Avengers: Infinity War is a glorious mess of a blockbuster, but it succeeds on the merits of its well-established characters — how endlessly satisfying it is to see them bump up against one another in unexpected combinations. The movie asks and answers questions we didn’t even know we had: What would happen if Thor hung out with the Guardians of the Galaxy? (Answer: macho posturing.) How would Tony Stark interact with Stephen Strange? (Answer: well-heeled macho posturing.) What would Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Okoye do as a team? (Answer: get some shit done.)
But alongside these rewarding friendship dynamics, the MCU has a surprisingly lackluster crop of romances. The MCU’s tentpole relationships are all platonic, and they’re mostly between men: the ensemble interplay of the Avengers, the prickly Tony Stark–Steve Rogers dynamic that propelled Civil War, the decades-long bromance between Rogers and his war buddy Bucky Barnes. By comparison, its love stories often feel misconceived, rushed, or just a little flat — which isn’t particularly surprising in light of the MCU’s acknowledged paucity of compelling female characters.
So what does it take for a romance to stand out in this universe? Let’s take a look at the 14 onscreen couples the MCU has given us to date, ranked from the worst to the best.
How do you make your hero’s obligatory love interest feel less obligatory? Why, you have her turn out to be a direct descendant of his last girlfriend! Sure, Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter never consummated their romance, but their connection was deep, and having him involved with her niece several decades later is straight-up creepy – just ask Hayley Atwell. Steve initially thinks his cute neighbor’s only secret is that she’s an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D agent, but after discovering who Sharon really is at Peggy’s literal funeral, he seems more interested than ever (?!?). After she risks her career to help Team Cap evade capture — a callback to when Peggy helped Steve out in an off-the-books mission to save Bucky during World War II – Steve lays a kiss on Sharon in a truly clunky moment that may be the only misstep in Civil War.
13. Bruce Banner and Betty Ross (The Incredible Hulk)
Serious question: Have you tried watching The Incredible Hulk lately? Because it’s technically part of the MCU canon, and it is a wild ride back to a bygone era when screenwriters thought “Hero types silently into a chat-room window for several minutes” was a strong scene format. Bruce and Betty’s romance is a lot more substantial and central to the plot than most; there’s a rain-soaked reunion embrace straight off the bat, a series of intense one-on-one conversations, and ultimately a sequence where the pair go on the run together. The problem is there’s no rapport between them whatsoever. Liv Tyler’s breathy melodrama makes a strange pairing with Edward Norton’s subdued performance, rendering the whole thing inert. And though it’s maybe unfair to hold the vagaries of Marvel’s distribution history against the couple, it’s a little weird that Betty never warrants a mention in the Ruffalo years.
12. Stephen Strange and Christine Palmer (Doctor Strange)
Not every movie needs a romantic arc, particularly an origin story with as much dense mythology as Doctor Strange, and rewriting Christine as Stephen’s ex is a refreshing choice that subverts a lot of clichés. Having her be his equal as a fellow surgeon, rather than a nurse as in the comics, is another win. But she ends up so extraneous to the actual narrative that Rachel McAdams is wasted, existing solely to offer support, bewildered assistance, and exposition as needed.
Given the MCU’s paltry track record with female superheroes, it’s kind of unfortunate that a character as beloved and powerful as Scarlet Witch has so far been defined entirely by her relationships with dudes. There was barely any breathing room between her grieving her twin brother’s death in Age of Ultron, and building a connection with Vision in Civil War. Even if you choose to whistle past the weirdness of dating a sentient robot (listen, Her was a great movie!) neither character in this dynamic feels very fleshed out in their own right. That makes it tough to invest in their love story, and in Wanda’s plight in Infinity War when she wants to sacrifice millions of lives for one android.
You can see how Thor’s brawny charm and Jane’s brainy spunk seemed like a winning combination in theory, but despite getting a decent amount of screen time in the first and second Thor chapters, their romance never rose above the level of “just fine.” It’s never totally believable that Jane would spend all that time “waiting, crying, and looking for Thor” after he ghosts her at the end of the first movie, and though things improve for a while in The Dark World — there’s a particularly fun old-school Superman vibe to Thor flying Jane through space up to Asgard — she spends a large portion of the movie unconscious. By the time Natalie Portman actually peaced out of the role, this relationship was already so DOA that her absence was barely felt in Thor: Ragnarok.
9. Clint Barton and Laura Barton (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
For completion’s sake, the Bartons have to be included on this list, though their marriage makes almost no impression one way or the other. For that reason, let’s think of them as the official MCU Romance Middle Ground — completely inoffensive, completely unremarkable. The revelation of Clint’s secret family does not make him a more compelling character, but Linda Cardellini is reliably charismatic, and if nothing else, we can thank her for keeping Clint out of the already overstuffed Infinity War.
8. Peter Parker and Liz Toomes (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
The third separate big-screen Spidey adaptation this century had a lot stacked against it, and what proved most winning about Homecoming was not its superheroics, but its pitch-perfect high-school comedy. Though the revelation that Peter Parker’s sweet crush Liz is also the daughter of the supervillain he’s fighting put a premature damper on anything much developing between them, their relationship feels fresh and convincing and slyly self-referential (there’s even an aborted upside-down kiss). But following the revelation that Zendaya’s snarky Michelle Jones goes by the name “MJ,” the smart money may be on her as Peter’s long-term love interest anyway.
