What’s missing from the Marvel Cinematic Universe? If your answer is Iron Man or an Avengers 5 release date, you’re overlooking an even more important absence in Disney’s superhero movie franchise. But with Loki Episode 3, the latest MCU series reveals how Marvel can fix one of its biggest problems.
Coming off the adrenaline-pumping finale of its second episode, Loki Episode 3 (titled “Lamentis”) essentially presses pause on the show’s plot for 40 minutes. It spends nearly its entire runtime just following Sophia Di Martino’s Sylvie and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki as they make their way across a purple moon, bickering but nonetheless growing closer the more time they spend together.
It’s utterly delightful — an episode of television almost totally unconcerned with plot and focused only on creating a tangible emotional bond between its two leads. The episode ricochets between being a Howard Hawks screwball comedy and a Nora Ephron romance, and eventually manages to ride the line between the two, thanks in no small part to Di Martino and Hiddleston’s charming performances.
It’s something Marvel Studios needs to start doing a lot more of.
Marvel and romance
Loki Episode 3 feels more reminiscent of WandaVision’s first few episodes than it does anything else in the MCU — in the best possible way. Much like Loki’s third episode, the first three installments of WandaVision were more dedicated to establishing the love Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) have for each other than anything else. They were simple episodes of TV, stylistic homages to sitcoms of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that were also extremely good at spotlighting the screen chemistry of WandaVision’s two leads.
The same goes for Loki Episode 3, which is simultaneously a dynamite showcase for Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino and an effective character piece. It’s a structurally simple and emotionally grounded episode of television, heightened only by the fact that it’s all set on a psychedelic planet in the outer reaches of space. Much like WandaVision’s opening episodes, “Lamentis” embraces the cosmic potential of the MCU without letting its fantastic scope take away from its story (until its CGI-heavy final few minutes, that is).
More than anything, though, both shows establish believable and complex relationships between their characters. In WandaVision, it was the all-consuming romance between its titular duo, and while the nature of Loki and Sylvie’s relationship is still a little ambiguous, it seems like their bond is heading in a romantic direction as well.
That’s a good thing since the MCU is desperately in need of some romance right now.
Marvel’s big problem
With a few exceptions, Marvel Studios has never invested much in telling love stories in the MCU. The studio has, for the most part, always seemed more interested in establishing the power of six cosmic stones or introducing new heroes to its roster than it has in anything else. There are plenty of great friendships in the MCU, but not nearly as many great romances.
That’s a shame considering how successful Marvel can be at romance when it actually takes the time to commit to it.
The strongest and most obvious example of this is the relationship between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Captain America: The First Avenger took the necessary amount of time to build a believable and emotionally moving bond between the two characters, and Marvel managed to maintain the strength of that relationship in the movies and years that followed it.
The relationship between Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is similarly effective throughout the first Iron Man (even if it does more or less abandon the thread in its latter half), and their relationship continued to evolve in a thoughtful and organic way across all the Iron Man sequels and Avengers films.
Why Marvel needs romance
It’s clear that Marvel understands the power of those two relationships since both play major roles in Avengers: Endgame. Pepper and Tony’s bond makes his sacrifice at the end of that film hit even harder than it might have without it, and Steve and Peggy’s melancholic romance is what gives Endgame its ending. The latter moment, in particular, might still be the most graceful and moving story beat that Marvel has ever achieved in the MCU.
But those two relationships are, for all intents and purposes, over, which means Marvel needs to start building up more than just friendships between some of its characters again. After all, Tony and Pepper and Steve and Peggy might not be the only romantic couples Marvel put together throughout the first three phases of the MCU, but they are two of the only ones that were actually done well.
The romances between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) or Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), for instance, felt paper-thin because they were crammed into films more focused on other things. Steve and Peggy’s relationship makes up a large portion of the story in The First Avenger, and that’s why it feels as strong as it does.
The Inverse verdict — Fortunately, it looks like there’s a chance that Marvel may actually start embracing its romantic side a little more in the future. Eternals and Thor: Love and Thunder are said to focus heavily on exploring the romantic relationships between some of their characters, and both of those films will also, thankfully, feature more than just heterosexual relationships.
But none of that will matter if the studio doesn’t dedicate the time necessary to make the relationships in those films (and others) feel real. They can’t just be afterthoughts. WandaVision worked best when its two titular heroes were on-screen together, and suffered when they were apart. So if Marvel actually puts in the work and spends more time letting its characters connect with each other rather than fighting across CGI landscapes, it’ll pay off for the studio in the long run.
A great romance doesn’t just work to deepen the emotional bonds audiences feel towards characters, it also brings a different dynamic and spark to the stories that you tell. You need not look any further than the scene in Loki Episode 3 where Hiddleston drunkenly serenades Di Martino from across a train car for proof.
Has there ever been a more charming moment in the entire MCU? If there has, we can’t think of it. And it’s moments like these that give Marvel the framework it needs for the emotionally satisfying endings we expect from the franchise moving forward.
Loki is streaming now on Disney+.