The MCU’s Eternal Romance Problem

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The MCU&#8217;s <i>Eternal</i> Romance Problem

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an astounding achievement in many ways: Comprising twenty-some films and nearly a dozen television properties, it is the entertainment behemoth that dominates our current pop culture landscape. And it likely will for some years to come, given the number of titles it has currently slated or already in production. The average moviegoer is now fluent in superhero-speak and intimately familiar with seemingly bizarre concepts like multiverses and chaos magic. In short: The nerds have fully inherited the earth. (What a time to be alive, is what I’m saying.) And yet, the MCU remains a complete failure when it comes to one of the key elements that help make comic book stories so popular: Romantic relationships.

Even though most comic fans probably wouldn’t identify themselves as “shippers” the way that movie or television viewers who watch something for a specific couple might, virtually every one of them could likely name a favorite pairing from their series of choice. Jean Grey and Scott Summers. Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. Sue Storm and Reed Richards. Vision and the Scarlet Witch. These relationships are all basically the definition of epic love, but they’re also precisely the kind of stories that, thus far, the Marvel film universe has most studiously ignored.

Despite its many popular-on-paper couples, romance in the MCU is largely restricted to passionless pining, occasionally culminating in a single, sweeping kiss for marquee couples like Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter or Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. Though the franchise is surprisingly good at depicting (supposedly) platonic friendship—the relationship between Steve and his brainwashed BFF Bucky Barnes is rich enough to power an entire trilogy, and Clint Barton’s grief over Natasha Romanov’s death is a big piece of the emotional engine currently driving Hawkeye—romantic interest in the MCU is predominantly indicated by the sort of snarky verbal banter and tiresome “being mean means I like you” tension that is reminiscent of boys insulting girls on the grade school playground.

The universe displays little interest in the inner workings of romantic relationships, generally counting on fans’ pre-existing knowledge to fill narrative gaps that can often span years and multiple sequels spread across several properties. Wanda and Vision’s supposedly epic love story being reduced to the plot device that powers Avengers: Infinity War’s climax—after the two fell in love off-screen—is perhaps the worst offender in this vein, but it’s hardly the only one. (Sorry to everyone who may have wanted to know how Tony and Pepper ended up on the brink of divorce in Captain America: Civil War, but are somehow back together by Spider-Man: Homecoming!)

Because of all this, WandaVision felt like a much-needed (and long-awaited) course correction. The franchise’s first real attempt at telling a love story, the show finally treated one of its most iconic couples as precisely that: A legitimate relationship worth exploring on its own merits. And the result was magical. WandaVision is thematically rich, narratively compelling and emotionally devastating, and that’s all down to the romance at its center. None of it works if we don’t see—if we can’t easily believe—that Wanda loves Vision enough to remake reality in his name. It seemed like Marvel finally understood that audiences deserved romantic connections with real depth and genuine emotion attached to them. It felt like the dawn of a whole new world.

Surely, many fans (read: me) likely thought we’d crossed the proverbial Rubicon. Marvel gets it now! We’ll never have to suffer through the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “romance” plots that pop up throughout the franchise again! (Remember that whole Steve and Sharon Carter thing? Y i k e s.) It’s clear that other stories can exist beyond those that promise massive stakes and potentially world-ending problems. We’ll finally get to see real, complicated love stories between the characters we care about play out on-screen and see how those relationships evolve instead of just hearing about it in sequel-based exposition dumps. Maybe some of these supposed soulmates will even kiss more than once!

Well, it looks like the joke is on us. At least if Marvel’s latest big-screen effort is anything to go by. It’s true Eternals was hobbled from the jump, being asked to serve entirely too many masters for any single film. From introducing nearly a dozen new heroes (most of whom casual viewers had likely never heard of), to explaining their origin stories, to establishing their relationship dynamics, to them preventing yet another apocalypse…well, it had a lot to do. So maybe asking this movie to also be a serviceable love story was always going to be too much, and we should have tempered our expectations accordingly.

Except…Marvel told us it would be. It explicitly marketed this film as one that would not only center on an epic, centuries-spanning romance, it would also show that couple being intimate with one another! (Imagine: Sex in a Marvel property!) Considering that this is the same franchise that hyped a Russo brother’s cameo as the MCU’s first gay character, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that Eternals was not, in fact, the Marvel movie that finally embraced romance as a legitimate form of storytelling. But I doubt any of us expected what we actually got, which was something akin to a PowerPoint presentation repeatedly telling us that the 5,000 year-long relationship between Eternals Ikaris and Sersi was Actually Extremely Important and Really Mattered.

Look, Richard Madden and Gemma Chan are objectively two of the most attractive people on the planet. But Ikaris and Sersi have almost zero chemistry. Every interaction they share is incredibly dull, and their entire epic love seems to be based on him staring at her for several centuries and calling her pretty a couple of times. The much ballyhooed intimate moment between them is hilariously quick—not to mention weirdly framed and shot from the waist up—and has almost no resonance given that we barely know either of these people, let alone understand what they see in one another. It’s so awkward and uncomfortable that it feels purposefully so, like Marvel specifically included this scene to punish us for asking for the existence of a moment like this in the first place. Especially when Ikaris and Sersi are consistently outshone by a pair that the film doesn’t even confirm are a couple, but whose limited number of scenes crackle with all the chemistry and potential that the supposed marquee pair lacks.

Barry Keoghan’s Druig and Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari are two of the lesser immortals in Eternals, only sharing a mere handful of scenes together. Yet, their chemistry is palpable, and their limited screen time still manages to convey hidden and potentially exciting depths, hinting at a much richer history together than the one we see play out between Ikaris and Sersi and offering a tantalizing glimpse at the way Eternals could have wrestled with much meatier ideas about what it really means to live—and love—forever. Druig, for his part, mind controls entire generations of people while Makkari eventually isolates herself in the buried ruins of their former ship, but the two easily fall back into an flirtatious rhythm as soon as they see each other again, making heart eyes at each other and demonstrating a surprising depth to their connection. (Druig remembers to ask after an artifact Makkari was searching for the last time he saw her, which was several centuries prior.)

Yet, according to filming reports, the relationship between the two came about almost entirely by accident and was added only after director Chloe Zhao noticed the insane chemistry between the two actors. Keoghan and Ridloff clearly took the opportunity and ran with it, and they deserve serious thanks for adding some necessary sparkle to an otherwise bland canvas. But it’s also pretty much all the evidence you need that Marvel still doesn’t take romance seriously or think about romantic relationships in ways beyond how specific couples can be used as plot points, despite all their protests to the contrary. After all, Sersi can’t save the world if Ikaris doesn’t care about her enough to spare her life at the film’s climax. Ain’t love grand?

Your mileage may vary on whether you think Eternals earned that moment beyond the script simply deeming it necessary, but it’s hardly the first time in this franchise where a romantic relationship has been treated as little more than a means to an end. (I will never be over the fact that we didn’t get to see Wanda and Vision’s first kiss, but we had to watch her watch him die twice!)

Honestly, it’s exhausting. Particularly when we’ve seen how much better the MCU is capable of now, both in shows like WandaVision and even (very) briefly in Eternals itself. It’s not an accident that popular fan fiction site Archive of Our Own currently has triple the amount of entries under the Druig/Makkari tag than under Ikaris/Sersi. Viewers know what’s up, and more (or, you know, any) romance is something they have been clamoring for since the MCU began. When will they finally get it in a consistent, sustainable way?

Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.