CBM Romance - Strength or Weakness?

CBMs always cast a "love interest" to offset the hero, but there is not always much actual love happening onscreen. Here, I take a look at the CBM landscape with regard to romance, when it is used as a prominent story element, and how that can either hurt or help a film.

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By Wolf38 - 2/7/2014


The vast majority of films include at least a couple of attractive (to each other at least) characters who might potentially pair up romantically. The question of whether they will is a common source of dramatic tension and anticipation. Sometimes, the romantic subplot is the prime focus. Sometimes, it’s merely a subtext. Not every ending is happy. But romance is nearly always present in some form.

Comic Book Movies certainly follow that pattern. However, in spite of the fact that CBMs draw from source material that is already visual in nature, hence the prevalence of often beautiful, physically idealized characters, there is a tendency in modern CBMs to downplay romance. The reasons are plenty. Many superheroes are defined, in part, by the psychological conflict between personal needs and societal obligations. In short, they have to make hard choices, often giving up the freedom to be close to others.

Another reason is the positive trend of portraying female characters as parallel heroes in their own right, as opposed to the traditional ‘damsel in distress.’ Common enemies often draw the primary plot focus away from couple-dynamics. Add to that the density of storyline that is often crammed into a single CBM, especially those that are origin stories, and the characters may simply not have time for romance.




It is very interesting to look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of romance. What one sees is that there is…very little of it actually happening. The solo character films released so far have great similarity. The titular male heroes each have a significant female counterpart, but while there is certainly romantic tension present in each respective dynamic, it is very much the ‘B-plot.’ Betty Ross and Jane Foster are scientists; Peggy Carter is a military officer and Pepper Potts a high-ranking businessperson. However, other than Ross for one scene in The Incredible Hulk and Potts – and to be fair, the latter has had more screen time to develop as a character than any other MCU female to date – the romance is much more implied than actually shown.

Marvel Studios is doing a good job of portraying strong females who are defined by their own credentials and competence as opposed to mere association with a male superhero. From that general standpoint, there is nothing to criticize about Marvel’s approach.




However, the most recent MCU film, Thor: The Dark World, failed to capitalize on a romantic sub plot that could potentially have made that film much stronger. Without taking an in-depth look at The Dark World, in brief I feel that the single most intense moment of the film is the eye contact shared between Jane and Sif as they passed each other in the halls of Asgard. As obnoxious as love triangles can be (poor Evangeline Lilly) this one is clearly there anyway, and the lack of attention given it robs the film of much-needed intimacy and character development.

Did the producers of The Dark World deliberately decided to downplay the romance, or did it simply get swallowed up in the process of focusing on the larger scale Dark Elves/Nine Realms plot? Or, has Marvel realized that Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth don’t really have chemistry together? But I digress there. The real question is, do CBM producers/directors/writers shy away from significant romance, and is that a mistake?

Moving beyond Marvel Studios to survey CBMs in general, it does not seem that significant focus on a romantic subplot closely correlates with the quality of a film. It is more dependent on whether the romantic subject matter helps strengthen the rest of the film (by deepening character development) or weakens it by coming across as forced and clichéd.




For example, Superman Returns focuses quite a bit on the romantic tension between Clark and Lois, but because of the writing and casting, said tension arguably hinders the film more than helps it. The rather slapsticky wedding subplot in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is not one of that film’s (few) finer points. The courtship, if you will, between Matt and Elektra in Daredevil may have worked out great in real life, but it does not entirely work in the film, or so its exclusion from the director’s cut would suggest. And the love triangle of sorts between Logan, Jean and Scott in the X-Men films has in my opinion been a bit flat.

In a few cases, thankfully only a few, casting has conspired to throw a wet blanket on CBM romance. The aforementioned Hemsworth-Portman pairing is the most egregious example of absent chemistry, but there have been others. Although I am a fan of Man of Steel, and of Henry Cavill and Amy Adams as individuals, I have yet to be convinced that they are a good match as a couple. We shall see.

Sometimes, romance works well when confined to a simmering subplot, as evidenced by the first two Christopher Nolan Batman films. The Rachael Dawes character is clearly always on Bruce Wayne’s mind, even though circumstances tend to keep the two of them in separate spheres. Ultimately, their relationship plays an important role in the story without really being a romance.

Perhaps that is the happy medium that makes for the best CBMs? Plenty of successful films have featured attractive ‘love interests’ who haven’t really been utilized as such. Instead, they’re peer protagonists. That approach makes a lot of sense. Still, there is something to be said for letting love sit center stage in a screenplay, given the right story.




Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy features the most overt focus on a romantic relationship in any mainstream CBM. The very first lines of narrated dialog in Spider-Man (2002) feature Peter Parker telling the viewer that “this story is about a girl.” And so it is, at its core. All three films subsist on the energy of Peter’s love and care for Mary Jane, with some of the strongest scenes being the relationship-focused ones. When combined with the other plot threads featuring villains, social responsibility and the struggles of juggling priorities, it forms a very high-tension web. The story has energy and great heart. The Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, Spider-Man 2 in particular, comprises easily the best example of how romance can focus a film for the better.




Finally, I have to give a brief shout out to the pairing of Hugh Jackman and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Make no mistake, I consider that film to easily be among the worst CBMs in overall quality, but the intimate scenes between Logan and Kayla Silverfox are the best part, for me. Unfortunately, sometimes beauty gets crushed in the rubble.

Will upcoming CBMs feature more overt romance? Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy should definitely give us a little, but aside from The Amazing Spiderman 2, it doesn’t look like it. Captain America may be sharing the screen with some very lovely ladies in the Winter Soldier, but the first trailer explicitly highlighted Steve Roger’s duty-first attitude. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron? So many characters, so little time. Man of Steel 2? Speculation is futile there.

The flip side of all of this, which I have not addressed but which is very relevant for discussion – when will we get a film where a woman is the titular hero, instead of a supporting cast member? Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel? I hope to see each of them headlining their own solo films in the near future. More immediately, if we are fortunate, Peggy Carter and Jessica Jones may be coming to our television screens.

Personally, I would like to see more real love stories in CBMs, as opposed to insinuated but underdeveloped sexual tension. In the right setting, with a good screenplay and dramatically symbiotic actors, it can be a great thing. Peter Parker isn’t the only superhero who stands to benefit from having a genuine love interest. In any case, though, maybe the real love story is the one between the audience and the screen, just as between the reader and the page of a comic book.
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20 Comments
BenjiWest - 2/8/2014, 12:12 AM
Very good article. One of the most forced CBM romances had to have been Bruce and Miranda in The Dark Knight Rises. I know they only had so little time and they wanted her betrayal to mean more. They also managed to work in the contrived Catwoman romance as well.
Kurne - 2/8/2014, 4:25 AM
Best romances

MCU:

Tony and Pepper

Fox:

Bobby and... I have to say Kitty

Sony:

Garfield and Stone

DC:

Reeve and Kidder
Kurne - 2/8/2014, 4:31 AM
Eh I really don't know about Fox. Agree with the Jackman-Collins pairing, though.
Tstubbs - 2/8/2014, 9:26 AM
Good article. Romances can go either way as far as making a story better. Tension in romances are generally more interesting then two people just hitting it off but if the relationship is a subplot the tension can pull you away from the main arch of the story. If you want the relationship as something that progresses the story you'll create tension if you want it to remain a subplot make them just hit it off. I agree with you on not buying the relationship between Lois and Superman in MOS, and very few comic stories have me buy it either. Nothing against MOS its just a hard relationship to justify. What they have to face now is they were seen kissing so how do you pair Lois and Clark without giving it away that Clark and Superman are one and the same?
I am hoping for some tension between Superman and Wonder Woman in the following movies. I don't really care how far they take it but putting Wonder Woman in the picture and having Superman still decide that Lois is the right choice is a way for that relationship to be justified.
SauronsBANE - 2/8/2014, 9:46 AM
The "romances" from MoS and Thor make The Dark Knight Rises look like a Nicholas Sparks novel. Seriously, Superman/Lois Lane and Thor/Jane Foster didn't have ANY effort put into them whatsoever. It's just two attractive people falling in love obligatorily. At least in The Dark Knight Rises, there's a sense of history between Bruce and Miranda, and it at least makes sense on paper that Bruce and Selina would hook up. TDKR definitely could've paid more attention to those two romances, but it's definitely nowhere near as bad as Mos or Thor.
Wolf38 - 2/8/2014, 10:44 AM
Thanks for the comments, everyone. Yeah, I was thinking about The Dark Knight Rises...to me, Bruce/Miranda and Bruce/Selina both make sense technically, but they do feel a bit...underdeveloped. Think it might just be because that film has so much going on in it that almost everything is abbreviated.
BenjiWest - 2/8/2014, 1:40 PM
Your right, because I think the chemistry is strong. That probably is testament to Bale's acting ability, because I think he successfully conveyed a sense of chemistry with all his leading ladies. Good call on the X-men origins romance. Funny the X franchise has the most opportunity for displaying strong romances, and they mostly failed.
Destined - 2/8/2014, 4:36 PM
Jane/Thor pairing is terrible onscreen and they don't have any chemistry. That would be with Sif, their chemistry is much more apparent onscreen.
BenjiWest - 2/8/2014, 5:48 PM
@ AnnoDomini - good point about the "rebound" aspect, I often forget he had just found out the one woman he ever loved, chose someone else. As far as my thinking it was to make the betrayal more meaningful, I guess from Miranda's point of view, perhaps that was the plan.
BobbyDrakeApproaches - 2/8/2014, 5:50 PM
One of the best editorials I've read in a while. Keep up the good work!
Wolf38 - 2/8/2014, 9:42 PM
@BobbyDrakeApproaches, Thanks. :)

