Throwback Thursday: Redeeming Villains: How Not To Do It


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?


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.


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!


  • Eric McDaniel

    Which is a reason I have a growing contempt for backstory. It’s beginning to frame evil as something we are forced into. There are things that are purely evil for the sake of evil.

    The most modern movie parallel I can think of is Halloween. The first iteration he was just a silent, stalking, predator with absolute darkness in him.

    In Rob Zombies version we learn what ‘made’ him evil. It lost all of its appeal and even had him perform an act of heroism in killing the rapist guards. It was just awful.

    Some things are better left in darkness, you’re given the freedom of thought to put your own darkness on the villain. Which is a powerful part of storytelling.

    Ever watch the old Rutger Hauer Hitcher? He is malice made manifest and you don’t ever know why. That’s exciting to me. It lets my mind fill in the dark with anything I want.

    • John Watchorn

      @disqus_Z52gQYfihK:disqus There is no such thing as something that is evil for evil’s sake. Evil is simply a misconstrued desire for the good. Evil is not a thing, but a privation of a good, a lack. Name me one evil that does not fit this description. Hitler’s killing of the Jews, while obviously evil, was done with the screwed up mentality that it would eventually help humanity. Now I’m not excusing evil, but I do think that we need to be careful with our view of it.

      • Eric McDaniel

        I humbly disagree. You do not have sex with children out of a misguided sense of good. It’s very act is predatory, your intentions are irrelevant. That predation upon those without cognitive faculties sufficient to decide if they wish sexual contact is not in any form a wholesome act. Therefore, one must conclude it is evil. To do otherwise would fall into the failure of subjective morality.

        Secondly, I would direct you to a study that shows that humanity, is capable of acts that can only be described as evil. There were no good intentions at all. Within days of this study, normal reasoning men became antisocial in extreme under the leadership of one man.

        Next, I would also site the book, Ordinary Men. These ‘normal’ guards not only became cruel to their prisoners, they began inflicting torment, simply for the sake of torment. Often using tactics that ripped the humanity from their victims for the amusement of it.

        There was no misguided sense of good in this. This can only be described as sheer malice. Predation, and cruelty for its own sake. With no attempt at self control after a certain point. They became increasingly incapable of altruism or empathy. In plain terms, they began to enjoy it.

        Next I would site The Gulag Archipelago, all three volumes. There is thousands of descriptions of pointless, protracted suffering.
        Often in the guise of labor. Pointless labor such as moving heavy loads from one side of a compound to the other, and back again.

        Entirely pointless, meant simply as a torment. The people they did it to, were rarely criminal in any ethical sense, and even if so, they would still be human and have the rights that any cognitive being should possess. They were labored to death for the amusement of others. Again, nothing here is able to be described as a misguided sense of good.

        Evil, is a thing. We live in a society that praises pimps while ignoring the sovereignty of life. We are drenched in it. There is nothing misguided about the destruction of life for the sake of convenience. It again, is malice. Perhaps malice born of ignorance but the end results are the same.

        Nothing could be further from the truth, that evil is simply misguided attempts at good. Though some of the things I’ve cited will start as good intentions, you’ll quickly see the intentions no longer mattered after a certain point. Evil becomes tangible in every person, psychologically proven to dwell in each of us. Our personal struggles against this evil define our being as much as our social interactions do.

        Again, I disagree with you humbly, and ask that you consider what I’ve written carefully before you reply.

        Godspeed, ESM

      • Eric McDaniel

        Interesting, it would seem my lengthy and well thought out disagreement has been deleted. Can a mod elaborate on this?

      • Vandalism. Someone who just goes around destroying thing for destruction’s sake.

        One notes that the sin that really made St. Augustine ponder was the time he and some friends had stolen some worthless pears and thrown them to pigs.

  • Who doesn’t love Loki over Thor? A good villain is practically irresistible! Darkness is a necessity to understanding the Light!

  • It’s a Perspective Flip!

    The thing is, in my experience, that perspective flips that invert the morality are best done with more — generic tales. Tanith Lee’s “Red As Blood” is one of many “Snow White” tales.

  • Pingback: Tha Backstory, tha Whole Backstory, and Nothing But tha Backstory, Pt 1. – The Last Redoubt()