There are three crucial characters in every action movie: the hero, the villain and the love interest. And if decades of Bond girls and superhero movies have taught us anything, it’s that if there’s a woman in a blockbuster, her job is always the latter.
That’s why it’s so welcome that this weekend’s Wonder Woman flips the script, boasting a female main character in a genre usually dominated by men. As a result, for once, it’s the guy who’s the arm candy. And the filmmakers couldn’t have made a better pick for the job than Chris Pine.
Pine has made a habit of playing men who are more sensitive than you’d expect from their backgrounds. In the Star Trek reboot, he’s James T. Kirk, a role once owned by William Shatner, who played the swashbuckling, brawling Starfleet captain with cocksure, womanizing swagger. By comparison, Pine’s Kirk is far more modest, even apologetic — he’s not mimicking Shatner so much as he’s trying to walk back the original performance’s shamelessness. Elsewhere, in gritty thrillers (Hell or High Water) and character dramas (Unstoppable), Pine’s good looks and terse demeanor are juxtaposed with a softer side. Even his recent, easygoing stint as host of Saturday Night Live suggested a movie star who’s happy to be a regular guy. His opening monologue went so far as to make fun of the fact that people always get him confused with Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pratt and Chris Evans.
No wonder, then, that he’s the perfect love interest in Wonder Woman, which picks apart the familiar character type with sly glee. In the film, he plays Steve Trevor, an undercover American agent during World War I who discovers that the Germans have developed a deadly nerve gas. While trying to escape, he encounters the mythical Paradise Island populated by Amazon goddess-warriors such as Gal Gadot’s Diana (aka Wonder Woman). During their first encounter, she’s startled by his presence — she’s never seen a man before — and soon she accompanies him back to the realm of humans to stop the Germans.
Wonder Woman is very smart about how it forces Pine to endure some of the same humiliations that female love interests have suffered for generations. For instance, it’s Steve who’s inexplicably naked early on in the film, allowing Diana and the audience to stare at his body. The whole scene feels like a rebuke to the much-criticized moment in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, in which Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear for purely prurient reasons in front of Kirk.
But the subtle emasculation goes even further. In the typical action movie, it’s the guy who needs to save the woman from danger. In Wonder Woman, Diana does all the rescuing. When she and Steve first meet, she’s diving into the ocean to pull him from the wreckage of his sinking airplane before he drowns. It sets a pattern for their relationship, in which she’s always keeping him alive. As much as Steve tries to be the alpha male, protecting her when she encounters the scary city of London, Diana’s superior strength, quickness and talent at hand-to-hand combat soon reduce him to more of a hanger-on than a hero.
What makes the part work is Steve’s slow realization that he’s actually the sidekick in this action movie. Pine has shown an ability to mock himself onscreen — he was perfect in the small role as the handsome, dumb prince in 2014’s Into the Woods because he skewered his own prettiness. With Wonder Woman, he expands on this gift, playing a rugged individualist who ends up ceding his role as top gun to a woman with a lasso.
Along the way, he also fills the role of supportive partner. Diana believes in humanity’s potential to be a peaceful civilization, so she’s disheartened when she finds Europe embroiled in war. That means it’s up to Steve to offer her pep talks and buoy her spirits.
It’s definitely shocking to see a male character doing this sort of thing for a female character in a big comic-book movie. It’s even more jarring to watch a love story within an action movie in which the male character is the one who becomes smitten with the more powerful woman, even being the first to say, “I love you.” None of this is humiliating for Steve, though: He’s simply so taken by Diana’s decency and heroism that he can’t help but revel in her general awesomeness.
Back in 2015, Pine was interviewed about his role in Wonder Woman. Was he worried about playing the second banana? “It’ll be a fucking blast,” he said, adding, “I couldn’t be happier to be supporting Gal. … I think in the world today we’ve had plenty enough of male-driven everything, and it’s finally time to see how wonderful the world can be with beautiful, strong, intelligent women kicking some major ass.”
To me, at least, it was just as gratifying to see a male character happily take the back seat while that woman does the ass-kicking.