A love story need not be obligatory when telling a hero’s story, but it should be considered a part of hero narratives.
For centuries, the hero’s journey was more-or-less been about the male cultural hero (with a few notable exceptions), but whether it was about a man or a woman, the hero narrative was fairly straightforward for what it needed to be: hero is born into into uncertain circumstances, called to adventures, given training/weapons/aid/some-combination-thereof, fights great (and often symbolic) evil, faces death in some significant way, returns or is remembered in such a way as to affect society from there-on-out.
This kind of mythic legend informs our modern superhero stories, and if you look at a lot of 80s action movies, our films too.
Here’s the problem: The audience has changed.
Originally a lot (but again not all) of these stories were told by old men for the benefit of young men and love was really not a factor, and when it was, it was an impetus to adventure (save the damsel, win the princess’s hand, and so on).
Now however, we are not telling these stories to provide lessons to young warriors, but to inspire young people of all genders, religions and creeds into being more than they thought they could be, and more than anything, to entertain.
As a result, the old pattern needs amended.
Imagine Tony Stark’s story if the film was presented more like it is in the comics. In the comic books, Tony Stark is very much James Bond. He has a new love interest every few issues, and when he does have a long-time love, she gets killed or otherwise removed from the picture. The film, however, took his first (and most common) love interest and made her an integral part of his story. Not a damsel to be rescued (until the latest film), but a reason to be a better person.
The same goes for Thor. In the comics, he loved Jane Foster for several years of published comics, but Sif has often been established as his “prophesied love,” which is unfortunate, because there is little chemistry there in most stories involving the two. In the movie, Jane became, again, an integral part of the story. She was the reason for him to become a better person (rather than in the comic, years of medical training and living as a doctor).
These changes helped open up the story beyond the expected audience. Women (and yes, men) who are not as eager to watch a movie about big strong guys beating up other big strong guys now have a new reason to watch. No, not to watch “a love story,” but to see an emotionally involving story on multiple levels. Not just “can the hero overcome evil,” but “can the hero recognize what is really important.”
As mentioned before, my wife first pointed this out to me. I was opposed to the idea at first, as it ran contrary to my accepted view of gender-neutral heroics, but regardless of gender or sexuality, larger audiences want to see the hero find happiness.
This applies to male heroes as much as female heroes. The love story shouldn’t be the main goal or the driving force of the story, but it should be an important part of it.
All that being said, a love story should not be forced into a hero’s journey where it doesn’t fit.
Man of Steel is the perfect example of what not to do. If the movie ended with Lois and Superman just staring into each other’s eyes, as there was an obvious attraction of some sort, that would’ve been fine, but forcing the kiss? That was unnecessary and didn’t make sense.
Similarly, Arthur Dent is supposed to be the quintessential antihero who doesn’t get the girl and doesn’t save the day, so by having him do both of these things, the American-produced Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film missed the point.
But hero romances just don’t work they way they used to. As fun and successful as Kingsman: The Secret Service was, the film lost many critics with its final scene. Today’s audiences aren’t the same ones that happily watched James Bond find a new girl (or two or three) each movie.
And not every hero needs a love interest. If by some miracle Hollywood realizes Michelle Rodriguez would be the perfect female action hero (like Sigourney Weaver before her), let’s hope they don’t try to shoehorn in a love story. Also that they don’t kill or maim her during the film.
If you want a successful hero franchise, consider whether the hero could find love, and if so, make it a meaningful one. Audiences will love you for it.