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MCU Romances, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos by Marvel Studios

“Capitalism.” “Thanos.” “Butts.” “I don’t know.” These are the first words I think of when I think about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Kissing is definitely not among them.

Romance has always been an important part of action and superhero stories. The relationship between Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst’s M.J. is the central narrative in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and Star Wars would probably just be some weird, boring space movie from the ’70s without Han Solo and Princess Leia’s bickering. The early MCU films relied on a romance formula, even when it wasn’t essential to the plot or character development because even though these films started not that long ago, they were ambitious projects, so giving the audience something they expect out of a superhero movie (a romance) was a necessity.

As the MCU evolved, Marvel boss Kevin Feige learned that not every movie needs a romantic plot to be, ya know, a movie. Eventually, for the most part — and particularly in films like Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther — character arcs became more valued than love stories (or even coherent plots).

Although the MCU has departed from traditional romances, it has, for lack of a better word, capitalized on one by making it a television series. Wanda and Vision — tertiary Avengers who appear on the run and in love without any context in Infinity War — are now the glue that holds together a major television show, and it appears that their relationship will determine the universe’s future.

WandaVision is proof that experimental love interests can work within this chaotic universe. It’s also proof that the MCU would be more interesting (to me and hopefully others) if there was more kissing and maybe even a bare butt and a little sex scene every once in a while. I am merely a passive consumer of this content, what do I know, but I think this is good feedback so I really hope someone with creative influence at Disney is reading this. If you are a Disney exec reading this, I can make myself available to write a horny Loki screenplay.

In honor of Wanda and Vision’s fake television marriage, we revisited the MCU romances and ranked them from best to worst. Most of them are mediocre at best, and you probably forgot about half of them, which is fine.

Only romances involving major characters that carried (or had or have the intention of carrying) throughout more than one film were considered.

Nearly every movie in the MCU (with the exception of The Incredible Hulk and both Spider-Mans) are streaming on Disney+.

14. Ed Norton Bruce Banner/Hulk and Betty Ross

Instead of wasting your brain space thinking about this boring romantic plot that has had absolutely no impact on the MCU or even its own movie (2008’s The Incredible Hulk), I will simply recommend Liv Tyler’s chaotic Architectural Digest tour of her Brooklyn brownstone.

13. Steve Rogers/Captain America and Sharon Carter

For someone who was so upset about the death of Peggy Carter, the love of his life, Steve Rogers sure kissed her niece Sharon under an overpass and in front of his friends several days after the funeral.

12. Doctor Steven Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer

I literally watched this movie right before writing this and can’t even remember if they kissed? Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel McAdams are talented individuals, but even Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen could teach them a lesson on romantic chemistry in cinema. The most romantic part in Doctor Strange is when Christine performs a procedure on Doctor Strange under the direction of Strange’s astral projection, who gives her no context for why this is happening and that he is a wizard now. Hopefully Sam Raimi will spice up their relationship in Multiverse of Madness — he has experience. These two deserve to do a big wet (possibly upside-down?) kiss.

11. Clint Barton/Hawkeye and Laura Barton

A gross, revolting underuse of Linda Cardellini. Laura Barton basically just sits around a farm waiting for her Avenger husband to come home from battles while she raises the kids. This marriage was only added to Age of Ultron to give Hawkeye a personality. The silver lining is that Linda Cardellini got a decent paycheck for work she could — and probably did — do in her sleep.

10. Bruce Banner/Hulk and Natasha Romanov/Black Widow

As more stories about Joss Whedon surface from the women who worked on his shows — inspired by Ray Fisher who has spoken very publicly about Whedon’s alleged racist and abusive behavior on the Justice League set, prompting an internal investigation at Warner Brothers — the lazy, insensitive writing Black Widow got in Avengers: Age of Ultron feels even more awful than it did when the film came out in 2015. The romantic pairing of Natasha and Bruce could and should work, but Whedon writes Natasha as a woman simply pining for a life she knows she can never have with a man she knows she can never have. It’s a common conflict in storytelling that works when the characters are given any thought and attention, but instead it’s clichéd and insulting because it’s written under the assumption that women — even deadly assassins turned world-saving Avengers — only want one thing. Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson struggle to perform something that never worked on the page, you can see in their performances that they’re just as aware of how much this doesn’t work as the viewer is. But Ruffalo and Johansson still try to pull it off because they care more about their characters than Whedon ever did. The only time this romance works is very briefly in Thor: Ragnarok, when footage of Natasha prompts Hulk to transform back into Bruce after two years. Under Taika Waititi’s direction, the relationship is, at its core, what it should have been about all along: a deep emotional connection, not a woman who just wants to settle down with one of the only single men she knows.

