Substantial spoilers about Wonder Woman 84 and some discussion about issues of consent.
I’m still thinking about this very specific plot point in the Wonder Woman sequel…
A recap (and my review is here). Wonder Woman 84’s central premise is a magical artefact created by a god of mischief. Appearing as a stone with an inscribed metal banding, the artefact grants wishes. The wishes are not benign, they may be enacted literally but ironically and each wish takes something (involuntarily) in exchange. We learn later in the movie that the artefact has been implicated in the fall of multiple empires.
A couple of neat aspects of the film that I liked was that the film’s main antagonist, the somewhat Trumpian Max Lord, uses a rules-lawyering trick for his wish to try and game the system of what is an omnipotent entity. Instead of wishing for riches, he wishes to become the stone which then enables him to exploit the involuntary aspect of the stones powers to con people into wishing things for him or for him to receive the quid-pro-quo exchange of the wish. The film makes a more overt stab at the concept of The Power of Positive Thinking later in the film by name checking it as the source of the ethical problem at play.
While I like the idea of a superhero film having a personification of this very American ideology, WW84 doesn’t have a clear point to make on the issue. It could be seen as saying that even if the more supernatural versions of affirming what you want (e.g. The Secret) were true, then the consequences would be awful. It doesn’t really work as an allegory except maybe in what we might call the “brain worms” sense — nice people becoming self-obsessed unpleasant people as they fall down a spiral of ‘self-improvement’ that is focused on the superficial (money, popularity, invulnerability) rather than becoming a good person. Yet, the film really does try to fit that model of an allegory with a clearly stated moral. The climax has an almost fourth-wall breaking speech by Wonder Woman in which she entreats people to abandon their wishes (aspirations?) for the good of the world because individualistic gains are leading to chaos (and more immediately) a nuclear war.
I think there is more than enough material in the film to say that the above (or something like it) was an intentional part of the film. Intent isn’t always important in discussing a film’s themes — sometimes themes can arise organically out of the setting, plot point, characters and circumstance. However, in this case I am curious about intent and ethics in this film because of a different plot point (which I will get to, I promise). The opening scene (which is otherwise irrelevant to the plot) even drive home this point, with a young Diana bending the rules/cheating to try and win an athletic competition against adult Amazons. The point about truth (and thematically here this means authenticity) is made overtly to her and this point is then reiterated with Barbara Minerva’s plot arc, where she gains confidence and then power but loses her own personality.
My point being: this is a film in which plot events, scenes and character arc were introduced specifically around moral points to the point of layering them on a bit thick and having key characters explain them at the start and at the denouement of the film.
So what on Earth was going on with Steve Trevor’s resurrection?
A common and immediate reaction to the film was the unpleasant nature of how Wonder Woman’s love interest is resurrected. Wonder Woman (as Diana Prince) makes an unspoken and idle wish for long dead boyfriend to come back to her, at a point where she has no reason to imagine that the artefact can actually grant wishes. Sure, enough Steve does return and is once again played charmingly by Chris Pine — which is all very nice etc. Except…Steve returns by possessing the body of a different man. In fact, he doesn’t even look like Steve Trevor. The transition from random-eighties-guy to Christopher Pine takes place in Wonder Woman’s head and it is only when she recognises that the guy has been possessed by the dead soul of Steve Trevor, that the audience starts seeing him as Christopher Pine rather than the random guy.
The ugly part is we are to presume they have sex (not shown but they share a bed) but also Wonder Woman drags Steve into physical danger and only extreme circumstances make her even question the idea of her holding on to her version of Steve despite him literally stealing the life of another person.
The film sets all this up and yet doesn’t really deal with any of it. It is so very odd.
The specific nature of Steve’s resurrection is not determined by any plot point or circumstances. The wishing stone has rules but the possession aspect isn’t required to fit some sort of wider rules of how the stone works. We could imagine that there are some in-universe reasons (the stone maybe can’t create living beings from nothing) but if there are rules like that, they play no part in the rest of the plot (not even conservation of mass). There’s no driving reason why Steve has to be resurrected in this way. Nor does it solve any plot practicalities. The possessed guy isn’t a jet pilot for example (which would explain how Steve can fly a modern plane) and even creates a little plot oddity (possessed guy doesn’t have a passport, so Steve and Wonder Woman have to steal a jet, whereas if Steve had just poofed back into existence the line about the passport would make more sense).
Thematically, the nature of the resurrection could sort of make sense in that Steve is unauthentically Steve…except, if anything, the film counters that with Wonder Woman seeing that the guy who does not look or sound like Steve, is really underneath that actually Steve. The resurrected Steve has the inner essence of Steve but the outer appearance of somebody else. It is so very odd, that it the resurrection actually reverses the authenticity/truth theme of the film.
There is one scene at the end of the film, where Diana bumps into the random guy (post-possession) but it’s a scene that itself is inconsequential. Aside from that, the films plot and themes would carry on exactly that same if Steve had resurrected just by popping back into existence.
I cannot figure out why the film makes this choice but it is also clearly a choice. It only creates plot difficulties for the story and adds nothing positive or funny. Yes, there is a dress up scene at random guy’s flat where Steve Trevor looks for clothes to wear but the scene would have worked with them both shopping for clothes (actually would be funnier).
I have to assume there was a plot/theme reason for this specific choice but the relevant parts where later cut from the plot or the film. Early on. Steve explains that he woke up in the body in a strange flat and then tracked down Diana using a phone book. Did they maybe film these scenes and then cut them later? Maybe and maybe the plan was to have the random-guy-who-is-really-Steve be seen to be stalking/following/spying on Diana and then later it was decided that was too weird/creepy?
Perhaps the possession aspect was introduced intentionally as a way of indicating the wrongness of the stone’s wishes? It doesn’t need to be said that dead souls possessing the bodies of the living is symbolically evil and yet…the film simply forgets to actually say that despite every other moral point being in bold and underline for the rest of the film. Diana grasps very early that everybody else wishes are problematic. The downside to her own wish is a gradual loss of her powers but this isn’t linked to the ethical issue of the nature of her boyfriend. In the end she recants her wish not because the nature of Steve return is itself wrong but (i) because it is necessary for everybody to recant their wish to stop the bad guy and (ii) to get her powers back. She undoes the possession of another person for pragmatic/greater-good reasons than because of the intrinsic wrongness.
Perhaps that was part of the point? That even Wonder Woman was consumed by getting what she wished for that she couldn’t see the moral problem of being granted her wish? Except, at no point does she acknowledge this.
In the end, I simply don’t know why this choice was made in the plot except that everything about it points to it being a choice.