Superhero Movies: What do we do with the love interest?

We all know that in the world of superhero comics, male and female heroes exist, but very rarely do they fall in love with each other. Instead, men of steel typically seek out women of Kleenex as their romantic interests, women whose very ordinariness is part of their attraction. The job of this ordinary love interest is to keep the male superhero grounded, connected with the world and humankind, and to provide him with a sanctuary where he can relax and tap into what is ordinary within himself. Yet does this role have to be as thankless as it sounds? Can this Kleenex woman, this ordinary love interest, be written in such a way that audiences can take an actual interest in her, as an individual distinct from the male hero?

The traditional way of involving love interests in the superheroes’ adventures has been to have the villains kidnap them and have the heroes come to their rescue; with the women in peril, the men get to demonstrate their strength. Lois Lane is the best-known example of the perpetually kidnapped love interest type, so prone to misfortune that she apparently can’t get through a normal day without needing to be rescued at least once. Yet when she’s written well, she’s one of the more tolerable damsels, a passionate journalist whose zeal to discover the truth moves her to run headlong into those dangerous situations she’s not quite equipped to escape. She at least has some purpose of her own, aside and apart from what Superman does. She can be an interesting and intelligent character — again, as long as the writers know what they’re doing.

Far more irksome, to me, is Mary Jane Watson, the repeatedly captured and rescued love interest of Spider-Man (as portrayed in Sam Raimi’s big-screen Spider-Man trilogy) — captured, not because she’s diving head first into a mystery investigation, but simply because she is Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Everything I dislike about the character comes into focus in the third and weakest of Raimi’s films. Early in the film, we see a possibility for growth in Mary Jane, for we learn that she’s actually longing to find her own way to be special, a way she can be more than just Spider-Man’s girlfriend. The logical progression from this set-up would be for her to discover her own brand of awesome over the course of the story. Anyone watching for the first time might expect this to happen. But no. The screenplay abandons Mary Jane’s understandable dissatisfaction and desire to grow beyond her role in order to focus exclusively on Peter Parker’s own angst, his confrontation with his dark side in the form of Venom. The resulting climax has Mary Jane, yet again, captured and rescued, in spite of promises made to actress Kirsten Dunst (who does all she can to endow the character with vitality) that this wouldn’t happen. She never gets the chance to find her own way of being awesome. Instead, the movie implies she should be okay with just being Spider-Man’s girlfriend. To be loved by the hero is all she needs.

The key idea is relevance. The love interest may be important to the hero’s emotional needs, but how can she be a relevant part of the action, other than getting captured and needing rescue? Without any martial skills or training, she can’t stand beside her hero in a fight. So, how can the writers make her matter, without resorting to the old, familiar distressed-damsel option?

Among the last two decades’ glut of superhero movies, two stand out for evading that option. The first is Captain America: The First Avenger, but I’ve sung Peggy Carter’s praises in previous posts; I’ll settle for saying that the screenplay does give her martial skills that equip her to fight beside the hero, and for that alone she would be exceptional. The second is Thor. What makes this one unusual isn’t that love interest Jane Foster is a scientist (we saw that before with Betty Ross in Hulk), but that her scientific exploration figures into the action. She never needs rescuing, except as far as the entire human race needs rescuing, but she still matters to the plot as well as to the hero. I have only two regrets regarding Jane. First, Natalie Portman gives a lifeless, don’t-want-to-be-here performance, leaving me to wonder how I might have taken the character to my heart if a more invested and energetic actress had played her. Second, the good work of the first film is utterly undone by the sequel: Jane gets some cool action near the end, only after she’s spent the majority of the running time unconscious and being carted around by Thor or Loki — a huge step backward, and more proof that Hollywood’s writers are still clueless on how to write superheroes’ love interests as active and interesting people.

Doctor Strange comes out this weekend. I’m going to see it. It has garnered good reviews, but more importantly, my husband wants to see it, and since I made him go to Deadpool and Ant-Man without me, I owe him this one. If only, if only the glowing reviews I’ve read didn’t mention among the movie’s flaws the Rachel McAdams character, a more underdeveloped and colorless love interest than usual. I haven’t heard or read anything about her getting captured and needing rescue; the complaint, rather, is that despite her being a skilled surgeon, the screenplay gives her nothing significant to do. She’s window-dressing, there only because someone decided Strange needed a love interest. The cynic in me suspects that, having made the decision to gender-flip Strange’s mentor the Ancient One, the creative team decided any real development of McAdams’ character wasn’t necessary. We’ve got one interesting and active female character; why would we need two?

Thor has three interesting and active women. Not only can Marvel do better; they’ve already done better, so they should know better.

The big screen continues to be very slow to give us female superheroes in crucial roles. The least it could do is find a way to turn these love interests into actual people — the kind of smart, funny, and resourceful people that fans like me will enjoy identifying with.

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