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Marvel | Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Platonic Love in the MCU

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Let us begin with an ending – to my mind, the finest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s in Antony and Joe Russo’s Endgame, the harrowing and salutary close to the Avengers film cycle. A man and a woman, superheroes, but of hardy human stock, identically clad in black, weapons on their backs, cross the dunes and reddish lakes of the planet Vormir. Here, in perpetual purple twilight, dwells the sentient Soul Stone, transformer of reality and eater of souls. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) mount the precipitous crags to its high-flung shrine. But the Stone is not immediately apparent. The Red Guardian, a villain cursed by his selfishness to be the stone’s custodian, says, “What you seek lies before you.”

They must do what The Red Guardian cannot, and sacrifice what they love – a soul for a soul – in order to reverse the deaths of millions. Each chooses to sacrifice themself. Hawkeye, his pocked face pitted with sympathy for Johansson’s grief, argues that having demeaned himself as the vigilante Ronin, it should be him. Not that Clint Barton speaks in so many words; there’s no need. This is Natasha Romanoff, his bestie.

“I don’t judge people by their worst mistakes,” replies Johansson huskily – the Black Widow here referring to Clint’s knowledge of her own assassin past. “You didn’t.”

Hawkeye then tells Natasha that he loves her, in his Brooklyn fashion, “You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?”

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely tunnel a whole lotta love beneath this exchange. In a heteronormative culture, their coded language, affectionate insults (“idiot”, “what, you’re going to get all decent on me, now?”), and shared history might indicate that these two are lovers. But their bond is profoundly more interesting. It’s platonic. 

Natasha (Scarlet Johansson) and Clint (Jeremy Renner) en route to Vormir in Avengers: Endgame. | Marvel, 2019.

Marvel’s world resonates with powerful Western and Eastern myths. In The Symposium (385–370 BCE), Plato quotes Aristophanes’ creation myth of humans as two-headed, four-legged spherical creatures. Rolling about boisterously, they freaked out the gods. Sundered into two, the bisected creatures roamed the world, wailing pitifully for their other half. According to its original roots, platonic love can be, passingly, erotic. When the split halves finally reunited, Zeus took pity on them and allowed them to conjoin, in order to heal their longing. But sex proved inadequate and they cried out to Hephaestus, the divine smithy, to weld them into one.

Split circles signify the Platonic climax of this scene, a showcase of sci-fi epic cinematography. The landscape of Vormir is composed of ovals and circles. The sun of Vormir is a disc upon a disc: two bodies in eternal eclipse. Two divided pillars form the Soul Stone’s cleft shrine. Natasha and Clint, looking down, see, far below, a circular pit, formed of two halves. Here, the pair’s adventures hinted by them in The Avengers movies, will become one person’s memory. Snow falls. The eclipsed sun blisters into a sunset. Orchestral strings descend in minor chords “Tell my family I love them,” says Hawkeye. This sounds heroic, but hang on – this guy is defathering his kids for another woman? What’s going on, here?

See also: Avengers | How Marvel Betrayed the Found Family and Its Fandom by Issy Flower

Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff fulfill each other’s missing parts. Natasha’s mind control by a global oligarch had her committing international murder with hi-tech expertise, while the Hawkeye of the Aja and Fraction comics influencing the new Hawkeye series is a local, DIY bruiser. Clint keeps Natasha real, while Romanoff’s faith in him gives him wings. As Hawkeye’s trajectory became more villainous in the MCU and Romanoff’s nobler, the friendship matures. In non-fighting scenes, Remmer moves as warily as a recovering boozer, the pudgy-necked foil to Johansson’s cool sensuality that pricks his repressed emotions like a lance.  Both friends favor deadpan humor in the height of battle:

Natasha: “This is just like Budapest.”
Clint: “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

The Avengers (2012)

In November 2021, at the Cinematheque Awards, Renner joked about his own position as a cinematic “late straggler” who had long admired Johansson since her performances as a child. 

“Much like our on-screen characters, Clint and Natasha,” he went on, “I cannot understand how anyone could not love being in a literal and figurative foxhole with a truly stunning talent who I love and adore.”

Accepting her award from Renner, Johansson said, “I think I allow people to connect to themselves.” Speaking of the feelings we experience in cinema but deny in real life, she observed, “Isn’t that funny that we allow ourselves to be the most vulnerable in a dark room with complete strangers?” 

Back on Vormir, the two besties resort to their most sincere language, that of their bodies in battle. One wins – and our last glimpse of this enigmatic character is their broken body lying within the halved circle. The other wakes up in a womblike lake, soaked, dripping, and Soul stone in hand, rebirthed into a solitude they did not choose. 