9. Peter Parker/Spider-Man and M.J.

Although it is admirable that the MCU allows Zendaya to be tall, the relationship does not hold a Yankee jar candle to their predecessors, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, who reinvented kissing when they did it upside down in an alley. The new take on these characters and their romance — mostly the apathetic but also an activist version of M.J. — adds a unique charm to the tone and to their cool-girl-falls-in-love-with-the-big-ass-nerd trope, but the films would probably not be much different if M.J. put Peter in the friend zone.

8. Thor and Jane Foster

Even though I am one of only eight people on this planet who enjoys Thor: The Dark World (intoxicating Loki content), the first two films in the franchise are dry and meandering because they don’t really know what they’re trying to be yet. The romance between Thor and Jane is at the center of both of the films, but it doesn’t add much to the narrative, the characters, or the tone. Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman don’t have zero chemistry, but theirs is a sparkler, not fireworks. Taika Waititi reinvented the franchise with Thor: Ragnarok, giving it a distinct voice and a happy, funny, eccentric soul, which will hopefully help Thor and Jane’s romance translate better onscreen in Thor: Love and Thunder.

7. Scott Lang/Ant-Man and Hope Pym/the Wasp

Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly’s eyes do all the work here. This relationship, which starts off antagonistic, quickly blossoms into love. Hope must really love Scott because she did not immediately leave him for Walton Goggins when he showed up in Ant-Man and the Wasp, which requires strength that I do not and never will have. I have nothing else to say, which makes it seem like I don’t like or care about them, but I do. I hope they’re happy.

6. T’Challa/Black Panther and Nakia

Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o bounce off each other as if they, like their characters, have known each other their whole lives. They perform with a seamless, seemingly effortless familiarity that you rarely see, even on long-running TV shows or franchise films. Although the characters are never seen together romantically in the movie, the chemistry between these two makes you feel their history, and you know exactly what they’re like as a couple. There was a lot more to be explored between T’Challa and Nakia. We’ll never get more due to Boseman’s death, but what he brought to this subtle, sweet relationship lives on.

5. Tony Stark/Iron Man and Pepper Potts

There would not be an MCU without Tony and Pepper. Iron Man. Together, Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow kept the films grounded, with Pepper always serving as a reminder to not only the audience, but to Tony, that there’s more to life than all of the superhero stuff. Their relationship is a little different than others: It’s a romantic love, but they’re also business partners, and Pepper is also basically Tony’s manager (his work manager, his superhero manager, his life manager). Their squabbling defined the tone of the Iron Man films and bought something fresh to the genre. Over time, Paltrow became a little more interested in exploding vagina candles than supersuits, and her fading enthusiasm (which is fair since she never expected to play Pepper Potts for an entire decade) started to show. She even forgot that she’s in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Despite Paltrow’s indifference, their finale scene together (Tony’s death scene in Endgame) works because it represents all of the effort these actors put into these roles and their characters’ relationship in 2008’s Iron Man.

4. Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and Vision

According to his introduction in Age of Ultron, Vision does not have a penis. I refuse to accept this, though. Vision can probably produce his own very good member out of nowhere. Wanda and Vision have been through a lot: She tried to prevent him from being made in Age of Ultron (she witnessed his birth, thus seeing him naked so she knew what was not down there), he kept her quarantined at Avengers headquarters in Captain America: Civil War and she sent him into the Earth’s core to escape. The next time we see them in Infinity War, they’re romantically linked and on the run. This pairing didn’t make much sense and Vision’s (two) death(s) in Infinity War rely on an investment in their brand-new relationship. Thankfully WandaVision gives their relationship room to blossom and allows ample time for the audience to get familiar with their bond, which is established within the first couple minutes of the first episode. Vision is dead and essentially trapped in Wanda’s mind, but knowing that her grief for him is so great that she has created an escapist reality to keep him in her life and avoid mourning adds an essential element to their relationship. Also Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, who finally get to do real acting instead of just moving their arms, are an absolute feast.

