Good Characters Don’t Need to Stay Dead to Make an Impact
I see a lot of well-intentioned fans of Wonder Woman worrying that Steve Trevor’s return somehow negates what he did for Diana. I would like to change this conversation, for Wonder Woman, and for many movies where the impossible is part of the appeal.
At the end of Wonder Woman, Steve Trevor flies a plane full of poison into the sky and detonates it, sacrificing himself, after telling Diana that he loves her and he wishes they had more time to be together. The anguish of watching Steve’s plane explode, and the inspiration of his love, helps to propel Diana into wielding her awesome powers in full. She handily beats the bad guy, her uncle Ares.
Steve’s goodbye to Diana and death are well-staged and effectively wrought. It’s emotional and wrenching, and losing the first man that she loved a hundred years ago has followed Diana into the present day. “Thank you for bringing him back to me,” she writes in a candid e-mail to Bruce Wayne, who had sent her the WWI picture of Diana, Steve, and their trusty companions that kicked off Wonder Woman‘s flashback. The watch that Steve gave her, and that Diana has clearly kept as a treasured memento, rests nearby.
Ever since Wonder Woman‘s sequel was confirmed last year and Chris Pine rumored to be involved in some capacity, we’ve talked here about how they’ll bring the beloved character back: is he but a dream within a dream? A clone? A hallucination? Did Steve’s plane somehow get frozen, preserving him as a young man, as superheroic Steves are wont to do? Godly resurrection? Illusions? Aliens?
Whatever it is that brings back some version of Steve Trevor, it’s likely going to be one of the bigger reveals of Wonder Woman 1984, and I’m guessing our guesses will be off. What it does not do is somehow devalue or change what Steve did out of love for Diana and to help save the world in 1917.
Here’s the thing about death as fictional a plot device: it’s the oldest trope in the book. It’s far older than books—death, and heroes trying to defy it and return a loved one from that state, are among the first stories that humans told each other. Onscreen, in big action movies, death is often used cheaply. We’re so used to it happening we don’t blink when a trenchful of people take heavy fire in a movie like Wonder Woman. A narratively well-earned death like Steve Trevor’s makes more of an emotional impact, sure, and it can make for a more resonant movie-going experience. But the idea that Steve should have to stay statically dead in a fantastical film where anything is possible in order to somehow elevate his actions and what they did to Diana is mind-boggling to me.
Here’s the thing about death: in real life, it is one of the worst things that the people left behind will ever experience. Death is cruel, merciless, and it can leave you feeling like there’s an expanding black hole lodged in your chest for many years. For the rest of your life.
Here’s the thing about death if we could reverse it here like we can in fiction: not a goddamn person on planet Earth would lament lost heroism or sacrifice or any other grandiose romantic bullshit we lay on death to try to make sense of it. Your loved one died to save you but now they’re back again? Sorry, Steve, I’m just not feeling it anymore because of all of that squandered heroism, no one would say ever.
The fact of the matter where Wonder Woman is concerned is that Steve Trevor did what he did in 1917 and it was surely one of the worst things that Diana went through. Having Steve return in some capacity 67 years later does not alter that past. Steve’s death also did not make Wonder Woman a hero. Diana was already a hero, and the loss of him served as a catalyst at a dire moment. That’s what losing someone does: it changes you like a chemical reaction. But it does not create or define you.
We go to see movies like Wonder Woman, Avengers, and Star Wars in order to escape into fictional realities where people get to do the impossible and have abilities that we can only dream about. So often, our heroes rise to the occasion because of a poignant loss, because this is an instinct that we can all understand. Iron Man with Yinsen. Batman and his parents. Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn. Captain America with Dr. Erskine and later Bucky Barnes. Spider-Man and his Uncle Ben.
But giving death the slip and coming back from it is also a huge appeal of comic books and their film incarnations. Incredible powers like the use of the Force and the capacity to appear as a Force ghost are part and parcel of what makes Star Wars tick. We want to witness worlds where death can’t quite hold us.
It used to be a longstanding fan and creator expectation in Marvel Comics that nobody had to “stay” dead except for Uncle Ben and Bucky Barnes. Those deaths were seen as being so essential to the narratives of Peter Parker and Steve Rogers that they could not be retconned or revived.
Then in 2005, comics writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting brought Bucky back onto the scene as the brainwashed assassin The Winter Soldier. It turned out that Bucky had not died in World War II after all, but was taken by the Russians, given a bionic arm, and reprogrammed to do their bidding for decades.
Bucky’s return from “the dead” is a perfect example of how such an important character’s revival does not negate the impact that his life and loss created in the first place. In fact, if anything, Brubaker created in The Winter Soldier arc the most tragic and brilliant foil possible for Captain America.
What is more difficult than having to face your best friend turned into your enemy? The film version of Winter Soldier is particularly excellent for the same reason. Cap’s agony at having to fight his old friend, and his unrelenting conflict about it and steadfast belief that Bucky was still Bucky beneath the brainwashing, helped make Winter Soldier into one of the most exciting and moving of the Marvel movies. Their continued melodrama and connection have carried through Civil War and Infinity War, and Bucky is a huge fan favorite. It’s hard to imagine where the MCU would have gone without the Winter Soldier storyline as a part of it.
Yet Marvel has also begun to overplay its hand where these tropes are concerned. They’ve been placing all of their chips on grief as the one failsafe to motivate a hero for too long. It worked so effectively for them before as a critical plot device that Infinity War can be read as a culminating series of attempts at impactful permadeaths in order to galvanize our heroes.
As the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios co-president Kevin Feige gleefully tease that some of the characters lost in Infinity War will really stay dead, they’re missing the point of why we love these films. We don’t need characters that we adore to remain dead for their lives to matter, but we’d like it if their deaths meant something when they happen instead of merely serving as a momentary plot beat.
It’s this kind of cheapened take on death-as-heroic-motivation that makes the Russos open Avengers: Infinity War with the horrific genocide of the Asgardians and the brutal deaths of Loki and Heimdall, just so that Thor is feeling sad and mad enough to go on a reckless quest. Do they know Thor at all? He would have done that anyway.
Will Loki or Heimdall ever return? I’d love that. Loki has also come back from death, not once, but twice, because he still had great things to contribute to the MCU narrative. Good characters in fantastical films don’t need to stay dead, but they do need good plotlines. The problem here doesn’t hinge on whether these characters should come back, but whether they should have died so wastefully in the first place. I don’t go into Avengers for gritty genocidal realism. I want to see them do the impossible.
Does Bucky Barnes’ return to the world cancel out who he was before or the value of how he seemingly died fighting alongside Steve Rogers, Steve’s shield in his hand? Hardly. It heightened the emotional impact of both characters in the modern day because of what they shared in the past. Thus it would likely be with a reunited Diana Prince and Steve Trevor.
We cannot know the circumstances of how they will come together again, but their history, and Diana having felt Steve’s loss, makes the relationship all the richer and all the more compelling. Their experiences are something that we will never experience, but we can have the chance to cheat death and live vicariously through them.
(image: Warner Bros., Marvel Studios)
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