Why Moviegoers Are Tired Of Romance On The Silver Screen
Audiences used to go to the movies to fall in love, but now they're over it.
BY Noah Gittell | Mar 1, 2017 | Film & TV
In Noah Eisenberg's new book We'll Always Have Casablanca, he recalls a behind-the-scenes feud between the classic film's male stars, Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid. The ending of the film was still being written during production, and each actor wanted his character to end up with the girl. It wasn't just a matter of pride—their careers were at stake. Isenberg quotes Bogart's son Stephen: "It was a difficult movie for my father... He was not happy with the part at first. He wanted to get the girl, but so did Paul Henreid, because that...was the definition of stardom: the guy who got the girl was the star."
That was a long time ago. These days, we barely have movie stars anymore, and nobody gets the girl—or the guy. Romantic movies are a relic of a bygone era, but the reasons for Hollywood's abandonment of a time-honored cinematic genre are complicated. Here are a few theories.
Rom-coms are politically out of style
For the last 30 years or so, the rom-com has been the dominant subgenre of the movie romance. This golden age of romantic comedies—at least, in quantity—probably began with the surprise success of Pretty Woman and lasted at least until Love Actually, the pinnacle of the genre's reliance on cute coincidences and sappy declarations of love, in 2003.
Things have changed since then. Film and film journalism have become heavily politicised in the last decade, leading to a critical reconsideration and ultimate rejection of the romantic-comedy. So many conventions of the romance genre—for example, the lovelorn guy who won't take no for an answer—have been analysed and recast as misogynistic, which makes the traditional rom-com seem politically regressive.
These days, the few that we do have—Bridget Jones's Baby, Trainwreck, How to Be Single, etc.—are more raunch-com than rom-com, hinging on women behaving as unromantically as men as a symbol of female empowerment. That's all well and good, and it's an important revision of the genre, but it's not romance.
Superhero movies aren't built for love
The biggest movies of 2016 were about superheroes, and they sported love stories as minor subplots at best. Deadpool may have centred on a romance, but it made up a scant amount of its runtime. Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange, and Captain America: Civil War featured only perfunctory love stories. Consider the last example, in which Tony Stark's prior love interest, Pepper Potts, is jettisoned with a throwaway line. "Ever since Pepper left…" he says, and she need not be heard from again.
With each superhero movie intended to spawn sequels and spin-offs, romance may simply not fit into the equation. In order to pull off a superhero romance, you'd need a nuanced understanding of the characters' emotional lives to several films—essentially a superhero version of Richard Linklater's Before… series. That's a tough thing to pull off, especially since character development has never been a priority for the Marvel and DC executives.
Looking at superhero romance through this prism, many of the film's romantic subplots make more sense. It's why, for example, Hulk and Black Widow keep flirting but never seem to get together. Lots of critics gave the producers of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 credit for boldly killing off Mary Jane, but, in a sense, that was easier than keeping her alive. Superman's primary relationship, in the comics and the earlier films, used to be with girlfriend Lois Lane, but it was another woman— his mother Martha—on whom the plot of Batman v. Superman turns. The kids in the audience could surely relate.
Let's blame Millennials
I don't want to blame everything on young people, but the simple truth is that cinema's lack of interest in romance is a direct reflection of the values of young Americans. Millennials are waiting longer to get married than any other living generation, nor are they particularly interested in serious relationships. A recent Gallup poll showed that the number of young adults who report being single and not living with someone has risen dramatically from 52% in 2004 to 64% in 2014. It's not a stretch to suggest that young people simply don't value love and romance, at least not in the way their parents did.
So what do they care about? Another poll found that millennials highly value "a purposeful life, active community and social ties, and financial stability." In other words, romantic fulfilment has been replaced by professional fulfilment, and the movies bear this out. Consider 2015's The Martian, which features only the tiniest hint of a romantic subplot and is instead entirely a workplace drama. In his darkest moment, protagonist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) tells a colleague that, if he doesn't make it, she should tell his parents that he died doing what he loved. No mention of a wife, girlfriend, or boyfriend—it's all about the work. The same could be said of 2016 blockbusters like Doctor Strange, Hidden Figures, Jason Bourne, Rogue One, and Ghostbusters, which are focused almost entirely on forging one's identity in the workplace.
And then there's the exception that proves the rule: La La Land. Gosling and Stone may be the closest thing we have to a modern-day Bogie and Bacall, but they are no longer allowed a happy ending. La La Land features lots of stars-in-their-eyes moments, but it ends with its stars apart, having willfully given up their relationship to pursue their professional dreams. In the closing shot, they smile at each other from across a crowded room, indicating to each other that the sacrifices that forced them apart were worth it. Does romance mean so little to us? The movies are our collective fantasies, and for years those fantasies depended on romantic fulfilment. What does it mean that we don't think we deserve happy endings anymore, not even in our fantasies?
Romance movies are easy targets
Last year did have its share of romantic hits, but the media seems determined to find a cloud for every silver lining. Passengers earned almost $300 million worldwide, earning a small profit, but you'd never know it for all the flak it received. Critics pounced on the film for a creepy plot twist in which—spoiler alert—Chris Pratt's character wakes Jennifer Lawrence up from hypersleep on a 120-year space journey, essentially ruining her life because he's lonely. The negative reviews the film received contained some of the invective typically hurled at rom-coms: The women are objectified and the men are celebrated for stalker-like behaviour. Me Before You, which made a whopping $207 million worldwide (on a $20 million budget), was either written off as schmaltz or criticised for its condescending depiction of quadriplegia. And La La Land, of course, has received a litany of complaints, from getting jazz wrong to being racially clueless to charges of sexism and misogyny.
These criticisms may be valid, but it's hard to shake the feeling that romance films have become a whipping boy for cultural outrage. To be fair, they are easy targets, due both to their inherent earnestness and the legitimately problematic gender issues that underpin them. As we criticise, however, we shouldn't forget the fact that these films apparently make a great deal of people rather happy for a couple of hours. Millennials may have nothing to lose, as romance doesn't matter much to them, anyway. For the rest of us, it's hard to imagine what a world without love looks like, or how to fill a Valentine's Day date night without dinner and a rom-com. If the recent past is any indication, we'd better get ready for it. Here's looking at you, kids.