The Art of Romance in Superhero Movies

In the age of cinematic universes, there's been a struggle to find a balance between personal investment in these characters, their friendships, their love stories and their place within a larger universe.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest; Photofest
'Iron Man 2'; 'Wonder Woman'

Love is in the air. Laser beams singe the atmosphere and explosions turn buildings to rubble as costumed heroes make a desperate last stand to save the Earth, but not so desperate that they can't manage to steal a kiss in the midst of chaos. As important as action and spectacle are to our superhero movies, romance has an equally important place. While it's not often the first thing we think of when a new comic book film adaptation is announced, love stories are woven into the fabric of these larger-than-life tales of good versus evil. When Superman made his debut in 1939 in the pages of Action Comics #1, it wasn't just his amazing feats of strength that made the character so appealing, but his relationship with Lois Lane, who was miffed by the seemingly incompetent Clark Kent, but looked upon the Man of Steel with awe. Decades later, Marvel Comics was shaped by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who were just as gifted at telling stories of romance as they were at science-fiction world building. From Peter Parker's numerous girlfriends, the sturdy marriage of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, and the Hulk's doomed love with Betty Ross, romance was ingrained in the Marvel Method and has largely remained a key component to this day, even as the characters have evolved with the changing times.

When it comes to superhero movies, from the serials of the 1940s to the blockbusters of today, there have been myriad approaches to handling the romantic lives of these larger-than-life figures. Arguably the standard was set by Richard Donner's Superman (1978), which is far more of a romance movie than it is an action film. The crux of Donner's film is the believability of the romantic chemistry between Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. It's a chemistry that works so well that Superman's utter anguish in the face of Lois' death, and his decision to disobey his father and turn back time to save her, seems entirely plausible.

Even as the original Superman series went off the rails in further installments, the relationship between Clark and Lois always remained key, except for that brief dalliance with Lana Lang (Annette O'Toole) in Superman III (1987). The consistency of Superman's relationship with Lois in those movies was vastly different than the approach of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher's Batman series. Although Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is prominent in Batman (1989), Burton never seems particularly interested in her beyond her ability to be a damsel in distress. Lois spent a fair share of her time as a dangling damsel in distress as well, but her back and forth with Clark and Superman gave her dimensions that made her more than the girlfriend character. Burton isn't incapable of telling stirring love stories. In fact, he tugs the heartstrings more effectively than most genre directors. But there is a sense that Vale isn't odd enough for Burton.

He got his chance at an odd romance with the inclusion of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Batman Returns (1992) and found the emotional beats, both playful and illuminating, that the first film was lacking. The Schumacher films, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) couldn't have been less interested in Batman's love life, and the inclusion of Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) and Julie Madison (Elle Macpherson) felt like studio requirements. Though Superman's love life showcased stability, Batman's borrowed from James Bond's — in which women had one film to make their mark. This love formula carried over to the 21st century, but thankfully most superhero films became more interested in exploring long-term relationships rather than brief encounters.

Peter Parker and Mary Jane's romance defined the superhero films of the first decade of the 21st century. Despite the fact that Peter Parker's (Tobey Maguire) romance with MJ (Kirsten Dunst) wasn't the superhero's first in the comics, Sam Raimi's films avoided the Batman issue by making Mary Jane Peter's only committed relationship, allowing him to explore how the way they see each other evolves over the course of three films. There’s a bittersweetness to Peter and Mary Jane's romance, one that questions how the responsibility of a superhero affects the responsibility of a boyfriend. Raimi's film provided one of the most adult reflections of a relationship in a superhero movie, one in which both people have goals and interior lives that aren't simply defined by their relationship to each other. There's an undeniable love between these two characters, but there's also a real struggle that doesn't always end with the promise that they're living in a fairy tale. The ending of Spider-Man 2 (2004) made a lasting impression. While most audiences remember Spider-Man's final swing, the final shot is actually Mary Jane's face starring out of a window, still wearing the wedding dress from abandoned nuptials with John Jameson. There's a subtle change in Mary Jane's face, a shift from confidence to concern and doubt — not just for Peter's safety but in wondering if she made the right decision and what that means for her life. For whatever problems Spider-Man 3 (2007) has, Raimi handles the aftermath of this doubt with a level of realism that grounds the film amid retcons of Uncle Ben's death, an alien symbiote and a surplus of villains. The final scene of Spider-Man 3, in which Peter and MJ reconcile and share a dance, isn't a sweeping moment of fan-service, but rather a quiet commitment between two people trying to love each other the best they can. Across three films, Raimi told what is arguably the most mature love story in superhero cinema.

