In so many ways, Superman set the mold that all superheroes follow. Since 1938’s Action Comics #1, almost every superhero who followed would have a secret identity, an outrageous costume, and skills or powers that set them apart. And nearly every one of these characters would have a love interest, a Lois Lane who would often serve as the damsel in distress for the hero to rescue (at least in the early days).
Sure, there have been exceptions like Batman, who’s never had a single main squeeze like his Justice League counterparts. But those exceptions prove the rule that romantic drama has always been just as important to superhero stories as supervillains and extraneous adjectives. That’s particularly true of superhero movies, which tend to follow the old Hollywood model of including a love interest in every tale. But while that might sound dull and formulaic, there has been a surprising amount of variety of romance within the capes-and-tights genre.
So if your idea of a hot Valentine’s Day date is staying at home to watch super-powered good guys take down the bad guys, here are some big-screen superhero romances to help set the mood…
Rahne and Dani, The New Mutants
There isn’t much to love about the long-delayed X-Men spinoff The New Mutants (2020). On a craft level, the movie suffers from an uninspired single setting, threadbare plot and characterization, and pretensions toward a sequel that will likely never happen. Even worse, racism permeates the film, both in the form of frequent slurs directed at Northern Cheyenne mutant Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) and whitewashing in its casting (blithely disregarded by director Josh Boone).
However, the movie finds genuine emotional stakes in the relationship between Dani and Scottish mutant Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams). Hunt and Williams perfectly embody the tentative excitement of first love, the mix of fear and attraction that imbues every little comment and glance with breath-taking excitement. As the two lay in the grass and watch raindrops explode on the forcefield around them, they share a tender first kiss. Rahne’s admission that she’s never had a kiss “with anyone” provides a moment of authenticity and humanity that the rest of the movie sorely lacks.
Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, Iron Man
It’s safe to say that our whole movie landscape would look very different today if Iron Man had flopped in 2008. The continued popularity of the MCU could have never happened without the success of Iron Man, and Iron Man worked largely because of the performances of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts.
The secret to the duo’s chemistry is the Hepburn and Tracy-style riffing director Jon Favreau has them bring to their characters. While everybody else finds themselves intimidated by Tony’s snarky genius, Pepper remains unimpressed, able not only to keep up with the billionaire genius but to also best him on numerous occasions. So strong is their chemistry that they manage to find genuine pathos in an otherwise icky scene in which Pepper reaches into Tony’s gooey chest cavity to replace the arc reactor that keeps his heart beating.
Venom and Eddie Brock, Venom: Let There Be Carnage
Generally, when we talk about romance, what we really mean is courtship—that is, the exciting stuff, like going on dates and making out and learning all about each other. But as everyone learns when a relationship ages past six months, romance also means learning how to live with another person, with all their quirks and baggage. That can be its own type of messy and exciting.
Venom has many flaws, but it found an unexpected audience when viewers keyed into the romantic comedy aspects of the movie, in which down-on-his-luck reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) meets and bonds with alien symbiote Venom (voiced by Hardy). For the sequel, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, director Andy Serkis doubles down on this approach. When not busy trying to stop serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) and his symbiote Carnage, Eddie and Venom fumble through domestic life together. Their dynamic lacks the warm, fuzzy approach to new love found in most other romantic movies, but it has a lived-in quality, an honesty about people who remain committed to the relationship even through its rough patches.
Tank Girl and Others, Tank Girl
Despite the attempts of studio executives to tone it down, director Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl retains plenty of the anarchic glee that fueled Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s underground comic book. In a performance that paved the way for Margot Robbie’s interpretation of Harley Quinn, Lori Petty plays Rebecca “Tank Girl” Buck, an agent of chaos living in a post-apocalyptic landscape in which water is controlled almost entirely by businessman Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell).
As she repeatedly runs afoul of Kesslee, Tank Girl has a number of flings. She begins with Richard (Brian Wimmer), whose death at the start of the film is a refreshing inversion of the “fridging” trope. She later has a relationship with Booga (Jeff Kinner), a human/kangaroo hybrid. But the most compelling connection is the one that’s least fleshed out in the film, a series of flirtations with her sidekick Jet Girl (Naomi Watts). At no point does Tank Girl seem ready to settle down with any of them, but rather approaches her romantic pairings with the same unabashed freedom that makes her such a threat to controlling figures like Kesslee.
Phastos and Ben, Eternals
Although she was already an accomplished filmmaker when she took on the project, director Chloé Zhao had a challenge on her hands when she signed up to adapt the lesser-known, little-loved Jack Kirby creation, the Eternals. In addition to introducing ten new god-like characters with a convoluted backstory, she had to make us believe that these nigh-omnipotent figures would suddenly want to save the Earth.
