The swoon-worthy romance of ‘Wonder Woman’ is a rarity in superhero movies
Along with dead parents, superpowers, and CG-heavy aerial battles over major metropolitan areas, romantic subplots are just kind of a thing we’ve come to expect from superhero movies.
Yet it’s rare they’re really done well. All too often, we wind up with two-dimensional love interest stuck in relationships that feel more like contractual obligations than actual love stories.
But in that regard, as in so many others, Wonder Woman is a refreshing change of pace. With their tough-but-tender connection and their palpable chemistry, Diana and Steve are the rare superhero movie couple worth rooting for. And the reasons they’re so good together offer a better idea of why other superhero romances are so bad – and how they could be better.
1. Steve Trevor is a fully fleshed-out character
The first and possibly most important thing that Wonder Woman does on the romantic front is establish Steve Trevor as a fully fleshed-out character.
True, he’s outmatched by Diana, who is an actual goddess with world-saving superpowers and a heart of gold. But what mortal isn’t? The key thing here is that we get to know Steve as a person worthy of our interest and our affection – and, by extension, Diana’s.
Wonder Woman wastes no time establishing that Steve’s got his own stuff going on. When we first meet him, he’s already on his own mission for the war effort. A few conversations later, we’ve learned all about his motives, his insecurities, his backstory, his worldview, his sense of humor. We get to see him in action in London and Belgium. During the big third-act climax, he even gets a big hero moment independent of Diana’s.
He has so much to do, in fact, that it’s possible to imagine him carrying his own movie. In that sense, he’s a lot like another recent notable superhero love interest, Captain America: The First Avenger‘s Peggy Carter – who actually did go on to lead her own TV series. Contrast that to, say, Cap’s other love interest, Sharon Carter, who barely registers as a character, let alone a viable romantic option for the leading man.
In the context of Wonder Woman, Steve is a plot point (he brings Diana into the war) and a symbol of humanity (he’s her first introduction to our race). He’s a sidekick, a love interest, a confidant. But above all, he’s a person. When he and Diana finally choose to be together, it feels like a real romance. It’s not just another instance of a superhero winning a trophy girlfriend to fulfill the familiar comic book tropes.
(As the word “girlfriend” suggests, some of the reasons Steve Trevor is drawn so well surely has to do with the fact that he’s a superhero movie boyfriend – it’s honestly tough to imagine a male lead being treated as indifferently as Rachel McAdams is in Doctor Strange or Amy Adams is in Batman v Superman. We won’t get into the gender politics of that here, but Vox has an excellent essay about it if you’re interested.)
2. Diana and Steve are actually compatible
Even if you’ve never read a Wonder Woman comic in your life, it should be instantly obvious that Steve is intended to be the love interest to Diana. That’s simply what happens when a big Hollywood production casts two fabulously attractive people of opposite genders. (And not nearly enough when a big Hollywood production casts two fabulously attractive people of the same gender, but that’s another conversation.)
But the most effective superhero love stories tend to be the ones that feel like they’d work even if you stripped away the special powers and the colorful villains – that is to say, the ones grounded in trust and affection and sexual attraction.
Take Deadpool‘s Wade and Vanessa. Even if that guy’s mutant powers had never manifested, those two probably would’ve wound up having kinky sex in their shitty apartment for the rest of their lives. That’s exactly why the relationship works as a compelling motivation for everything else Wade does in the film.
Diana and Steve may not be as raunchy, but they’re similarly drawn to each other for rock-solid, relatable reasons that have nothing to do with their extraordinary circumstances. What impresses him most aren’t her abilities, but her – her kindness, her optimism, her generosity of spirit. Likewise, though she’s initially fascinated by him because he’s the first man she’s ever met, she falls for him because, for all his flaws, he’s also brave and noble and supportive.
Well before they kiss for the first time, it’s clear that they respect each other, trust each other, and inspire each other. What’s more, they genuinely appear to enjoy each other’s company. It’s a nice change of pace from couples like Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Star-Lord and Gamora, who seem to spend more time being annoyed with each other than happy together. (Sorry, Guardians. You know I still love you otherwise.)
3. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine have strong chemistry
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things that draw superhero couples together, let’s talk about chemistry. Specifically, the irresistible chemistry between Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.
Even though it takes the characters a while to get on the same page – they’ve led such different lives that much of the first act is just them trying to figure out what to make of each other – Gadot and Pine are instantly fun to watch together.
Diana tends to be the more proactive character, which usually leaves Steve reacting to her. But Pine doesn’t seem to mind. He shifts easily from nervousness to curiosity to admiration to love, and Gadot gives as good as she gets every step of the way. By the time they’re slow-dancing together in the central square of the town they’ve just saved, we’re as into them as a couple as they are into each other as individuals.
It’s not all on the actors to build that kind of chemistry. Everyone behind the camera has work to do, too, whether it’s screenwriters who pen their flirty dialogue, editors who establish the rhythm of their rapport, or the director who maintains a firm grasp on the tone and tenor of that relationship as it evolves.
And a strong romance can make a huge difference, even in comic book movies where it’s not the main focus. The intense connection between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone almost singlehandedly justified the existence of the Amazing Spider-Man movies, while the tepid energy between Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly made for an off note in the otherwise entertaining Ant-Man.
4. Wonder Woman takes its time earning that kiss
By now, you’ve probably noticed an unsurprising pattern emerging: Building a convincing romantic subplot in a superhero movie requires time and effort. Not all of them are willing to put in that kind of energy. One of the reasons the aforementioned Ant-Man kiss feels odd is that the film barely bothered to set it up. However, Wonder Woman does, and is nicely rewarded for its investment.
Director Patty Jenkins and her team allow Steve and Diana plenty of space to grow organically. Diana’s conversations with Steve drive the story forward, yes, but Jenkins budgets enough time in those interactions for Diana and Steve to look each other over, to react to each other, to laugh and flirt and slowly get more comfortable with one another.
Their meet-cute is the stuff of fairy-tale fantasy – Diana’s daring rescue of Steve is basically a live-action reenactment of The Little Mermaid – but after that, romance is taken off the table until they’re ready for it. Neither sees the other as a potential romantic partner. They’re strangers first, and then acquaintances, and then comrades and friends.
When Diana and Steve reach the final stage of their relationship – love – it feels all the more meaningful because we’ve followed them on their journey. Wonder Woman has earned that magical first kiss, and that bittersweet finale.
Granted, all of this amounts to a lot of time spent on what is a secondary or even tertiary plot in most movies. Perhaps it’s no wonder that, say, Doctor Strange couldn’t squeeze in time to build up Stephen and Christine’s on-again, off-again affair in between all the dimension-hopping and time-traveling.
But in those cases, maybe the best move is to eschew the love story altogether. Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Logan haven’t really bothered with the romantic angle, and neither suffered for it. To the contrary, that meant both films had more time to devote to the relationships within them that were really crucial.
And that, in the end, is why it matters that Wonder Woman‘s romance is so good. Relationships matter in superhero movies, and not just for narrative purposes. Whether they’re with dead dads or backstabbing brothers or trusty sidekicks or wise mentors, these bonds reveal to us what really drives the hero, reflect back their best and worse qualities, and raise the stakes of the end of the world.
A half-baked superhero movie romance tells us none of those things. They’re wasted time, and often leave behind a sour misogynistic aftertaste to boot. (How many times have we put up with the “cool dude” / “put upon, humorless girlfriend” dynamic?) Romantic subplots aren’t disappearing from this genre anytime soon. But Wonder Woman is a reminder of how much they can add when they’re done well. Let’s hope other films take those lessons to heart.