Avengers: Infinity War is a glorious mess of a blockbuster, but it succeeds on the merits of its well-established characters — how endlessly satisfying it is to see them bump up against one another in unexpected combinations. The movie asks and answers questions we didn’t even know we had: What would happen if Thor hung out with the Guardians of the Galaxy? (Answer: macho posturing.) How would Tony Stark interact with Stephen Strange? (Answer: well-heeled macho posturing.) What would Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Okoye do as a team? (Answer: get some shit done.)
But alongside these rewarding friendship dynamics, the MCU has a surprisingly lackluster crop of romances. The MCU’s tentpole relationships are all platonic, and they’re mostly between men: the ensemble interplay of the Avengers, the prickly Tony Stark–Steve Rogers dynamic that propelled Civil War, the decades-long bromance between Rogers and his war buddy Bucky Barnes. By comparison, its love stories often feel misconceived, rushed, or just a little flat — which isn’t particularly surprising in light of the MCU’s acknowledged paucity of compelling female characters.
So what does it take for a romance to stand out in this universe? Let’s take a look at the 14 onscreen couples the MCU has given us to date, ranked from the worst to the best.
14. Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War)
How do you make your hero’s obligatory love interest feel less obligatory? Why, you have her turn out to be a direct descendant of his last girlfriend! Sure, Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter never consummated their romance, but their connection was deep, and having him involved with her niece several decades later is straight-up creepy – just ask Hayley Atwell. Steve initially thinks his cute neighbor’s only secret is that she’s an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D agent, but after discovering who Sharon really is at Peggy’s literal funeral, he seems more interested than ever (?!?). After she risks her career to help Team Cap evade capture — a callback to when Peggy helped Steve out in an off-the-books mission to save Bucky during World War II – Steve lays a kiss on Sharon in a truly clunky moment that may be the only misstep in Civil War.
13. Bruce Banner and Betty Ross (The Incredible Hulk)
Serious question: Have you tried watching The Incredible Hulk lately? Because it’s technically part of the MCU canon, and it is a wild ride back to a bygone era when screenwriters thought “Hero types silently into a chat-room window for several minutes” was a strong scene format. Bruce and Betty’s romance is a lot more substantial and central to the plot than most; there’s a rain-soaked reunion embrace straight off the bat, a series of intense one-on-one conversations, and ultimately a sequence where the pair go on the run together. The problem is there’s no rapport between them whatsoever. Liv Tyler’s breathy melodrama makes a strange pairing with Edward Norton’s subdued performance, rendering the whole thing inert. And though it’s maybe unfair to hold the vagaries of Marvel’s distribution history against the couple, it’s a little weird that Betty never warrants a mention in the Ruffalo years.
12. Stephen Strange and Christine Palmer (Doctor Strange)
Not every movie needs a romantic arc, particularly an origin story with as much dense mythology as Doctor Strange, and rewriting Christine as Stephen’s ex is a refreshing choice that subverts a lot of clichés. Having her be his equal as a fellow surgeon, rather than a nurse as in the comics, is another win. But she ends up so extraneous to the actual narrative that Rachel McAdams is wasted, existing solely to offer support, bewildered assistance, and exposition as needed.
11. Wanda Maximoff and Vision (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War)
Given the MCU’s paltry track record with female superheroes, it’s kind of unfortunate that a character as beloved and powerful as Scarlet Witch has so far been defined entirely by her relationships with dudes. There was barely any breathing room between her grieving her twin brother’s death in Age of Ultron, and building a connection with Vision in Civil War. Even if you choose to whistle past the weirdness of dating a sentient robot (listen, Her was a great movie!) neither character in this dynamic feels very fleshed out in their own right. That makes it tough to invest in their love story, and in Wanda’s plight in Infinity War when she wants to sacrifice millions of lives for one android.
10. Thor and Jane Foster (Thor, Thor: The Dark World)
You can see how Thor’s brawny charm and Jane’s brainy spunk seemed like a winning combination in theory, but despite getting a decent amount of screen time in the first and second Thor chapters, their romance never rose above the level of “just fine.” It’s never totally believable that Jane would spend all that time “waiting, crying, and looking for Thor” after he ghosts her at the end of the first movie, and though things improve for a while in The Dark World — there’s a particularly fun old-school Superman vibe to Thor flying Jane through space up to Asgard — she spends a large portion of the movie unconscious. By the time Natalie Portman actually peaced out of the role, this relationship was already so DOA that her absence was barely felt in Thor: Ragnarok.
9. Clint Barton and Laura Barton (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
For completion’s sake, the Bartons have to be included on this list, though their marriage makes almost no impression one way or the other. For that reason, let’s think of them as the official MCU Romance Middle Ground — completely inoffensive, completely unremarkable. The revelation of Clint’s secret family does not make him a more compelling character, but Linda Cardellini is reliably charismatic, and if nothing else, we can thank her for keeping Clint out of the already overstuffed Infinity War.
8. Peter Parker and Liz Toomes (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
The third separate big-screen Spidey adaptation this century had a lot stacked against it, and what proved most winning about Homecoming was not its superheroics, but its pitch-perfect high-school comedy. Though the revelation that Peter Parker’s sweet crush Liz is also the daughter of the supervillain he’s fighting put a premature damper on anything much developing between them, their relationship feels fresh and convincing and slyly self-referential (there’s even an aborted upside-down kiss). But following the revelation that Zendaya’s snarky Michelle Jones goes by the name “MJ,” the smart money may be on her as Peter’s long-term love interest anyway.
7. Okoye and W’Kabi (Black Panther)
Though their screen time is brief, Black Panther makes such fast work of its characterizations and world-building that Okoye and W’Kabi’s connection feels weighty. The couple — who in a deleted scene are confirmed to be married — share an unassailable sense of duty and tradition, which keeps them in Wakanda even after Killmonger takes the throne by force, but they clash over W’Kabi’s betrayal of T’Challa. That deleted scene “didn’t work inside the confines of the film” per Ryan Coogler, but fingers crossed for more of this fiery, politically charged marriage in BP2.