“You feel… love,” whispers Mantis in a moment of downtime in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. She’s showing off her empathic abilities by assessing Peter Quill’s feelings, just as his crush – the most dangerous woman in the Galaxy, Gamora – steps into the room.
“Yeah, I guess. Yeah,” Quill says, evasively. “I feel a general unselfish love for just about everybody.”
“No! Romantic, sexual love,” Mantis insists, wide-eyed.
“No, no, I don’t –”
“For her!” she exclaims, pointing at Gamora. Drax erupts into hysterical laughter, an impulse shared by the audience I watched the film with in 2014. None of us had been expecting to hear the phrase “sexual love” in a Marvel movie.
Because really, there’s no such thing.
A voyeuristic point of view.
When I think about sex in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 22 movies, I think first of the highly relatable (and gif-able) post-serum reveal scene in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. After the metal transformation pod wheezes open to reveal Steve’s glistening, chiseled body, his colleague Agent Peggy Carter can barely resist touching his heaving pecs. She – like the audience – is in awe of him. Perhaps even sexual awe.
The big beefcake reveal is insignificant to the plot. It’s sandwiched between two more significant scenes: Steve yelling “I can do this!” from within the pod, signifying his commitment to the cause despite personal suffering; and the death of his mentor Dr. Erskine and the subsequent chase through the city to stop a Hydra agent, serving as Steve’s first loss as Captain America. The reveal exists for titillation; and since it barely registers in Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers’ budding (and largely chaste) romantic tension, the titillation isn’t even for Peggy – it’s for us.
This framing is echoed throughout the MCU. The only real sexual lens consistently featured is that of the audience. Viewers are offered pandering shots of shirtless, muscular white men and the occasional low zipper or high dress slit on a trim white woman, but these are just fleeting acknowledgments of a very narrow view of desirability. The subjects’ sexuality is untouchable even by the other characters on screen. Sure, we’ll sometimes see a supporting character be momentarily dazzled, and jokes are occasionally made about a hero’s sexiness, but sexuality in and of itself is a skipped-over bus stop on the way to beat the movie’s big bad. You catch a glimpse through the window but drive on past.
Love as just a metaphor.
The romantic subplots of the MCU are pretty emblematic of Disney: grand, sanitized love stories between sexless characters that tend to culminate in a dramatic kiss.
Despite the importance these romances are given by the narrative, the actual entangling is bare bones at best. It doesn’t get fleshed out because crafting adult relationships requires featuring moments of growing intimacy between characters with agency.
Women in the MCU are often used as a hero’s anchor to civilian life: a symbol that represents the public he’s fighting for, and a manifestation of his “selfish”/human desire for something outside of bad guy punching. Screentime doesn’t need to be spent creating, building, and sustaining mutual romantic tension, because the glimpses we do get are just for the hero to pine or have internal conflict, or for his eventual girlfriend to make faces approximating interest so the audience knows she’s into it.
From my point of view, the presence of romance in the MCU is largely just reflective heteronormativity – a sneeze of subplot that exists because action movie storytelling is as dusty as the men writing it. Female-shaped props are the easiest way to say something about a hero’s humanity, and since these ladies are just commentary devices, it’s especially easy to gloss over sexuality. The hero doesn’t want to fuck his girlfriend; he wants to feel connected to the world he’s saving.
And you can’t fuck a metaphor, even in a Disney movie.
And despite the romantic prize’s importance being played up for emotional beats as the cornerstone of every movie’s non-punchy storytelling, these women are ultimately just props (even if they had a few obligatory ties/interactions with the overarching plot.) Civilian love interests are frequently discarded in the next film. Their value is directly tied to their hero boyfriend; if their boyfriend’s sequel or team-up flick doesn’t need the emotional padding, there’s no need to prioritize bringing them back.
And when the love of your life doesn’t merit more than a vague hand-wave in the next film, the shallowness of her original inclusion – and the romance-as-metaphor storytelling device – is all the more obvious.
Who gets to love?
It’s no secret that the MCU has had a diversity problem since its inception. Movie after movie has starred – and thus valued and uplifted the stories of – white, straight men, which limits every other perspective to scattered slivers of screentime and plot bone-throwing.
Some marginalized identities don’t get any screentime at all. In 22 movies, the closest we’ve gotten to seeing a queer couple is a Thor: The Dark World bonus blu-ray one shot, All Hail the King. Iron Man villain and arms dealer Justin Hammer is shown to have a male lover in prison. When the unnamed character rubs Hammer’s shoulder to comfort him, Hammer deters him for discretion’s sake, whispering, “Not here, baby. Not here.” The audience is meant to laugh, or be grossed out, or both.
Likewise, the only reference we get to trans folks in the MCU is a transphobic joke in Iron Man, in which Tony embarrasses his friend Rhodey by telling people about “that lovely lady […] What was his name? Was it Ivan?” Even worse!
