact that, of the 21 writers who have been credited with penning the 13 MCU films so far, only one of them has been a woman: Nicole Perlman, the co-scriptwriter of Guardians of the Galaxy. (For five glorious minutes, I thought the number of female scriptwriters in the MCU might be two, before I realized that Ashley Edward Miller, aka a co-scriptwriter of Thor, is, in fact a man.)

The first film that will have an exclusively female writing team is 2019’s Captain Marvel — aka the first MCU film that will have a female lead (because women can only write for female characters). The MCU’s romance problem isn’t unrelated to its female character problem. When your best developed characters are almost exclusively men, and you insist on staying within heteronormative lines, then your romances are probably going to lack depth.

There seems to be a common idea in the Hollywood dream factory board rooms, like the ones where MCU film plots are pieced together from cut up comic books and the not-tears of fragile masculinity, that women only want to watch movies that have romance in them. The way I break this down is two-fold: It’s not that we enjoy the romantic genre above all others (though some of us do, as do some men). It’s that we are socialized to understand the world through the interpersonal relationships we are expected to nurture, understand, and prioritize in our own lives.

As a culture, women are often tasked with doing a significant majority of the emotional labor communities, families, and even workplaces rely on. To women (and men) who are socialized to do this emotional labor, stories that explore the complex, all-important web of interpersonal relationships are fascinating. They reflect the world as we have been socialized to see it. They are cathartic and representative in a way that stories should be. When a story is devoid of nuanced interpersonal drama, I am personally less interested in it as a viewer — and I think that many women (and men socialized to value the interpersonal) feel the same way.

This desire to see more stories that prioritize interpersonal themes and drama often gets conflated into romance by male creators who either don’t understand or don’t prioritize the nuance and richness of this kind of storytelling. There are so many different ways to explore the world of the interpersonal. Romance is one of them, but it is just a small sliver of the larger storytelling possibilities. The sooner mainstream storytellers understand this, the better for everyone.