Identity was a major theme in the Nov. 30 episode of Titans, “Donna Troy.” Kory (Anna Diop) was trying to recover her memory, Gar (Ryan Potter) was reconciling what it means to become a tiger, Rachel (Teagan Croft) was finally getting some time to know her mother, Angela (Rachel Nichols), and Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) was facing his own shattered identity after a recent run-in with the new Robin (Curran Walters) and the terror he experienced at the Organization’s asylum. Who better to talk to about these issues than the former Wonder Girl and Dick’s oldest friend, Donna Troy, a comic book character defined as much by the constant revisions made to her identity as her constant presence in the Teen Titans line of comic books?
On the show, Donna seems to be a rock-solid ex-superhero sidekick, but her history in the comics is not exactly set in stone. Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Conor Leslie, the world’s first live-action Donna Troy, about her comic book counterpart’s crazy past and just who the character is in the world of Titans.
The concept of Wonder Girl predates Donna Troy. In 1958’s Wonder Woman #105, Wonder Girl was introduced as a younger version of Diana for a flashback tale. By 1961, Wonder Woman comics featured stories in which the grown up Diana, Wonder Girl, and even a Wonder Tot appeared simultaneously in an attempt to give Wonder Woman more of a domestic home life — even if her family was composed of these younger versions of herself and her mother Hippolyta.
This original intention changed as writer Bob Haney began to treat Wonder Girl as a separate character and included her as a founding member of the Teen Titans in 1965’s The Brave and the Bold #60. The Diana version of Wonder Girl made one last appearance that same year in Wonder Woman #158, where she and Wonder Tot were seemingly “killed” by Wonder Woman editor Robert Kanigher.
Wonder Girl transferred into the Teen Titans cast, but her name and new origin remained a mystery until 1969’s Teen Titans #22, when writer Marv Wolfman gave Wonder Girl the name “Donna Troy” and a backstory: She was an orphan Diana rescued from a burning building and took to Themyscira to be raised as an Amazon. The group of warrior women later gave her abilities similar to Wonder Woman via a fanciful bit of science-fiction convenience.
But because the Wonder Girl character is older than Donna Troy, the character’s origins, powers, and motivations have always been malleable. Those changes are a major point Leslie noted while researching her new TV character.
“As soon as I [started reading], I got overwhelmed because her backstory changes so dramatically,” she told Rotten Tomatoes. “I paused early on and talked to [producer and showrunner] Greg Walker to see where he and Geoff Johns wanted to go with all of this. If I had continued to fill my head with more information, it would’ve made my mind implode.”
The 1987 revision of Wonder Woman’s origin turned Donna into an active character that existed before Wonder Woman debuted in the new history, ushering in a revolving door of concepts to explain how there was a Wonder Girl before a Wonder Woman. For a time, she was a duplicate of Diana created as a playmate who was later kidnapped and placed in suspended animation, an incomplete fusion of other Donna Troys from across different realities charged with the defense of the DC Multiverse and, most recently, a magical golem created to kill Diana. A few more origins for the character are even more convoluted with false memories, Titans of Myth, and the old multiverse.
“I’d be a crazy person if I tried to be all these Donnas,” said Leslie of the more esoteric multiverse concepts for the character. Ultimately, it was Wolfman’s idea of an orphaned Donna taken in by Diana that appealed to her the most, because “it feels the most inspiring and relateable and it feels like you can go more places. I also like the idea of Diana taking this girl under her wing. … You can create this character as an adult based on how she was raised or what she was raised around and who was her guardian,” she explained. “The other [versions] also feel like there’s an end point. Someone will die or it will be the end of all.”
Luckily, the actress’ discussion with Walker leaned toward that reading of the character’s history. But Leslie said she picked up on “the common character traits people love about her” across several versions and incorporated that into her performance.
“She’s really cool,” Leslie added. “A friend of mine was like ‘you’re just like her,” and I said, “No, I just try to be like her sometimes, but this girl is pure cool. Nothing ruffles her feathers.’”
