In Wonder Woman, we’re introduced to a superhero story unlike the ones that came before it.
Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), is as powerful as any onscreen hero Marvel and DC Comics/Warner Bros. have introduced, but she’s also joyful, loving, and caring in a way many of her cohorts aren’t. She’s also, as we’re constantly reminded by the genre’s dearth of female superheroes, a woman in a man’s world. Both Diana’s story in the film and the film itself — the first studio superhero movie directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins — challenge how we think about superhero stories in general, and superhero stories about girls and women in particular.
The film also adds another curious wrinkle to the superhero genre: It places a man, in this case Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, in the role of sidekick/love interest/someone that needs saving — a role that’s usually occupied by women like Lois Lane, Jane Foster, Pepper Potts, or Batman’s carousel of female companions (and perhaps The Hunger Games’s Peeta too). He teaches and reminds Diana about her own humanity, cracks wise, and eventually falls in love: Steve is essentially Diana’s superhero girlfriend — a superhero girlfriend who just about sneaks off with the entire movie.
Wonder Woman is too good for this world
The single most difficult thing about translating comics’ Wonder Woman to the screen is figuring out how to acknowledge what makes the character legendary while at the same time making her feel contemporary.
Granted, several writers have brought their own interpretations of Wonder Woman to the comic. But historically, what sets Wonder Woman apart is that she’s genuinely, inherently, intrinsically good. She inspires people. She loves people. She cherishes life and is an eternal optimist, believing in hope and love, even though she’s seen a lifetime’s worth of evil in her adventures.
Wonder Woman’s kindness and love make her superhuman as much as her powers do.
In Wonder Woman, Diana gets what amounts to a fish-out-of-water story as she travels to World War I-era London. She doesn’t understand the customs or practices of man (ice cream is very new to her), nor has she ever lived in a world where people aren’t instinctively kind. That she knows so little about the world she’s ventured into doesn’t stop her from wanting to right its wrongs: Throughout the film — whether she’s yelling at generals or talking to soldiers — she fights for what she believes is just, even as the film makes it clear that her concept of justice is still green (though never foolish). We get a Diana who’s a stoic square, a woman naive to so many human experiences, but who also still embodies the spirit of Wonder Woman.
But the spirit of her character is at odds with modern cinematic superheroes. Since Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) set the tone, superheroes on film became more serious and sardonic, more cynical and jaded about the world they wanted to save. Directors and screenwriters took characters like Batman and Iron Man, who were already darker than the average superhero in their respective comic books, and not only kept but leaned into those characteristics. Superman, in his most recent movie iterations, is a killer — a line he doesn’t usually cross in the comic books.
But that wasn’t always the case with Superman, who was the embodiment of earnest hope and inspiration in 1978’s Superman. So it’s telling that Gadot’s performance as Diana Prince has been compared to Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and that director Jenkins says she drew inspiration for Wonder Woman from Superman ’78.
But since Wonder Woman is a 2017 film, Diana’s wide-eyed earnestness needs a counterpoint more in line with modern superhero storytelling, which the film finds in the suave American spy Steve Trevor.
Steve Trevor gets to be the superhero girlfriend that no other superhero girlfriend does
Steve cracks wise about how Diana doesn’t follow customs about sex and marriage. He’s awkward when he finds himself naked around her. (“I’m above average” he says, while cupping his manhood.) He talks about breakfast and making babies. He gets to bounce zany humor off Diana’s straitlaced hero, and pull faces when she makes grandiose declarations about war and Greek myth. In short, he gets to be the audience surrogate, reacting to her fish-out-of-water strangeness through a contemporary viewpoint. And as the movie rolls along, he becomes her love interest.
Superhero movies function more rigidly and narrowly than real life when it comes to showing platonic and romantic relationships. If we go by the traditional superhero movie rubric, Steve Trevor is the Jane Foster to Diana’s Thor, the Pepper Potts to her Iron Man, the Lois Lane to her Superman.
But he’s more fully realized than any of those superhero girlfriends get to be.
In the beginning of the movie, Steve talks about his father teaching him about responsibility and duty, a story that moves Diana to defy the Amazons and accompany him to mankind’s world. In the end, we see him come back to this idea of acting when no one else will, by sacrificing his life for the greater good, and on his own terms — not only that, but he also actively prevents Diana from being able to save him.
Granted, because of the way modern superhero movies are all connected to one another, writers and directors don’t usually kill off major characters, making Wonder Woman rare in that respect. But when superhero girlfriends do die, as Rachel Dawes does in The Dark Knight, it often runs dangerously close to fridging, a device where a character is killed off solely to inflict pain and inspire action from the hero.
But Steve’s death isn’t a fridging; his death is noble, allows him his own agency, and completes his character arc. It hurts Diana, sure, but it doesn’t function solely to show her vulnerability or provoke her to action. Steve shows Diana mankind’s ability to be good and to believe in good, which allows her to recognize and appreciate her own humanity. And because Steve is a fully realized character — blessed with desires, faults, and merits of his own — it never feels manipulative.
Superhero girlfriends deserve better
In movies like Batman Begins or Iron Man or Thor or Man of Steel, the superhero girlfriends — Rachel, Pepper, Jane, Lois — are essentially interchangeable. They’re sidekicks. They fall in love. They’re captured by bad men. Sometimes they’re just as good, smart, strong, and heroic as their male counterparts, and they’re often very likable. Rarely, however, do they get to save the day.
At their best, superhero girlfriends like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts graduate to movies where they get press tours dedicated to how they won’t be damsels in distress in the third movie, or at least get to be capable, like Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp in Ant-Man or Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy. At their worst, they become interchangeable, replaceable plot devices. And some of these roles are absurdly wasteful, squandering talent such as Natalie Portman and Amy Adams. (In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Adams had to say lines like “I’m not a lady, I’m a journalist,” and, “It's his mother's name! It's his mother's name!” with a straight face.)
It’s difficult to name a superhero girlfriend as constantly winsome as Steve Trevor that isn’t played by Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in Superman ’78, or Hayley Atwell, who played a character in a similar situation to Steve Trevor (opposite Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America) and was well-developed and appealing enough to anchor her own TV spinoff series.
This isn’t meant to place blame on Pine’s stellar performance or on Wonder Woman screenwriter Allan Heinberg for giving Steve the film’s splashiest lines. But through Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman highlights the lack of imagination and character development applied to superhero girlfriends who are trapped in other franchises, going through the same stagnant motions. Wonder Woman is important for how it breaks the superhero mold, but it — and Steve Trevor — is a shining example for its girlfriend, too.