CBM Romance - Strength or Weakness?

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.

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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