The first time I played with Legos was when I was nineteen years old. (Seriously, who knew little plastic bricks could be so fun? I mean, besides everyone else in the world except me.)
With the help of a six-year-old Star Wars expert, I reconstructed basically everything but the Death Star. At one point in our epic story, the rebels had captured a few stormtroopers and sent a message back to Darth Vader and company.
“We have your minions,” I said, moving my little Luke Skywalker guy as he talked. “If you don’t surrender, we’ll kill them all!”
Seconds after this left my mouth, I realized it might be a little dark for a first grader. But he, Darth Vader in hand, was looking at me like I was the dumbest creature since Jar Jar Binks. “That’s not going to work,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked. I mean, I had even secured the hostages with a twisty-tie.
“He’s a bad guy,” the kid explained. “Bad guys don’t care about people.”
Touché, my young friend. Touché.
Respect for life, making sacrifices, taking risks for others, caring about people…all of those are things we associate with the “good guys.” And rightly so. But what happens when the “bad guys” care about people too…when they’re not so bad after all?
This is the question that came to mind watching Maleficent. (There will be spoilers of the rather vague sort ahead.)
The premise of the movie is that you didn’t get the real story of Sleeping Beauty told to you in your animation days. Oh no. The real Maleficent is a sweet, trusting child with absolutely no negative quality except criminal adorableness. Eventually she becomes a betrayed and wronged fairy who—sort of understandably—takes out her anger on Princess Aurora. Eventually, she realizes the error of her ways and tries to revoke the curse and protect the young princess.
Maleficent attempted to add another name to the list of bad guys who aren’t really bad. There are some examples from classical literature, sure. But I feel like the number of redeemed-villain storylines have gone up a lot in recent years.
You could look at this trend in a negative light and say that it’s moral relativism, that our culture is trying to promote the idea that we’re all basically good by blurring the line between the forces of good and evil.
(This would go along with my view of postmodernism in high school, which was super nuanced and went something like this: “Everything about postmodernism is awful and it’s going to destroy absolute truth! And our society! And the whole world! AHHHHHH!”)
I think there is an alternative way of looking at things. Maybe we tell so many stories with sympathetic villains not because we think everyone is basically good, but because we know there is evil in us.
There have been many, many times when I’ve seen myself in Javert or Edmund or Wreck-it Ralph. But I never once watched the original Sleeping Beauty and thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That Maleficent was pure evil, and that was the intention. We weren’t supposed to identify with her or relate to her.
But is it necessarily bad that in this new version, we do?
One of the values of postmodernism worth considering is that there is more to every story. Not everything is black and white. Each person is complex and has reasons for the choices they make.
Postmodernism is still incomplete, and I think it has some fatal flaws. As Christians, though, I think it can be useful to learn from these not-actually-villains. Not to say that their actions are justified by their tragic backstory. But to relearn empathy, and maybe even understand ourselves a little better.
And, just for fun:
Vote: who is your favorite not-exactly-a-villain in a book or movie and why? (Either one pictured, or a write-in candidate.)