How do big box office Superhero movies handle romantic relationships? Not great, according to S.W. Sondheimer, who says what many of us have been thinking for quite a while!
Why do you go see superhero movies? I go for the explosions. The pretty swords, the massive space battles, the fabulous headgear… All of the wonderful, ludicrous, escapist elements for which I turn to comics but in living, breathing, going out for shawarma, ass-kicking form. I go to escape the worries of work and kids and current events. To hide from the world and allow my brain a vacation from the constant noise.
I go to indulge myself, for a couple of hours, in my particular brand of fantasy.
Part of that immersion is watching some of my favorite, imaginary friends interact with our world. Sure, it’s an entirely fictionalized version of our world. Maybe the writers sub in a crazy, living planet or the skull of a Celestial or a galaxy far, far away, but even the most alien of worlds is still crafted by a human mind and reflective of some aspect of our vulnerable, blue and green marble. Sometimes the characters are talking raccoons or cryogenically frozen assassins rather than the guy who lives next door but they’re still people and do, in addition to their super things, the same stuff the rest of us do: think, read. Laugh at bad jokes, step on Legos, screw up their kids…
You know. People stuff.
The best adaptations acknowledge the importance of the people stuff. The best adaptations don’t just account for the what of a character, though. It isn’t as simple as post-battle take-out. The best adaptations take into account the who of our heroes and for many of the most enduring icons, romance, whether eternal or unrequited or… frequent and varied, is an integral part of that who.
And yet, so often, when superhero flicks or TV shows delve into romance, nuance is wiped out in favor of one of four tropes which have become shorthand for “at least one of these people is trying to get with that other person”: unrequited love, love at sight which endures, love at first sight which falls victim to A Complication, and hate at first sight which becomes love for some reason never made entirely clear.
Anything other than shorthand, of course, takes precious minutes away from the giant fireballs for which the studio has paid so much and used to induce us, like magpies to a shiny, to buy a ticket. Once we’re there, many of us find we’d like a little something more but movies can only be so long and while the small screen projects may have a bit more wiggle room in that regard, they’re still composed of episodes of finite length and a season comprised of a limited number of episodes.
And so, we the viewers, are left with the shorthand.
We want the grandeur and the power that shatters mystical hammers and the indestructible hero from Atlantis. Of course we do. But if that’s all we get, if the connection which drew us to these characters in the first place is severed, what’s the point?
For us to remain connected, heroes, no matter how super, need to share in some of our fundamental human experiences. For some of them, as it is for some of us, romance is one of those experiences.
So, is there room for romance in superhero screen adaptations?
Absolutely, if romance is important to who a certain hero is. On whether or not the writers can portray the romance honestly within a specific character’s framework.
Cap isn’t Cap without Peggy (at least in the MCU); he’s a rebel without a cause. Clark without Lois is a remote being with upstanding morals and no heart. Midnighter without Apollo is a murderer. Deadpool without… well, whoever Deadpool is into in the moment, is a lunatic with swords and bombs and guns. The Vision without Wanda Maximoff is a robot powered by a magic rock. The romances between these characters shape who they are and who they become. They are at the core of each who. So, yes. Cut a few explosions and let us share in these heroes’ discoveries of one another.
But don’t force romance where it doesn’t fit. Don’t wedge it in to appease expectation or, worse yet, for shock value. When writers do that (looking at you, Whedon), travesties like Brutasha happen; awkward, cringe worthy, and sometimes downright cruel. Including romance where it belongs enhances character development and story. Attempting to conjure it where it doesn’t mangles characters and corrupts stories. Do everyone a favor and, in those cases, which are probably more numerous than acknowledged, go for the extra galactic dog fight or bridge joust.
If you do decide the romance is important, portray it honestly. Humans are wildly varied creatures and so are their mating dances. Some, like Wade and Vanessa, find one another in experimentation. Steve and Peggy’s affair is more chaste and it suits them beautifully. If you pair folks up, do your homework on the characters’ histories and give them the romance they would choose. Heterosexual, same-sex, bi, asexual, poly, traditional, creative, exploratory… Long term, one night, everything in between, so long as the affair is honest. So long as it’s personal.
So long as it’s human.
So., is there time for romance in superhero movies and television? Absolutely. But only if writers are willing to give us people rather than paragons, relationships instead of shorthand toss-offs. Let the involved parties find one another, find quirks that drive them crazy and the things they love which make those quirks something to adore, as Netflix is doing with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Let the romances, and those being romanced, grow and change. Fight. Break up, make up. Meet other people. Find one another, lose one another. Get stuck, move on. Tell good stories. Tell important stories. Those stories may or may not include romance. Not all do. Not all must. Either way, tell the whole story. Tell human stories.
Even if one of those humans is a trash panda...
S.W. Sondheimer Makes words while dressed up, and hopes neither of the kids lights the house on fire while she's doing it :-). You can read more of her thoughts at BookRiot and follow her on Twitter and Instagram
What do you think of the way Superheroes romantic relationships are portrayed on the big and small screen? Would exploring them take away from the kick-ass action or add nuance to the characters that has been lacking thus far? Join the debate in the comments below or chime in with your ten cents worth on Social Media using #SuperheroLove