The concept of the “damsel in distress” long predates the work of Hollywood, and has in fact been a fixture of artwork and literature since the days of ancient Greece (and perhaps even earlier). While movies have long relied on the acceptance of this age-old trope, Patty Jenkins’s upcoming Wonder Woman looks to turn that narrative on its head. Though Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is a brave soul fighting for survival in the Great War, he will no doubt find contemporary views of chivalry upended when he is rescued from a plane crash by powerful Amazonian Diana Prince (Gal Gadot).
Judging by the most recent trailer, Wonder Woman will not only invert the “damsel in distress” conceit, but it will attempt to do so in an engaging and entertaining, if not boldly humorous way. From Man of Steel to Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the DC Extended Universe has confidently embraced its unique approach to the genre. The third film looks to be doubling down on the bet.
Step One: Themyscira Meet Cute
Wonder Woman appears to be drawing heavily from Steve Trevor’s origin story as imagined by William Moulton Marston. As the striking imagery in the trailers depicts, Trevor crash lands in the waters of Themyscira, a virtual dead man were it not for Diana Prince’s rescue mission. It’s a meet-cute of the most serendipitous kind: Steve Trevor gets a second lease on life, and Diana Prince embraces the fact that there is more to the world than her own idyllic island.
As for the well-established structure of the “damsel in distress,” the first major criterion suggests that the woman is strikingly beautiful (hence, quite worth the hero risking life and limb). Director Patty Jenkins adheres to the original recipe right down to the aesthetics, adding Chris Pine as her handsome dude in distress. Marston himself admitted that Steve Trevor was designed with strikingly Aryan features for a reason. He thought the blue eyes and blond hair would complement the beauty of his brunette Amazonian, because he believed blonde men were more naturally submissive to their darker female counterparts.
However accurate Marston’s assessments were, they have been faithfully recreated through the likes of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. Look closely at certain frames in the trailers, and Steve Trevor receives the “hero” shots and close-ups usually reserved for the smoldering gaze of female love interests.
Step Two: Saving Steve Trevor
Like every other couple in comic book lore, Steve and Diana have experienced a litany of misfortunes, successes and even deaths. Occasionally the victim of jealousy and extreme insecurity, Steve has even been known to secretly take advantage of federal spy technology to keep tabs on Diana, like the time he caught her cavorting with Mer-Man. All of this fits well within the trope, highlighting Steve’s vulnerability and need to be saved against Diana’s stalwart strength.
The second integral part of the “damsel in distress” requires that the beautiful maiden be placed in grave danger, be it from a dragon, a sorcerer, or America’s enemy allies in World War I. Steve Trevor, meet Armageddon. Though Diana Prince and the Amazonians are at first compromised on Themyscira, it’s clear Steve Trevor is reliant on their protection. When they later journey to the “world of men” to fight in the Great War, and battle against Wonder Woman’s primary villain(s), Steve will always look to his stronger counterpart for protection. Make no mistake: he’s no Rapunzel, using a shotgun instead of an infinity hair-braid, but his bravery only gets him so far.
Step Three: Going to the Chapel
Finally, the last component of the formula sees the victor take his now less-distressed damsel’s hand in marriage. It’s the culmination of their relationship and the ultimate victory. From William Moulton Marston to the present, however, Steve Trevor and Diana Prince have long been on the ropes of marriage while seldom breaking through. They’re Sisyphian lovers with nowhere to direct their love. This is the primary inversion of the damsel theme, and by keeping Steve and Diana from consummating their relationship, the age-old trope is upended. Indeed, Steve once got so frustrated with Diana that he bailed on their relationship and proposed to Etta Candy. Most of the time, however, Steve’s love for Diana overpowers the potential for envy. After all, he calls her his “Angel.” He yearns to marry her, and though they never truly find that eternal happiness, Steve continues to pursue matrimony like it’s salvation.
As for Diana, though Steve is the first man in her life, she remains hard pressed to find his equal. In many ways, Steve and Diana are a gender-reversal of Captain America’s Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter. The First Avenger may be jacked on Super-Soldier serum, but he’s his strongest because he’s utterly besotted by Peggy’s moral resolve and character. At his best, Steve Trevor is a paragon of the “just man,” both emblematic of the brave veterans from the Great War and Diana’s most enduring love. Though they never sustain their relationship, Diana moves beyond protecting Steve Trevor and helps defend the whole of mankind. It’s the pinnacle of her heroism and a defining trait of her selflessness as a superhero.
While she may later take up the mantle with the brawny and broken Bruce Wayne, her romance with Steve Trevor has a purity that reminds us of another major couple.
Clark and Lois 2.0
The gold standard for the superhero/mortal relationship, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are hard to top. Their success as characters and their strength as a couple has been maintained for decades, and Wonder Woman seems well aware of that winning formula.
Savvy viewers may have noticed a particular easter egg in the latest trailer, one that hearkens back to Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman. In the Christopher Reeve classic, the Man of Steel saves his lady love from a charging bullet that ends up flat in the palm of his hand. As always, Reeve made self-defense and chivalry look easy. With Diana Prince on the scene, however, the tables are turned. Though Steve Trevor lunges to protect her, Diana diffuses the incoming bullet with her vambraces and sends it straight into her man’s grip. It’s Patty Jenkins’s tip of the cap to Richard Donner, and a sign that this Wonder Woman has all the faculties of Kal-El.
However much Steve Trevor devotes himself to being a hero, it’s clear that he’ll have to accept his limitations. The question remains how Jenkins and Warner Bros. will establish this relatively unexplored dynamic. Is Steve Trevor the damsel in distress of the DCEU?
What to Expect In the DCEU
The latest trailer gave us a few quick looks at the depth of Steve’s character. On the one hand, he’s undoubtedly a competent soldier who can fly a fighter plane, wield a gun and work his way around trench warfare. On the other hand, Steve seems wholly disoriented when he’s on the run from the Germans on Themyscira. That bullet-time shot shows him in a state of total panic as compared to Diana’s look of shock and awe. After all, she’s likely never seen a bullet or anything like it in all of her years.
That glimpse of Steve Trevor taking cover is at once harrowing and humorous, a split-second shot that illustrates his vulnerability. Later, when Diana takes the field and walks boldly into no man’s land, he yells after her with undeniable fear. Despite his palpable concern, she lets her actions do the talking as she takes on the German horde all by herself. None of this proves that Steve Trevor will be a totally reactive character, but it’s clear he’s not in total control.
As for the romance between the two, Patty Jenkins and her actors appear to be pulling no punches. They may not get “married” per se, but Steve and Diana undoubtedly have the hots for one another and take refuge in that while the rest of the mortal world crumbles.
Still, the questions remains: How much autonomy will Steve Trevor have outside of Diana Prince? Will be able to stay his mortal emotions with his superhuman girlfriend?
We’re only at the beginning stages of asking these questions, but the answers will surely be thrilling.