When Bad Guys Aren’t Bad, Part Two

(For Part One, go here.)


People have been talking about Maleficent as a story about “redemption.” And, I think, well…maybe? Sort of? At one point, she recognizes that her hatred and revenge have resulted in losing someone she loves, which she clearly regrets. And she is willing to risk her own life to save Aurora.

But I still felt that the story was missing…something.

To figure out what it was, I went to three of my favorite tragic villains to see why their stories resonated with me more than Maleficent’s.

Dr. Horrible, from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog


Character: An evil villain everyman who just wants to be a success and win his dream girl away from an arrogant, sleazy superhero.

Redemption: Doesn’t really take place here. Dr. Horrible may want to conquer the world to set things right, but if we’re still cheering for him by the end, it’s because we remember the awkwardly adorable guy he once was.

Consequences of Actions: I won’t go into detail here, but there’s the reason this miniseries calls itself a “tragicomedy”: the ending is tragic. There have been lots of songs that include lines about getting everything you ever wanted and realizing it doesn’t satisfy. But the last song of the musical, “Everything You Ever” is haunting because it doesn’t ever even finish that phrase. The chorus just drops off: “Everything you ever…” And it makes you ask, Did you want it, really? Was it worth it? Would you go back and change it if you could? And as the audience, of course we want a different ending, but it’s the only thing that could have happened. In some movies, we root for the person trying to get revenge (*cough* Princess Bride), but with Dr. Horrible, we see what happens to even a likeable guy who is consumed with vengeance and ambition.

Where it Beats Maleficent: Depiction of real consequences of doing evil things. Unlike Dr. Horrible, Maleficent never had to face any lasting consequences of her (actually really awful) actions. Instead, she got the perfect happy ending of many Disney princesses, and it just didn’t feel right or, maybe more to the point, realistic.

Edmund from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe


Character: An annoying British schoolboy who bullies his little sister and has a weakness for sweets.

Redemption: I mean, it’s an allegory. This happens, big time. The White Witch demands that traitors belong to her, and she is only appeased when Aslan offers himself instead. The transformation that this action has on Edmund is seen in the rest of the book and the ones that follow.

Consequences of Actions: The whole betray-siblings-for-pride-and-candy thing seems like a good idea for all of five minutes. Edmund ends up cold, exhausted, hungry, and miserable…and that’s even without the shame of admitting that he did something terrible to the people he loved most. No, he didn’t have to pay the full penalty for his betrayal, but the kid didn’t get off too easy.

Where It Beats Out Maleficent: Redemption. Unlike Edmund, Maleficent was never really redeemed. There was no sacrifice. There was nothing done to satisfy our need for justice. I mean, yes, Maleficent was wronged, but she cursed an innocent baby with a death-like sleep, and not just in a spur-of-the-moment rage. It was premeditated. Let’s stop to think about that for a minute. To me, the climax of the movie felt like a cheap redemption, an “I’m sorry” in exchange for everything she ever wanted (with even her revenge sort of thrown in as an added bonus).


Elphaba from Wicked


Character: A gifted-and-talented green-skinned genius who gets caught in a dangerous game of politics ending with her scapegoated as a villain.

Redemption: All throughout the musical, there are dozens of plays on words: “Goodness knows,” “Thank goodness!” and “I’ll make good,” just to name a few lyrics. The musical is clearly drawing attention to and making us think about the distinction between goodness and wickedness. “For Good” remains one of my favorite songs because of its nuanced portrayal of who is good and who is evil—the answer being that, often, both parties are at fault. Both have hurt each other and made mistakes and choices they probably shouldn’t have.

Consequences of Actions: Just listen to “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” Which of Elphaba’s actions were actually wrong (or at least ill-advised) might be up for debate. Overall, though, no one gets a simple answer, or is rescued from even simple consequences like regret for a choice that might not have been the right one.

Where It Beats Out Maleficent: Empathy. Unlike Elphaba, Maleficent didn’t seem like someone I should cheer for. I know her character was supposed to be stoic, but the scenes they chose for her didn’t do much to convince me to like this woman, even when I knew that’s what they were supposed to get across. The entire story of Wicked is framed with Glinda urging the people of Oz to consider that they might not have the whole story (“So you see, it couldn’t have been easy!”), to try to understand and relate to the person they demonized as pure evil. Maleficent had the same premise, but seemed to fall short.

Whether or not you agree about the three areas where I felt Maleficent could have been better, I hope it’s been interesting to look at redeemed or sympathetic villains. There’s just something about them. I mean, if Sauron were the only bad guy in The Lord of the Rings, we’d miss out on a lot. We also need to have Gollum. And Boromir. And Theoden. We have to have villains we pity, villains who can change, villains who are little more like us than a giant lidless eye made of flames.

As it was said so eloquently in Wreck-It Ralph: “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

Sure, we need heroes. But we need villains too.

(Because everyone wants to see a hopeless idealist and a tragic villain singing a duet, right? Right.)

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