Due to a scheduling error, this article is the fourth in our 2016 series considering how our watching, writing, and talking about cinema might contribute to God's unfolding shalom in our communities and world. If you are considering responding to our call for submissions for this series, we encourage you to do so. We have only accepted five thus far, so there is still room for your contribution.
Also, this article includes SPOILERS for the Avengers franchise and for Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. - Editor
Everyone sees superhero movies, or at least everyone has been seeing them for the past seventeen years, because they’re fun, well-produced, well-marketed, because they’re some of the only films major movie studios are making, maybe because they reflect our society’s anxieties post-9/11. This summer it seems like every superhero we know is on the big screen fighting each other, including the “big ones” - Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, The Joker, the Avengers, and the X-Men, and Daredevil and the Flash are on our small screens as well.
Sidestepping superhero fatigue, this is a perfect moment to consider an aspect of the superhero genre core to the genre but often overlooked—sexuality—and to consider the ways a more mature depiction of sexuality in superhero cinema might better serve the characters, the story, and the audience. In the first half of this article, I will look in depth at Captain America: Civil War and the Avengers franchise, since that series of films is by far the most popular. I will also contrast it with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In the second half of this article, drawing on Wendell Berry’s great essay Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, I will explore why a more mature depiction of sexuality in superhero cinema has the potential to push us toward peace and how we might get there anyway even if the genre remains juvenile.
In writing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I focused on the film’s empty masculinity and aggressive homophobia. That film is like a jock boasting dishonestly of his heterosexual prowess while simultaneously attempting to distance himself from the latent homoeroticism of two men in spandex grappling with each other. It only seems fair then to consider the sexual aspects of this year’s next superhero “v” superhero spectacle, Captain America: Civil War. But first, a brief digression into why I think the sexuality on display in these franchises is worth considering.
As much as politics and violence, sexuality is a key aspect of the superhero genre. The genre is inherently erotic, though in a pubescent rather than adult way. The superhero genre is a genre of “becoming.” Superheroes are always adjusting to their new forms and strengths and negotiating with society about how their new abilities will benefit either themselves or the community. The exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics common to superheroes, and the costumes they wear that highlight those characteristics, suggest a new-found awareness of and excitement about the potential of the human body to both overpower and be overpowered by another. And while the possibility of sexual encounter is ever-present, actually achieving that encounter is rare due to the ways others’ desires (or lack thereof) and civic responsibilities complicate things.
Admittedly, other than a couple of graphic novels and a good deal of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series, I am unfamiliar with comic books, so this may not apply broadly in that medium. Given the breadth and variety of comic books, I imagine it doesn’t. But I have seen almost every major superhero movie made in the past forty years, including a good number of the minor superhero films as well, and what I describe in the preceding paragraph holds. The exceptions are truly exceptions, as they draw attention to their alternate depictions of sexuality. For example, a key part of Netflix's Jessica Jones hinges on the heroine's sexual relationship with Luke Cage, and this is included because the first season of the show contributes to contemporary conversations about sexual assault and consent.
Returning to Civil War, the film is no where near as aggressive in its sexuality as BVS. The Marvel franchise is characteristically less aggressive than DC’s franchise in all respects. The Marvel franchise prioritizes “fun” over all else, like a sitcom, while DC goes the dramatic route. However, sexuality still plays a part in Civil War’s plot and character development:
• Tony Stark is on the outs with Pepper—they’re “definitely not” pregnant, he tells Steve Rogers—and Tony admits that his work for the Sakovia Accord is in hopes of regaining Pepper’s affection.
• Steve is mourning the loss of Peggy Carter, the woman he loved and with whom he was never able to consummate their relationship, though there is new hope for romance in the form of Peggy’s niece. Steve’s loss of Peggy makes him all the more eager to save Bucky, his one remaining connection to his pre-frozen life.
• Vision and Wanda/The Scarlet Witch flirt throughout the film—he even attempts to cook her dinner at one point when they’re alone in the homey Avengers headquarters—and their mutual betrayal of each other is key to the movie’s plot machinations.
• Tony repeatably comments on the attractiveness of Peter Parker’s aunt May (“Marisa Tomei, looking more like Aunt February,” as Matt Zoller Seitz cleverly put it in his review).
• The humor of a mid-credits scene is based on its similarity to the action of a teenage boy being caught masturbating.
All of this is on top of the costuming of the characters which, of course, highlights their bodies’ shapes and beauty. Two instances stand out. When Steve Rogers keeps a helicopter from taking off, he does so wearing a simple grey t-shirt which draws attention to his biceps in a way that even his fitted Captain America uniform does not. And when Wanda shows up for the final fight dressed as the Scarlet Witch, she is no longer wearing the flowing, shape-hiding dress she’s been wearing throughout the film. She is now squeezed into her Scarlet Witch corset which amplifies her cleavage considerably.
In all cases, this is the suggestion of sexuality not the realization of it. This sort of sexual suggestion is sprinkled throughout the MCU canon. No one has sex in this movie.
In fact, by my recollection, there are only three confirmable sexual encounters among the Avengers characters since the timeline started by the first Iron Man movie began. Tony Stark has sex with the reporter at the beginning of that film before he becomes Iron Man, and Clint Barton has a daughter who appears younger than seven years-old, and his wife is pregnant in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Characters talk with one another about having sex in a couple of instances—both involve Bruce Banner: once with Betty Ross and once with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow—but in both they are discussing the futility of it. In Romanoff’s case, they are discussing the possibility of starting a non-sexual romantic relationship.
