A Mc Guffin (also called Mac Guffin) is a plot device used by both literature writers and filmmakers for their stories. Over the years the term itself changed and expanded its definition to include animals and even people as possible Mc Guffins.
However, its purpose in the story is always the same. So let’s see what Mc Guffin means and how the movie Wonder Woman 1984 uses this plot device in all the wrong ways.
Definition of Mc Guffin
In short, the Mc Guffin is an unimportant prop that gives the writer an excuse to move the characters around.
And now here’s the long version: a Mc Guffin is an object or a being (person or animal) that is irrelevant in itself but important for the characters. The mere existence of this “thing” motivates the antagonist, the protagonist, and the allies to take action and pursue it.
It is a brilliant plot device that gives the writer of a movie an excuse to get the action going. Sometimes the heroes and the villains don’t have an actual “reason” to fight or maybe they don’t even know about one another, this is when the McGuffin comes in handy.
This object or person gives the characters a motivation aka a reason to kick each other’s ass or at the very least a reason to be in the same place at the same time.
The Mac Guffin is essential to the plot but unremarkable in itself because literally anything can be a Mc Guffin.
- a watch that holds sentimental value to the protagonist but also has the secret code that the antagonist needs in order to rule the world
- a dog that the hero considers his best friend but the villain wants to kill it because it ate a device that will allow him to conquer the nation
- a person that has to be protected by the good guy while the bad guy is trying to kill them because they are the only obstacle to his plan to rule the city
You get the point. The Mc Guffin in itself doesn’t matter, what the characters want from it or do with it does. Now let’s see how Wonder Woman 1984 gets this simple concept wrong.
The wishing Mc Guffin
The object of desire in this movie is a stone that grants one wish to the person holding it. It’s an artifact recovered from an attempted robbery and donated to the museum where Diana and Barbara work.
Maxwell Lord, understanding how the stone works, decides to try and “cheat” it by wishing to become the stone itself in order to trick people into wishing for what HE wants.
The major characters spend the first act chasing around the stone (and accidentally making wishes), while the rest of the movie is devoted to chasing around Maxwell himself.
On paper, this is a perfect example of a Mc Guffin, something every character wants but isn’t really all that important to the audience. In fact, it’s so not important that it shifts from being an ancient artifact to being Pedro Pascal and its function in the narrative is still the same.
However, there’s a problem with it. Just like many other Mc Guffins, it has magic powers and rules associated with them.
The wishing stone was created by an evil Mayan God. It works as a Monkey’s paw, a cursed object that grants one wish to its user but takes away something equally as valuable.
It’s supposed to be simple, but somehow the movie manages to make it confusing.
The very first wish granted by the stone is Diana’s: she wants her first love, Steve Trevor, to be with her. And Steve indeed comes back to life but in another man’s body.
So while I was sitting in my room watching that scene I thought: “Oh that’s the catch! He pretty much stole the life of another man and Diana is going to have to choose between having her Trevor back and destroying the life of an innocent ma-”
And that’s when the movie went: “NOPE”
The fact that this random guy gets his body taken over by Chris Pine is never really addressed (which is not great). Despite how problematic this is though, this is not the narrative problem I wanted to talk about.
The problem is that Diana’s powers start to diminish.
According to the movie itself, the stone grants ONE wish and takes away ONE thing precious to the user. If that’s the case, why is Diana losing her powers while also having a “fake” Steve?
The same problem persists with Barbara.
Barbara Minerva is a geeky and clumsy archeologist that works with Diana. The two become friends (well, they have lunch together once…) and after this encounter, Barbara wishes on the stone to be more like Diana.
She slowly starts to be more confident in herself, assertive, stronger than average, more agile, and… starts wearing better clothes? Ok I guess that “style” is one of Wonder Woman’s powers in this movie.
Anyway, her gradual transformation slowly shows that she is also losing her empathy for others, as she almost kills a man who attacked her despite having already knocked him out.
Diana explicitly says at one point that the stone gave her superpowers but also took away her “humanity”.
So… if that’s the case, why did she turn into Cheetah at the end?
The “valuable thing” that she loses can either be her humanity or her human form, not both. Especially not without an explanation. In one scene she’s on a plane with Lord, human and impeccably dressed, in the next she’s on the roof of a building naked and covered in Cheetah fur.
