Thursday, June 5, 2014

Maleficent: How and how NOT to do a Villain Protagonist.

Disney's "Maleficent" is now in theaters. I have not seen it but I've heard and seen all that I need to judge it as a film and as a product. It was everything I feared it would be: a reimagining of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" story framed as "the TRUE story", which of course means it's a story that partially has nothing to do with anything that was even remotely present in the original film and rather than showing us the villain's side of the tale or deconstructing the fairy tale morality, they give us a simple inversion: the evil characters are good (Maleficent and Diavaul), the good characters are either stupid and useless (Aurora, Philip, the three good fairies) or evil (King Stefan). Oh, and Maleficent used to be a pure, saintly woman...who her parents named Maleficent for some unexplained reason. And she turned to darkness because she was raped by the man she loved and trusted...oh, did I say rape? 
I meant "de-winged" by the man she loved and trusted: it's totally a different thing! And she's so misunderstood because she was barely even evil at all - just a bitter tyrant who committed one terrible act in a moment of blind rage and spitefulness, one she immediately regrets. Said act being to curse a newly born infant so that she'd die at age 16....yeah. And then she raises Aurora herself from a distance since she needs her alive 16 years later, and the three fairies are too stupid to do it themselves! Maleficent becomes Aurora's fairy godmother and grows to love her like her own, and so when she can't revoke the curse, it is she who gets Philip to give Aurora true love's kiss! But that doesn't work, so she kisses Aurora (on the head) instead: and thus Maleficent's wings return because her darkened soul has been redeemed by the power of true love! She's now a feminist superheroine for the ages! I mean, who cares if you made one of the coolest female villains ever created not really a villain while a male character is the villain instead? Who cares if you gave her awesome, memorable transformation into a dragon to a male character instead? Who cares if you made her driven by heartbreak and rape revenge and all those other things typically associated with women instead of just having her be a strong evil woman? It's PROGRESSIVE! Ha..Heh...Heh....

If you were to read through that mini-review and cite THE number one problem with the film, what would it be? That Maleficent, the mistress of all evil, isn't allowed to be evil. Maleficent, one of Disney's greatest villains and one of the most awesome villains in cinema history, is not the villain. That is just flabbergasting. (Actually, King Stefan is the villain of this piece, and the less said about him the better!) It's clear that Disney wanted to do their own "Wicked" with this, where they could make their iconic female villain into a misunderstood tragic figure rather than the wicked witch she's known as. However, the similarities between "Frozen" and "Wicked" (Idina Menzel included!), plus that film's huge success, must have caught them off guard. So instead of promoting this film as a "Wicked" type story, the marketing made Maleficent out to be as pure evil and badass as we all expect her to be. But in this film, she isn't. At all. So why couldn't Linda Woolverton and co. deliver on what Disney was seemingly promising us? Simply put, they were afraid to make Maleficent too evil. They were afraid that general audiences would not embrace a film in which the protagonist was evil. Maleficent could not be both the protagonist and the villain of the story. That's just impossi...

...HOLD ON A MINUTE! The Villain Protagonist character archetype has been around for decades! Ever since ancient mythology, there have been protagonists of their own stories that could qualify as villainous from a moral standpoint. In early modern literature, there were Villain Protagonist. William Shakespeare created two of the most famous in Iago from "Othello" and Richard III from the play bearing his name. They were technically THE central characters in their stories. We followed them 
as they moved the plot, saw the events that unfolded from their points of view, and were enthralled by watching them even though their actions were completely despicable. These protagonists weren't just villains: they were absolute monsters. And yet their stories still worked because they were compelling and well written enough to work. We knew these were evil people who were in the lead roles, but that did not detract from the stories as entertainment and as art. Now THAT is how you do a Villain Protagonist, not the canon Draco In Leather Pants bullcrap that "Maleficent" force-feeds us.

