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The Damsel: In Distress or Definer of Duality

“If I were Iron Man, I’d have this girlfriend who knew my true identity. She’d be a wreck. She’d always be worrying I was going to die, yet so proud of the man I’ve become. She’d be wildly conflicted, which would only make her more crazy about me.”

–Tony Stark, Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)

Just as the Femme Fatale is an integral part of any Film Noir, the Damsel is an integral part of any Superhero Film. While part of the Damsel’s role can be the Hero’s love interest, her main function is to act as a physical representation of the conflict between the Hero’s two lives. She represents what he is giving up in order to be a superhero and reminds him what he is fighting for.

Being a superhero is all about sacrifice. As Tony Stark says, “There is nothing except this… There’s the next mission, and nothing else.” (Iron Man, Favreau, 2008). The Hero must give up a large part of his normal life in order to become a superhero. Some things are easier to let go than others; most Heroes manage to work around their obligations to school or their job, and some don’t even mind sacrificing their social life. The one thing that is always the most difficult to give up is the Damsel. She is often the girl he has always loved but who only falls for him after he becomes a superhero and his responsibilities keep them apart.

In other cases, the relationship is more platonic, with the Hero becoming the Damsel’s personal protector. In films about groups of superheroes, it is common for the Damsel to have a more sisterly relationship with the Hero. Regardless, the Hero will always have some kind of loving relationship with the Damsel.

There are many reasons why the Hero and the Damsel can never be together. First, the Damsel would always be put at risk whenever the next villain shows up (even though that pretty much happens every time anyway). This is the same reason why the Hero cannot tell the Damsel that he is a superhero, and it is hard to maintain a trusting relationship while holding on to such a big secret. In cases where the Damsel does find out that the Hero is a superhero, she will often choose not to be with him because she knows she will be a distraction or that he will never be able to fully commit to her while he is committed to being a hero. And even if the couple does finally get together, it never goes smoothly.

The Damsel represents the Hero’s inner struggle to live two different lives. She is the embodiment of his normal life, the thing that he wants but can never have.

This is emphasized by the fact that the Damsel will also lead the life that the Hero wants, working the job he no longer has time for or seeing the friends and family he keeps missing. A great example of this comes from Iron Man 2. Tony Stark literally hands over his job to Pepper Potts at the beginning because being Iron Man has taken over his life. In the final scene, Tony and Pepper only get together after he takes back his job, showing how much the two things are intertwined in his mind.

In some cases, the Damsel is the only thing that ties the Hero to his civilian life. For instance, during much of Batman Begins, Bruce seems perfectly willing to ignore his non-heroic life and it doesn’t seem like giving it up is a hard choice. It is not until he sees Rachel that we understand that there is something hard about his decision to be a superhero.

The Damsel is also at the core of the Hero’s motivation to be a superhero. She is the thing he wants to protect the most, the person that he is fighting for. The Damsel is always the first character that the superhero rescues publicly, permanently connecting her to the formation of his superhero identity. Superman provides the perfect example of this: the first thing Clark does as Superman is save Lois Lane from falling to her death. Lois then becomes intrinsic in introducing Superman to the rest of the world. The fact that Villains tend to target the Damsel directly in the climax enhances this quality, giving the Hero a personal stake in the outcome. Without the Damsel, the Hero would have nothing to fight for and nothing to lose.

Each of these qualities comes to a head when the Hero begins to question his choice to become a superhero, typically during the second movie of a franchise. Whenever a hero considers hanging up their cape for good, it is always because he has finally decided that he wants to be with the Damsel. Just as he once gave up on his own happiness to fulfill his responsibilities, he will give up on his responsibilities for a chance at happiness. This can never last long, and it is always the Damsel who brings the Hero back. The Damsel will either directly remind the Hero, such as Lois Lane does for Superman in Superman II, literally telling him that he needs to get his tights back on, or the Damsel will be put in danger, like Mary Jane is in Spider-Man 2, needing the Hero to become a superhero once more to save her.

The Damsel exists to give the Hero a reason to maintain both sides of his double life. She provides a permanent link to his civilian life, while simultaneously keeping him motivated to be a superhero. This contrasts heavily with the role of the Villain, who exists as a dark reminder of what the Hero would have become without the guiding light of the Damsel.

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Owner & Editor-in-Chief of AP2HYC.

1 Comment

  • There was a quote from this week’s episode of Smallville (10×11, “Icarus”) that I wish I’d had when I wrote this article, so I thought I would share it here:

    “You hold on to her. Because there has to be a balance, Clark. We can’t do what we have to do if there’s an emptiness in our hearts. Remember that.” – Hawkman, to Clark (about Lois)