Relationships as Rewards in Action-Adventure Movies and Why it Pisses Me Off
Recently, my roommate and I saw Captain America. It was a fairly entertaining action-adventure movie, and I didn’t regret having spent my time on it. When the roommate and I were discussing it after the fact, I really only had one major complaint: it could have done without the romantic subplot.
This is something I’ve found myself saying about action-adventure movies a lot recently. My otherwise positive perception of Thor was significantly impacted by the unnecessary and awkward romantic sub-plot, and my strongest reaction when I walked out of Transformers: Dark of the Moon was “Fuck Carly.”
Now, I could rant on and on about the dearth of respectable female characters in action-adventure movies. I could rail about how you can have a strong, interesting, complex character as a star or co-star of an action-adventure flick and have her be female. This is fertile ground for that sort of anger, and I have no doubt I’d be recapitulating sentiments expressed a thousand times by a thousand people more eloquent and educated than I. It’s a very real problem in Hollywood, this perception that only guys can be badass action stars, and it needs to stop.
But I was talking to my roommate about my reaction to Captain America and I realized that as much as I could rant about the female presence in these movies, there’s something else that bothers me just as badly as lackluster female characters, and that’s gratuitous and poorly written romantic subplots.
I understand where romantic subplots in action adventure movies come from, in a big-picture kind of way. A big movie studio isn’t going to put money into a film if they can’t be reasonably sure they’re going to get it back (and then some), and that means appealing to multiple ‘demographics’. This whole system is pretty much shit, as it involves breaking the movie-going public down into broad-spectrum boxes and trying to define the interests of those boxes in a generalized way. It probably doesn’t need to be said that over-generalizing and stereotyping is massively problematic.
The main assumption of the people who fund movies in Hollywood is that the primary demographic going to see action-adventure movies is young adult males. This assumption goes further: that young adult males are only interested in violence, aggression, and tits, and that young adult males can only identify with a young adult male protagonist. However, the movie execs know that they need to hit another demographic to draw in sufficient crowds to each blockbuster status, and that’s where the romantic subplots come in.
See, romantic subplots in action adventure movies are, according to the people with the money, intended to appeal to the young adult female demographic—in other words, the girlfriends or sisters or friends that the young adult males are dragging along to the movie. The assumptions implicit in this include some nasty things like “young adult females are only interested in romantic relationships” and “young adult females won’t be interested in the main plot of the movie”.
It gets worse. Breaking the population of a potential audience down into sectors and assigning them certain desires commodifies the process of crafting a narrative for a movie. A script is no longer a story, it’s a collection of disparate elements calculated to increase the box office revenue for the film in question. Talented scriptwriters can and do get around this, and there are plenty of movies where those different elements are all effectively used to enhance the plot. However, not all scriptwriters are talented, even good ones can drop the ball, and good scripts can be ruined by bad decisions in filming and post-production. When all the elements fail to come together well, you end up with movies like Thor and Captain America, solid and fun movies that feel like they have one of their script elements—that we’re supposed to treat seriously—pasted on the main plot like a haphazard Band-Aid.
This makes me furious. I know why it happens, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make me furious. I am getting sick and tired of having my enjoyment of otherwise serviceable films marred because some executive is pandering to what I’m told I should want in a movie.
Here’s a tip, executives: I don’t. When you’re doing it badly, when it’s obviously just tacked on to appease an extra audience demographic, when your romantic subplot in my movie is so awkward I feel like even the actors are embarrassed by it, I don’t want it, even if I’m supposed to as a young adult female.
You know why? Because I’m a person with interests and preferences and my own ability to realize when I’m being goddamn patronized to. Pandering to the socio-cultural assumption that the only thing I care about is getting a man and settling down—which is what these kinds of poor romantic subplots do—isn’t appealing. It’s insulting, and I am damn tired of it.