Technically speaking, there are two types of Villain Protagonist, both inherently serviceable.
Type A is the type that the aforementioned Shakespearean villains belonged to: the truly evil type. Some may just be bad seeds from the get-go, while others may begin as decent people but they take a downward spiral into darkness, depravity, and malevolence that is simply irrevocable. Once they go bad, they are BAD. The tropes "Jumping Off The Slippery Slope" and "Moral Event Horizon" often come into play here. These guys are the protagonists only because the narrative positions them as such, but otherwise, they're full-stop bad guys. Pictured above are Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Wario, Lex Luthor in "Smallville", Tony Soprano, Nancy Botwin, Walter White/Heisenberg, Light Yagami/Kira, Eric Cartman, the Black Lagoon company, Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold, Alucard, Invader ZIM, Michael Corleone, Daniel Plainview, Bonnie and Clyde, Alex Delarge, Antonio Salieri, Erik Lennsherr/Magneto, Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd, Hayley Stark, Valmont and Metruiel, Eve Harrington, Patrick Bateman, and Dexter Morgan: all clean cut examples of this type. While with the likes of Wario, Tony, Cartman, ZIM, Plainview, and Bateman, you know the evil you're dealing with, some others can actually blur the lines of morality. Vader is an unrepentant dark lord of the Sith through and through, but he has done the honorable thing on occasions. Nancy and Walter started out with their family's best interests at heart before their goals and actions devolved into something darker. Rumpel struggles with his devilish nature and self-preservation instincts all the time, yet always turning to his dark side as a crutch to stand on. Bonnie and Clyde killed people, but they just wanted to get by in the time of the Depression. Magneto wants mutants like himself to be liberated from normal humans who would oppress and/or destroy them. Light Yagami, the Walter White of anime, started out only killing criminals whom the world would be safer without. Similarly Hayley Stark tortures and kills rapists, child molestors, and murderers, and Dexter Morgan kills other killers who are even worse than he is. all this right? Does occasionally doing good earn leniency on people who've committed numerous atrocities?  Does paying evil unto evil make this person's evil justified? Does losing your way matter if you had a "way" to begin with? My personal answer is no. Beneath everything, these people are villains. Maybe circumstances created them or maybe they created themselves. But if they choose to do evil with intentions and reasons that do not come close to justifying the presence of such evil in the situations at all, then they are truly evil people. 
Type B is the type they were trying to foist Maleficent into: the mostly well meaning, kind of misunderstood, and ultimately redeemable Villain Protagonist. They unquestionably commit acts of evil, but they themselves are either trying to do good, or they just don't know any better. They are not that far down the slippery slope that they can't turn back the other way. We totally sympathize and empathize with them and want to see them overcome their opposition. In short, they're villains who are capable of being heroes, and were the narrative kinder to them, might have been heroes. Pictured above are Elphaba the Wicked Witch, Elsa the Snow Queen, Wreck-It Ralph, Mega Mind, Gru, Captain Jack Sparrow, Pinky and the Brain, Excel and Hyatt, Yami Yugi, Lina Inverse, Haruhi Suzumiya, Yuno Gasai, Lelouch Lamperouge/Zero, Lucy, Regina Mills (Season 3 and onward), Lupin III, Sly Cooper, Prince Zuko (Book 2), Namor the Submariner, V, Heather, Caesar, Artemis Foul, and Erik, the Phantom of the Opera: all clean cut examples of this type. Like the last type, this one's not totally set in stone. Some Type A's like Rumpelstiltskin, Magneto, and Dexter can slide into Type B territory, while some Type B's like Jack Sparrow, Lelouch, Lucy, and Erik can slide into Type A territory. Some like Haruhi, Regina, Namor, and Heather were just straight-up villains before they started qualifying as protagonists at all. Some like Yami Yugi, Lelouch, Yuno, and Zuko were heroes who spiraled into villainy but found their way back to the light. Some like Elphaba, Gru, Jack Sparrow, Pinky and the Brain, Excel and Hyatt, Lucy, V, Artemis, and Erik are villains with very sympathetic perspectives and generally not-so-bad intentions who are likely to eventually change their ways completely. And some like Elsa, Ralph, Mega Mind, Lina, Lupin, Sly, and Caesar, are flat out misunderstood, only being villains due to the perspective of others. Elsa would be the villain were we to see the story unfold from Anna's, Kristoff's, or even the Duke's men's perspectives, but the film shows us clearly her side of the story too. Ralph is only "the bad guy" to other in-game characters, but he's not really bad and his "evil" actions are clearly totally justified in the game's set-up. Mega Mind just wanted to come out a winner and hero of his own story, which he does in the end. Lina's out for personal gain, but doesn't seek out to harm or inconvenience others - she just kind of does. Lupin's got a heart of gold and always wants to put his stolen goods to good use. Sly refuses to steal from regular people since the real challenge is in stealing from other criminals. And Caesar just wanted to find a home, left alone by humans. All of these characters and their story arcs are constructed so that we understand them and can sympathize or empathize with their motivations and/or positions. We root for the bad guys. And in the hands of good, capable storytellers, it works.

So where did Maleficent go wrong? The idea of making Maleficent into the protagonist of her own story certainly is not without it's merits. Giving her an origin story, a backstory and motivation for her turn to evil, was very controversial because in all honestly Maleficent doesn't even need that, but if handled as a "Lucifer's fall from grace" type story, it could have worked. The deathblows to this concept in it's ultimate execution were twofold - they had to choose what type of Villain Protagonist they wanted to make Maleficent, and they made her into the last flavor of Type B that I mentioned, and for a character known for being "the mistress of all evil", that is the worst possible direction to take her in. And secondly, they didn't even do that right! The correct way of doing it would be to keep the good guys of the story as positive, sympathetic, moral characters while still making us connect with Maleficent despite all her many, many flaws. Instead, they took the cheap, lazy way out - they made the good guys out to be bad or dumb while turning Maleficent into a perfect, saintly, boring Mary Sue goddess who was "so misunderstood" and completely unlike the "lies" we'd been told about her, so she "deserved better." Ugh - NO. Just NO. The saddest part is that there was potential and talent here. The sets, the effects, the costumes, some of the actors, and Angelina Jolie not only looking the part of Maleficent, but actually nailing her wickedness as well. The live action reenactment of the beginning of "Sleeping Beauty" has been called the highlight of the film by critics all over, with Jolie oozing evil and having fun with it the whole time. People love that Maleficent. They'd much rather watch that Maleficent than the dull superheroine that they gave us in her place.

So in short, less of THIS...
..and more of THIS!