It’s the anxious first touch, the lingering looks, the web-slung soaring above Manhattan. It’s the breathless, meandering sentence, the drawn-out declaration of admiration, and the heroic dive to catch a fatal fall. There is undeniable splendor and endless intrigue, but at their heart, superhero narratives have always excelled at highlighting humanity—a fact that extends seamlessly into the genre’s varied romances, large or small, long or short, resolved or tragic. Among all of the politics and the peril, a tender moment shared between a super and their partner has long served as a moment of empathy. A moment of relatability.
Love sits at the center of our souls and demands purpose. It is something that surrounds each and every one of us. We may not understand the universe, or the meaning of life, or the way Lost ended, but we do understand love and all of the ways it makes us human.
To be human is to love. Someone. Something. Sometimes. If writers want their characters to feel real, then they first have to decide how their characters handle this facet of their humanity.
When it comes to superheroes, the predominant form of love seems to be romantic, particularly in regard to content that is consumed more by mainstream culture. Although there is no shortage of epic and meaningful non-romantic relationships in the MCU, the X-Men movies, the Arrowverse, and the various DC cinematic universes, the most famous examples of love are consistently between two people who are romantically invested in one another. Steve and Peggy, Arthur and Mera, Tony and Pepper, Bruce and Selina, Diana and Steve—the list goes on and on, and then it goes on some more.
What is it about our on-screen heroes that make them so prone to this specific type of love, when so many others exist? What is it about our movies and television that lends itself more to romance?
The answer, of course, is endlessly complicated and not likely to be fully covered in the length of a single article. But a girl can try.
Much like the way fairytales and greek myths have evolved throughout their centuries, superhero narratives are beginning to claim their place among prevailing and adapted literature. With decades of content behind them, they serve as something of a time capsule—a point of reference throughout history that articulates the thoughts of time. They hold a mirror up to who we are now, who we have been before, and they beg us to behold our growth.
No story exists in a vacuum. As much as we would like to think that our beloved supers are fully unique and exist independently from the people who create them, it just isn’t true. Superheroes, just like any other character, are subject to the thoughts, beliefs, understandings, and opinions of those who craft them.
And when it comes to our thoughts on love, superheroes have seen more than their fair share of growth. Who better to articulate such a shift than the man who’s been there to see it all?
It began in 1948 with the first on-screen appearance of the beloved Superman. Throughout the three years of Colombia produced Superman movies, Lois Lane consistently exists as a means of elevating Superman and his heroic ways. There isn’t a lot of substance to the character. There isn’t a lot of build. The bulk of her screen time is spent as the traditional damsel in distress with the express purpose of highlighting the gallantry of her savior. Among the Old Hollywood charm, the two exist less as loving partners and more as a hero with the starry-eyed woman he saved.
This isn’t a fault of the films, but is instead a sign of how romance was understood at the time. The idea of womanhood was still blooming—they had won their vote, they had worked through the war, but there was still a long path to independence. Furthermore, the American people of all genders valued chivalry, protectiveness, and strength in very different ways than they do now. These societal ideals informed the media that was created alongside them. It’s no coincidence that Adventures of Superman, the television show released shortly after the Columbia films, carries a number of similar themes. At the risk of sounding like someone who only took one Introductory Philosophy class: art imitates life.
But because Superman exists across such a wide span of time, he isn’t just informed by 1950s values. Throughout the character’s on-screen history, there is a clear progression of ideology. Lois and Clark will always be in love, but how they love each other is reliant on how we do the same. Take, as an example, the stark contrast between the 1950s adaptations and the Christopher Reeve films, the first of which was released in 1978. Roughly twenty years of societal growth takes Lois Lane and turns her into an entirely new character. While still somewhat prone to her womanly damselness, Margot Kidder’s Lois has more agency in her own life. She’s a talented and accomplished journalist, determined to chase down her story.
With her newfound personhood, Lois becomes a little more intriguing, not just as a character, but also as a romantic interest. Suddenly, audiences are able to sympathize with her in a way they couldn’t before. Not only does she have a crush on Superman—her hero, her knight in blue spandex—but Superman has a bit of a crush on her, too. Audiences are able to see a deeper connection form. Since Action Comics #1, we have known that Lois and Clark are a couple. Through this screen adaptation, we begin to understand why.
We want to love. We want to watch it grow, feel it, root for it. People will always empathize with love when they are given characters that allow adequate space for that empathy.
At the turn of the millennium, the newest batch of Superman screenwriters took this idea and ran with it (sprinted with it, really. Set an Olympic record with it). Smallville was one of the great televisual accomplishments of its time, consistently bringing in record ratings for the WB network from its pilot episode onward. Through the power of weekly television, this adaptation was able to build both Clark and Lois into spectacular and independent characters, which allowed audiences to feel more deeply for them than they had throughout any iteration prior.
We liked them. We understood them. We wanted to be them.
And then, like Jim and Pam, like Bones and Booth, and like the countless other couples before them, Clark and Lois were wrapped up in the classic will-they-won’t-they setup that pulls audiences in week after week. Secure in the certainty of eventual payoff, fans of the show were willing to suffer through multiple seasons of gradually building tension between the two characters. The heart of the relationship stayed the same—the heroics, the admiration, the sacrifice—but it was now amplified by additional values. Themes of legacy, companionship, compassion, and accountability now accented the famous couple, revealing a greater focus on these ideas not just among the creators, but also among all of the fans with whom the story resonated.
Most importantly, the pair were now friends before they were anything else. The relationship developed more into an equal partnership that felt dynamic and sometimes high stakes. It shows a drastic shift in thinking from the 1948 adaptation.
Superheroes allow us to see what we care about most in the world. They help us come to terms with the human experience and the results are in: the human experience is love. In and out, up and down, then and now. It’s inescapable, and it extends far beyond just Clark and Lois. The Arrowverse thrives on romance, riding on the relationships between Oliver and Felicity or Barry and Iris. Sam Rami used Peter and MJ to essentially launch the modern superhero industry. From studio produced, box office hopefuls like the Fantastic Four to Netflix originals like Jessica Jones or Luke Cage—we love love. And superheroes especially seem to love romance, because we ourselves love romance.
It makes a person wonder what the next step might be. How will Superman love tomorrow?
Without the possession of the Time Stone, it’s impossible to say for sure, but I wonder if a proposal could be made. What would happen if we were to take a wider look? If we were to relinquish the societal fascination with romantic love that we see so clearly in our heroes and turned, instead, to the friendships? To the families?
The love between Steve and Bucky fueled the plot of three entire movies within the MCU. One of DC’s strongest movies this year was Shazam, which focuses entirely on the idea of a found family. It can be done. More than that, it should be done because, at the risk of sounding like someone who took way too many Literature classes: life imitates art.
Love is making your siblings laugh at something stupid. It’s petting your dog at the end of a long day. It’s boisterous, cacophonous debate with your closest friends and a pitcher of cheap beer. Movies and television are lost in a longstanding narrative where the Hero Gets The Girl as a part of his happy ending, but we neglect the endless amounts of love that he’s had the entire time. The Alfreds and the Aunt Mays. The Foggys and the Neds. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule (the Danvers Sisters come to mind), but imagine the possibilities if, on a widespread scale, we dared to love our friends as fervently and purposefully as we did our partners. If we made it our priority.
That’d be pretty super, I think.
For the Love of Love: The Revealing Nature of Superhero Romance
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