If you’ve been avoiding the discourse over on superhero Twitter lately (which I understand and applaud you for), you may have missed the latest dust up around a cut scene in the upcoming third season of the Harley Quinn animated series, and the resultant resurfacing of the age-old question: Do heroes do that?
And before we get bogged down in colorful euphemisms: Yes, we’re talking about sex.
The reason this particular thought is being brought back into the spotlight again is all due to a quote from Harley Quinn co-creator Justin Halpern in a Variety article about superhero TV and how its latest hits (WandaVision and Umbrella Academy included) subvert their own genre. When asked about how writing Harley Quinn was different from other superhero narratives, Halpern pointed out that working with villains gives them a freedom that doesn’t exist elsewhere, highlighting a place in their third season where said leeway suddenly dried up:
“[…] we had a moment where Batman was going down on Catwoman. And DC was like, ‘You can’t do that. You absolutely cannot do that.’ They’re like, ‘Heroes don’t do that.’ So, we said, ‘Are you saying heroes are just selfish lovers?’ They were like, ‘No, it’s that we sell consumer toys for heroes. It’s hard to sell a toy if Batman is also going down on someone.’”
It’s important to note that this isn’t the first time this issue has been raised when it comes to the toy-selling set (as DC would apparently put it). A couple years back, while various film auteurs where having a field day making fun of the superhero genre and its brainless dominance over box office, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar told Vulture that he had a different beef with them entirely: “There are many, many movies about superheroes. And sexuality doesn’t exist for superheroes. They are neutered.”
Thing is, he’s got a point. Superheroes are often wildly attractive people in peak physical condition, who never seem to get laid. Or… maybe it’s a bit more sinister than that. Maybe the point is that they can never get laid while they’re busy being super. Note what Halpern said above: “Batman was going down on Catwoman.” If the same scene had existed with Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, their daytime alter egos, would DC have cared? You know what’s weird? They probably wouldn’t.
More often than not, the only times we see evidence of superheroes engaging in sexy activities (and no, I’m not talking about banter or walking around shirtless) on film is when they’re not on “active duty” as it were. They’re on a break from being a hero, a hiatus, or maybe it’s well before they gained their super status. It’s possible that things are happening off camera, sure, but the clear suggestion of sexual activity rarely comes up. And while superhero films are typically aimed at families, that’s still an odd omission to come across time and again, particularly when there seem to be unwritten rules of engagement—and toy sales—around the subject.
There are some exceptions, of course. We get the impression that Clark Kent and Lois Lane have a sex life of sorts in Batman v Superman. Then Superman dies at the end of the film. When Batman is pulling his playboy shtick as Bruce Wayne, that gives him some wiggle room? He does definitely sleep with Vikki Vale in Batman—who doesn’t make it to the sequel. Then the Nolan version of Wayne sleeps with a woman who turns out to be Talia al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises, there to carry out her father’s plans for Gotham… so that liaison basically reads as a punishment for him choosing to have a real sex life that isn’t about creating alibis. Diana sleeps with Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984, but that ended up creating some extremely squirrely consent issues, and both times it’s a precursor to her losing the guy “forever.” There’s the prolonged sequence for Silk Spectre and Nite Owl in Watchmen (as well as the attempted rape of the original Silk Spectre by the Comedian) because the film painstakingly adapted the majority of comic to screen. The results are incredibly awkward.
The X-Men are a little more flexible on that front, but their super status isn’t quite the same as other heroes—the actual team itself fluctuates often, and as far as the films are concerned, they’re often shown hanging around Xavier’s school and teaching kids. We can assume that Scott Summers and Jean Grey sleep together on account of being married and sharing a room… but Jean dies in X2. Wolverine sleeps with Mariko Yashida in The Wolverine, but it’s a pretty sad affair that comes directly after he saves her life, and it never happens again. Also, he’s technically not an X-Men active operative at the point in time, just an odd hermit who comes out of retirement for a friend. Erik Lensherr has two children within the confines of those films, but both encounters occur when he’s not being Magneto. Deadpool gets his very own on-screen sex marathon (because he’s rated R, kids), but that occurs before he “becomes” Deadpool. By the sequel, he and Vanessa are together again, but state at the start of the film that they’re planning to have sex specifically because they want a kid. Between him and Erik, procreation becomes one of the only situations in which the concept of sex can even be brought up. It doesn’t last for Wade Wilson, though: Immediately after their baby-making conversation, Vanessa is killed.
