A Brief Romantic History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Or, more accurately: a series of unfortunate events.

Guardians Peter Gamora

Or, more accurately: a series of unfortunate events.

The wonderfully weird author and illustrator Edward Gorey once drew an image of a somewhat concerned-looking woman studying herself in the mirror, accompanied by a poem featuring the lines, “I don’t mind my shins / Being stuck full of pins, / But I fear I am coming unsexed.”

When thinking of the state of romance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this quote often comes to my mind. Because while the MCU has grown and developed in several regards, it still consistently struggles with romance. Since Iron Man exploded on to the scene, the MCU seems to have progressively “come unsexed,” to paraphrase Gorey. While admittedly romance is not actually a necessary component of a superhero film, in the sprawling network of MCU films that appear to be looking to establish themselves as epic in every way, the dearth of any truly epic romances is a decided absence.

When you boil it down, the most prevalent issue is this: in eighteen films, there are basically like ten female characters in the MCU who anyone actually cares about. Half of them come from Black Panther. Meanwhile, there are about a hundred dudes and Marvel seems unwilling to rock the boat by having any of them be either gay or bi, so what you’ve got is a never-ending forgettable carousel of cardboard cutout female love interests. They’re just sort of there and they don’t really do anything, like vestigial plot structures — the narrative equivalents of appendices or wisdom teeth.

That said, for better or for worse, let’s take a trip down memory lane with the romances of the MCU.

Pepper Potts/Tony Stark

IronMan3 Pepper Tony

Origin: Iron Man

Status: Sailing

Proof Tony Stark has a heart. The MCU’s original OTP and flagship, it remains the strongest ship sailing the MCU sea, even though the status of their relationship at this point seems primarily dependent on Gwyneth Paltrow’s availability.

The ultimate indicator of a great romantic pairing is that both characters are compelling individually, but far more so together—in other words, that the couple is greater than the sum of its parts. While there are a few other MCU romances that sufficiently equal the sum of their parts, their first major established romance remains the only one that truly goes the extra mile.

Jane Foster/Thor

Jane Thor

Origin: Thor

Status: Sunk

As introduced in Thor, the dynamic between Natalie Portman’s astrophysicist and Chris Hemsworth’s alien prince is more or less fine. There’s enough chemistry to buy it, though not enough for a viewer to feel especially enthusiastic about said purchase. Ultimately, it’s blah enough that when Jane Foster and colleagues get unceremoniously axed in Thor: Ragnarok (“Sorry Jane dumped you”) following the hot mess of The Dark World, no one is left particularly heartbroken.

Margaret “Peggy” Carter/Steve Rogers

Origin: Captain America: The First Avenger

Status: Sunk

The MCU’s one compelling tragic romance. Considering The First Avenger is set in World War II and everybody knows that Captain America ends up in the present day going into the film, the ending of Steve (Chris Evans) and Peggy’s (Hayley Atwell’s) relationship is pretty obvious from the get-go. Still, the film manages to compellingly develop their unrealized love story of missed opportunities and longing glances to the point where Steve’s forlorn “I had a date” ranks easily among the MCU’s most heartbreaking romantic moments. It’s still not bona fide tearjerker content—in terms of romantic tragedy, the MCU has yet to unlock that achievement—but it’s well within the range of genuine tug-at-the-heartstrings territory.

Sharon Carter/Steve Rogers

Cap Civil War Movie Sharon Steve

Origin: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Status: Sailing, unfortunately

Perhaps there might theoretically have been a way to pull off Steve’s romantic progression directly from Peggy Carter to her great-niece without it coming across as gross, but the way the MCU handles the situation is decidedly not it.

Watching them kiss in Captain America: Civil War is enough to make viewers revert to the instinctual reaction of their four-year-old selves when cooties were still gross.

In a word: Ewwww. 

Gamora/Peter Quill

Guardians Peter Gamora

Origin: Guardians of the Galaxy

Status: Sailing

There are certain kinds of love-hate banter that indicate romantic tension, and other kinds that resemble sibling rivalries. Your mileage may vary, but for my money, the Gamora/Peter Quill dynamic consistently reminds me much more of the latter than the former. As such, not only do scenes of the pair slow dancing or Peter flirting with the subtlety of a sledgehammer come across as forced, but accompanied by a decidedly uncomfortable pseudo-incest vibe.

Vision/Wanda Maximoff

Captain America Wanda Vision

Origin: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Status: Sailing

Ah, the good old “Pair the Spares” trope. Though I am aware that there is a comic book precedence, the way the MCU has proceeded to throw the two products of the incredibly underwhelming Ultron together reeks more of damage control (i.e. minimizing the blast radius) than “true love” or what-have-you. The silver lining on this cloud is that, considering Vision (Paul Bettany) has one of those Infinity Stones Thanos is looking for stuck in his forehead and there’s no way Infinity War can sufficiently ramp up the suspense while one of the aforementioned gems remains literally embedded in a hero’s body, I estimate a 0.01% chance of Vision making it out alive. So at least we won’t have to put up with this one for long.