In the age of cinematic universes, there's been a struggle to find a balance between personal investment in these characters, their friendships, their love stories and their place within a larger universe. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) have seen their ups and downs over the course of the franchise, remaining committed to each other. But unlike Raimi's Spider-Man films, we never get to see these low-points. We're made aware that Pepper and Tony are no longer together in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and back together in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), but there's never enough time, or perhaps desire, from filmmakers to explore these shifts in their relationship. They are changes in the status quo for the sake of changes in the status quo.

Thor (2011) played up the whirlwind romance between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), but the sequel, Thor: The Dark World (2013) turned Jane into a plot device and then she was abandoned within the MCU. This same abandonment was the fate of The Incredible Hulk's (2008) Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) featured the best romance in the MCU, the relationship between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Their chemistry, sexual tension and unrequited love, followed by Cap's admission, "I had a date," is heartbreaking in its sincerity. Civil War then made the odd choice of having Cap kiss Peggy's niece Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) right after Peggy's funeral. While the romance is there in the comics, the moment seemed forced and ill-timed within the events of the film. Then to double-down on this damage, Sharon is absent from Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and is not included in the cast list for Avengers: Endgame (2019), which makes her inclusion in the first place all the more questionable. In some ways, the loss of Jane Foster, Betty Ross and Sharon Carter is almost worse than Batman's one-and-done habit, because these films simply ask us to forget about them. While killing off love interests for the sake of a hero's turmoil is often utilized poorly in comics, and gave rise to the term "fridging" by writer Gail Simone, there's at least a sense of completion and an angle for psychological examination when heroes lose their loves like in the case of The Dark Knight (2008) or Deadpool 2 (2018). This isn't a condonement of murdering love interests, but a suggestion that perhaps being forgotten or silently removed is a fate worse than death for some of these characters.

The DC film universe has fared better on the romance side of things, though it hasn't gotten heavily enough into the sequel territory yet for us to comment fully on its ability to handle romantic arcs. Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) further cemented the timeless love between Clark (Henry Cavill) and Lois (Amy Adams), while Justice League (2017), in its reshoot turmoil, failed to make Lois as central a figure as she had been. Aquaman (2018) played up the bickering romance between Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and Mera (Amber Heard), promising the beginning of an endearing relationship. The best handling of romance on the DC side of things comes from Wonder Woman (2017), in which the relationship between Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) evoked Donner's Superman while reversing the damsel-in-distress element so that it is the man in need of rescue. Across both the MCU and DC film universe, we've seen love interests play a more central part in the action, proving to be capable and less in need of saving. We've also seen relationships develop between heroes, some with comic history like Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and others entirely original to the films like Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), or Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), showcasing not only how romance in superhero films has evolved, but how it's impacted the source material as well.

So, what does the future hold? Well, romance stands a chance of becoming as big a selling point to these films as epic showdowns. If the response to Venom (2018) and its symbrock shipping was any indication, and the ever-prevalent Bucky-Cap fan-fiction, audiences certainly won't be held back by confines of the film or even comic book canon. And while this year's superhero releases, with the exception of Spider-Man: Far From Home, seem a bit light on romance, we expect audiences will surely make up for it on the internet and lead comics and future films to follow suit. It's a match too great to go unnoticed.