Superhero movies haven’t always been so doggedly abstinent. Clark Kent and Lois Lane have sex in the Fortress of Solitude in “Superman II,” even though it’s an unfathomably terrible place to make love in both name and design. Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson all but reinvented the entire genre with a single upside-down kiss in the rain. Rogue couldn’t even be touched, but that didn’t stop her from having a boyfriend. Hell, “Deadpool” got pegged, in what felt like a direct rebuttal to the chastity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” film didn’t skimp on the sex, though many of us wish that it had. And the mess of DC blockbusters that Snyder has since presided over has also kept that tradition alive: Kal-El inevitably made contact with Metropolis’ finest reporter, and Diana Prince consummated her flirtation with Steve Trevor in a very tasteful scene during the height of World War I. As recently as last month, “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” reminded the 12 people who saw it that her character was forged through kink, and that sex may be more intrinsic to the DNA of superheroes than the MCU would have us believe. Even Marvel’s Netflix shows, tasked with sustaining a storyline for 13 hours at a time, use sex as a means of fleshing out its protagonists — the physical relationship between Jessica Jones and Luke Cage was fantastically expressive about who those people are and what they need in their lives.
Meanwhile, sex is almost as ill-advised in the MCU as losing your virginity in a horror movie (and far less common). Once upon a time, back when the franchise was still figuring things out, Thor dared to kiss Jane. He then had to leave the planet for a few years. When their relationship continued into the sequel, Jane was rewarded for her romantic interest by becoming the trigger for an ominous prophecy. Not only is she reduced to a glorified MacGuffin, she’s also used as bait for the Dark Elves, and then Thor’s mom dies trying to protect her. Jane is nowhere to be seen in “Ragnarok,” and Thor doesn’t exactly seem to miss her.
Comic books have often used romantic interests against their characters, as Achilles’ heels for otherwise invulnerable superheroes, but the MCU takes that idea to the next level by doing away with romance altogether. It’s a movie universe filled with perfect bodies that exist only to be looked at, and therefore a place where every character is inherently objectified. That’s obviously true for female Avengers like Black Widow, who still doesn’t have a story of her own, and whose figure the camera tends to covet like it’s an Infinity Stone. It’s also true of male heroes like Ant-Man and Quicksilver, as Paul Rudd and Aaron Taylor-Johnson both developed full eight-packs for interstitial shirtless shots that ran just a few seconds long. No wonder the most interesting dynamics in this emotionally unavailable franchise are all of a familial nature: Peter Quill and his father, Peter Parker and his aunt, and — most of all — Thor and his brother.
Loki is a highlight of “Ragnarok,” but his circular relationship with Thor is starting to feel like history’s most expensive episode of “Itchy & Scratchy.” His character personifies how Waititi’s film wastes a golden opportunity to make the MCU a more intimate place. If ever there were a Marvel movie that could have elevated branded content into bonafide characters, this was it. It’s not an origin story, nor does it crucially advance the franchise; its sole narrative purpose is to make audiences reinvest in Thor and his world, to strengthen our connection to a funny character beyond his lightning-in-a-bottle charisma. But the MCU is too afraid to humanize its gods, and Thor remains the same (immensely watchable) one-note hero that he was before.
Naturally, it’s Valkyrie who steals the show and inspires hope for the future of the MCU Billed as the franchise’s first LGBTQ character — actress Tessa Thompson tweeted that “Val is Bi in the comics & I was faithful to that in her depiction” — the drunken former warrior is a breath of fresh air for a film world that’s in desperate need of some actual flesh and blood. Her sexuality isn’t explicitly addressed in the movie (an understandable side effect of a movie that’s set in a sexless world), but Thompson embodies the role with the clear pathos of someone who knows what it means to actually want something. (There are few moments that suggest a romance-to-be between her and Thor, but like similar moments throughout the MCU, they exist in place of action or anything real.) It’s not important that she ostensibly desires both men and women, it’s important that she exudes the capacity to desire anyone.
It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that her plot is the only part of the film that has any weight to it, that feels like it’s rooted in a pathos that runs deeper than duty. Her painterly flashbacks don’t run very long, but they boil with a human urgency unlike anything the MCU has seen before. In a cinematic universe where everyone is ridiculously strong, Valkyrie is the first character — female or otherwise — who’s strong enough to want something more. If “Ragnarok” shows how sex is symptomatic of the problems that plague the MCU, Valkyrie illustrates how sex could just as easily become the solution.