For the record, I am by no means saying that action-adventure movies can’t have effective romantic subplots. I’m not saying it hasn’t been done well. I’m not saying that all romantic or sexual tension should be stripped out of action-adventure movies. Not by any means I am trying to make this assertion. What I’m saying is that by breaking audience interests, movie attendance, and script elements down into a formula, we’re churning out movies with seriously problematic content and it bothers me.
Allow me to give you some examples. I’ll warn you that everything I’m going to talk about is a relatively recent move, from within the last five years, and they’re all action-adventure adaptations of comic and cartoon properties. This is undeniably a sample bias on my part, so it’s possible that even within this sub-genre the overall pattern is different than what I’m seeing, but I don’t want to talk about movies I’m not familiar with. Beyond that, I don’t think I would be this annoyed if there wasn’t a problem. So let me get into what it is, exactly, that gets me so annoyed.
I’m going to start with Captain America and Thor. Both of these were fairly entertaining, enjoyable movies that contained completely superfluous romantic subplots. Completely.
In Captain America, the romantic tension is between the title character, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Special Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Agent Carter could have been a very cool character. We are shown a confident, competent woman who’s managed to succeed in the military in a time when enlisted women weren’t often more than nurses and secretaries—the film is set during World War 2. We’re even given some hints that she’s struggled hard to get where she is. Adversity has clearly strengthened this woman. All of these are benchmarks of a female character who could be a very strong, interesting character, on her own or in narrative support of Captain America.
So what do they do with her in the film? Have her make goo-goo eyes at Steve Rogers. Most of her involvement in the film revolves around her inevitable relationship with the main protagonist, down to the tired and predictable misunderstandings where Rogers thinks she’s shacked up with supporting character Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and she catches Rogers in a non-consenting kiss with an anonymous blonde aide (Natalie Dormer). The subplot reaches a climax when Agent Carter grants Rogers a kiss before he jumps a plane to save the day. It concludes with the two of them making a date to dance that they both know Rogers will never show up for, given that he proceeds to crash the baddie’s plane in the Arctic. The last we see of her is Agent Carter crying over the radio microphone after losing contact with Rogers.
To be fair, the romantic subplot in Captain America wasn’t particularly bad, it was just tired and predictable. Add to that the fact that the two romantic leads didn’t have particularly compelling onscreen chemistry, and it becomes an element that the movie could have done without. Agent Carter could have been a perfectly serviceable character on her own, without having her fall for Rogers. Hell, eliminating the romantic subplot might have given the movie some room to actually explore her as a person and not a love interest, possibly letting us see why and how she’s gotten as far as she has in the military. I don’t know about you, but I would have found that far more interesting than another unimaginative round of romantic shenanigans.
If the romantic subplot in Captain America was bland, what they did in Thor was downright offensive. The budding relationship here is between title character Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Norse god of thunder exiled to Earth, and astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).
Now, imagine my delight when we first meet Jane Foster. She’s a scientist—an accredited astrophysicist researching a theory she’s passionate about. She’s shown in utilitarian clothes and remains in them the whole movie, which I have to give it credit for. She’s not stereotypically sexy or appealing. In fact, she’s an enthusiastic, excitable, passionate dork. This was great to see for me, and at first I identified with her quite a bit.
Then she meets Thor. She meets a tall, attractive, super-strong man who knows nothing about societal norms or personal boundaries, and she completely loses her composure. At one point, Thor visits her unexpectedly and she’s so flustered that she puts a full bowl of cereal away in a cabinet and tries to cover her sink with a towel. In the face of all this attractive male attention, Jane comes completely undone.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not trying to say that a female character can’t be overwhelmed or frazzled by unexpected male attention. I’m certainly not trying to argue that someone who’s shown to be a little socially awkward should automatically be Ms. Smooth in the face of someone as conventionally attractive as Thor. But the movie plays it up for laughs in the most painfully awkward way. Watching Jane and Thor onscreen together hurts. It reinforces the stereotype that geeky women are both hopelessly romantically awkward and that they’re desperate for male attention, and that hurts too.
