Will Blockbusters Ever Be Sexy Again?

Why do most modern heroes have all the erotic charm of a Ken doll?

Dewey Saunders/Inverse, Marvel Studios, Getty Images
The Summer Blockbuster Issue

If you’ve seen a major blockbuster in the last decade, there are a few things you’ve almost certainly experienced. A huge beam of light probably came down from the sky, our heroes likely exchanged plenty of quips as they took on their enemies, and there was almost certainly a lot of CGI goop. What you likely didn’t see, however, was anyone getting frisky.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps the most dominant franchise in Hollywood history, has had precisely one sex scene. No, not the time Tony Stark seduced a Vanity Fair reporter (that doesn’t count); we’re talking about the extremely uncomfortable moment in Eternals — a movie not lacking in uncomfortable moments.

Meanwhile, Dwayne Johnson, one of the biggest Hollywood stars ever, is a famously sexless lead. Even the Fast & Furious movies seem to have largely abandoned the subject. Almost every major franchise is totally devoid of sex, and all this chastity is boring.

Blockbusters don’t need sex to be great, but sex isn’t all that’s disappeared from the modern movie lexicon. There’s no more subtext, no more crackling chemistry between two leads in an action movie. Major films aren’t just sexless. The very idea of sex is absent.

Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt hasn’t thought about sex since 2006.

Paramount Pictures

Look no further than the slate of blockbusters hitting theaters this summer. Fast X is the latest installment in a franchise about attractive, muscular danger junkies who are apparently all asexual. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt hasn’t thought about sex since 2006, and The Flash is far too concerned with multiversal lore to spend any time on a romantic subplot. These are movies designed to be four-quadrant hits, which now means they can’t even allude to the fact that sex is something that many, many people are interested in.

As Top Gun: Maverick proved, sex scenes don’t turn audiences off. It’s the biggest exception to the trend in part because Maverick is a throwback to an era when sex was common in blockbusters, but a few other movies have also defied this trend. Zoë Kravitz slinks through all three hours of The Batman in a leather suit. She’s not just trying to partner with Robert Pattinson’s Batman; she’s trying to seduce him. The same is true of a more moderate hit like Dune, which features a genuinely sexy marriage between Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica and Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides.

Notably, these movies also have actual dialogue. Or, perhaps more accurately, they have conversations, which upend the quippy formula that’s driven blockbusters since the MCU conquered the box office. Their interest in sex indicates an interest in a much broader range of human emotion than something like Thor: Love and Thunder was willing to tolerate, despite its title. Top Gun and The Batman may not be realistic, but they are interested in a more holistic view of their central characters. These are adults with adult concerns, and that includes sex.

The Batman defies this modern trend of sexless blockbusters.

Warner Bros.

But these are the rare exceptions to Marvel’s cold rule. There seems to be a consensus that the Marvel approach, because of its great success, is the one worth emulating. What matters most is snarky dialogue, a plot that feels cataclysmic, and having a bunch of overqualified people stand around a soundstage. Sex doesn’t fit into this equation. It’s too messy, and there simply isn’t enough time for two people to meet and form actual attachments. Who has time for romance when you need to rush through overstuffed plot points? Marvel may have popularized this, but every franchise from Fast & Furious to Jurassic Park has copied it.

That’s why romances in major blockbusters feel so inessential. Any love story that does exist is confined to witty banter and the occasional tepid kiss because we need to get to the next CGI spectacle. Only very rarely do we get a sense that the lead characters are actually attracted to each other, a flaw attributable to everything from the writing to the performances to the filmmaking itself, which seems to prioritize an ironic distance above all else.

This has consequences. Near the beginning of the first Iron Man, Tony Stark meets and then sleeps with a reporter who’s supposed to be covering him. Fifteen years later, the scene feels alien against the landscape of today’s MCU. That first encounter is important, though, because it quickly establishes who Tony is. Sex makes Tony human and helps us understand him as a playboy lothario with a hopelessly devoted assistant. But in later films, when Tony’s sex life dries up, he becomes just another interchangeable hero to be moved around, a walking plot point with less of the humanity that made Iron Man such an intriguing franchise starter.

After his first movie, this was Iron Man’s reaction to any woman trying to seduce him.

Marvel Studios

Bringing sex back won’t just satisfy horny Marvel fans. The value of both sex as an idea and sex scenes in particular is that they help bring larger-than-life characters down to earth. Knowing they have the same carnal desires as the rest of us tells us something about who they are and how they interact with the people in their lives. Why are they bothering to save the world if they don’t love anyone in it?

Consider how Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man stands in sharp contrast to Tom Holland’s recent trilogy. Maguire’s very first installment features the iconic upside-down kiss in the rain, a moment truly alive with sexual tension. In it, two characters kiss not because of the quips they’ve thrown back and forth, but because there’s a palpable, animalistic attraction between them. Holland’s Peter has a few romantic interactions with Zendaya’s MJ, but their chemistry comes from interminable banter rather than any sense of desire. It’s hard to buy a romance as credible when its leads feel like they spend their time together off-screen studying physics textbooks.

Holland’s Spider-Man movies made lots of money, but none produced a moment as iconic and memorable as Maguire’s rainy smooch. If you remove sex from blockbusters, you also remove much of the humanity, and then it becomes all too easy to remember that you’re just watching action figures bounce off each other.

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