The internet is currently in what feels like an endless cycle of asking artsy film directors their thoughts about Marvel movies and then getting mad at those thoughts. So, you know, it’s just a regular time on the internet. But among that tiresome discourse, at least one director had a point we could get behind: Let these people fuck.
Pedro Almodóvar — who has spent his decades-long career giving us sexy, melodramatic romance tales like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Live Flesh, and Broken Embraces — is but the latest auteur to be sacrificed by the Content Gods to the question of whether or not That Popular Thing You Like Is Good. But weirdly enough, his comments about superhero films are not among the current wave of seemingly endless remarks from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and others as to whether the Marvel movies hold higher value beyond being smash-hit blockbusters.
Almodóvar was on the discourse train months ago, thanks to an interview with Vulture. That interview is now being resurfaced and re-litigated by the site thanks to the current news cycle. We all needed something to do that wasn’t talk about Star Wars this week, apparently.
Anyway, when Vulture put forth the question to the cult favourite at the Film at Lincoln Centre’s 50th Anniversary gala back in April, Almodóvar gave an answer that’s a bit more offbeat: These movies just aren’t sexy enough for him.
“There are many, many movies about superheroes,” Almodóvar told the site. “And sexuality doesn’t exist for superheroes. They are neutered. There is an unidentified gender, the adventure is what’s important. You can find, among independent movies, more of this sexuality. The human being has such sexuality! I get the feeling that in Europe, in Spain, that I have much more freedom than if I worked here.”
And you know what? I’m inclined to agree.
In part, at least. For Almodóvar to say that superhero movies are sexless isn’t exactly true — these are films filled with romance, if, disappointingly, there are currently more romantic tales about men named Steve in these movies than there are LGBTQ+ ones.
There are relationships, innuendos, tragic sacrifices made out of love, great victories earned in its name. There are, for the more juvenile among us, questions about the female orgasm (thanks, Wonder Woman), masturbatory jokes (thanks, Guardians of the Galaxy), even commentary on dick sizes (thanks, again, to Wonder Woman).
They’re also films that, as part of the inherent superhuman ideal of peak bodies engaging in feats of strength, invite a certain amount of lust on the part of the audience. Who among us has not gazed at a Hollywood Chris or six across the multiple shirtless superhero scenes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or wondered if Brie Larson could push us uphill like she does 2,270kg Jeeps?
But these romances are, the vast majority of the time, depressingly chaste (Batman v Superman’s bathtub aside, but that it is the peak of sexy superhero times in these blockbusters says a lot). They often exist to put a film’s female lead aside on a pedestal, a goal for hero and villain to fight over rather than an actual character, and are often sealed with a kiss and nothing more. They are rarely the focus, rarely of any real dramatic weight next to all the punch ups and comic book fun. They’re just... kinda boring?
What makes superheroes so fascinating is the contrast between the Ego and Alter-Ego, the banality of their “normal” selves contrasted and conflicted with the moments they put on some Spandex and beat up some bad guys. That contrast often gets in the way of things like love and romance, and sexuality — to dramatic effect — but most of the time these movies only treat that drama as an afterthought to, well, the bit where they put on some Spandex and beat up some bad guys.
Superhumans are still human, and sex, love, and sexuality are parts of that humanity. Examining the reality of that life is something these movies could stand to explore now that we’ve established in the age of Avengers and Leagues of Justice that, yes, the general public is going to accept a great deal of comic book fuckery on the big screen.
What about if they accepted some actual fuckery too — that outside the day job of being superheroes these characters are meant to be people, people who live rich and deep and complex lives, like we all do? Lives that can be lived intimately with other people, to boot in profound, intense ways. Sexily intense ways.
Now, I’m not saying that the next Avengers movie should re-do the Endgame assemble moment except everyone gets down and dirty instead of fighting a bunch of space aliens. After all, these are movies made by massive corporations like Disney and Warner Bros. — they are wide-reaching, all-appealing blockbuster films, and movies that are aimed at families and all age groups aren’t really going to be able to tackle sexuality and sensuality beyond the relative chastity that Almodóvar railed against. A movie that John and Jane Doe are taking their Spidey-loving toddler to isn’t the space to really engage with that kind of text.
But superhero films have grown big enough and the genre framework itself is loose enough; after all, superhero stories are not really a genre, they’re series of stories across myriad genres that happen to star superpowered protagonists. There are now more places than ever, in comics, in films, in television, in streaming, for experimentation that could lead to a story that is real, human, and sexy as hell being told with superhero characters.
Superheroic TV has at least been much better in this regard than its cinematic counterpart, serving the typical romance tales we’ve come to expect alongside some comical raunchiness, much more LGBTQ love (although still not nearly enough), plenty of cake of both the beef and cheese varieties, and in more serious manners in shows like Jessica Jones, frank and graphic examinations of sex and the trauma of sexual violence.
Imagine if Disney+’s WandaVision show, in its weird and messed up examination of the idealised ‘50s world the Scarlet Witch and the Vision have dreamed up for themselves, also tackled the sexual side of their relationship?
Not just from the perhaps lurid perspective of what a synthezoid who can change the density of any part of his form — any — and a woman with access to chaos magic can do in the bedroom, but also in a way that is allowed to truly examine a long and dark romance from the comics that is perhaps too weird and messy, too complex and too human for the mainline MCU films to dive into. Human, despite being about the aforementioned Avenging Android and Actual Witch!
Superheroes can be so many things. If they’re going to be the dominant force of our current culture, there is space for one of those things at least to be sexy as all hell.