But what hurts the worst is that once the mutual attraction is acknowledged, Jane loses all agency. From that point on, her role in the movie is to have Thor do things for her, whether it’s retrieve confiscated data or fight to protect her and her planet. In short, once Thor has ‘won’ Jane, her characterization takes second place to everything Thor is doing.
This is the thing that bothers me the most. This is what annoys me the most about poorly-written romantic subplots, and it’s something that’s problematic about this entire goddamned trope in general.
It simultaneously commodifies women and their relationships with men.
‘And the hero gets the girl’ has been such a keynote element of action-adventure movies for so long that it took me a while to realize why it bothered me. It took me even longer to realize that there’s more to it than just the objectification of female characters into trophies for the protagonist to win. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not just the woman that’s a trophy in these movies, it’s the entire relationship, and I’ve been realizing that I have a very big problem with this. See, coding the main female character in a movie as a trophy for the guy to win both turns her into a goal instead of a character, and it cheapens relationships in general.
I think it goes without saying that action heroes are bad role-models for guys, but I’m going to say it anyway. Action heroes are bad role-models for guys. But you know what? That doesn’t mean that guys don’t look up to them, and I think that’s why the relationship-as-reward dynamic bothers me so much. When the relationship with the girl is the reward, it says to its audience “A girl is something you win. A relationship is nothing more than a prize for doing something cool or badass.” It furthers the completely false perception that the hardest part of being in a relationship is getting into one, and this is bad. While I am well aware of the fact that no one walks into an action-adventure movie for romantic advice, it doesn’t change the fact that the prevalence of this dynamic in movies is a damaging thing.
Plot elements like this are even worse when they’re badly written or included only to satisfy a demographic. In bad movies, not only is the relationship a reward, but both the relationship and the female character feel like throw-away elements that are not only secondary to the main plot, but completely unimportant. Not only does this turn getting the girl into a simple goal, but it’s a marginalized goal compared to whatever else the main male hero is doing. Not only is the woman objectified, she’s deprioritized. It’s insulting, to say the least.
There is another big problem that I have with the getting-the-girl trope, but I’m only going to mention it briefly, as it intersects with a whole different suite of issues I have with Hollywood: queer visibility. Just like it’s an insult to me as a woman for female characters to be turned into a secondary objective, it’s an insult to me as an openly queer woman to see every single onscreen relationship be heterosexual.
Now, I’m absolutely not saying that I shouldn’t have to see heterosexual pairings onscreen, nor am I trying to root for a one-to-one ratio of big name straight couples to big-name queer couples in movies. Nice as something like that would be, I’m not delusional; I know it’s not going to happen. What I’m trying to point out here is the subtle implication of poorly-written, tacked-on romantic subplots: including this crappy romance implies that heterosexual relationships are so normal and good and right that we have to include them in our movie. They’re so ubiquitous that we have to do it—even if it barely effects the plot, or causes plotholes, or the characters/actors have no chemistry. By writing together two characters who don’t have real chemistry in a contrived, clichéd subplot, a movie is essentially telling me that heterosexual romance is inevitable and I am completely Other for being uninterested in it.
And that brings me back to why relationship-as-reward bothers me. It’s the glorification of the relationship in general, not just the heterosexual relationship. It’s this quiet implication that of course the guy wants the girl, of course the girl wants the guy, there is no way this is not the end goal of any kind of male-female interaction. The conclusion is so forgone that it’s never even a possibility that the leading male and female characters might have any other dynamic. They can’t be friends, comrades-in-arms, or colleagues. This kind of widespread on-screen implication on feeds into the widely held fallacy that guys and girls can’t be friends, and that the only reason a guy should express interest in a girl is so he can win her and level up to sexual relationship status.