The power of this scene is derived, as Johansson’s words reflected, from our need for deep, complex emotional experiences not commonly allowed in the light of day. With its roots in childrens’ comics and a cast of intelligent, attractive actors, the Marvel Cinema Universe has been in a unique position to explore unconditional, passionate friendships between men and women. It’s a refreshing vision, in a #MeToo world where women at the highest levels of global power are unsafe (at the time of writing, the Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai is still missing, after revealing her rape by a retired government official). Seeing superheroes lovingly reaching across gender and even species, without sexual expectation, offers an alternative to troubled viewers. But is returning to the male fold liberating for the women of Marvel? Or does it reinforce the heteronormative family model that harmed them in the first place?

See also: Avengers | Marvel’s Mytharc: The MCU & Modern Mythology in Storytelling by A. J. Black

Daddy Problems: Nebula and Tony Stark

The Ancient Greeks recognized variety in love. They had different words for it – philia (friendship), eros (desire), storge (affection), and agape (unconditional love). In Greek stories and poetry, humans morph into a beast or tree; people love their own gender and love their binary opposite. Friendship is as important, or more so, than sex. One might say that the Ancient Greeks – and indeed the Ancient Vedics in India, whose rites oversee marriages and deaths in Eternals (2021) – were closer to nature, consciously enacting a political system of heterosexuality, with its governance of property, but thinking outside of it. 

By the 20th Century, despite the fight for gay rights, mainstream Western cinema culture had dumbed down those ideas. That kind of freedom was for the gods – or superheroes, which is why, surprisingly for American Big Corp, the MCU offers a glimpse into alternative relationships: found families and adopted kids. Even Thanos, the genocidal god who obliterates half the universe’s living creatures, adopts two girls, Gomora and Nebula. He tortures one to promote the other, cybernetically ‘improving’ Nebula whenever Gomora wins their competitions: a twisted inversion of the Platonic myth.

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) bide time in Avengers: Endgame. | Marvel, 2019.

Avengers: Endgame opens with Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) stranded in deep space. Americana rock plays softly through the spaceship. It appears, initially, that two colleagues, good with their hands, are passing time, playing improvised table football with foil counters. But they are drifting towards their deaths; first Tony then possibly, despite her regenerative modifications, Nebula. Cruelly weaponized, Nebula has reason to dislike Stark, who, as Iron Man, functions through a love of weapons. Yet his camaraderie counteracts Thanos’ abusive barter of love. Playing with Tony, Nebula learns that sometimes, a game is just a game, and it’s okay to fail and try again. Karen Gillan’s flinch, on winning, is touching. She admits that’s she’s had fun in a whisper – and Tony seems to understand the tragedy of a girl who never found a safe place to play. 

Platonic love, even in passing, can be more transformative than romantic love, since it desires the flourishing of both halves, regardless of erotic reward. In this scene of whole-making, Stark and Nebula wear matching soiled red and blue costumes, wordlessly passing tools as they eke out the last of their fuel. A blueish, Platonic utopia is presented, the glimmering stars and chilled, all-American music recalling the best of the country’s frontier mentality. 

Nonetheless, ‘fixing’ Nebula might be seen as yet another boy toy project for Stark (who’s had an embarrassingly sexist past in the MCU): the tycoon inventor tinkering with a cyborg woman. It remains to be seen whether Nebula’s character, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (scheduled for 2023) can outgrow her daddy problems.

See also: Guardians of the Galaxy | Gamora and Nebula – Sisterhood in the Shadow of Abuse by Lewis Smyth

Will Kate Bishop and Hawkeye become Platonic besties?

In the comics, the roots of Kate Bishop’s Daddy problem are tangled in her rejection of her father Derek and his nefarious publishing empire. She might be able to blank her father, but she can’t control men in the outside world. The key event in the making of Bishop, in the comics, is a sexual assault, when walking alone through the park. Later, Kate reflects, “Bad things happen. Things you can’t control. Things that have nothing to do to you.” 

These lines express Kate’s feelings of powerlessness. The writing feels vacant and disassociated – a common state in trauma, but one that needs developing. 

With a pedigree as a writer on Mad Men, which relied on haute ’60s stylings to critique money-obsessed masculinity, one might have expected showrunner Jonathan Igla to reflect these complexities with slick surfaces. And the Hawkeye series does poke at new meta terrain, its modernist lilac and black title sequence recalling both the comics and Madmen

However, Igla, who claims to be a big Marvel comics fan, has flattened the 3D world of the MCU into a 2D Christmas whodunnit.

Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfield) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in the new Disney+ series. | Marvel, 2021.

