Marvel Is Weird About Sex
Eternals marks many firsts for Marvel, but perhaps none more notable than the fact that after 13 years and 26 movies, this one finally contains some sex. Unfortunately, the only thing more depressing than the time it took to get such a moment into Hollywood’s premiere franchise is the encounter itself, a fifteen-second bit of nothing that suggests the studio is still incapable of (or disinterested in) the emotions of adults. It’s an exception that proves a significant rule: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is sexually dysfunctional.
Chloe Zhao’s Eternals handles its erotic business quickly. In 575 BC Babylon, the Eternals— ancient gods created by an even grander deity known as a Celestial—are aiding humanity on its evolutionary path, albeit not by interfering with its inner-species conflicts, because that’s an apparent no-no. Most lovey-dovey of this diverse group is stately Superman proxy Ikaris (Richard Madden) and element-altering Sersi (Gemma Chan), who laugh and frolic around the ancient civilization during the types of magic-hour sunsets that director Zhao has made her trademark. In a rocky enclave in the mountains, they stare into each other’s eyes, and then they’re suddenly in flagrante delicto, Ikaris on top of Sersi as Zhao zooms tight on their faces in order to both sidestep any nudity and to catch Sersi saying “I love you.” A brief second later, the camera pans up to yet another glowing sunset cresting over the horizon, at which point the film cuts to the sight of Ikaris and Sersi getting hitched.
Deflating is the best way to describe this wannabe-pioneering scene, and not only because Zhao and company have claimed that Ikaris and Sersi’s relationship is inspired by The Notebook, Casablanca, and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution—three films whose steaminess so dwarfs that of Eternals that they don’t belong in the same sentence. Ikaris and Sersi’s rendezvous is intended as the dramatic crux of the film, positioning Sersi at the center of a romantic triangle with Ikaris and her human beau Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington), and sparking a centuries-spanning affair of longing, regret and grief that comes to a head in the story’s final passages. Yet there’s no way the sex scene could live up to any of this, what with it running shorter than your average TV commercial, and having been fashioned for maximum modesty.
Soft breathing, barely discernible thrusts, and a concluding proclamation of love—which is instantly followed by holy matrimony—is not a recipe for raising anyone’s temperature. It is, however, part and parcel of the studio’s habitual avoidance of actual sexiness. Since the debut of 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel has set the template for big-budget domestic spectaculars, and that’s included a general negation of palpable, believable heat. Be it the relationship shared by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Spider-Man and MJ (Zendaya), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane (Natalie Portman) or Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Christine (Rachel McAdams), sex has always been a non-factor. To an enervating degree, these couples’ dynamics involve only sweetly and/or wistfully gazing at each other, culminating at best with a gentle kiss.
The most heartfelt romantic relationship in the MCU is shared by Captain America (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and even that is defined by separation, with the former leaving the latter by time-traveling from the 1940s to the present before they can consummate their feelings, and then reuniting at the end of Avengers: Endgame for a demure slow-dance amidst pillowy warm light. At least Cap and Peggy receive some resolution; Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk’s (Mark Ruffalo) flirty attraction is introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron and subsequently discarded without so much as a second thought. On the other hand, since their rapport was basically of a mother-child nature—with Black Widow soothing the beastly Hulk by singing a lullaby—it’s probably best that the series didn’t go there after all.
Marvel’s disinterest in genuine torridness is somewhat understandable; its heroes and villains were originally created for kids, and appealing to a global audience requires a PG-13 restraint that also extends to its cartoonish violence. No matter how many billions are spent on, and made by, these films, they’re juvenile fantasies by design. Still, so were Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and yet they managed to provide a measure of sexual and romantic verve that’s absent from the MCU. Instead, the franchise has become content with casting incredibly attractive actors, having them flash their unclothed physiques in one signature shot—or, in its actresses’ case, making them wear tight form-fitting uniforms—and then neutering their characters of anything remotely libidinous. They’re action figures come to CGI-aided life, all ripped muscles, svelte curves, and non-existent urges.
Like Eternals’ gay kiss shared between Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and his husband (Haaz Sleiman), Ikaris and Sersi’s brief coitus is such a transparent and unsatisfying token gesture that it winds up being further proof of the MCU’s adolescent asexuality. That the film feels the need to follow-up the duo’s romp with an immediate segue to matrimony— thereby reassuring audiences that this isn’t about pleasure, it’s about everlasting love— only makes it lamer.
Now is the time to stop reading if you're avoiding spoilers. There's an even bigger problem: the fact that the only male MCU character to ever get laid has to eventually die by suicide (hurling himself into the sun, no less!) implies that Marvel has taken a page out of a 1980s slasher-movie playbook by equating sexual activity with the sort of sin that must be punished with death.
Ikaris’ fate amplifies the impression that Marvel is terrified of sexuality, which is frustrating precisely because of the MCU’s dominance as both a box-office behemoth unto itself, and as an industry force that sets the standard for all modern extravaganzas. The studio’s cultural hegemony has given birth to a contemporary cinematic landscape of distinctly un-erotic blockbusters that largely eschew sex altogether, the better to appeal to their teen target audiences. That those kids might want to see incredibly good-looking movie stars having adult relations seems to be beside the point; innocent virtue allows the studio to peddle its product to the largest number of domestic and international consumer markets possible, not only in movie theaters but on toy store shelves and clothing racks. Such business objectives trump everything else.
Consequently, Marvel will not doubt continue to ignore sex or, as in Eternals’ case, treat it as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blip in the lives of 7,000 year-old beings who are so fundamentally passive and limp that they’ve also willingly chosen not to prevent any of humanity’s historical atrocities. Thankfully, in the film’s long-spoiled first stinger, the promise of real licentiousness arrives in the form of pop heartthrob Harry Styles, here playing Thanos’ brother Eros (aka Starfox), a figure with the power to entrance and seduce anyone with whom he comes into contact. In an ideal world, Styles’ introduction would usher in an era of increased erotic abandon, with the star delivering a much-needed shot of playful lustfulness to this predominantly sterile universe. Then again, since Eros is also Marvel’s preeminent predator – in the comics, he’s even been put on trial for sexual assault—it remains to be seen if the studio is truly ready to embark upon such a new carnal frontier.