When we focus on the rest of the lot, especially the current MCU crews, things get even weirder. It’s almost as though there’s an edict stating that active Avengers don’t get laid. Granted, this is never spoken out loud, but it’s true based on what see. For proof of that, you only have to look at Tony Stark himself.
Wait, but Tony Stark is another playboy, like the alter ego Bruce Wayne is so desperate to cultivate, right? Actually, Stark is only shown engaging in any form of sexual activity in his first film, well before he assumes that mantle of Iron Man. Following that he starts up a relationship with Pepper Potts, but if we take the cues we’re given, it seems as though Tony and Pepper are only canoodling when he’s not on Hero Time. Pepper whispers flirty nothings in Tony’s ear at the start of The Avengers, but when Tony is called away by Coulson and he tries to bring her back to the subject of fun adult activities, she says to him: “You mean later? When you’re done?” This practically suggests that their ability to have sex is contingent on him not doing Iron Man stuff. In Iron Man 3, we see Tony and Pepper sharing a bed, but nothing saucy is going on. In fact, Tony has a nightmare that calls his prehensile suit to him in the middle of the night—which almost gets Pepper killed. She then moves to sleep on the couch, leaving him alone.
To make this even more awkward, Pepper and Tony’s daughter Morgan is born post-Snap, at a point in time when Tony is not being Iron Man. We don’t know if Morgan was conceived before the events of Avengers: Infinity War or after Tony arrives home in Endgame, but either way, it was during a period when Tony wasn’t working with the Avengers or donning his supersuit.
But this could just be one example, couldn’t it? Think again. Steve Rogers waits until he can travel back in time to former flame Peggy Carter before he seriously considers getting laid. Sure, he kisses Sharon Carter exactly once, but attempts by his pal Natasha to set him up with coworkers are constantly met with disinterest on his end. And what about the Black Widow? Natasha has certainly used her wiles on targets in her line of work as a Russian spy and a SHIELD agent, but (aside from being different situations entirely when it comes to sex and power dynamics) none of that occurs when she’s acting as a member of the Avengers. She flirts with Bruce Banner, but that’s even more pointed—Bruce hulks out whenever his heart rate gets too high, so sex isn’t really a thing that Natasha and Bruce could get up to. He’s literally the safest bet she can make. Clint Barton has a wife and a bunch of kids, but he’s always away from them when he’s Avengering, so nothing’s going on there.
You’d think an Asgardian would get different rules, but Thor is exactly the same: While he harbors a crush on Jane Foster for quite a while, it’s clear that nothing happens between them until after the events of Thor: The Dark World—after he tells Odin (who is actually Loki) that he doesn’t want to rule Asgard. The only evidence we get of Thor and Jane actually having sex is the post-credits sequence of Dark World, where he sweeps her into a passionate embrace. But then he goes back to working with the Avengers by Age of Ultron, and it’s clear that the relationship deteriorates from that point. T’Challa and Nakia haven’t dated in years when he becomes king and takes up the mantle of the Black Panther, and that relationship sadly cannot progress any further due to actor Chadwick Boseman’s death.
Stephen Strange is similar to Stark in that he used to be a jerk who occasionally slept with people—his relationship with Christine, which he angrily defines as “barely even lovers” certainly indicates that they used to have sex. But once Dr. Strange becomes a student of the mystic arts, all that goes right out the window. He lives on Bleecker Street with Wong, and they worry about how to get money for sandwiches. Star Lord is also introduced on the tail end of a liaison with a woman who he barely remembers, but once the Guardians of the Galaxy are a superteam, all his attention fixes on Gamora. And Gamora definitely wants their relationship to go slowly (even slower now that she’s been revived from an earlier point in her own timeline before she ever knew Quill), which means that they’re not knocking boots any time soon.
