Month: May 2014

Relatable Villains: When Evil Can’t Just Be Evil

Evil in modern-day stories just isn’t the same as evil in the good old days.

This thought occurred to me recently at a 3D preview of “Maleficent” as I donned a paper hat with the horns of one of Disney’s most sinister villains, a character self-described as “The Mistress of All Evil.” Printed on the side is the hashtag #EvilisComplicated.

Complicated? When did being evil get to be so complicated? Can’t evil just be evil?

Being evil wasn’t always such a complicated gig. For the 1959 animated feature “Sleeping Beauty,” Marc Davis was responsible for animating Maleficent (the name is a portmanteau of malevolent and magnificent). Her character was designed to resemble a menacing vampire bat, with her green skin, angular form, black-and-purple dress resembling flames and distinctive two-pointed headdress.

Marc Davis, whom Walt Disney called his “Renaissance Man,” was a master of visual storytelling – one look at Maleficent and the question “Do we love her or do we hate her?” can quickly be answered. We instantly know she is up to no good, and from her first appearance knocking open King Stefan’s castle doors in a gust of wind, she is a figure to be feared and despised, leaving no room in our hearts for empathy.

In contrast, Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” was intentionally designed to be more likeable to the audience. Special effects makeup artist Rick Baker said the decision to make Maleficent’s skin pale instead of green for this film was done to make her appear more ‘relatable’ and not ‘too creature-like,’ emphasizing the intent to keep Maleficent ‘pretty and attractive.’

Do we love her or do we hate her? Now the answer to that question is not so clear.

In the 3D preview I saw at California Adventure, it is evident that this new film “Maleficent” is a sympathetic portrayal of the villain. It is explained that she once had powerful wings, but that they were stolen from her. “There is evil in this world,” she says, as King Stefan is shown demanding her killed (“Bring me her head”) and sending an army to take over her forest village. She even accompanies a teen-aged Aurora to help prevent the curse she placed on her as an infant.

Do we love her or do we hate her? Maleficent isn’t plain evil anymore, we learn – she’s just misunderstood. She is given a chance to redeem herself. Meanwhile, King Stefan is made out to be the real villain. Evil is complicated.

ABC’s Once Upon A Time has already taken this idea to a whole new level. Heroes do villainous deeds, villains perform acts of mercy and even heroism, and generally the show muddles up everything we thought we know about these storybrooke – er, storybook characters. So far audiences seem to enjoy these unexpected twists on fairytale stories, but how long can it continue before it starts getting tired? If the screenwriters keep having long-established characters do uncharacteristic things, will this eventually cease to be interesting and become formulaic and lazy?

The best example I can think of where this storytelling format works really well is the Broadway show “Wicked” (which I’m guessing is the audience “Maleficent” is intended to capitalize on). In “Wicked” we learn that the Wizard of Oz is in fact the real villain, and that the Wicked Witch of the West was only labeled as such while she was doing what she knew was right. Audiences don’t mind that the story fundamentally changes everything we thought we knew about Oz – probably because it’s told so damn well. This type of story can work. It’s just rare when it does so effectively.

Movies that center on one character from an established world make me nervous, especially if it’s on the villain.  The reason for my unease is this: The more we see or know about an evil character, the less frightening or evil or mysterious they become. Horror movies and disaster films often hide the subject of our fears to increase the suspense; we’re shown only small hints of a dreaded figure, piece by piece until the very end when it comes out of hiding and scares the living bejeezus out of us. By putting the spotlight on an evil character, you run the risk of revealing all of their secrets – and like a magician, sometimes it’s better when we don’t know all the methods to their tricks. When it comes to great storytelling, sometimes less is more.

A villain’s presence in a fairytale should be self-evident; without them, there would be no conflict, no battle, no resolution. Their motives for evildoing do not necessarily have to be explained beyond basic emotions like jealousy or distress at not being invited to a glittering assemblage. They exist in the story to be evil just for the sake of being evil. And especially with Disney, villains rarely change within the duration of the story – they scheme, they cause discord, they battle with the hero, they meet their doom. There’s no chance for redemption with the audience. We cheer when evil is vanquished because we want the hero to win.

That’s not to say that villains don’t have their fans. On the contrary; many people *love* villains. And that’s just my point. Villains don’t need to be made more “relatable” – we already love them because we love to hate them. Fairytales are simple stories of good vs. evil, and maybe it’s best that way. If villains aren’t pure evil anymore, it complicates the story in a way that doesn’t always pay off.

Just let evil be evil. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

What are your thoughts about “Maleficent”? Do you prefer villains that are evil through and through, or do you like to learn about an unexpected soft side? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below. I’m very interested to hear what you think!

And thanks for reading! – Matt @DLthings