I am a woman who’s always been comfortable being single. It took me a long time to start dating, not because I didn’t appeal to the guys at school, but because none of them were appealing to me. I wasn’t willing to compromise my own interests or identity just to win a guy. When I see stuff like this in movies, though, I feel like that’s what I’m being urged to do. This is what Thor tells me, as a female viewer in the audience: ‘Nothing is more important that impressing a man, and when you do, let him take care of you’. This is what Captain America tells me: ‘All of my own personal struggles and triumphs are insignificant compared to the struggles and triumphs of the men in my life’. These messages are subtle, yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. If they annoy and marginalize me, someone who’s absolutely interested in sex and relationships as long as they’re on her terms, how do you think they make asexuals and aromantics feel? Or people who struggle to find the right person? Women and girls who do still buy into the “you-must-have-a-man-to-be-valid” hegemony?
This is troubling shit and I don’t like it.
Beyond all that, the trope is so overwhelmingly present that it’s taken the tension—and therefore the interest—out of the romantic subplot in nonromantic movies. Like I mentioned above when I was talking about Captain America, any upheavals or obstacles in the relationship just seem trite. It ruins my suspension of disbelief when Agent Carter is implied to be interested in Howard Stark, because I know she’s not. She’s going to end up with Steve. The romantic conclusion is so foregone that there was nothing interesting about that tired turn of events. This sort of sub-par storytelling isn’t socio-culturally problematic in the way a lot of the other things I’ve talked about so far are, but it still pisses me off.
In fact, good storytelling and novel character dynamics, even in the context of the relationship-as-reward trope, can often make me overlook problematic elements in a movie. I’m not saying this is a good thing or an acceptable thing, but it is something that I do personally. I have really bad taste sometimes, and I’m willing to forgive serious flaws in something if I like it enough. I think we all do this.
Allow me to cite an example. The romantic subplot in the first Transformers movie involved male protagonist Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his high school crush Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox). Actress Megan Fox was very likely chosen for the role to accommodate director Michael Bay’s well-documented fetish for tits and ass. Winning the girl was a major subplot and an inevitable triumph for our male protagonist, and there was a definite relationship-as-reward vibe to it. Kill an evil giant robot, get a girlfriend. All of these are problematic elements for the same reasons I’ve mentioned before: objectification of the female character, glorification of relationship as a reward, and trivialization of male-female interactions that aren’t romantic in nature.
But I love Mikaela, and I consider her a strong female character. Why? Because despite being an object to be won by Sam, she still has her own agency, her own conflicts, and her own development. One of the first times we see Mikaela in the film, she’s walking away from a boyfriend who’s infantilizing her. Over the course of the movie, we learn that she’s been consciously suppressing an interest in cars and mechanics because it’s too unfeminine, and that her father’s in jail and her loyalty to him has earned her a juvenile record. She saves Sam’s ass once by decapitating the tiny Decepticon Frenzy, and later overcomes her own terror of being a teenaged girl in the middle of a battle zone to drive the injured Bumblebee back to the fight.
The actress was hired more for her assets than her talents, and the scriptwriters could have easily followed suit and had everything she did in the movie revolve around being Sam’s eventual reward. Instead, they chose to treat her like a character instead of just a trophy to be earned, and made her one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie for me. More than that, she’s legitimately a strong female character, and by that what I mean is a strongly written character who’s female, not a hyper-aggressive, stereotypically masculine character with tits. Mikaela manages to be simultaneously assertive and aggressive while still maintaining her femininity (here unfortunately coded as sexiness, but she still has it). She can be and does act in strong ways—she’s never a damsel for Sam to rescue—but she still had to deal with vulnerabilities and insecurities that have nothing to do with Sam Witwicky.
Standing in stark contrast to Mikaela is Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), Sam Witwicky’s love interest in the third installment in the trilogy, Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Carly is yet another example of a disappointing, infuriating female character from one of this year’s summer blockbusters, not to mention a significant downgrade from Mikaela. Where Mikaela fought back, Carly screams helplessly. Where Mikaela takes initiative and joins the fight in the climactic battle scene, Carly is kidnapped, held hostage, and needs to be rescued. Where Mikaela takes off her heels to run and wears sensible shoes to fight scenes, Carly totters around the whole movie in stilettos.