7. Okoye and W’Kabi (Black Panther)
Though their screen time is brief, Black Panther makes such fast work of its characterizations and world-building that Okoye and W’Kabi’s connection feels weighty. The couple — who in a deleted scene are confirmed to be married — share an unassailable sense of duty and tradition, which keeps them in Wakanda even after Killmonger takes the throne by force, but they clash over W’Kabi’s betrayal of T’Challa. That deleted scene “didn’t work inside the confines of the film” per Ryan Coogler, but fingers crossed for more of this fiery, politically charged marriage in BP2.
6. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff (The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War)
The most controversial MCU romance of all, Bruce and Natasha had a ton of potential that was hampered by two mishandled moments in Age of Ultron. The first: Bruce face-plants into Natasha’s boobs during a skirmish at Avengers HQ. Hard pass. The second is more complicated: In the wake of the Hulk’s devastating rampage, Natasha waits for Bruce to get out of the shower and suggests that they run away together, arguing that as a trained assassin she’s no less monstrous than him. It’s an intense and well-acted scene, but some fans took exception to Natasha’s mention that she was sterilized as part of her training, because it implied a link between infertility and monstrosity (for what it’s worth, Joss Whedon has clarified this was not the intent. Bruce and Natasha could have been something — two characters with a lot of red in their ledgers finding some version of a future together — but now that Infinity War has skated over their reunion with a throwaway “this is awkward” joke, it’s not clear you should be holding your breath for more.
5. Scott Lang and Hope van Dyne (Ant-Man)
Even before it was announced that Ant-Man’s sequel would be titled Ant-Man and the Wasp, with Evangeline Lilly’s Hope taking on the latter mantle, it was clear she was being set up as a lot more than a romantic interest. Despite their seemingly familiar meet-cute dynamic — she’s a tightly wound type A, he’s a roguish screw-up — Hope’s not interested in Scott as much as resentful of the fact that her father’s putting him in the ant suit instead of her. Out of that spikiness springs a surprisingly enjoyable and convincing flirtation, which will get a new lease on life through their superpowered partnership in the upcoming sequel.
4. T’Challa and Nakia (Black Panther)
Clearly, it’s tough to build a convincing romance from scratch within the limited confines of a superhero movie. Black Panther gets around the issue by giving T’Challa and Nakia a romantic history rather than an active love story. It’s the same jumping-off point as Doctor Strange gives Stephen and Christine, but here it’s a boon to both characters, giving them room to have real, intimate conversations about their values. Clearly feelings linger; T’Challa uncharacteristically “freezes” around Nakia, and by the end of the movie the couple have rekindled their romance, but they’re a striking reminder that a couple doesn’t have to be together to be compelling.
Maybe it’s just the killer soundtrack, but there’s something deeply appealing about the literal and figurative dance between intergalactic space douche Peter Quill and emotionally shutdown cosmic warrior Gamora. How can you resist the old “boy meets girl, boy teaches girl to dance like Kevin Bacon, girl pulls a knife on boy” trope? Infinity War was a roller coaster for anyone invested in this relationship — where the Guardians movies both take place over a couple of months and featured largely one-sided flirting, the latest Avengers chapter jumps forward several years to find Quill and Gamora in a long-term relationship. Things came to an abrupt end when Gamora’s adopted father Thanos killed her, after which a grieving Quill attacked Thanos in return, thereby indirectly causing half the Earth’s population to be annihilated, himself included. So … fair to say it’s complicated, but still one of the MCU’s most dynamic and sparky romances.
2. Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War)
Tony Stark has been the linchpin of the MCU for so long, while Pepper’s role has waxed and waned over time, that it’s easy to forget how vital their dynamic was in establishing the franchise back in 2008. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow’s chemistry is rock-solid from the start, their screwball-comedy rapport making it clear that we aren’t watching a billionaire and his secretary, so much as a loner and his lifeline. Nothing about their relationship unfolds precisely the way you expect early on; take the delightfully weird intimacy of Tony asking Pepper to reach into his chest cavity to fix the arc reactor, and the way she quietly punctures his ego whenever it threatens to become truly obnoxious. They’ve never been as much fun again as they were in those first couple of Iron Man outings, and the timeline of their relationship has gotten foggy — we may never know what happened in between Civil War (where they’re broken up) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (where they get engaged) — but a decade in, their staying power is undeniable.
1. Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter (Captain America: The First Avenger)
If Brief Encounter director David Lean were alive today and somehow enlisted for a Marvel movie, the result would probably look a lot like the wistful, unconsummated WWII-era love story between Steve and Peggy. It’s a relationship built on little details: their shared experience of having doors slammed in their faces; the fact that she meets and understands him before he becomes a supersoldier; the way her stiff upper lip and his inexperience combine to make their connection unspoken. Given how huge a presence this relationship has become in both the big- and small-screen Marvel universes, it’s rather remarkable that they really only shared a handful of scenes in a single movie before being tragically torn apart. Their understated good-bye over radio link, as Steve tells Peggy he’s “gonna need a rain check on that dance” right before plunging his aircraft into the Atlantic and waking up seven decades into the future, just never gets less crushing. He had a date.