After the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 (just 8 days ago), I started thinking a lot about narcissism and watching a lot of videos on what the actual definitions of it are. What does an actual narcissist look like as a character in a story? And what do they need in order to release all the “negative” attributes that come with it.
A “narcissist” is defined as “someone who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves.”
That sounds like an easy way to dismiss anyone on social media. And since this is a diagnosable trait, I think we need a it more info…
From the Mayo Clinic: Narcissistic personality disorder — one of several types of personality disorders — is a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
This is very familiar to anyone who has been following politics the last four years in particular, but unfortunately, the problem with having a character with a TRUE personality disorder is that they disqualify themselves as a potential protagonist. The only example of someone with a clear, extreme disorder that is the center of a show is the titular character in Dexter. But that character works because they show growth and we see the internal battle with how he was raised. People with real personality disorders don’t change so much as the disorder will “wax and wane” over the course of their life. That’s something that’s easier to delve into in a whole series, but there’s not really enough room in a solitary film to covery it.
So if you’re writing a film, you can use those traits as a starting point when creating a character. Thinking about this had me thinking about a lot of movies that use “selfishness”, “arrogance”, or basic “narcissism” as the central flaw for the protagonist and I thought that would be a great start for a month’s-worth of posts. Since this was inspired by the only president to ever be impeached twice, I thought it was only fitting to look at a recent film that took a spin on the archetype. Here’s the breakdown for Wonder Woman 1984.
Protagonist: Diana / Wonder Woman
Want: Get the stone, save the world
Antagonists: Maxwell Lord, Barbara/Cheetah
Wants: To be more powerful
Needs: To be grateful for what they have/”the truth”
Pre-Existing Life: A young Diana on Themiscyra competes against fellow Amazons. Her aunt, Antiope, tells her to take her time and focus on what’s in front of her. Diana leads in the competition until she looks back and is knocked over by a branch in her path. In order to catch up, she takes a shortcut and is in the lead again. She reaches the arena first, but before she can cross the finish line, Antiope pulls her back. Diana throws a fit but Antiope tells her “No true hero is born from lies. Look to the heroes of the past.”
Pre-Existing Life #2: In 1984, Diana (aka Wonder Woman) is living in DC. Wherever there are small crimes and accidents throughout the city, she is there to save the day while going unseen. There is a robbery at a local mall. Diana races in, knocking out the cameras with her tiara, and fights using only her lasso and physical prowess. After saving the day, she goes home where she lives a life alone. Pictures of her friends from the first film decorate the apartment and as planes fly overhead she thinks of Steve.
Inciting Incident: Diana goes to work at the Smithsonian where she meets Barbara, a “mousy” and overlooked geologist (and about ten other titles), who is tagging all the items that the robbers attempted to rob at the mall. Maxwell Lord is searching for a mystical and magical stone, and heads to the Smithsonian where Barbara is tagging it. Diana and Barbara read an inscription that says the stone grants wishes. Diana makes a silent wish. Barbara is becomes enamored by Diana after Diana saves Barbara from a predator in Central Park. Barbara goes back to the office and wishes she were like Diana. When she wakes up, she’s already gained Diana’s calm, cool, and agile demeanor. Lord comes by the office and flirts with Barbara while looking for the stone and spotting it in her office. At the gala that night, Lord swipes the wish stone. Diana sees Steve! His soul appears to bye in the body of anther man but all she sees is the face she remembers. Back at the Lord office building, his his business is falling apart and his relationship with his son is suffering.
Plot Push / First Act Decision: The next day, Barbara wakes up with super strength. Diana and Steve spent the night together in Steve’s apartment and now must find out how Steve got here. Lord wishes to BE the dream stone and it disappears into him, leaving only the ring it was mounted on. Lord immediately takes advantage and makes himself successful, leading to chaos at the Lord offices. Lord heads out for his next victim while Diana and Steve arrive at the building and find the ring. They need to get Lord and stop him from whatever he’s up to.
