[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Eternals.”]
At the heart of Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals,” there is an epic-sized love story, the kind that both spans time (actual millennia) and place (our lovers first meet on a spaceship bound for their new home on Earth, a meet-cute that could only happen in the MCU). But it eventually results in a rote examination of romance, and yes, sex. Much of the action of “Eternals” — another Marvel entry that threatens no less than the fabric of the entire universe; at some point, the stakes were raised so damn high that they can seemingly never go back down — ostensibly hinges on the fractured relationship of Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden). But the pair’s ill-fated bond isn’t rich enough to hold up such weighty narrative.
Marvel movies aren’t always romance-less. Across nearly 30 films, the franchise has found the time to depict love stories involving Captain America and Peggy Carter, Iron Man and Pepper Potts, Spider-Man and MJ, Thor and Dr. Jane Foster, Star-Lord and Gamora, and (to a lesser extent) Black Widow and The Hulk — though few of them have ever shown physical affection beyond a kiss or a loaded look. (And, listen, we know these characters are having sex: Iron Man and Pepper Potts have a kid, for chrissakes.)
That’s something Zhao wanted to change. As the filmmaker recently told IndieWire, “For us to be able to show two people who love each other, not just emotionally and intellectually but also physically, and to have a sex scene that will be seen by a lot of people that shows their love and compassion and gentleness — I think it’s a really beautiful thing.” She’s not wrong; the scene is lovely and helps bind Sersi and Ikaris in a fashion that the MCU has never previously dared. It’s also oddly chaste.
The sex scene in question may be quite tame — the film is, of course, rated PG-13 — but still stands out in the franchise. After professing their love for each other, Sersi and Ikaris consummate their affection by way of a desert-set love scene, which features both actors going topless (though nothing beyond bare backs and arms are seen), gently grinding against each other under a well-placed blanket. You’d have to squint to see much movement, and it’s the only time we see the pair do much more beyond a stray kiss here and there.
©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection
It’s all emblematic of a long-standing problem within the MCU: a lack of human desire in service to hermetically sealed “characters.” As IndieWire’s own David Ehrlich bemoaned back in 2017, the franchise is filled with superheroes “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.”
Really, it keeps them from being human. Zhao nearly subverts that, however, even with the constraints of a franchise that is a) mostly rated PG-13 (and while surely parts of the series are “meant for kids,” remember that the first MCU film came out in 2008 and that most of these fans are very much grown up now) and b) perpetually worried about keeping up big boundaries, if only so it can reassert them in the inevitable sequel.
The scene highlights Zhao’s bent toward presenting Sersi and Ikaris’ bond as being rooted in love and respect, not just raw desire. (And, again, while sex is mostly missing from this series, what we’re really asking for is a physical expression of these characters as people, even super-charged ones.) As the pair consummate their affection physically, the film takes pains to ground it as an emotional experience as well, with the couple trading off “I love you’s” during the act. It’s hammy and kind of silly and embarrassing, but it’s also intimate in a way the series doesn’t always let itself portray.
“Eternals” also contains the most overt depiction of a gay romance that the MCU has ever attempted, care of the charming domestic life that Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has managed to carve out with his husband Ben (Haaz Sleiman) and their very cute son Jack (Esai Daniel Cross) after growing disillusioned with both humanity and the Eternals’ mission with them.
The pair get away with nothing more than a single kiss, but Zhao’s film digs into the suburban bliss that Phastos has embraced, far away from the rest of the Eternals and their so-called mission. It’s physically limited, but the intimacy is real. Perhaps that’s what this series has truly been lacking all this time, and we’re lucky Zhao even managed to make off with this relatively short bit to begin with.
Part of the reason why Marvel has mostly shied away from gay romances in films — despite winks and nods across the series, particularly when it comes to Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, a confirmed bisexual, and the romantic desires of her fellow “Thor” star, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki — is because they are usually snipped for release in big-money countries, particularly China. Zhao is hopeful that won’t be the case for “Eternals,” telling IndieWire that she has her “fingers crossed” it won’t be cut.
And Zhao’s desire to keep it in actually speaks to something greater than just this one romance: It’s about showing the possibility of humanity. Now that’s a lesson the entire MCU can take to heart. As she explained, “The way Phastos’ story plays out in the film is that he’s someone who only sees humanity as a whole and believes that technology’s going to solve the problem. Obviously, he lost faith in us for some very tough things that we’ve done. And then he had to stop looking at us as a whole and look at one person he falls in love with, and one child, to regain the face of humanity.”
That’s what’s missing when Marvel skimps on its sex scenes, its love stories, and its depiction of the messier side of human affection. “Eternals” doesn’t correct that long-standing problem — the heat is still turned way down here — but at least it offers the possibility of a world in which superheroes are fumbling toward the kind of human connection that doesn’t always make for easy, blockbuster-sized selling.
“Eternals” is now in theaters.