Wanda Maximoff and Vision are a prime example in this. Their entire relationship (which we can presume included sex, as they were getting together clandestinely and sharing hotel rooms) occurs after the Sokovia Accords debacle, when Wanda is a fugitive and Vision is technically available to the Avengers in theory, but doesn’t seem to be in rotation. The whole team is mostly disbanded at that point according to Tony, so they’re conducting an affair after being decommissioned as superheroes. And then Vision dies. And then Wanda recreates a life for them in Westview, giving herself the husband and children she dreamed of… and true to her warped reality’s sitcom format, the idea of sex never comes up at all, even when her surprise pregnancy surfaces.
Bucky Barnes is busy recovering from PTSD and brainwashing, Sam Wilson makes mention of trying to date, but we never see anything come from it, and now he has to contend with being Captain America. Then there’s Scott Lang (Ant-Man), who has a child from his pre-hero days, and a burgeoning relationship with Hope Van Dyne—but again, there’s no indication as to whether or not they’ve slept together. Carol Danvers is busy saving galaxies, she’s not even thinking in that direction. James Rhodes doesn’t seem to have a significant other, or at least not one he mentions. Peter Parker is a high-schooler and definitely not ready for that sort of thing, so that’s right out.
And everywhere else, the story is much the same. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films are incredibly chaste when it comes to their iteration of Peter Parker: Mary Jane Watson runs from her own wedding, shows up at Peter’s door at the end of Spider-Man 2—and the police radio goes off, luring Peter away to Spider-duties. If there was ever a time for something to happen, that was it… and he’s waylaid by heroing. The same is true of Andrew Garfield’s version in the Amazing Spider-Man films. Peter and Gwen Stacey are clearly very into each other, but they’re also still kids. Oh, and then Gwen dies. Daredevil and Elektra spark, but we don’t see any indication of them sleeping together either. And then Elektra dies. (And then on television, she comes back and Matt Murdock actually considers sex with her as he’s dragging off his super suit and a building collapses on top of them. So, he rejects both his super persona and life while considering getting laid.) Constantine is fighting hell, and doesn’t have the time for much else. No one in the Suicide Squad seems interested, and they’re supposed to be the sort of crew DC doesn’t mind getting freaky. After all, they’re the “bad guys.”
You can make endless excuses as to why this decision gets made over and over; it prevents heroes from reacting to the plot if they’re busy thinking about sex or romance; why does everything have to be about sex anyway; avoiding the topic entirely makes movie sets a safer place for actors, and then you don’t have to hire an intimacy coordinator; think of the children (and the toy sales, won’t someone, please). And of course, not every superhero needs their very own raunchy sex scene because that would be silly. But sex is a normal and healthy part of life for plenty of people, and avoiding the topic entirely ends up reading like a moral stance—especially when you notice that the topic is completely off-limits for someone who is actively pursuing their super-life. The suggestion literally becomes “You can be a hero or you can get some, and those modes shall never intersect.”
Or, to quote DC directly, “Heroes don’t do that.”
When people knock the lack of complexity in most superhero stories, this is a part of the problem. Which isn’t to say that sex equals complexity—it doesn’t, and there are plenty of examples on film in which sex adds nothing to a story whatsoever. But there’s an issue at hand where the messier parts of life get avoided in favor of “bolder” but far simpler statements. If you can’t balance heroism with errands, with run-of-the-mill sadness, with BFF coffee dates, with ugly breakups, with aging and arthritis, with occasionally acknowledging that yes, you would like to go down on someone while wearing your highly impractical batsuit because it resembles certain fetish gear and that’s part of why you chose it… then what’s the point really?
So I’m sorry to the toy industry, and to DC and their copyrights, but they’re wrong. Heroes definitely do that. Selina Kyle wouldn’t settle for anything less.