If almost three complete phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have taught us anything — and let’s not rush to assume that’s the case — it’s that superhero movies don’t need to have sex in order to reproduce. “Thor: Ragnarok” marks the seventeenth feature in the film world’s most ubiquitous franchise, and not a single one of its characters has verifiably gotten laid since Tony Stark seduced a Vanity Fair reporter just prior to becoming Iron Man.
Yes, we know that Pepper Potts has been promoted from overqualified secretary to under-appreciated partner, and it’s safe to assume that Jane Foster had a few electric nights with the God of Lightning before she was written out of existence, but sex is strictly an off-screen activity in the MCU. It’s almost never seen, seldom implied, and often not even acknowledged.
Captain America is a virgin. Spider-Man is a virgin. Ant-Man is a loveless divorcee, and Hawkeye barely even gets to see his wife with her clothes on. Bruce Banner has probably had some chemistry with women over the years, but his complete inability to engage in safe sex has muffled the mutual desire that’s percolating between he and Natasha Romanoff (which might be for the best, considering how Black Widows tend to treat their mates). Peter Quill has definitely been around the block a few times, but his romantic history is relegated to an intergalactic rap sheet; in the time we’ve known him, his desire has been solely dedicated towards an unspoken crush.
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Hyper-sexualized but almost entirely sexless, the Marvel movies are emblematic of a blockbuster culture in which a certain degree of celibacy has become the norm. At a time when desperate studios are relying on the success of overly inflated event titles in order to stay afloat, the sheer cost of these juggernauts inevitably dictates their content, requiring the films to appeal not just to the traditional 18-34 demographic, but also younger kids, older adults, and — perhaps most importantly — the fine people of all ages who serve China’s censorship bureau.
On an individual basis, this isn’t much of a problem. It’s hard to pinpoint a single installment of the MCU that would be fundamentally improved by a few suggestive fade outs, or where such a development would even make sense. A lot of these movies are about saving the world, and there often simply isn’t time to strip off all that spandex when the planet (or the entire universe) is on the line. The Avengers barely get a chance to unwind, let alone to undress; they celebrated their triumph over the Chitauri with a bite of shawarma, but their sole attempt to throw an actual party was interrupted by a genocidal computer virus with a god complex. There are always too many balls in the air for there to ever be any, um, balls in the air. Given that both the film and comic industries have a long history of conflating sex with sexism — and that superheroes have become such a bright flashpoint in Hollywood’s fight for better female representation — it’s almost a relief that the only palpable sparks in “Thor: Ragnarok” are between the audience and Jeff Goldblum.
In a lot of ways, Taika Waititi’s silly and mostly self-contained new hit is the Platonic ideal of a Marvel movie. It’s colorful and funny, full of great actors giving unexpected performances. (Plus, Cate Blanchett wears goth antlers!) It reinforces the brand, delivering exactly what it promises while also breathing fresh life into familiar characters; Waititi injects enough of his irreverent personality to get fired from a “Star Wars” set, but not enough to scare anyone off from coming back for the next one.
Most importantly, the stakes are both enormous (the fate of Asgard hangs in the balance!) and also non-existent (with the possible exception of Valkyrie, nobody grows or changes in any meaningful way, and the most significant scene to the overall mythology is relegated to the closing credits). Thor saves the day but accomplishes nothing.
With “Infinity War” on the horizon, it makes sense that “Ragnarok” would feel like the calm before the storm. But the same frivolousness that allows parts of the movie to be so much fun also exposes what its franchise lacks. Namely, the qualities that might allow its characters to feel human, the qualities that might track with them between films or result in actual consequences. Memory. Love. Commitment to anything other than civic arguments and the status quo. All these superheroes want to do is protect this place, stop that person. Those goals are invariably pursued through the most plastic kind of action. It’s enough to sustain a three-act structure, but it’s been more than a decade since Nick Fury paid his first visit to Tony Stark, and there’s only so long you can play with action figures before it gets boring.
If the movies of the MCU share a common theme, it’s that of the balance between power and personal responsibility. When it comes to violence, Hollywood knows what to do. When it comes to sex, Hollywood clearly has no idea how to reconcile the two. Marvel circumvents that problem by avoiding it altogether. Their superheroes are so monastically depleted of desire, so impermeably self-possessed, that it often feels like they’re still sealed inside their packaging. A lack of sex isn’t a problem for the Marvel Cinematic Universe unto itself, but it’s symptomatic of a franchise whose need to constantly resell its characters prohibits it from getting them dirty.