In places, Igla touches the ironic depths and suppressed woe of Mad Men, notably in a rightly lauded scene where Hawkeye sits uncomfortably with his kids in a kitsch Broadway show of Captain America, Rogers. Renner, wearily focusing on the actress playing a Natasha in over-bright red hair, switches off his hearing aid to be alone with his thoughts – back perhaps to their wordless love – before walking out. The moment promises a more grownup drama that, sadly, Hawkeye is not. Racing to impress us with Igla’s inventions, distracted by its need to comment on commercial America, the script fails at the gracious blend of wit, action, and emotional power that is the MCU at its best. 

Hailee Steinfield is a loveably goofy Bishop with an undimmable spark, but the potential for a Platonic flame between her and Renner sputters beneath too many characters and an undecided tone. Like any flailing Christmas special, there is a camp, creepy mustachioed villain, Tony Dalton’s Jack Duquesne (a take on 1960s Avengers comics villain The Swordsman, if you care). Simon Callow seems to have wandered in halfway between an Agatha Christie double-bill and Succession, looking for sandwiches. The cardboard cut-out, dunderheadedness of the Russian tracksuit mafia, sinister in the comics, palls in live drama. Meanwhile, Hawkeye’s family is so boring, who cares if he gets home for Christmas, or ever?

There is some fun to be had with Kate Bishop’s mother, Vera Farmiga’s Valium blue eyes warning of warped intentions. And Igla’s attachment to meta giggles gives us, for example, Clint joining a LARP game in Central Park, to get back the problematic Ronin suit. 

This suit is a metaphor not only for who will fit into the Hawkeye role Clint is trying to vacate, but who (as the under-baked script states in bald desperation) will be his “best friend” now Natasha is gone. 

The guru-disciple relationship between a heterosexual man and woman, changing as the student grows in power, is fertile ground to explore the shifting nature of Platonic love. But Igla has surgically removed the one trauma that’s common to Black Widow and Kate Bishop, partly encouraging their friendship with Hawkeye, a happily married man.

In lieu of Bishop’s sexual abuse, Igla has grafted the trauma of 9/11 on the American psyche, symbolized here by the Chitauri invasion seen in Avengers. Manhattan’s skyscrapers topple and Bishop’s penthouse is smashed, killing her father. In the hue and cry, she glimpses Hawkeye fighting the baddies and her hero-worship begins.

True, one might commend Igla for freeing a female character’s arc from the cycle of patriarchal abuse. But Bishop’s personal motives are given no screen time to mature. Her airbrushed (so far) sexual assault leaves a vacancy that isn’t filled by the abstract critique – or whatever – of America’s cultural losses following 9/11. 

Igla not only cleanses Kate’s virginal, androgynous body from venal trauma but removes sex altogether, repeatedly emphasizing the age difference between her and Hawkeye. And before a stonking friendship between Bishop and Barton can grow, new women arrive.

At the time of writing, the series has not completed airing. We wait to see whether, in Echo and Black Widow Yelena (Natasha’s sister) we have more possibilities for Platonic love, particularly with Echo’s prior use of the Ronin suit and her Deafness mirroring Clint’s own situation. But so far, the series sidesteps the role of attraction in male and female friendship.

See also: Marvel | Why Have Audiences Gone Mad for the Multiverse? by Becca Caddy

The Problem of Sex and the Platonic Lessons of Queerness

It’s tempting to erase sex. In Marvel comics and on-screen, women fall prey to eros. In Spiderverse by Dan Slott,  Silk (aka Cindy Moon) is a horn-monster, nipples attentively erect whenever she’s around her co-Spider, Peter Parker, in Coipel and Camuncoli’s sex-crazed – and sexist – Gothic artwork.

Silk’s attraction to her buddy, fuelled by pheromones, strains their friendship. Her own scent enables the murderous feeding frenzy of The Inheritors, unstoppable vampires who feast on every other Spiderman in the multi-verse. The blood-dripping, sepulchral graphics succeed by problematizing sex between friends.

On-screen, the Black Widows, (Natasha, Yelena, and Dottie Underwood) are controlled by pheromones. Their master, Dreykov, manipulates their nervous reactions so that they cannot defend themselves against his smell. 

In Marvel, then, erotic chemistry kills. But making sex fearful doesn’t liberate women. The freedom to choose what we do about our desires is fundamental to feminism. 

Marvel is becoming queer-inclusive. Homosexual societies are more experienced in erotic freedoms and in non-sexual queerplatonic romances. Disappointingly, lesbian actor Tessa Thompson’s female lover was cut from Thor: Ragnorak. And though, in Eternals, Brian Tyree Henry’s gay dad Phastos is an excellent turn in being immortal, geeky, and tough (and it’s wonderfully valuable to see Black gay heroes), we can look to less defined couples and sexualities for Platonic complexity.  

Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and his husband, Ben (Haaz Sleiman), in Eternals. | Marvel 2021.