Zhao, who co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, found the needed grounding in the marriage of Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and Ben (Haaz Sleiman). During the decades after the Eternals’ disbanding, the inventor Phastos settled down and had a family, marrying Ben and raising their son Jack (Esai Daniel Cross). When Zhoa’s camera catches Ben watching Phastos put Jack to bed before going off, we witness the warmth of a partner who brings out the best in his husband, even if that husband is a powerful superhero.
Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man
For some critics, one of the MCU’s major failings is the arguable lack of sexual chemistry between its leads. While there’s certainly room to push back on that claim, it’s hard to disagree when you compare any Marvel relationship to that of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy.
Raimi embraces the soap-operatic nature of superheroes in every possible form, from the sweeping action sequences to Peter’s melodramatic personal struggles. That approach might strike some viewers as silly, but it definitely ratchets up the romance in Peter and Mary Jane’s longing for each other. It also makes their eventual coming together all the sweeter, which is why their first kiss in 2002’s Spider-Man has become one of the most iconic movie images of the 2000s. Drenched with rain, Spider-Man lowers himself upside down to check on Mary Jane. Bravely, Mary Jane lifts his mask to expose his mouth and the two share a passionate, beautiful kiss. Few superhero moments in any movie have been this thrilling.
Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter, Captain America: The First Avenger
For as much as some of the MCU’s romantic plots get rightfully panned, few would argue with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). This couple has a few things going for it that others don’t. First of all, it’s based on mutual admiration and respect, started back when Steve was a 98-pound weakling who tells Peggy he “just hadn’t found the right girl.”
But more importantly, Steve and Peggy are a doomed love, and that makes it all the more romantic. Through most of their story, they’re separated by war, or time, or death. So palpable is their love that it basically closed out the first major era of the MCU, when Steve went back in time to finally get that dance with Peggy. The slow swaying of the two in each other arms finally provides a proper reward to a couple who always put the greater good over themselves.
Batman and Catwoman, Batman Returns
From the first time Selina Kyle crossed paths with Batman, known then only as “The Cat,” in Batman #1 (1940), she’s always caught Bruce Wayne’s eye. Over the years, Batman and Catwoman have had a tumultuous relationship, with both parties undeniably attracted to one another, despite their vastly different outlooks. Most recently, writer Tom King has made that tension the center of his run, culminating in the series Batman/Catwoman.
For his 1992 movie Batman Returns, director Tim Burton took a different approach to the Bat-Signal-crossed lovers, finding a new way to look at their relationship. When Batman (Michael Keaton) finally finds Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) on a Gotham City rooftop, it’s clear that he’s finally met his match. Keaton plays Bruce Wayne as a weirdo who sits around his mansion moping until he gets to put on his Batsuit and go outside, and Pfeiffer’s deliciously vampy Catwoman clearly feels the same. Their initial fight perfectly sublimates their sexual chemistry into a real connection that only these two understand. Burton’s Batman and Catwoman pairing provides an important lesson for anyone looking for love: find people who are the same type of weird as you.
Harley Quinn and an Egg Sandwich, Birds of Prey
For most of her existence, Harley Quinn has been a character defined by her boyfriend, the Joker. From her earliest appearances on Batman: The Animated Series, writers portrayed Harley Quinn as the ultimate victim, a woman who let her abusive boyfriend strip away her identity and remake her into his image. Fortunately, later creators have done much to complicate this origin, making Harley’s story into a powerful tale of a person reclaiming herself.
In Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson make that reclamation the focus of the narrative. In doing so, they include one of the most unrepentantly sensual scenes in any superhero movie. Stopping in a bodega, Harley (Margot Robbie) watches with lust as the owner prepares an egg sandwich for her. Yan’s otherwise frantic camera holds to capture every aspect of the sizzling bacon and oozing cheese, all set to a tune by Barry White. While the scene could be dismissed as a goofy joke, the passion Harley has for her egg sandwich reminds viewers of an important principle, too often overlooked in romance stories, that your first and most important relationship is always with yourself.
Lois Lane and Superman, Superman: The Movie
In Action Comics #1, Clark Kent and Lois Lane encounter a boorish man in a nightclub. The man harasses Lois but Clark, in his mild-mannered mode to hide his Superman identity, does nothing. Instead, Lois takes action, socking the lout in the face. “Good for you, Lois!” Clark quietly whispers.
Thousands of superheroes may have followed in the footsteps of the Superman and Lois Lane romance, but few have remembered to embrace a key element captured in that panel: Lois Lane is the bravest person Superman has ever met, the complete embodiment of what humanity could be. She is quite literally his hero.
Among the many adaptations of the Superman story, no one has captured that dynamic like Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie. When Superman catches a falling Lois and assures her that he’s got her, Lane responds, “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” Even in near death, Lois remains canny and inquisitive, always looking for the truth. How could the Man of Tomorrow not love her?