Carly is nothing more than a trophy for Sam to win. Even though the two characters start the movie in a committed relationship, Sam has to compete with her smarmy boss and he has to win her back after she walks out on him. At the end of the movie, the implication is that she and Sam are going to get married—somehow, she still manages to be a reward even though they were already in the relationship.
Even worse, the people behind Dark of the Moon tried to pull the same trick with Carly that the people behind Thor did with Jane. When we first meet Carly, we’re shown professional, self-sufficient woman. Carly is shown as both a diplomatic aide to the British Embassy and as a personal assistant/collection curator for a staggeringly wealthy businessman. She’s paying for the roomy apartment that she and Sam share and supporting him entirely until he manages to get his own job. She’s referred to as his “sugar-momma” more than once; it’s a playful little reversal of the expected norms. Despite all this, though, Carly still manages to be nothing more than a useless, shrieking damsel in distress through most of the movie. Even the “issues” meant to give her character depth seem shallow and petty—she’s lost a brother to war and can’t stand the thought of Sam returning to active involvement in the Autobot-Decepticon conflict. However, instead of dealing with this in a mature manner, she throws a tantrum and walks out on Sam.
Taken on her own, Carly is just as disappointing as all the other female romantic leads in movies this summer. Juxtaposed against her predecessor Mikaela, however, transmutes her from inane to disgraceful. The Transformers live-action franchise really dropped the ball on this one.
I’d like to take a moment now to re-iterate that I’m not saying that romance should never be a subplot in action movies. I’m absolutely not a genre purist, and like I said, I understand that Hollywood’s obsession with playing to multiple demographics means we’re always going to have to deal with potentially disjunctive movie elements being smashed together in scripts. But you can do this well, you really can. It is entirely possible to have an action movie where the romantic subplot is a vital part of the overall narrative.
Take Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) of the Spider-Man movie franchise as an example. MJ is Peter’s sweetheart, the pretty and confident girl he’d love to impress. Unlike many examples of the “dorky guy wants the hot girl” trope, Peter and MJ are actually friends outside the context of Peter’s interest in dating her, making the romantic subplot in Spider-Man immediately superior to most of the other movies I’ve cited so far. (Transformers included—I may love Mikaela as a character, but that doesn’t mean her relationship with Sam isn’t wholly the same tired trope of the dorky protagonist wanting the hot girl for no other reason than how physically attractive she is. Peter’s attraction to MJ as a person and his friend, instead of just as some hot girl status symbol, is a really excellent thing.)
More pertinent to what I’m talking about in this essay is that Peter’s interest in pursuing a relationship with MJ is a driving part of the plot and his internal conflict in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. Both movies are as much about Peter struggling to balance his own needs and desires with the responsibilities of being super-powered as about having Spider-Man fight super-villain bad guys, and MJ stands as the ultimate symbol of the sacrifice he thinks he has to make. To protect the woman he loves from the enemies he’s making as Spider-Man, Peter makes the choice not to pursue a relationship with her. This decision causes him no end of conflict, both internal and between himself and MJ, and catalyzes many of the plot-driving decisions he makes, particularly in Spider-Man 2.
Granted, this isn’t without problematic elements of its own. Peter’s attraction to MJ is far from one-sided, and it’s made perfectly clear that she loves him too. Yet though he purports to love MJ, Peter doesn’t respect her enough to give her the facts and let her make her own choice. This carries some really unfortunate and subtly misogynistic implications: that it’s Peter’s right as the man of the pair to decide whether or not they pursue a more intimate relationship, and that Mary-Jane has to be kept completely ignorant of his life as a superhero if she’s to be protected from it.
