[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984.]
Right up until the very end, I remained confident that Brandon Cronenberg‘s deeply unsettling Possessor would be the best body horror movie of 2020. Like his father before him, Cronenberg spins the hair-raising tale of an assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who carries out her hits by “possessing” other peoples’ bodies, pulling their strings like a puppetmaster just long enough to finish the job. It’s genuinely disturbing because we can all agree that the idea of someone else’s consciousness slipping beneath your skin without your consent, pushing your identity into the void, and driving your body around like a helpless shell is a violation no human being should ever experience. Right? Right?? Anyway, Possessor just got unseated by a little film called Wonder Woman 1984.
Nothing on-screen in 2020 chilled me to the core—nay, to my very soul—more than this film’s Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) subplot, which I will now describe, in exact detail, without embellishment or hyperbole. Several decades after the events of Wonder Woman, Diana (Gal Gadot) comes across a mystical, wish-granting stone called the Dreamstone. Not believing it has power, Diana wishes for Steve’s return, after her blue-eyed beau perished in the first film. But Steve does return…inside another man’s body. Not a new, fun body crafted from clay, but the literal body of a random Washington, D.C. local who was minding his own goddamn business when a World War I fighter pilot hijacked his body. Instead of reacting with immediate horror at the thought of wearing another person’s skin like a sock puppet, Diana and Steve—these two uber-virtuous examples of righteousness and good—just sort of dunk on this random, nameless man’s apartment and move on, content that Steve’s presence means obliterating someone else from existence.
“I only see you,” Diana tells Steve, in the brief moment he feels uncomfortable with looking into a mirror and seeing someone else’s face. And we only see Steve, too, as Pine’s visage immediately overtakes the other, which feels like the fastest a film has ever apologized for a plot point it introduced itself. Wonder Woman 1984 never wants to reckon with this grossness that it didn’t need in the first place. The degree to which this is a completely unforced error is staggering. But that can of worms is opened, my friends, and Patty Jenkins — along with co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham — never return to the genuinely horrific implications of this body theft. Where is that other man’s consciousness during all this? Is it scarier to assume that he was just shoved into a void of nothingness, or to posit that this man became a helpless spectator of his own life, alive but powerless to stop his own movement? Again, we’ll never know! But the questions, they haunt me.
That’s not even getting into by far the most disturbing element of Steve’s return, which is the fact that Steve and Diana almost immediately have sex. It’s easy to get swept up in the classic romance vibes that come with a long-lost love returning to life — and the charm of Gadot and Pine make it even easier — but to stop and think about what’s actually happening here is…not okay? Not just in an “ah, classic comic book blockbuster” sense, but in legitimately troubling ways the creative team doesn’t seem to realize. To hand-wave a person’s lack of autonomy in a sexual situation with “I only see you” is a dangerously lazy explanation. Especially in a sequel to a film that was so simultaneously sex-positive (that boat conversation!)and built around a character learning to separate mankind’s capacity for evil and mankind’s worthiness of being saved. There is a pretty lengthy gap between WW1 and 1984, but it’s strange that, for Diana, the lesson became if you live alone in a messy apartment, you actually do not matter.
Again, an understandable, initial reflex is to say I’m asking too much from a comic book movie, but I really just cannot stress enough how hard Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t need to bring up these questions at all. It’s a magic wish rock with god powers! Not a single person on Earth would wonder how it brought Steve back in one piece! It turns Kristen Wiig into a cat person! (Yes, it’s a Monkey’s Paw scenario, but Steve’s new body isn’t the twist; Diana losing her powers is pretty firmly established as the twist.) Introducing the body theft element leads you to believe there’s a narrative reason, but it really just acts as an unnecessary anchor dragging the movie down. It’s indicative of how much Wonder Woman 1984 strangely seems to misunderstand Diana as a character, much less the magic that makes Wonder Woman so fantastic. It’s a film that suggests Diana is useless without superpowers, that a person’s capacity to be great comes from magic lassos and wrist gauntlets, not any inner strength. Nowhere is that cynicism more apparent than the moment the movie brings back the supernaturally handsome, fan-demanded character by gleefully wiping out a regular person.
Its ghoulishness not quite through, Wonder Woman 1984 concludes in a Christmas setting, in which Diana happens to bump into the nameless meat sack her former lover used as an Uber for about a week. (Who, assumedly, is still processing that time he lost several days of his life without explanation.) The lesson here, for Diana, is that life actually has a lot to offer. But it’s pretty hard to get over the fact this lesson comes from looking at a life she was straight-up eager to take away.
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