Today’s biggest franchises could use a few more sparks.
Romance to the modern blockbuster is a wisdom tooth—it shows up late to the scene and ends up being either inconsequential or downright problematic, a vestigial structure left over from an earlier evolutionary era that serves no modern purpose.
At least, that is increasingly how it’s being treated.
I’ve already lamented the increasingly uninspired love life of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it is clear now more than ever that the problem is far bigger, and spreading like a particularly virulent flu. From Star Wars to Jurassic World, romance has been largely tossed aside. The few efforts made, from Finn and Rose’s awkward peck in The Last Jedi to Claire and Owen’s peripheral relationship woes in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, come across as overwhelmingly awkward, like a square peg being forced into a round hole.
Films that do put romance front and center are being increasingly treated like a niche market—color-by-numbers rom-coms and indie LGBTQ romances (and Love, Simon, which ironically manages to be refreshing by bridging the gap). To be clear, there is nothing wrong with either of these sub-genres. But once upon a time, romance used to be the heart of the movies and movie stardom. It was the romantic chemistry between leads that sparked careers and drew audiences—a fundamental component of what made most movies tick, regardless of genre. In today’s biggest films, when great screen chemistry between love interests does occur, it feels more like a lucky coincidence than anything else.
Admittedly, “Golden Age” Hollywood had plenty of problems. It could be formulaic, and sexist, and racist, and propagated all kinds of problematic ideas and practices. But nonetheless, it had its genius. It’s magic. And today, as we continue to grapple with various negatives rooted deep in cinema’s past, there are perhaps certain things that have been unnecessarily sacrificed.
There’s nothing wrong with romance, with appreciating a good love story. Nothing inherently anti-feminist or retrogressive about enjoying a compelling meet-cute. Hollywood could still use more compelling, well-rounded female characters—but, perhaps contrary to what some may argue, there’s nothing that makes that fundamentally incompatible with romance. The issue isn’t female characters having love interests, but when female characters are just love interests—ornamental but fundamentally useless, like narrative glitter.
Even ten, fifteen years ago, romance wasn’t just an independent genre, but an important part of nearly every self-respecting blockbuster—Jack and Rose in Titanic, Will and Elizabeth in Pirates of the Caribbean, Jake and Neytiri in Avatar. Compare the importance of Pepper and Tony’s relationship in the original Iron Man to the relationships in any of the MCU’s Phase Three films.
Take a moment to think back on iconic Hollywood movie romances. The ones with lines that people quote, scenes that people spoof, the fictional couples that people practically know as a unit: Harry and Sally, Jack and Sally, Jack and Rose, Han and Leia. Those four couples span genres—comedy, drama, sci-fi, the crossover of crossovers that is The Nightmare Before Christmas—and three decades.
Now try to think of a similar pairing from the past five years—one from a major film from a major studio that is, to use the technical term, canon. In other words, a pairing that exists openly in the work itself as opposed to being built up from actor chemistry and a few charged exchanges by dedicated fans.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now, maybe you have a couple in mind, or maybe you don’t—I’m not saying it’s impossible, only that it’s more difficult than it used to be, and only getting harder. And that’s a loss.
Films, especially big, flashy Hollywood films, are not life. They are life edited and glamorized and stylized and dialed up to 11. But to truly be great—and I am of the opinion that there have been some genuinely great Hollywood films over the years—they still have to be fundamentally true to the human condition, to the state of being a person and living life and having feelings.
Classical Hollywood perhaps oversold romantic love—made it too formulaic, too central at the expense of everything else. But the response to that should not be to universally minimize romance as much as possible, to just scrape it out entirely and call it a day. Modern blockbusters can often feel oddly flat. Shallow. Underwhelming. And, like most issues, there are undoubtedly many components at work. But it seems, considering romance and compelling romantic chemistry fueled the fire of Hollywood through its most powerful decades, that revitalizing and remodeling that energy to suit modern demands—that is, inclusivity, diversity, and well-developed characters—could only help the modern blockbuster gain a much-needed edge.
Because there’s a void there, and yet nobody seems to even be trying to fill it.