The lack of LGBT characters in the MCU is no accident; erasure has been a long-standing tradition. No one in 10 years has cared enough to prioritize LGBT inclusion all the way to the screen. There are characters – such as Ayo (and technically Okoye), Loki, Korg, and Valkyrie – who are LGBT in the comics, but it hasn’t been mentioned in the movies.
While the representation is questionable, the MCU does have a few disabled characters. Nebula, Bucky Barnes, and James Rhodes are all disabled supporting cast, but none of them have been shown as seeking or receiving romantic attention in their present lives as disabled characters. Tony’s PTSD is as much a part of Iron Man 3 as his romance with Pepper Potts, but again – the representation isn’t great.
There are several reoccurring characters of color, but – until Black Panther – they were all relegated to supporting cast. But while white supporting characters like Darcy Lewis and Phil Coulson have had romantic lives referenced, these kind of observations are notably absent for characters like Sam Wilson, James Rhodes, Wong, and Valkyrie. (The latter of which is intended to be bisexual, but the only scene referencing her sexuality was cut from her debut movie, Thor: Ragnarok.) In fact, besides Falcon delivering a flirty quip to Black Widow at the start of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the MCU’s characters of color were essentially devoid of romantic inclination or desire until Black Panther’s titular character froze up over the activist-spy Nakia.
No sluts allowed.
But even straight, abled, white main characters are heavily policed in how they’re allowed to express desire.
Male promiscuity is treated as storytelling shorthand for immaturity; in both 2010’s Iron Man 2 and 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, casual sex is presented as an indication of Tony Stark and Peter Quill’s inflated egos and stunted emotional growth. (Of course, like most of Tony Stark’s framed-by-the-narrative-as-questionable behaviors, the MCU simultaneously glorifies it as a marker of how cool they are.) In their journeys to become heroes, both men quit their cavorting and instead fixate on their respective love interests – love interests who are, of course, good girls, not sluts!
The MCU is very fond of uplifting chaste women as the ideal, and it goes out of its way to let them distance themselves from their promiscuous female peers. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is kissed by a very forward military secretary as thanks for his heroics; Peggy Carter is furious when she sees, and without warning, fires a gun at Steve’s shield to “test” it. When faced with one of Tony Stark’s recent one night stands – the accomplished reporter Christine Everhart in Iron Man – Pepper Potts snidely compares Everhart to trash that needs to be taken out. And in pointed contrast to the (forgotten-in-his-ship) one night stand Bereet, eventual teammate Gamora pulls a knife on Quill for getting too close and says, “I am not some starry-eyed waif here to succumb to your pelvic sorcery!”
Not that there’s ever any pelvic sorcery to succumb to.
Because while there’s very little actual sexuality, there’s plenty of jokes about it. (Many of these are produced by reforming sluts Stark and Quill.) These jokes exist as both nods to older audiences and savvy preteens, and as bottom-of-the-barrel humor for easy laughs. Dick jokes are fine in the MCU, but sincere portrayals of adult relationships would be a little too sexy, apparently. Can’t be too desperate, now, can we!
12% of a moment.
Despite my criticisms, I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I love its characters, I love its scope, and I even love most of the relationships I’ve directly or indirectly mentioned here. I don’t expect a sex scene in the MCU (I’ve got Archive of our Own and a vibrator for that), but I’d like to see new perspectives and more nuanced characters with romantic agency.
And I actually think we’re already heading in that direction. At least a little bit. Maybe 12%.
In Black Panther, T’challa and Nakia’s romance was written with both characters’ motivations in mind; Nakia was never a prop, and she had a story and purpose outside of T’challa’s. Their kiss felt natural rather than obligatory – and it was beautifully shot, with spills of golden sunlight and the surrounding bustle of a Wakandan city creating an intimate atmosphere. It was tender, and sensual, and felt genuine compared to the action figure face mashing of most other MCU movies.
With Scott Lang and Hope Pym, the romantic subplot could be removed entirely and the characters would still function the same. With Hope also being a superhero – and getting titular billing in the sequel – it’s less likely she’ll be permanently hand-waved away in the future if their relationship fizzles.
Even the brief romance between Vision and Wanda in Avengers: Infinity War feels like a step above the chafingly idealistic pairings of MCU past. Yes, we see them exchange dramatic, tender declarations, but their romance wasn’t a by-the-books metaphorical whirlwind; they were literally hooking up in hotels in secret. The structuring of their tryst feels more authentically adult.
More of that, please!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has spent over a decade with dick jokes, slut shaming, storytelling props posing as female characters, and a parade of voyeuristically objectified straight, white, muscular able-bodied men being pushed to the forefront. It’s about time it stopped telling warped versions of Disney romances between all the bad guy punching, and grew up.
I’d like to watch the sun rise on that grateful universe.