Going in, I recognize that this is a rant. So, if this isn’t your cup of tea, skip by this post. I won’t be offended.
Good, now that I have your attention, I wanted to talk about this latest revisionist trend in movies. It’s actually not so new. It’s what I’m calling the “Rise of the Crazy Exes as Villains syndrome.”
I don’t know if I’m alone here, but the Star Wars prequels did something completely unnecessary.
They gave Darth Vader a larger back story than he needed. Obi-Wan Kenobi covers the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader – without revealing to Luke that he was the bad guy’s kid. That was awesome. Whether George Lucas meant to do it (he says he did) or didn’t really expect to have his space adventure become the phenomenon it was (what I think happened), he allowed the story to give fans the big reveal in an organic, shocking way. It was amazing. It was fantastic, and then let the next twist happen in a natural way, too. Iconic moments created and I realize I sound a bit like a scifi geek as I write this, but it’s really about serving the story, which I’ll get to soon enough.
Cue the prequels. Watching cute, sweet little Anakin become the brooding, moody, disobedient and willful Jedi (oxymoronic!) was wasteful and unnecessary. It’s his insecurities and pain that turns Anakin dark, losing his mother, fears of losing Padme…blah, blah, blah. Anakin, unlike his noble and somewhat uncomplicated son, was a bad seed even in his cute, droid building phase. He had to be. People don’t BECOME the monstrous version of themselves because they’ve lost loved ones, at least not in a dominate the universe way. There are other issues at play, issues that aren’t necessary to get into, issues that cloud his judgment and drive him into a irrational, murderous rage of jealousy. His woman is anything but unfaithful – she’s loyal to the point of walking right into being killed by him – an act that begs us to understand why he’s so EVIL by the time we meet him in the original Star Wars. So, I ask you – it doesn’t matter that Hitler had serious mental and psychological issues, does it? Does it change the fact that he was one of the most evil humans to ever live? Do we feel sorry for him? HELL NO. I highly doubt anyone has or will write a sympathetic account of Hitler’s life. I can see it, though. Titled “Adolph H” and all about how his Jewish mother served her own selfish purposes and ignored him, while his noble Austrian father struggled and suffered because of her.
If that ever happens, someone may need to shoot me.
Geoffrey Maguire is an author who has done something pretty neat, especially for people like me, fans of fairy tales with a bit of a dark side. (I LOVE Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in all of their nasty, slightly demented, old fashioned glory.) In his best selling novel, Wicked, he told the story of Elphaba, the troubled middle sister who is sent to the Emerald City to study magic. She befriends Glinda, falls in love, and loses her love in a tragic way. Then she is betrayed by her best friend and turns bitter, like her sisters, one of which who was born twisted and wrong. (and deserves the house that is dropped on her with an innocent Dorothy Gale inside, to be sure) I loved Wicked. I love the music from the Broadway show. Idina Menzel really got her launch to fame in that show, too. So, thanks to Disney, we got a very different look at the Wicked Witch of the West in “Oz, the Great and Powerful”. She’s a sweet, loving girl that is twisted by her broken heart and jealous rage into the witch we all knew and loved. Is there a predisposition (as in Wicked) to the dark side? NOPE. She’s just tragically warped after being seduced by Oz (a womanizing, carnival huckster) and then seeing him fall for the gentle Glinda.
Oh, yes…that’s the most evil creature EVER..an angry, bitter, rejected girlfriend. No new woman in Oz is safe while this rabid creature is flying around with her winged monkeys!
Needless to say, “Oz, The Great and Powerful” left a bad taste in my mouth. When rumors of a movie featuring my very favorite Disney villain of all time began to swirl around, I was apprehensive. When they said they’d cast Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, I was nervous. My elegant, regal, unapologetically evil sorceress was up for her 21st century makeover. But, when my dear friend, (I will call him Captain America for blog purposes), said, “Hey, I have the code for Maleficent, if you want to watch it. I think you’ll like it. I know how you feel about it, but I think you’ll be surprised.”, I gave in. I thanked him for the code and watched the movie, with much hemming and hawing, an occasional “What the hell?” and one highly appropriate “OH, COME ON!”
There is a lot of good in the movie, I’ll admit. Some of it is technical – the CGI creatures and fairy folk in Maleficent’s corner of the world are spectacular. It looks a lot like Pandora from “Avatar” – Captain America pointed that out and he’s quite right. The writer’s take on Aurora is brilliant, too. I won’t say more, because I don’t want to really spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet. There is even a twist with King Stefan that isn’t bad. It’s surprising, but in the end, not bad at all. The point, though, is that you see Maleficent not as a purely evil thing that delights in the sorrow of the people around her, but as a victim. A Victim. Her power gone, it’s all about the excuses. So, there it is: “Yes, she’s bad now, but it’s not her fault. She was young, in love and he did her WRONG…” syndrome that I’ve been talking about. That great throne room scene from Sleeping Beauty? Gone. It’s a jealous, vindictive ex girlfriend being hateful to her former love, shitting all over his happiness. The ultimate, linear logic of fairies in literature is wiped away. It’s too simplistic for today’s audience, I guess. She gets a redemptive arc that takes all the malevolent beauty from the character. Is it an effective arc, story wise? I guess, if you don’t care that it completely defangs one of the greatest movie villains of all time.
Defanging is an interesting term, because again, Captain America pointed out that HIS favorite villain has been mangled and tortured over the years, too. Poor Dracula. Francis Ford Coppola used the overwhelming grief and anger at God for Vlad’s downfall, didn’t he? So, not his fault, guys! See? He was so torn by his loss and angry that he made bad choices, but he’s really good! See? All of the awful stuff he does comes from the soft, bruised place deep inside where he’s still longing for his lost bride!
BULLSHIT. I cry bullshit of the first order, in all of these cases!!
When we wipe the absoluteness of villainy out of our stories and movies, we do two things. First, we create layers and complications where there do not need to be. Many unpleasant things in life are ultimate and final. They are unassailable. Tornadoes, Monsoons, Typhoons, Hurricanes, Diseases, Famine, War. The role of the villain in these type of epic stories is that same kind of ultimate thing – relentless, powerful, destructive and dangerous. They give the heroes something to struggle against and defeat. The redemption of a villain takes that struggle away from the hero and stunts their growth, which does NOT serve the story, at all. We grow the villain into a misunderstood soul and when the hero strikes them down, the HERO suddenly looks like an insensitive jerk. It complicates the story.
The second thing it does, especially in cases like those I’ve mentioned above, it takes the established, expected character and warps it. (See the comment about poor, misunderstood soul) It robs them of their power. The villain in the old fairy tales was a punishment – Rapunzel’s witch, for example, taking the child as payment for greens the baby’s mother craved or Rumplestiltskin claiming the first child the miller’s daughter promised him. The villain also serves the life lessons out:Hansel and Gretel’s cookie house dwelling witch was a cautionary tale for children – stay close to home, be obedient, don’t talk to strangers. These themes repeat, story after story. The villains also are definitely stereotypes of bad character as well – Cinderella’s greedy and selfish stepmother and her two beastly daughters, for example, who get their well deserved comeuppances. The jealous queen in Snow White does, too. They’re driven by basic human failings, and are punished for them.
So, after almost 1500 words, the message is this: Back away from the villains, Hollywood. Tonight, when I’m reading “Tam Lin”, I don’t want to think about what you’d do to the Faery Queen to make her more sympathetic. I want to continue to see her as I always have, the inevitable end waiting after Happily Ever After.