Reversal: Diana and Steve need to go to Cairo, where Max has gone, and Steve wants to fly them there. Diana has them steal a plane and, when they realize that they’re going be seen on radar, she uses her powers to make them invisible.
Midpoint: In Cairo, Lord uses his powers to make more chaos as he takes more for himself. Diana and Steve catch up with him as Lord is escaping. There’s a big action sequence on the road and Diana is hit by a bullet. For the first time, she doesn’t heal instantly and she’s bleeding. Diana lands on the car with Lord and demands he give her the stone and he says “you’re looking at it.”
Reversal #2: Diana checks in with Barbara on the history of the stone and they plan to meet up with a potential lead. When they meet, the lead tells them that the stone leads to the destruction of the civilization that uses it, unless everyone gives up their wishes and the stone. They realize Lord IS the stone and he takes what he wants with every wish. Steve suggests they kill Lord, but Barbara is vehemently against it and Diana resists. Barbara takes off as Diana and Steve decide they have to start with getting Lord. Lord apologizes to his son, Alistair, after the kids overhears his dad angrily shirking his parenting duties and Alistair wishes for his dad’s “greatness” so that Lord can give up his mission.
False Climax / Low Point: Lord is abusing his power at the White House, planning to launch a worldwide broadcast from the president’s secret, offshore bunker to make billions of wishes happen simultaneously. Diana arrives and lassos him, but her powers are weakening. Barbara is there to stop Diana and Steve, and Barbara’s powers are still growing and she beats the crap out of Diana in battle, then takes off with Lord on Air Force One.
Plot Push / Third Act Decision: Diana and Steve walk through a chaotic DC, Diana limping from her wounds. Steve pulls her aside and tells Diana that the world needs her more than she needs him. She has to renounce her wish. Diana resists before finally saying goodbye. She leaves Steve and renounces her wish as she jumps into the air to escape the world around her. As she does, she regains her powers, finds acceptance and peace, and in that peace is able to finally fly. She hears the voices of wishes as Lord launches his broadcast, and flies towards its center.
Climax: Diana lands at the bunker wearing the armor of her Amazon sister, Asteria. Barbara is there, having been turned into an apex predator (a Cheetah) as a gift of a second wish from Lord. She and Diana battle, with Diana forced to drown Barbara/Cheetah when she refuses to renounce her wish. Diana goes into the bunk and when she can’t reach or get through to Lord, she uses her lasso to speak to everyone on the broadcast and convince that the truth is enough and to be grateful for it. Lord hears his son, scared and crying out for his father. He remembers his own abusive father. He wants to be with his son and renounced his wish and gives back all the wishes that were made. Then goes to his son and apologizes, determined to turn his life around.
Resolution: It’s Christmas and Diana is taking a stroll through the park, loving watching all the families playing around her. A man approaches, the one Steve inhabited, and she chats him up for a bit before flying off to enjoy her life.
This film has taken some criticism for logic jumps, but I’m not getting into that. No film is perfect, whether or not something is “good” is all about how you respond to it. This film was having a lot of fun. As I was writing the breakdown, I was planning to keep it simple and just stick to the major beats, but the best part of this film is how incredibly packed and tonally pitch-perfect this first act is. I personally enjoyed the film, and the reason was because the antagonists were just as clear as the heroine, to the point where you could actually argue the heroine had become a villain herself.
Before we get into the antagonists, I want to note that the reason the film has two “pre-existing life” sequences is because the first (which revisits Themiscyra) sets up the theme: Accepting the Truth. It shows Diana’s childlike struggle with it that we would assume that she’s over. In the second one, the film has to show us Diana’s current state of mind: Enjoying life as Wonder Woman while living a lonely existence. There was probably a way to set up both of these things in one sequence, but separating it out allowed us to have more sympathy for Diana in 1984 and revisit the island of Amazons. We’ll come back to this, but let’s look at the antagonists.