Also worth noting is the fact that the Marvel movies have never strayed from a heteronormative conception of sexuality, but at least they aren’t actively homophobic like BVS.
Beyond the fact that sexuality is a key aspect of the superhero genre and there is an academic interest in cataloging the different ways the different franchise are featuring it, why does any of this matter? The Disney/Marvel franchise isn’t even “harmful” like the Warner/DC franchise. It’s just juvenile. Is there anything wrong with a pubescent conception of sexuality on the big screen?
No. There’s not. I have absolutely no problem with Disney/Marvel’s depiction of sexuality in their films. I don’t actually have a problem with Warner/DC’s deception either as long as the homophobic subtext remains subtext, and we don’t get a homosexual villain in contrast with heroes who are solely heterosexual. Depictions of sexuality in films are only a problem when they actively advocate for the mistreatment of groups of people, and that can happen in lots of ways, too many for this post.
I do think the superhero film genre would be more interesting if it allowed its characters to mature though. Sexuality is an essential aspect of human existence. It is core to both our private and public lives, and including it in an adult way in this genre that is primarily concerned with the private individual’s role in contributing to the public good would enrich the genre. As Wendell Berry says in his essay Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community:
“Sex is not and cannot be any individual’s ‘own business.’ nor can it be the private concern of any couple. Sex, like any other necessary, precious, and volatile power that is commonly held, is everybody’s business. A way must be found to entitle everybody’s legitimate interest in it without either violating its essential privacy or allowing its unrestrained energies to reduce necessary public procedures to the level of a private quarrel. For sexual problems and potentialities that have a more-than-private interest, what is needed are common or shared forms and solutions that are not, in the usual sense, public. The indispensable form that can intervene between public and private interests is that of community.”
Later in the same article, Berry continues:
“Sexual love is the heart of community life. Sexual love is the force that in our bodily life connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.”
In other words, sex is the concern of both the public and the private and makes evident the need for an intermediary between the two. That intermediary is a community, a “private public.” By keeping sex out of the MCU, Disney/Marvel is missing an opportunity to bind their Avengers together into an actual community capable of negotiating their responsibility to the greater world. Sex would solve the civil war before it begins, giving the superheroes something to rally around other than a common enemy. Sex would connect the Avengers to the flourishing of the world, tying their future to its future. Sex would make the Avengers full-fledged members of society instead of perpetual teenagers. Sex would make these movies better.
Consider the weight Clint Barton/Hawkeye’s character has now that we know he has children. Everything he does matters more because his existence matters beyond himself. In Age of Ultron when he leaves the safety of the helicarrier to rescue the boy, we know he’s doing it because he understands the importance of children. No other Avenger has that gravitas. Civil War misses an opportunity to extend that character thread by having Clint retire “to spend more time with his wife and kids,” not because he’s bothered by the ramifications of the Avengers’ avenging.
Or consider Tony Stark. He consistently feels more “adult” than the rest of the characters. Why is that? Perhaps it’s because we first meet him as a sexually active man, albeit an immature one, and then we later see him show real compassion to a child in Iron Man 3. No other character (save Barton as we covered above) has done likewise. We’ve seen many of them as children, but we’ve never seen them with children.
And sex isn’t just about kids either. Let’s go back to Berry:
“Sexual lovemaking between humans is not and cannot be the thoughtless, instinctual coupling of animals; it is not ‘recreation’; it is not ‘safe.’ It is the strongest prompting and greatest joy that young people are likely to experience. Because it is so powerful, it is risky, not just because of the famous dangers of venereal disease and ‘unwanted pregnancy’ but also because it requires a giving away of the self that if not honored and reciprocated, inevitably reduces dignity and self-respect. The invitation to give oneself away is not, except for the extremely ignorant or extremely foolish, an easy one to accept.”
Power, risk, danger, honor, dignity, self-respect, giving oneself away – these are already the stuff of superhero stories. Adding sex to these stories would only enrich these themes, liberating these ideas from the arena of martial combat and introducing them to the realm of relationship as well.
Say what you will about BVS—and I’ve said a lot—Superman and Lois Lane’s sexual relationship will give their story arc more heft as that series continues. Hopefully the filmmakers behind that franchise will do more with Lois than make her a “woman in a refrigerator,” hopefully they’ll let her consult with Clark and influence his actions and vice versa, hopefully they’ll truly be partners, hopefully their characters will both become more complicated and resonant because of their sexual relationship. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m not optimistic, but the potential is there.
Cultural commentators, pastors, parents, and pundits frequently lament that American society is caught in a state of perpetual adolescence. Much of the blame for this state is laid at the shiney-booted feet of our pop-culture icons - the Jedi, superheroes, and wizards that have dominated our movie box offices since 1977. It is not that simple. Our pop-culture artifacts reflect contemporary society as much, if no more so, than they mold it. Though it is a shame that our most-seen stories aren’t showing us how to mature beyond the sexual mores of middle school. Perhaps it’s up to the cultural commentators, the pastors, the parents, and the pundits to pick up where the superheroes leave off and shepherd us forward. If we’re even going to move beyond an “eye for an eye” mentality as a society and begin working for peace instead of war, we’re going to have to learn to see eye to eye, and if we start looking into each other’s eyes, we just might fall in love.