There have been a lot of thinkpieces written in the past few years about the relative sexlessness of the MCU. Characters rarely kiss, and when they do, sometimes it’s as disappointingly sexless as the dead-fish kiss between Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter in Captain America: Civil War. A lot of romantic relationships are established almost offscreen–most of Natasha and Bruce’s romance happens in the space between The Avengers and Age of Ultron, and Clint’s wife comes as a surprise in the latter movie. (While we’re focusing on Marvel right now, DC’s big-budget movies aren’t much better. Lois and Clark had a sexy bathtub scene, so points there, but every romantic relationship Bruce Wayne is in since Batman Begins seems to get people killed, and Harley and Ivy only kiss in the cartoons…so far, at least. Aquaman’s parents are cute together?).
At the same time, romance as a genre has faded from the big screen. Romantic comedies no longer dominate the box office as they did during the golden age of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Palm Springs might have been the biggest rom-com of 2020. It had been acquired for Hulu before the pandemic even hit.
But even before movies started jumping directly to Hulu and Netflix, romance storylines were already alive and well on television. As sitcoms got more serialized, they committed more to long-running romantic plotlines. Friends wasn’t the first show to go on the path of ‘will they or won’t they,’ but it ushered in many more: How I Met Your Mother, New Girl, and even less explicitly romantic, less serialized shows like The Big Bang Theory and Schitt’s Creek. Parks and Recreation never stopped being a workplace sitcom, but Leslie and Ben’s romance was a vital part of the show’s back half (and that doesn’t even include romantic plotlines on The Office, Superstore, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine).
Which is the chicken and which the egg? You got me. As movies got bigger and more bombastic, spectacle took up more space, and the demands of international marketing–alongside the rise of premium cable and the Internet’s easy access to naked bodies–also made the frank sex scenes of action movies of the 80s and early 90s less commercially desirable.
So it’s oddly fitting that WandaVision brought a bright snap of sexual attraction back to the MCU.
The early days of the sitcom were also no stranger to sexuality, even if the leads were required to sleep in separate beds. I Love Lucy, the first sitcom to really break the ‘filmed play’ mold of earlier programs, starred a real-life married couple whose real-life pregnancy became a plot point in the show’s later seasons. Even Ralph and Alice seemed pretty into each other. Couples trying to squeeze a little alone time around the demands of their busy lives and families is a sitcom staple. (There’s a great episode of Malcolm in the Middle where the parents realize they’re arguing constantly because they haven’t gotten any privacy, and by privacy, I mean sex.)
Wanda and Vision don’t have sex onscreen; that wouldn’t be appropriate for a sitcom, after all. But their physical attraction to each other is undeniable, even in the most 50s episode of all (Paul Bettany’s growl of “What are you wearing?” is a highlight of the episode.) There may only be forty-five seconds [https://twitter.com/jowrotethis/status/1367309250222055424] of heat, but it’s still the most sensuality since Natalie Dormer took what she wanted from Steve Rogers [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFxSxrllUIQ], no matter what Gamora claims about pelvic sorcery.
Part of the heat comes from intimacy, a word that’s often used in conjunction with sexuality but isn’t quite the same. The Wanda and Vision relationship has its moments of intimacy–cooking together in Civil War, the “I feel you” moment–but WandaVision is built on intimacy, and takes those fleeting moments to another level. Wanda and Vision flirt, dream, and plan together. Finding out they’re about to have a baby turns their world to color. Vision’s introduction to his children is a genuinely intimate, loving moment, and even as we, the viewers, know something is horribly off inside this 70s sitcom world, the illusion draws us in, as well.
Intimacy is easier to create and maintain in a series format which gives us more time with each character. In contrast with action movies–especially action movies of the 00s, which sometimes seem to exist to justify their special effects budget–a series can take time to linger, to have a scene or two that doesn’t exist just to set up an action sequence.
