Everyone loves a bad boy (or girl, as the case may be). Don’t try to deny it, you know that deep down there’s something inexplicably alluring about an individual that lives to create chaos with little to no regard for human life. “No, not at all!” I hear you declare, frantically trying to erase your internet history before someone notices all the time you’ve spent procrastinating by staring at pictures of Tom Hiddleston in his Loki gear. Fear not, I’m not here to fandom-shame; it’d actually be highly hypocritical considering that I, myself, am partial to swooning over The Joker every now and then. Hell, I’m even arrogant enough to claim that I’ve had a mild admiration of Hannibal Lecter since I first saw Silence of the Lambs, long before NBC picked it up for their recent origin series. Of course, that lies more in some dark, twisted admiration than anything else, but I’m getting side-tracked.
The point is the concept of villainy is based entirely in the eye of the beholder. Just as any narrative aiming to appeal to adults requires an intriguing hero with motive and conviction in their quest to the save the day, so too must the villain have these qualities for their own goals. There’s no room for black and white morality in a world so drenched in grey, and having a villain who is evil for the sake of being evil is just childish and invokes memories of the most basic fairy-tales. It’s difficult for that concept to sit well with adults when they can just flick on the news and see that this is far from true.
This is one of my biggest issues with the earlier Disney films, at least in Brave it can be argued that Merida is both the hero and the true villain of the film; with the huge, demonic bear just being there because the film-makers don’t think the children in the audience can comprehend a character trope that doesn’t fit perfectly in Vladimir Propp’s jigsaw of narrative roles. Whereas in Sleeping Beauty the audience is meant to dislike Maleficent because she’s dressed in black and some gossiping fairies say that she’s a bit mean. There’s no real evidence presented to support this, well aside from the fact she curses a new-born child, but then again who hasn’t? At the same time though they’re supposed to root for the Prince, who according to Wikipedia is actually called Phillip, simply because he’s handsome and has a sword, hardly stimulus for humanitarian of the year. However it’s all that the audience is given as a means of explaining the characters’ motivations; although, there are more than just understandable motivations to making a villain likeable, it’s still pretty important.
While I’ve yet to meet anyone who claims that Scar was justified in killing Mufasa, he remains likeable because of his general demeanour and sassy attitude; the same can be said for Hades from Hercules. Both of these characters have great characterisation, and represent a mid-point in the spectrum. While their motivations, rarely stray from the whole ‘desperately seeking power’ concept, this is still an improvement from a villain such as Maleficent who doesn’t seem to have any whatsoever, and reinforces my argument that these older films fail to stand up in comparison to today’s standards.
This is probably why Disney is releasing Maleficent, its reboot/prequel to Sleeping Beauty, in a few months. It’s a film that I am genuinely looking forward to, and not just because it places the titular villain in the central role (or that it has Angelina Jolie stomping around dressed like the bride of Satan). But because it promises to shed some background information on the titular character and offer some justification as to why she does the things she does. Although it may very well have the same effect that the stage show Wicked had on me, where upon going back to watch the original with the newly gained context I find myself throwing popcorn at the screen because the ‘good’ side is winning; it still represents a move forward from the clichéd character creation of the past and a recognition that villainy has it’s motivations as well.
Most of all though, it signifies that it is finally acceptable to revel in a bit of mayhem and evil every now and then, we don’t have to constantly admit that we want the heroes to succeed because it’s how society expects us to feel. There are always two sides to every story, and now it seems that we finally can stand proud and cry: “Villains rule and Heroes drool!” without the fear being burnt at the stake.
Nico Marrone is a second year English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh and a frequent contributor to the film section of The Student newspaper. He is also of the persuasion that just like gravy and tea, you can never have too much cynicism.
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