The most fascinating Platonic queer Marvel couple are Loki and Sylvie, two Lokis brought together in splintered time streams in Loki. In Marvel comics and Norse Myth, Loki has long been genderfluid. Writer Michael Waldron’s dazzling world encompasses gamer fantasy, Zen office humor, and Kafkaesque existentialist comedy. He doesn’t overplay the pair’s bisexuality.  Loki’s reply to Sylvie’s inquiry after a “special princess or prince” is energizingly ambiguous: “A bit of both. I suspect, the same as you.” 

By uncovering and concealing Loki’s – and especially Sylvie’s – motives, bit, by bit, Waldron and bisexual director Kate Herron fuel the action with Platonic longing for wholeness. Waldron’s taste for “bits” of fuzzy sexuality was revealed on his whiteboard idea for a cut montage in  Marvel’s Assembled: The Making of Loki: “more sex, bi, alien etc.”

Whilst cross-species sex might be a lark, it would be a romantic first, if, in Loki Season 2, the team pushes Loki and Sylvie’s “will they, won’t they” dynamic into a transcendent Platonic duo. Imagine two Lokis who might have sex but, importantly, thrive through being non-categorically yet loyally in love. Perhaps this is too much to ask? Either way, I’d welcome more magisterial menace and less of a chippy Londoner from Sophia Di Martino as Sylvie. It would be a shame if bathos undid this magical series.

See also: Loki | From Myth to MCU, Loki Was Always Queer by Clint Worthington

Settling for Neutral Friendships: The Eternals and Shang Chi

In cinemas now, a non-erotic love between immortal warriors Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is pivotal to Chloe Zhao’s Eternals, a film that stretches thinly across vast landscapes, including Nomadland’s South Dakota. It’s an approach that works in Nomadland, but feels sketchy here. The Eternals, led by Sersi (Gemma Chan) are calm caretakers of Planet Earth. They’re the most human of the MCU, bar Peter Parker, but Zhao’s film is less interesting for it. The sandy, blue, tasteful tones of Zhao’s vision feel sparse compared to the bustle of the predominantly urban MCU, with no emotional pay-off.

Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Athena (Angelina Jolie) in Eternals. | Marvel, 2021.

The worst missed opportunity is with Angelina Jolie as Thena, a.k.a Goddess Athena. In the comics, Thena is avidly sexual and bellicose. Here, Jolie’s superpower is her ability to look like a goddess in neutral clothing. For too much of the film, this most powerful and lusty of Eternals suffers from a form of P.T.S.D, retreating to the Australian bush with Gilgamesh. 

Don Lee’s mighty hero placidly bakes blueberry pies and fills their table with root veggies and roasted meat, while Zhao refuses to stir the pot of Platonic complexity. English is not Lee’s first language and he’s better at fighting than acting. We can appreciate Gilgamesh’s response to Thena’s gratitude (“I’d do it again, on any planet”). But appreciation is a vanilla feeling in a vanilla film that, even with a betrayal and oozingly hideous Deviants, values reason over passion. 

While Eternals feels trapped under the weight of a centuries-old back story, the relentlessly entertaining Shang Chi and The Legend of Ten Rings is at its most textured when it’s a modern-day dramedy, as Katy (played by rap star comedienne Awkwafina) confronts the heroic identity of her best friend Sean (Simu Lui). These besties are not Platonic halves; that yearning is embodied by Shang Chi’s parents, good and evil warriors whose traumatic split is transferred to Shang Chi and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Indeed, at the climax of the film, dangling from his clutch, Xialing tries to convince her brother to “let me go,” replicating the exact words and plight of Black Widow. 

Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton risk making Shang Chi and Katy into a pair of Bill & Ted style kidults; and the characters’ coming-of-slightly-late-age arcs feel a little predictable. But Katy’s have-a-go heroism and independence, which goes so far as to bet against her bestie as he receives a beating in a fight ring, keeps things zesty. Awkwafina is an accomplished writer and performer who plays a fictionalized version of herself in Awkwafina is Nora from Queens. Her Katy questions superhero conventions with raised eyebrows of a disbeliever who’s loving it. The chaotic energy of the film – and its heart – is derived from male writers deliberately choosing to model the lead duo on their friendships with women.

Cretton and Co. have settled for besties who are “strictly” platonic. But they have also implied that a woman’s role in a “caring, intimate friendship” with a man is different from the intimacy between two men. These latest MCU offerings promote an overdue diversity of identity, but remain reticent about the fluid erotic and romantic charge between besties. If a friend can be your family, can they be your lover? Or your romantic idol? As Johansson pointed out, watching movies in the dark is a place where we encounter those parts of ourselves we deny – and that might include our lost experiences of Platonic love.

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Soma Ghosh is an arts critic, writing film features for The QuietusLittle White Lies, and more. She discusses films about and by womxn in the multicultural, feminist film and TV podcast,

Follow her on Twitter @calcourtesan

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