It is very worth noting, however, that after Spider-Man’s identity is revealed to her during the climax of Spider-Man 2, MJ herself calls Peter on this bullshit. This acknowledgment of Peter’s quiet misogyny inside the scope of the films themselves is refreshing—but doesn’t quite make up for the fact that Peter gets away with it entirely in the first movie. Beyond that, he’s then rewarded for his choices, both good (resuming the difficult mantle of Spider-Man) and bad (lying to and disrespecting MJ), with MJ herself, who runs out on her wedding day to be with Peter. Not only is the relationship the reward for Peter here, but it’s coded that way more explicitly than in a lot of the other movies I’ve talked about so far. For making the “right” decision and taking up the mantle of Spider-Man in exchange for the normal life and relationships he could have had otherwise, Peter is in the end rewarded with…the very thing he’d been denying himself.
Obviously, even movies that incorporate the romantic subplot well can still make some very unfortunate implications, like Peter getting rewarded for the way he treated MJ with the girl herself. Movies that do one thing right can still do other things wrong, like Mikaela still being a hot girl status symbol for the dorky boy despite having interesting characterization. I’m not expecting perfection in all aspects from the movies I watch, because I know that’s impossible. The Hollywood Blockbuster machine doesn’t care about making movies that are socially conscious, it cares about making money.
If I wanted to avoid movies devoid of problematic content, I should probably stop watching movies that are made to appeal to the lowest common denominator—or maybe stop watching movies altogether. The point I’m trying to make here is that I shouldn’t have to. I’m not asking for every big-budget superhero special effects extravaganza that I watch to simultaneously be a nuanced and compelling discussion of some deep-seated sociocultural issue. I’m not expecting everything rolling out of Hollywood to be a perfectly progressive modern narrative.
All I’m asking for is a little damn bit of respect, as a fan of action-adventurey adaptation movies, as a young adult female movie-goer, as a person with a brain in her head. Hollywood, I know you can make a big fun movie full of action and adventure and explosions and still include female characters who aren’t there only for the males to win. I know you can make movies that include romance and attraction without it being gratuitous or awkwardly tacked on. I know you can do this far, far better than you have been, because there are a few movies out there already where you have.
Stop insulting your audiences with crappy storytelling. If you’re going to keep insisting on shoving a romantic subplot into these movies—and I know you are—integrate it into the story. Make us care about it. You want the romance to be a hook to get more butts in seats in front of your movie? Fine. Make it matter. Stop treating your young adult female demographic like they’re so unimportant that this thing you’re putting in the movie “for them” isn’t worth the same amount of effort and care as the other parts of your movie. If you’re going to pander to a broad generalization, can you at least try to do it well? A little bit more craft in your movies would go a long way.
Unfortunately, it still wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. Even in movies where the female romantic interest is given her own motivations and agency, she often still is, ultimately, a trophy for the lead male to claim. This very basic dynamic itself is troublesome for me. It breeds entitlement by showing guys that they can expect romantic female attention in exchange for acts of sufficient badassery. The most basic message of this trope is that women and relationships with them are nothing more than objects to be won.
Relationships are real things that happen between real people and take a lot of very real work. Teaching guys that they should expect a girlfriend once they’ve done something cool enough to “deserve it” is objectifying misogyny, plain and simple. Even if the Blockbuster machine were to suddenly start churning out action-adventure movies with well-integrated and interesting romantic subplots, they would still bear the subtle message that relationships are rewards.
But you know what? Depressing as it is for me to say it, I know that’s not going to go away any time soon. The subtle but persistent misogyny and glorification of men and male characters in the media is something that’s not going to suddenly stop. I’d like to think that we’ll eventually see true and consistent equality in fictional portrayals—and even better if that’s correlated with true and consistent equality in the real world. I refuse to believe it’s something that’s impossible, but it’s very likely something that’s going to take a lot more fighting to achieve.
And in the meantime, I would honestly be happy if these movies I loved would just stop patronizing me with their crappy plots.
Thanks for reading.
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