Romeo and Juliet. Rick and Ilsa. Jane and Mr. Rochester. Bonnie and Clyde. Harry and Sally. These are a few of the most famous pairs in history, and they feature in some of the world’s best pieces of entertainment. Romance can be tragic and comic, smart and silly, utterly wicked and deeply moral. It reveals the changeless nature of the human soul or the fleeting peculiarities of a subsection of society. It makes people cry on the street or lets them walk on air for days at a time. It has both the rich history and limitless potential of any other genre of fiction.
Of course, in spite of all this, romance still has its detractors—people who dismiss it as fluff, as the domain of adolescents, who bemoan the genre’s supposedly tired tropes, stock characters, and predictable endings.
There was a time when these kinds of descriptions were often applied to another type of film. Superhero movies reached their nadir not so long ago, when the words “superhero film” denoted juvenile schlock or silly camp to many potential viewers. Since then, Christopher Nolan taught the world what can happen when artists pay attention to tone and story arc. Robert Downey Jr. demonstrated how a magnetic character can reinvigorate an entire genre. The Marvel Universe clued us in to the possibilities of a huge, planned, integrated sets of stories. In other words, a genre is intrinsically only as good or bad as the thought and talent that goes into it.
Everything goes in and out of fashion, and it seems like superhero films, now that they’ve established a foothold as an Oscar-winning genre, are holding on to it by exploring what the genre can do. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther have expanded the field by looking beyond the standard lantern-jawed white man as protagonist. Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok grabbed the overly-serious Thor films by the hammer and steered them into the realm of smart, zany comedy, where they were joined by excellent films like Into the Spider-Verse and the Guardians of the Galaxy series. The New Mutants looks like we are going to get superhero horror films. Logan was a straight-up western. Action, western, sci-fi, comedy, horror; what’s missing? Maybe it’s time for one unfairly-belittled genre to rescue another. Isn’t that what superheroes do?
Here are a few ideas on which heroic couples might get us started.
Batman and Catwoman
Batman is always a draw. This is true for audiences and artists alike. The trouble is, what the hell can be done with him now? Fans are crammed to the back teeth with origin stories. He’s fought The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, Ra’s al Ghul, Two-Face, and Mr. Freeze, some of them multiple times. He’s been shown as a child, an adolescent, a young man, and an older man. What new adventure could possibly occupy an entire movie, or better yet, a trilogy? This is an easy first choice, in part because there is a guide to what it should look like. Tom King’s half-completed Bat and Cat saga has shown us that superhero romance can be fun, and witty, and smart, and sexy. It also shows us how to flip the conventional narrative for a superhero story: instead of an action movie with a love interest thrown in, it can be about a relationship with action thrown in.
Nick Fury and Countess Valentina Allegra de Fontaine
Audiences know Nick Fury. They are a great deal less familiar with a woman of mystery so international that her first name is Russian, her middle name is Italian, and her last name is French. With the recent success of two John Le Carré mini-series set in two different eras, a jet-setting, decades-long romance between two super-agents sounds like just the ticket! It’s also a great way to wrench romance away from the realm of doe-eyed teenagers, with a pair of worldly, sophisticated protagonists driving the story.
Ralph and Sue Dibny
One of the rightly-criticized aspects of cinematic romance is that is always almost sets a bad example for real life: Obsession takes the place of love. Control substitutes for care. Volatility masquerades as passion. This goes double for superhero movies. It’s time to knock The Joker and Harley Quinn off the top ten lists of superhero couples—and Ralph and Sue are the team to do it. Too few people know about Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, and his wife Sue, the, uh, completely-unpowered woman. But in 2013, nobody knew the Guardians of the Galaxy.
A few storylines have put this couple through the wringer over the years—including an infamous example of fridging that played out during the Identity Crisis limited series, best left undiscussed here, and certainly best left out of any on-screen adaption of their relationship. At heart, though, the two have a fun, endearing buddy cop-energy to their relationship that’s refreshingly free from soap opera-style drama. Ralph Dibny stretches like rubber and solves crimes, some of which he smells out with a twitching nose. Sue’s role is less easily defined. Since 1961, her character has played many roles, from Ralph’s companion and helper, to his (and the Justice League’s) administrator and translator, to his fellow detective. In one storyline, when Batman and Ralph go to a club to track down a mysterious new drug, Sue figures out the mystery while the two official detectives end up mickeyed and unconscious. In every incarnation of the couple, however, they love, respect, and genuinely enjoy each other. Imagine it: a contemporary romance between people who both like and love each other, having fun and fighting crime. Throw in their vintage convertible and they have a relationship anyone can all aspire to…
Tony Chu and Amelia Mintz
These two could inspire one of the weirdest, sexiest, most surreal on-screen romances ever made. In the comic Chew, Tony Chu is a cibopath, a psychic who absorbs knowledge from whatever he eats (except for beets). When every bite of hamburger tastes of the slaughterhouse and the processing plant, no meal is enjoyable. Amelia Mintz is a food critic and saboscrivner, gifted with the ability to cause people to taste any food she describes. It’s a match made in heaven, in a weird world of food-based crimes and food-based superpowers. It’s Eat, Pray, Love on acid. It’s The Great British Bake Off with vampires. It’s Man v. Food, literally. And it’s a sweet romance between two freaky people who are great for each other.
The Midnighter and Apollo
You want grim? You want gritty? You want cynical? You want ultra-violent? They got it. And they have something more. These two characters have appeared in a number of titles, including Stormwatch, The Authority, and The New 52. They are obvious parallels of Batman and Superman, and so their romantic relationship raised some eyebrows in the comics world. (Famously, a panel that showed a kiss between the two was censored.) At the same time, the love between Midnighter and Apollo and the way their relationship is depicted offers some insight into the reasons why romance so often falls flat in action movies, on one hand, and why romance remains a viable genre for superheroes on the other.
While superhero movies often have a romance subplot, the romance is rarely the relationship that gets the real attention. Family, alliance, or self-acceptance is the focus. The love object is just someone for the hero to save. Tony Stark’s relationship with Steve Rogers is explored in at least as much depth as his relationship with Pepper Potts. For that matter, none of Peter Parker’s crushes get as much attention as his mentor-mentee relationship with Tony Stark. (Quite the non-romantic player, Tony Stark.) Batman and Superman, as enemies, as allies, and as friends, are cemented by bonds stronger than Batman and Catwoman or Superman and Lois Lane. Midnighter and Apollo both highlight that fact and show us how to proceed. It’s not impossible for a superhero film to be a romance. We just have to allow the romantic relationship to be as important to the film as the film claims it is to the hero.
Esther Inglis-Arkell writes about history, science, pop-culture, literature, and everything that makes life interesting. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she chronicles the things library patrons have scrawled in the margins of books. You can follow her on Twitter at @EstherHyphen.