3. Peter Quill/Star-Lord and Gamora

Chris Pratt plays Star-Lord quite naturally, but it is Zoe Saldana’s affecting performance that gives this relationship its power. Peter Quill and Gamora’s romance isn’t as obvious as some of the others, but it is secretly one of the strongest in the MCU even though they don’t do a lot of kissing or, presumably, sex (where would they do it on their little ship without Rocket Raccoon interrupting or trying to join?), and even though it involves Chris Pratt. They started as enemies, but eventually their relationship evolved into a romance that holds significant emotional weight in not only the Guardians of the Galaxy films but the MCU as a whole. In Avengers: Infinity War, Quill follows through on his promise to kill Gamora rather than allow Thanos to take her away. This, of course, does not work, but knowing that Peter was willing to do this for the woman he loves adds more layers to the relationship than other romances in the universe, because it’s not a fleeting thing that Peter or the audience can easily forget: This decision later prompts Peter to ruin everything by making the capture of Thanos on Titan about him. It’s annoying that he acts so irrationally, but considering what he did for the love of his life who died anyway (but at a great cost) makes sense. Peter’s choices in Infinity War make it more heartbreaking when he reunites with a Gamora who does not know him in Avengers: Endgame.

2. Thor and Mjolnir

Losing his hammer in Thor: Ragnarok gave Thor the depth that he always needed. Mjolnir is a hammer, a hammer that is loved perhaps more than anyone or anything has ever been loved, and it is beautiful. The loss of Mjolnir (at the hands of his sister, Hela, the very hot goddess of death, who breaks it like it’s made of thin glass) helps Thor realize what it’s truly like to feel lost. Like a real breakup, Thor’s separation from an object that defined himself for his entire life is necessary for his growth as a character. And like exes reconnecting during the pandemic over Instagram DMs, Thor is more ready for Mjolnir when he gets it back in Avengers: Endgame because he’s had time to himself to figure out who he really is.

1. Steve Rogers/Captain America and Peggy Carter

Steve and Peggy would not be the heroes they became if it weren’t for each other. MCU content often feels repetitive, cold, and soulless. But Steve and Peggy’s romance adds warmth and humanity, even when they are barely seen or only fleetingly mentioned. Though they don’t share much time onscreen together outside of Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve and Peggy are the heart of the MCU (Tony and Pepper tried, but as previously mentioned, Gwyneth Paltrow got a little too into her exploding vagina candles and lost track of which movies she has been in, which is fair). Peggy knew Steve before and after his transformation into a super soldier, and Steve knew Peggy before she became a co-founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. They bring out the best in each other, even when they’re apart. Peggy channels her grief over losing Steve into her career: She founded S.H.I.E.L.D. with Howard Stark and dedicated her life to Steve’s fight, wishing he was by her side. When Steve emerges from the ice after seven decades, the first thing he thinks about is his date with Peggy. Steve dedicates his post-ice life to her organization and the Avengers on her behalf. This romance could have been a flop, but Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell strike a balance between romantic sincerity and classic hetero bickering that lets the audience know they’re star-crossed.

Honorable Mentions:

Loki and Tumblr

In the early- to mid-2010s, I spent a majority (all) of my free time on Loki Tumblr. Loki Tumblr was a special place where Loki sympathizers gathered, usually at night till the early morning (11 p.m. to 4 a.m.), to reblog poorly photoshopped Loki collages in a sepia filter because we loved him and his greasy hair. We just wanted Loki to feel loved, because his father, Odin, never made him feel loved. Loki was misunderstood, but Loki Tumblr understood him. In my bones I can feel the Loki Tumblr army reuniting in honor of the Loki Disney+ series. Loki is a busy guy, always doing tricks and dying and then coming back and doing more tricks and then dying again. But we’re all busy and still have time for romance and being horny online, so he better have time for kissing on his show. After all he has been through, it’s what he deserves, and honestly, I deserve it, too.

Steve Rogers/Captain America and Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier

The most beautiful bromance I’ve ever seen. Steve Rogers is loyal to a fault. It’s one of the most endearing things about him, and his friendship with Bucky proves this more than anything. Once Steve finds out that Bucky is alive in Captain America: Winter Soldier, he dedicates his life to keeping his best friend safe. Steve’s loyalty to Bucky tests his relationship with the Avengers, when he literally becomes a fugitive in order to protect Bucky from Tony Stark’s wrath in Captain America: Civil War. And once they’re reunited (and Bucky is not a Hydra-controlled assassin anymore), it’s like a day — let alone scene, decades — never passed.

MCU Romances, Ranked