Clint Barton/Laura Barton

Ultron Laura Clint Barton

Origin: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Status: Sailing

I distinctly remember the reveal of Clint’s secret family and rural utopia farm as the moment I gave up any hope that Ultron might get better. The Barton relationship, like the whole farmstead interlude that encapsulates the whole of Laura’s screen time, feels like a boring acid trip—simultaneously unreal and singularly dull.

Bruce Banner/Natasha Romanoff

Age Ultron Movie Screencaps Com

Origin: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Status: Sailing

Perhaps the best example of how singularly bad the MCU is at doing romance. In this instance, the problem can’t be attributed to lopsided character development between the pair. Instead, out of a team of supremely attractive humans with off-the-charts levels of chemistry, the MCU managed to pick one of the few combinations with no spark at all and then push it like sponsored content.

Hope van Dyne/Scott Lang

Antman Hope Scott

Origin: Ant-Man

Status: Sailing

Another pairing that is just solidly okay, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and Scott’s (Paul Rudd’s) relationship as established in Ant-Man proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the bicker-bantering “opposites attract” kind of romance has officially become the MCU’s go-to formula. Admittedly, while not all of their romances following this pattern have been particularly compelling (see: Gamora/Peter Quill), none have been among their genuine garbage fires (see: Christine Palmer/Stephen Strange, Sharon Carter/Steve Rogers). As Ant-Man really focuses far more on Scott and Hope’s respective relationships with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) as opposed to each other, there’s still a bit of a question mark here—but one that presents a glimmer of hope for a potentially bright future. As the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp marks the first instance where both halves of a couple have received titular billing, these two might yet develop into one of the MCU’s most compelling duos.

Christine Palmer/Stephen Strange

Christine Palmer Doctor Strange

Origin: Doctor Strange

Status: Sailing, technically

Let’s just acknowledge Doctor Strange as the complete and total waste of Rachel McAdams’ talents that it is. Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch’s) vaguely sentient cape is a more dynamic and developed character than the utterly pointless Christine Palmer. This film offends every single romantic bone in my body.

Liz Allan/Peter Parker

Laura Harrier As Liz Allan In Spider Man Homecoming X

Origin: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Status: Sunk

This relationship was very much intended as a sweet, somewhat awkward high school crush kind of situation as opposed to a love story for the ages, and in that it very much succeeds. Endearing and pretty much over before it even begins.

Michelle “MJ” Jones/Peter Parker

Spiderman Homecoming Michelle

Origin: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Status: TBD

The youth who give me some shred of hope for the MCU’s romantic future.

Okay, so technically it’s not canon—yet. But I’m pretty sure it’s written somewhere that Peter Parker and MJ are always supposed to be endgame, and considering the dynamic we’ve already seen between Tom Holland’s Peter Parker and Zendaya’s whip-smart, sharp-tongued Michelle, I am 100% here for seeing this relationship develop in future MCU installments.

Nakia/T’Challa

Marvel Studios' Black Panther L To R: T'challa/black Panther Chadwick Boseman And Nakia Lupita Nyong'o Ph: Film Frame ©marvel Studios

OriginBlack Panther

Status: Sailing

Individually, both Nakia (Lupit Nyong’o) and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) are interesting and compelling characters. They’re good together, but they’re also perfectly good apart—the sort of romance that’s good enough not to detract from the overall storyline, but also doesn’t really add anything either. Their relationship is stuck in will-they-won’t-they limbo for most of Black Panther due to ideological differences and an incompatibility between Nakia’s career goals and the duties associated with courting a king, but it’s not a question that inspires viewers to be strongly rooting for a particular answer. If they end up together, cool, and if they don’t, so long as their characters both stick around, that’s cool, too.

Okoye/W’Kabi

Origin: Black Panther

Status: Sailing

I’m not saying the relationship between supporting players Okoye (Danai Gurira) and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is a love story for the ages, but their dynamic makes their characters more intriguing and compelling than if they were both separately present in the narrative. They end up on separate sides of the T’Challa/Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) divide, and the resulting “Would you kill me, my love?”/”For Wakanda? No question.” exchange is a brilliant scene. Their romantic relationship adds something to their characters and Black Panther as a whole as opposed to merely existing for the sake of existing.

And really, that’s the bottom line. I’m not saying the MCU ought to be full of epic romances—though if it managed to develop one or two, I admittedly would not be opposed. I’m saying that it’s entirely possible to feature romantic relationships that benefit the characters involved and the film on the whole, and that this can be achieved without needing to make these romances the central focus of the narrative—and that, thus far, the MCU, on the whole, has failed at this miserably. But fingers crossed for the future.

Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.