Throwback Thursday: Redeeming Villains: How Not To Do It

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There has been a trend of late that I find quite disturbing. It is the “Let’s Redeem A Villain” movie.

Now, keep in mind, I am all about redeeming villains. Were I not, would I have married one of the Evil League of Evil? No. Certainly not.

In fact, I love redeeming villains. I have spent the last 25 years playing roleplaying games where I spend all my time, yes, you guessed it: redeeming villains.

Real villains, too. The kind that it actually take 25 years to redeem.

So, you think I would be part of the natural audience for movies like The Grinch and Malificent. Well, I would have been, had they been done right.

What do I mean by right? I mean: Had these movies been about a villain who was redeemed.

They weren’t. They were something much less interesting and much more demeaning to the villains. To quote Malificent….the real Malificent, these movies are:

“A disgrace to the powers of evil!”

Why is this? Let us take a look at these two movies and compare them with the work of a real master, the man who invented the villain redemption genre.

One Bad Day!

In the comic Batman, the villains all have origin stories. For the most part, the story is: they had one bad day. And this one bad day led to them being evil.

The Joker had one bad day. He fell in a vat of acid and couldn’t stop smiling. This turned him evil.

The Clock King had one bad day. Everything went wrong in his life due to time related issues. This turned him evil…with a clock theme.

You get the picture.

Modern villain redemption movies mix the one bad day idea with the notion of: “Why can’t we all get along?” This means that the villains are villainous to begin with because…aw, better go get your tissues…they were tormented or betrayed in love.

After all, anyone who was bullied or hurt must turn evil, right? I mean, they couldn’t help it. Why we’ve all been bullied, and we’re evil, right?

Huh…

So, the Grinch is no longer a grumpy, green hermit in the mountains. Now he’s a guy who was abused by the folk of the town he came from until he turned away in pain and fear.

And Malificent isn’t an evil fairy filled with graceful and glorious malice. She’s a sweet fairy who fell in love with a young thief who claimed to give her love’s first kiss…only to tear off her wings in order to gain a throne from some evil king.

This betrayal, of course, causes her to turn her back on love and becomes…evil.

But that is not the offensive part of both of these films.

Oh, no!

The Offensive Part

It was not enough for the filmmakers to turn these villains into sympathetic saps, they also have to demean the good guys.

When I was young, I remember thinking what a noble thing that, when men molested women, people now wanted the courts to condemn the men, rather than to blame the women as they might have in the past. They wanted the courts to:  Not blame the victim.

Taking the good guys, whom the villain abused, and making them the bad guy is: blaming the victim.

This is despicable and shameful.

In the book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch attacks innocent villagers called Whos and steals all their Christmas gifts and decorations. However, these Whos are so filled with Christmas spirit that this theft does not dim their joy one wit.

Their amazing ability to celebrate Christmas joyfully without presents is what brings about a change of heart for Grinchy Claus.

But in the movie The Grinch, the Whos are the grubby, grabby, capitalist pigs. It is their materialism that hurt the poor, wittle, pathetic Grinch, and it is the Grinch who, by his act of revenge, teaches them the meaning of Christmas.

In Sleeping Beauty, the good and noble King Stefan has his daughter cursed by an evil, wicked creature, because of the tiny oversight of not having invited the evil fairy to the christening. Hardly a crime that should result in LOSING YOUR CHILD!!!

In Malificent, the thief who seduces the sweet young fairy and then cuts off her wings for personal gain is…none other than King Stefan!

The good, innocent king, whose daughter was unjustly cursed with death, is now a despicable cad and betrayer who deserves the bad things that happened to him.

These movies turned impressive villains into unlikable heroes, and likable heroes into unimpressive villains.

Watch The Real Master

Just in case you are thinking: yeah, well, how else would you redeem a villain? How else could you sympathize with a bad guy except to make him pathetic and actually the victim?—let us take a look at a real story of redemption by someone who gets it right.

I am speaking, of course, of the Mother Of All Villain Redemption Stories: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

In Dickens story, we are shown the past of the horrible Scrooge. We learn that he was poor and abused by his father. But Scrooge does not become wicked and swear revenge because of this offense. No. Instead, we see how the hardships of his youth lead him to choose sin.

Freely.

Of his own free will.

When the choice arises between marrying his beloved Belle or grasping for more money, Scrooge makes the wrong choice. He makes it again and again and again.

Eventually, Scrooge had grown into a horrid, unpleasant man. But he does not turn his coldness on his father. No. His victims are innocents—his nephew, Bob Cratchit, the poor in his neighborhood.

People who have done him no wrong.

He is a villain because he inflicts harm on those who have not offended him.

If A Christmas Carol had been written by the modern film writers, it would have gone something like this: an innocent man, who was dreadfully in love, was on his way to his wedding, where he planned to marry his true love, Belle.

On the way, a little rapscallion named Bobby C. ran up and kicked him in the family jewels. Scrooge was so embarrassed by this injury, which he feared would impede his wedding night, that he fled, jilting his bride.

This shame and sorrow led him to become the horrible man that he is today…the cruel boss of—oh ironies of ironies—the very same Bobby C, now Bob Cratchit, who brought him to this sad state of affairs in the first place. And, by the end of the story, little Bobby Cratchit would have learned the error of his hooligan ways.

That is not the story of a villain redeemed. Because in this version, Scrooge is not the villain. Bobby C is. The Grinch is not the villain in his movie, the Whos are. Malificent is not the villain in her story, King Stefan and the evil king he served are.

But that is not the road Dickens took. Instead, Scrooge’s blinders were ripped off, and the skinflint was shown the folly of his own actions: the sorry state of his departed partner, the loneliness of his childhood, the foolish selfishness of his youth, and, thanks to the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future, how his disregard for others had led to their callousness toward him. The sorrows of his childhood were not shown to excuse his later choices. Scrooge himself acknowledges the folly of his choices and repents.

Which leads to the question: When Disney inevitably makes the movie excusing actions of the evil king who was responsible for a young’ fairy’s wings being torn off…what is his excuse going to be? That Maleficent hurt him when he was young?

These are not movies of redemption. They are movies of victimology. They turn noble villains into saps, and noble heroes into cads and…yes, villains.

As Malificent would say—the real Malificent:

They are a disgrace to the forces of evil!