If you don’t read the comics and go into the movie theater without any knowledge of Wonder Woman lore, you don’t know that Barbara Minerva is the name of THAT Cheetah. So when Kristen Wiig comes out of the shadows looking like a cat with long hair you kind of expect her to invite Diana to the Jellicle Ball.
(bad) Character motivation
The Mc Guffin itself might not be important for the audience, but you know what is? The motivation, the reason why the characters are chasing around this “thing”. Give your characters a good motivation and that will be enough to carry the story.
Is this the case with Wonder Woman 1984? Nah… not really.
Since we didn’t talk much about him before, let’s start with Maxwell Lord. What does he want?
At first, he wants success. He wants to be a successful businessman despite not really being cut out for the job. That’s when he finds out about the wishing stone, an object that will solve all of his problems and demand next to nothing in return.
Max even finds a loophole in the system that will allow him to express all the wishes he wants (seemingly) without negative consequences.
So he wishes to become the stone itself. After a while though, he learns that using his power is costing him his health: the more material benefits he gets through his powers, the more his body deteriorates.
This is simple enough and compelling enough to grab the audience’s attention and keep it. A greedy man thinks that he can cheat something created by a God, he learns that things are not as easy as he predicted, he pays the price for his mistakes.
However, Wonder Woman 1984 seems to have something against the concept of simplicity.
Maxwell, instead of learning his lesson and giving up, decides to go all in and throw the whole planet into chaos in order to get what he wants.
He finds a way to be able to “touch” everyone on the planet and grant them their wishes without physically being there with them. Uses it to restore his health and… keeps granting wishes for some reason.
All he needed to do was keep granting wishes and say “I’ll take your health”. This way the “wisher” would inherit his curse every time Maxwell was using his power.
Logical fallacy aside, Maxwell Lord says that his reason to do what he does is “wanting more”.
Theoretically, this could work. A lot of great villains are motivated by greed. The only difference is that those guys usually want something concrete, not just the concept of “more”.
Whenever a screenplay focuses on an abstract theme, it’s important to make sure that this idea is translated into something concrete for the sake of the story.
Two perfect examples are Diana and Barbara’s motivations:
- Diana wants love so she gets Steve, a person that loves her
- Barbara wants confidence so she gets super-style and superpowers
Meanwhile, Max wants more and he gets… a wind machine.
Resolution of the conflict… maybe?
The Mc Guffin also plays an important part in the ending of the story. While it’s a useful plot device for the beginning of the story, it might be tricky to resolve all the conflicts involving it.
The person who gets it can be the person who “wins”, or maybe the object itself is destroyed and the moral lesson is that the Mc Guffin was the friends we made along the way.
Either way, the situation has to be resolved. The “thing” that everyone has been chasing for the entirety of the movie has to “go” somewhere: in the hands of the hero, in the hands of the villain, or deep in the ocean with the rest of the Titanic.
And here’s the most baffling thing about Wonder Woman 1984: the Mc Guffin doesn’t go anywhere.
Maxwell, our smooth-talking Mc Guffin, decides to renounce his wish and this magically solves all the problems that he had magically caused.
The nukes disappear, the dead come back to life, Barbara goes to the Heaviside Layer, Diana has a chat with the innocent man that she and Steve kidnapped, and everyone lived happily ever after.
How? Just how could it be this easy?
We’re talking about a magical object with seemingly infinite power that was created by A GOD. An object that has destroyed civilizations (according to the lore of the movie), ruined lives, caused terrible tragedies… how can it just puff itself away?!
How can a warrior like Wonder Woman solve this with a nice heartfelt speech? She has been kicking Gods’ asses for over 60 years but now that Steve is gone she’s just too tired to punch an arrogant man in the face?
How can Cheetah, someone is seemingly willing to kill in order to keep her powers, just give up her wish? Cause let me remind you that the refusal of the wish was entirely voluntary. No one forced her (or anyone else) to give up their wishes, and yet everyone, EVERYONE does.
HOW DID THEY EVEN KNOW THAT THEY NEEDED TO SAY “I RENOUNCE MY WISH”? Some of those people were simply murmuring to themselves or simply saying the first thing that came to their mind.
But magic-system-failure aside, what happened to the stone? Did the Mc Guffin, the very thing that kept the story going, vanish?
A useful plot device if…
In the end, we can say that a Mc Guffin is a useful plot device only if it’s used correctly. A good writer has to be able to focus the attention on the characters, not on the miracle object.