Thanks to oblique references made during the episode, viewers can glean that some of the Wolfman origin was indeed incorporated into the series. Donna mentions Diana “took her in.” At the same time, she exhibits heightened abilities more in line with Diana than human vigilantes like Batman or Dick, suggesting the Amazons also gave her powers.
Leslie imagined Donna likely became Wonder Girl earlier than Dick became Robin. “I think she has an additional five years in this [crimefighting] world,” she said, adding her hypothesis that it was the extra experience, more than her powers, that led to the confident Donna glimpsed in the episode-opening flashback. In the scene, she is ready to take Dick to task for brooding because Batman and Wonder Woman excluded him from “League stuff.”
She also imagined a very different home life for Donna as well. According to Leslie, “the influence from Diana was much more supportive” than the relationship between Dick and Batman. She also presumes her Wonder Girl wore the red suit her comic book counterpart wore into the 1980s. The character’s experiences as a sidekick led to the Donna Troy people met in the episode: “An incredible, strong, fierce, non-compromising woman” and someone who “has a good rein on who she is,” Leslie said. “She’s a force to be reckoned with and she’s very inspiring.”
Comic book fans know that Dick and Donna have a friendship — forged during Donna’s time as Wonder Girl — and in the TV series the two are essentially best friends with a sibling-like dynamic.
“They grew up around the same time and they have similar backgrounds. They were guarded by these guardians that happened to be superheroes,” Leslie said. But their relationship won’t get romantic, and Leslie appreciated that the characters’ dynamic on the show is strictly platonic. She added, “I can see why people would want to put these two together because they’re so comfortable with each other, but that comfort comes from this loving brother-sister relationship. It’s refreshing because we don’t show it a lot in television. You can have a [male] friend for a long time that you don’t do anything with. We need some of that in television.”
The characters’ sibling bond makes Donna the only person Dick can really turn to after his final days as Robin, and Donna’s transition out of the hero world gives her a unique insight into Dick’s troubles. As the episode opens, Dick feels he doesn’t have control over his situation. “He feels that Robin owns him,” Leslie said. That feeling highlights one key difference that made Donna’s move away from Wonder Girl less traumatic than Dick’s current experiences: the support of her adoptive parent. Diana was willing to offer her wisdom and tools when Donna chose to leave superheroes behind, and, most importantly to Leslie, Diana was capable of saying “you can be your own person.”
“Dick has cut Bruce out of his life, he’s taken the chip out of his arm, and he’s burned the suit. He’s trying not to have ties to it,” she explained. “It’s a struggle for Dick.”
Thanks to the support she received, the Donna viewers meet in the episode is quite comfortable in her own skin as a photographer and investigative journalist. She can still enter “places of conflict” and save people, but as someone who documents important events and shares them with the public.
“She wanted to figure out how to do good in the world without being on the front line,” Leslie said. “It probably didn’t take her a thousand jobs to figure out what she was going to do.” Plus, “she’s able to be Donna Troy in her day to day and live that life, but she can be Wonder Girl in a sense behind that camera.”
At the end of Donna’s debut episode, the character becomes embroiled in what Leslie called “Dick’s mess” and joins him on Angela’s farm, where a new trouble awaits all of the Titans. In subsequent episodes, viewers will see “aspects of [Wonder Girl] come through,” Leslie said. This will be particularly true as Donna gets to know the other Titans. She added that Donna has also been “keeping some accessories,” which could be a reference to Wonder Girl’s bracelets or even to the comic book Donna Troy’s lasso, which could compel people to do her bidding if their will was weaker than hers.
Leslie said Donna’s status as a full-time Titan will depend on “how the team is formed.” But she also said Donna is “getting slowly dragged back into it, and that might be hard to walk away from.”
“I see the possibility of her joining the team,” she added. If she does, Leslie said she believes Donna will “have to decide on a new version of who she wants to be.” Considering her comic book counterpart, she will have plenty of personas to choose from.
Titans airs Fridays on DC Universe.