I think that TDKR would have been better served by limiting the focus to fewer elements, or being presented as a two-part film. Nearly everything, including Miranda and Selina, could stand some more fleshing-out.
dethpillow - 2/9/2014, 12:45 AM
@wolf38 - yeah, i think TDKR should really have been two movies.
actually the one person who i really look to for understanding the film better is AnnoDomini here. he's made me look at the movie a different way, and always interesting things he sees in it.

dethpillow - 2/9/2014, 12:51 AM
this article is so weird i can't post a comment on it, i could that last one, but every other time, it says, i've created it successfully but nothing happens.
dethpillow - 2/9/2014, 12:52 AM
interesting topic and good writeup on it.

A lot of people who watch these movies don't want to feel like they're watching something that girls watch.

As totally ridiculous as that sounds, that's actually the feeling I get. It threatens them or makes them feel embarrassed or something. So too much 'romance' and you begin stepping on some manly toes with a big portion of your audience.
dethpillow - 2/9/2014, 12:54 AM
They want woman and 'romance' in their movies, but I don't know if you'd really say in the sense of any kind of 'romance' genre. Too much of that and it starts feeling like a movie to take your girlfriend to. Cuz amazingly enough, a lot of people draw lines in their heads like that.
dethpillow - 2/9/2014, 12:57 AM
and there's never practically anything to do with any kind of thing you'd call "romance" in real life. or even just sex. comic book movies lack sex. and that's a bad thing. I don't mean depictions of sexual acts, or references to them. i mean sex in the sense that you deal as part of yourself every minute of the day, regardless of what you're doing. And this goes along with the adolescent power fantasy that sometimes gets taken out upon these movies. sex is for real, you're sexual from the time you were born, it's a thing that these movies tend to ignore entirely and when they do present anything to do with sex, it's always very superficial.
dethpillow - 2/9/2014, 1:11 AM
so that's part of it. and like you said, another part is that there's just not time to focus on treating any characters as real human beings, except heroes and villains, at most.

MJ in Spider-Man films was used as a dramatic device. A thing sometimes representing a happy life, free of his responsibilities as Spider-Man. so she drives the movies a great deal in that she defines his internal conflicts. So a girlfriend is necessary, but she's just a faceless dummy for Peter to either desire, be driven to rescue, feel pressure to meet dates or expectations or to feel guilty about. But MJ is a dummy in those films.

It's hard to show both sides of a relationship in a true human way in any movie, even ones who's whole point is trying to do that, and there's no room for it in most superhero movies. that said, there's tons of room for them to improve their honesty in looking at things, and also to actually present a more sexualized version of these characters. all of them seem castrated to me. But I've spent a lot of time in my life redefining how little being a 'man' or a 'woman' in society's larger terms, how little that means. So it's probably talking from a different dictionary when i say that. But regardless, they're all castrated, and so are the women.

last thing too, there's a famous name for how women are often used in comic books, (well in all drama, but it's named from comic books). But how they are used to simply provide the hero with a motivation, or some kind of internal conflict. look up Women in Refrigerators if you're interested in reading stuff that is articulating it better than i am now. But that's kind the "trope" that's become the reference for that idea.

but good article, this is really interesting stuff and there's a lot more to be said bout, for sure.

and also nothing i said was intended to be insulting to anyone and also not intended to imply that any of these films are exceedingly sexist. this is the standard of the culture at large and i don't see these movies as being offensive or criminal in any way. but it still is only gonna ever help to examine everything we have around us, all the time.
Wolf38 - 2/9/2014, 10:16 AM
@dethpillow, Those are good points. Comics, at least the mainstream ones that even with mature themes are ostensibly still marketed at kids, don't usually deal directly with sex the way a standalone action film might. And yeah, the "target male demographic" that the studios are trying to hit...it probably is a strategy to keep the films from seeming to be "chick flicks" or whatever. That's not how I think, but I imagine that the powers that be probably do.

@AnnoDomini, I agree that Bruce needed more time, which would have in turn helped his interactions with both Miranda and Selina feel more realized. I do think that Miranda's "character reveal" could have been done differently at least. More time might have helped it happen more naturally. It felt rushed to me...
Wolf38 - 2/9/2014, 10:17 AM
Edit: Of course it had to feel rushed for Miranda...still could've been more elegantly written, I guess.
MightyZeus - 2/9/2014, 5:33 PM
Sometimes it could be a strength other times it could be a weakness or a complete mess. Great write up glad you brought this topic up.

I'd have to say currently i like the dynamic between Gwen and Peter in TASM. I also enjoy the romance between Tony and Pepper.

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