There are three levels of antagonist in writing. Inner (the protagonist’s flaw), Personal (the individual person that the protagonist fights against), and Extra-Personal (either a system or a trend that protagonist fights against and is often embodied at the Personal level by an individual). When we’re talking about Personal Antagonists, they can be either “Positive” or “Negative”. Positive ones are usually dismissed and not viewed as Antagonists (think Tye or Josh in “Clueless”) who embodies the kind of traits the protagonist should learn. Usually, when you hear the word Antagonist, you’re usually thinking of the individual embodiment that the protagonist and they are clearly “Bad”. In Wonder Woman 1984, that person is clearly Maxwell Lord.
Maxwell Lord is clearly lonely in his life, even though he has his son. We see him in a big office building that’s pretty much empty while giving the false impression that he is successful. And he’s obsessed with the idea of seeming greater than he is and gaining more power. “Trumpian” is the word used to describe him by most critics/viewers. Diana is also lonely and not living in the present. She needs to accept that she lost Steve and build a life for herself, but she doesn’t. When she learns that she must renounce her wish, she fights the idea with Barbara, until she’s put in a position where she has to accept it. She’s losing her powers in the process, which is her primary identity in 1984, and she cares but not enough to give him back until the world is clearly going to crumble. Lord can’t accept the responsibility of being a father as good enough, even though his son is clearly happy with who his father is already.
Barbara, on the other hand, could be viewed as an protagonist/anti-hero if the film weren’t ultimately about Diana. She doesn’t start off a narcissist because she clearly has low self-esteem and is very self-aware. We side with her when she wants more power. She falls into the same narcissism as Lord and Diana in the third act, when she wishes to be “something totally different, an apex predator”. When Diana renounces her wish, we understand because she IS Wonder Woman and she has that purpose. Diana chose to be alone but Barbara was truly lonely and relished Diana’s “purpose”. This is the best kind of villain. Someone whose drive we understand. Someone who could be the protagonist if they were driving the story. And I might not have been rooting for Maxwell Lord, but I was definitely rooting for Barbara over Diana.
What I love about these three characters is that they each have something tangible to relate to, to empathize with. But even Diana crosses the line along with them. Patty Jenkins has skirted around the issue of Diana sleeping with a man whose body Steve inhabits, and whether or not it’s consent. Yes, it’s a play on the body-swap-trope, but it’s also a movie made in the 21st century and you do have to acknowledge that to some degree. The fact that Diana simply shrugs it off shows how selfish she can be when she wants something, which tracks with that little girl we saw on Themiscyra. Personally, I just wish Steve had mentioned it later on in the film, that he’s stealing a life away from someone instead of looking in the mirror, saying “I like this guy”, and not thinking of it again. It’s a dark center in the midst of a classic, campy, 80s actioner.
I really enjoyed the first film, but I would’ve loved if the villain had more meat to him and if the theme of “love” had been clearer. I think that in WW84, the film keeps announcing the theme as “truth” because she carries the “lasso of truth” and that’s the weapon she carries. But what the theme could more clearly be called “gratitude”. Diana accepts her role as Wonder Woman, but why? Why didn’t she go home after the first film? It’s because she loves this martyr hero role and because she knows all that she’s sacrificed it gives her a form of self-importance. Hers is justified but goes unseen. Barbara, in the beginning, goes unseen, but doesn’t have Diana’s martyr spirit. When she gets Diana’s powers, she voices the victimhood of her past when she beats up the man in the street. Lord is seen and is full of self-importance, but it’s based on nothing. He is the flipside of Diana.
These three characters are all ungrateful for the lives they lead and their stories spin around this core theme in different ways. It’s fascinating. It’s complex. And it’s definitely not getting enough credit for balancing all of that while still keeping this incredibly camp/80s tone.
Next week, I’ll be back with another look at narcissism and its foe: gratitude.