Renounce Your Wish: The Low Anthropology of WW84

“Who Doesn’t Want to be Afraid Anymore? Or Alone? Or Frightened, or Powerless?”

Bryan J. / 1.6.21

I wonder, if I could have watched the movie in the theater, where I didn’t have my phone, if I would have enjoyed it more.” This was the one-sentence film review of Wonder Woman 1984 given by my wife, a truly devoted fan of the DC super heroine. When the film’s credits rolled on our living room TV, she shared that the DC Universe’s COVID-delayed sequel was kind of a letdown compared to its predecessor. My inner film critic agreed with my wife: maybe the film would have been more enjoyable on the big screen, in a theatre where smartphones don’t offer the same escapist temptation. 

Bryan J the Mockingbird writer, on the other hand, was enthralled. I enjoyed Patty Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman film from 2017 because of its ethical core: “Is humanity worth saving?” The conclusion arrived at by our heroine was that human beings are capable of so much evil, but they are also capable of extravagant good as well. Anytime a God (or a fictional demigoddess) can acknowledge the sins of humanity but still argue they’re worth saving, the Christian blog posts write themselves. The film’s weak points notwithstanding, when WW84 hits that same anthropological stride, it’s a film of real power. If you’re waiting to see the film yourself, on the big or small screen, here’s your spoiler warning.

The plot of Wonder Woman 1984 revolves around the Dreamstone, a mystical gem that grants wishes like the fabled Monkey’s Paw. The desires of the heart are given, but they are given at great cost to the person who makes the wish. The lonesome and heartbroken superhero (Diana Prince) wishes for her dead love, Steve Trevor, to return to life. The two joyfully reconnect through ’80s hijinks and fun, but unbeknownst to Diana, her wish was granted at the expense of her Wonder Woman powers. Meanwhile, Diana’s friend Barbara Minerva, a mousy and awkward colleague from the Smithsonian, wistfully wishes to be like the confident, sexy, beautiful Amazon she works with on a daily basis. Her wish is granted, but she loses her kind heart and empathy, transforming her into a woman with Amazonian power and supervillain attitudes. 

For every achievement there is a loss. For every dream realized, there is an unforeseen trade-off.

The world is turned upside down when Ponzi schemer and oil tycoon Max Lord gets his hand on the stone. Max wishes to become the stone, granting wishes to whomever he pleases but gaining something in return. After making himself rich and powerful, he begins granting the wishes of those around him, using their wishes to gain notoriety for himself.  At one point, he uses a television broadcast to grant the wishes of his viewers. All the wish fulfillment seems funny at first, but quickly spins out of control.

Revolutionaries wish for nuclear weapons. Governments wish for more nuclear weapons. There’s rioting in the streets. “If you wish it, you can achieve it!” Max proclaims to his TV audience from his televangelist perch. In one poignant moment, an English restaurant owner and an Irish customer get into a row. The first angrily wishes for all the Irish to be rounded up and sent back to Ireland, and the second wishes that the restaurant owner would drop dead. Almost immediately, the police begin rounding up Irishmen standing outside the restaurant and the owner grabs her chest and collapses. The Irish customer stands dumbstruck, watching in horror as the deep and angry desires of their hearts come true.

What we want and what’s actually good for us (and the world) are so often two very different things. Our deepest desires usually have little to do with world peace or ending child poverty.

In the film’s conclusion, Wonder Woman recognizes that the only way the world can be saved is if people renounce their wishes: including her wish to have Steve Trevor returned to her. Saying goodbye to Steve, she regains her superhuman strength and faces off against Brenda (who has become her nemesis Cheetah) and Max Lord. Hijacking the TV broadcast from Max, she implores the world to renounce their wishes:

Look at this world. Look at what your wish is costing it … Renounce your wish if you want to save this world … You’re not the only one who has suffered, who wants more, who wants them back. Who doesn’t want to be afraid anymore? Or alone? Or frightened, or powerless? Because you’re not the only one to imagine a world where everything is different. Better, finally. A world where we are loved and seen and appreciated. Finally. But what is it costing you? Do you see the truth? 

Many film reviews have said that WW84 is a commentary on the great sin of the ’80s: greed. Porches, money, oil, posh suits, sleazy business tycoons — the era is certainly well known for its excess. Pigeonholing the film into a commentary on greed, however, is shortsighted. The film is not about greed, but misplaced desire — wanting the wrong things to solve our problems.

Diana wishes for her beau Steve not because she is greedy, but because she is lonely. And Brenda wishes to be more like Diana because she is insecure. When Max Lord renounces his wish in the movie’s final moments, we flashback to his otherwise sad life: one defined by an abusive father, bullying, and disappointment that the world of success came so easily to others while it seemed so far out of reach for him. Greed and excess are certainly targets of the film, but the film extends beyond a simple broadside of the sin of covetousness. It acknowledges that greed itself is an extension of a deeper and more profound wound. “Who doesn’t want to be afraid anymore?” asks Wonder Woman. “Or alone? Or frightened, or powerless?”

What’s remarkable about this film is that it suggests the great solution to the human condition, the key to being a hero and saving the day, is “renouncing your wish.” Whereas Max Lord takes to the screens as a prosperity preacher and encourages the world to “dream big — if you wish it, it will come true,” Wonder Woman offers the theology of the cross: “You’re not the only one to imagine a world where everything is different. But what is it costing you? Do you see the truth?”

Calling a spade a spade, the source of humanity’s ills in WW84 is its secret wishes. The things we want are the things that destroy us. For anyone in a Christian liturgical tradition, the word “renounce” reminds us of the liturgy for baptism, in which the candidates renounce the the world, the devil, and the forces aligned with it, and their own flesh, the sinful desires of their hearts. It’s a word connected with another biblical idea: repentance, which a humbled Max expresses with his son at the end of the film:

I lied to you. I’m not a great guy. In fact, I’m a pretty messed up loser guy. And I make terrible mistakes. But you … you don’t ever have to make a wish for me to love you. I’m here because I love you. I just wish and I pray that, one day, I’ll be able to make you proud enough that you’ll be able to forgive me. And love me. Because I am nothing to be proud of, Alistair.

To which Alistair responds with a word of unconditional love to his tragic and flawed father. A little child (Isaiah 9) points the way to the Gospel love that arrives when repentance is offered:

I don’t need you to make me proud. I already love you daddy. You’re my dad. 

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot was slammed across the media for organizing a celebrity sing-along to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” “It didn’t transcend,” said Gadot in a later interview, unsurprising given that the song itself asks us to imagine a world without transcendence. Francis Spufford, in his beloved book Unapologetic, suggests the song “doesn’t just pretend about what real lives can be like, but moves on into one of the world’s least convincing pretenses about what people themselves are like.” It is, writes Spufford, “the My Little Pony of philosophical statements.”

Thankfully, WW84 offers something more for viewers to chew on. The film suggests that the self-help-oriented, wish-seeking woundedness of the world, when it is blessed instead of renounced, will lead to its annihilation. For viewers of the film, it’s a lot less hard to imagine what a better world could look like if, instead of our wishes being granted, we were simply loved instead.