Wonder Woman wears many hats. It’s the most expensive film ever directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, remarkably helming her first feature since 2003’s Oscar-winning Monster). It’s a game-changer for DC, an enjoyable outing from a cinematic universe in desperate need of some levity. And it’s definitive proof that Chris Pine is winning the Hollywood Chris Wars and will be for the foreseeable future. Unlike his fellow Chrises, who have toiled in latex suits for the better part of a decade, Pine has learned an important lesson: Don’t play a superhero. They’re generic, preexisting characters who will inevitably overshadow the actor in question. Play the superhero’s love interest, however, and it turns out it is possible to be charming and individual, and to wear normal clothes.
Pine’s Steve Trevor is the best superhero love interest to date — which isn’t saying much, given the history of male-driven, plot-by-numbers blockbusters that treat "hot companion" as one component among many. Trevor is also, obviously, the first male love interest, which is almost certainly related. In a culture where men are granted fuller personhood than women, does Steve Trevor automatically get the chance to be as complete as he is, simply by virtue of being a dude? Of course. Is it fair? No. But superhero movies don’t actually have to reduce their secondary characters, and Trevor is living proof.
As a character, Trevor is much less well known than the superpowered Amazonian he good-naturedly supports, freeing Pine, Jenkins, and Wonder Woman’s screenwriters to inject him with a personality and complexity it’s rare to find in a comic franchise’s secondary lead — or primary lead, for that matter. A World War I spy who crash-lands on Wonder Woman’s home island of Themyscira and unwittingly brings an end to its millennia of peaceful isolation, Trevor walks a fascinating line between comic relief, straight man, unabashedly objectified sex object, and the protagonist of his own story of duty, sacrifice, and ideals. None of those roles proves a distraction from Gal Gadot’s gauntlet-wielding demigod, either. Pine’s presence only enhances the main story, and provides a useful blueprint for future romantic subplots that want to do more than serve as an obligatory building block.
Were Steve Trevor simply there for some fans to ogle and show others what it’s like to be ogled, the role reversal would’ve been enough to make for something novel and even transgressive. There’s a genuine thrill in a female director taking in the near-naked male form that years of training, several juice cleanses, and most likely some postproduction touch-ups have produced; it’s like the mass-market flip side of what Jill Soloway is doing over at Amazon, with Pine in the Kevin Bacon slot of extremely game male muse.
But Wonder Woman doesn’t stop there. Steve gets a backstory, motivation, and goals of his own: an American on loan to British intelligence, he’s on a mission to stop the Germans from developing and implementing lethal chemical weapons. It’s him who brings Wonder Woman, who’s never left Themyscira or even laid eyes on a man, into his journey, not the other way around. And while Wonder Woman handles the high-level, supernatural side of things by throwing down with the war god ultimately responsible for the global conflagration, Trevor takes on the smaller-scale yet vital task of saving thousands, if not millions, of lives. Consequently, he’s a partner in Wonder Woman’s mission, not an assistant.
Best of all, though, he gets to be funny, the quality that DC has at long last cribbed from Marvel and makes Wonder Woman as much fun as it is capital-I important. Pine and Gadot get to trade fish-out-of-water roles throughout the movie: He’s the lone man in a fortress of ancient female warriors, she’s the indignant proto-feminist who’s at once behind the times and hilariously ahead of them. Whether he’s herding Diana down a London alleyway or stuttering his way through the etiquette of men and women sleeping next to each other, Pine is always there to facilitate joy, never to nip it in the bud.
Run through the history of superhero paramours and it’s hard to find one as essential to the movie they’re supporting. Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter of the first Captain America — unsurprising, since it’s the Marvel movie that most closely resembles Wonder Woman — comes closest, with the tragically short-lived ABC spinoff series to prove it. Batman Begins’ Rachel Dawes, on the other hand, was expendable enough to recast between franchise installments without a second thought, and Thor’s Jane Foster is hardly the role you’d expect of an Academy Award–winning actress; no wonder Natalie Portman tapped out of Ragnarok. Iron Man’s Pepper Potts gets to be conflicted about being her boyfriend’s assistant, but that’s still what she is. Even if love interest roles aren’t offensive, they’re rarely more than perfunctory.
That the first male iteration of the part would also be the best was probably inevitable. But there’s nothing intrinsically masculine about comedy or a complete narrative arc, just like there’s nothing intrinsically feminine about sex appeal. Male-led superhero movies are going to outnumber female-led ones for the foreseeable future, give or take a Captain Marvel. That doesn’t mean female characters have to stay relatively flat. Ironically, it just took a man to prove it.