Situating WandaVision in a sitcom format, with its low-stakes conflicts of talent shows and visiting in-laws, also gives structure to each episode without having to spend too much time on the exact logistics of where the children currently are or what, exactly, Vision does for a living. That means we get to see Wanda and Vision flirt, argue, and parent. While a good fight scene can build character, the quiet moments where friendships are built are just as vital.
WandaVision at its best focuses on those quiet moments, and manages to give Wanda and Vision the time they were denied, over and over again, onscreen. It gives them the chance to explore the tiny human desires–for sex, for food (or maybe the novelty of chewing gum), for an extra minute in bed ‘resting your eyes.’ And, ironically, committing to a sitcom formula–albeit one that the writers start breaking almost immediately–frees WandaVision from action movie cliches for the bulk of its run. No one writing for The Dick Van Dyke Show consulted their copy of Save the Cat, and the WandaVision writers don’t bother with it either. Borrowing from fifty years of television history–combined with more than a decade of the MCU (no stranger to formula of its own)–lets the writers noodle around in the margins. The benefit of structure is the freedom it gives to improvisation. Even the ending episode, while more formulaic than those that came before, comes to a halt to watch Wanda and Vision tuck their boys into bed one last time.
US media has often had an odd and contradictory experience with sex and sensuality. As an 80s kid, I grew up on movies with sex scenes that often struck me as inappropriate and weird, scenes that neither built character nor really sizzled. As I grew older I grew more aware of how much more heavily sex, or its suggestion, was censored than violence. Nothing’s changed, except that most of the weird and inappropriate sex scenes moved to Showtime and HBO a while back.
Much of our media is hypersexualized but not particularly sensual or sexual. Understandably, the MCU has often fallen into the same trap. There are loving shots of Steve Rogers’ ass and Natasha’s feet, but rarely is that physicality allowed to transform into attraction. Loki’s infamous ‘mewling quim’ line got past the censors not just because the term was archaic, but because, in that scene, Loki has all the sexual menace of Baby Yoda.
In contrast, the sexiest outfit Wanda wears is a long-sleeved, floor-length negligee with a plunging neckline. There are no lingering shots on Vision’s (padded) butt, and the pants aren’t historically accurate in the 1970s episode. WandaVision doesn’t bother with hypersexualization. Instead, it gets to the heart of what makes a couple have a spark, and then builds on that spark for six episodes. By the time Wanda literally drops everything to expand the Hex and save her husband, we understand exactly why. Darcy doesn’t need to point out that what Wanda and Vision has is real to the audience in the following episode; we already know. By the final moments in their shared home, Vision knows too.
Fantasy and science fiction have to be grounded, in one way or another. Perhaps it’s through creating consistent rules of magic, or basing the political machinations of your plot on an authentic period of history, or spending hours on researching the most logical spots for an off-world space colony. And those elements are important. The behind-the-scenes special about WandaVision and dozens of articles released since the show came out address the enormous amount of care put into Wanda’s fantasy worlds, from testing the right color of Vision’s greyscaled head to reproducing the popular design choices of TV kitchens. That they also chose to make the love and intimacy in WandaVision authentic didn’t just ground the series–it made the story more compelling to viewers.
Even as they faded from the big screen, love stories kept chugging along. Many of the stories of breakout hits–whether the tone is as bittersweet as Call Me By Your Name or as shamelessly silly as Crazy Rich Asians–belong to love stories. (Even John Wick, the unexpected action franchise that’s spawned a dozen imitators, begins with a love story.) The romance genre dominates popular fiction and mass market paperbacks. Love, in all its forms, never went away. How could it?
A note on terminology: A love story is a story about a romantic relationship. A romance is a love story with a happy ending (often abbreviated in the book genre as ‘HEA’ – Happily Ever After – or ‘HFN’ – Happy For Now). There aren’t really any good current terms for a love story that ends in tears, but I’m still partial to weepie. Let’s bring that one back, shall we?