As I have said before, people love the pants off evil or morally ambiguous characters, and thus both fans and creators are constantly caught in the struggle between wanting to humanise them and enjoying them as the malicious beasties they are. This, it seems, has spawned a whole cinematic trend of taking well-known villains from classical tales—like Sleeping Beauty, or The Wizard of Oz or Dracula—and presenting to the audience their “untold story” which paints them in a much more sympathetic light.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this upfront, and in fact the concept is hugely interesting—it turns our perceptions of good and evil on its head, and plays with morality and misunderstanding and wholly embraces the notion that villains are in fact the heroes of their own story. That story, however, seems to have a recurrent theme of being a sob-worthy one that aims to explain and excuse all their misdeeds. Again, not totally a bad thing as it’s interesting to toy around with and explore our own storytelling methods and the concept that history is written by the victors, or in this case, the supposed protagonists. It’s an opportunity to see their side of events and try to understand why they did the things they did, things beyond our traditional ideas of what’s good.
However, if you step too far into exploring what makes them evil, you can come out the other side and actually remove everything about them that makes them a good villain. Maleficent, for example (not that I’m suggesting she’s no longer a good villain) gets her own retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale in her eponymous movie, in which she’s put in a much more sympathetic light than the characters we were originally meant to understand were the good guys. It reveals she’s a tortured soul, even bringing in a sexual assault metaphor (the ripping off of her wings) to make the audience gasp in horror and lean towards her in sympathy. Again, not a bad thing, and very important to look into, but I have to wonder if the immediate jump to that kind of backstory as “explanation” for her wicked deeds nods to something else going on in society.
The trope of women “breaking” after trauma and becoming evil makes me claw at my hair, for several reasons that become relevant here. Firstly, it’s overused, secondly, insulting to people who actually have suffered trauma and are apparently under pressure to turn into a sexy villain (yeah, go ahead, writers, contribute to a deeply ingrained and problematic ideal that being violated or abused ruins a woman), thirdly, well, bringing it up as the go-to turning point in any female villain’s villainous career kind of implies that there aren’t any female villains who are just villains for the lulz.
If you’re swaggering around wreaking havoc, you must have had some sort of horrible thing happen to you to make you that way—now, once again, that’s an interesting thing to explore, but I think we should also play around with the equally fascinating idea that some people are just inherently douchebags. They can be layered and complex, and be motivated by their past, but that’s not mutually exclusive to being greedy, sadistic, power-hungry, or fond of the concept of world destruction. Tragic villain backstories are interesting to humanise them, yes, but in a narrative context, especially with other people’s pre-established characters like Dracula, sometimes you’ve just got to roll with the fact that they were terrible people and that’s what their draw is.
And if you go too far with this empathy-creating process of see? See how things were? This is why they did their evil deeds! you can run into the big green problem of starting a quest to excuse rather than explain their behaviour. A distinction I don’t think we make often enough—we need to heighten the ability to step back, look at a character with their tragic past revealed, and have the strength to say “I can see how that would have affected you. However, you have still done awful things and it does not erase them.”
In Wicked, we gain a greater understanding of why the Witch of the West is so scarily needy for those ruby slippers, and what exactly her beef with Glinda and co. is. That story aims to question the notions of good and evil based on wider societal perceptions, and reveals that Elphaba’s actions were all retold in the original story coloured by prejudice. While it wrangles The Wizard of Oz tremendously out of shape, it still has the main character admitting that she’s being “wicked” and serves to prove an overall point about morality as perceived by misunderstanding—slightly different, I would argue, to Love Never Dies, another fun musical about taking well-known literary characters and turning them into woobies. Hey, The Phantom of the Opera was great, and made full use of its creepy and tormented villain, both making him sympathetic and acknowledging that he was being villainous… only to bring him back some decades later for a sequel that debunks it all.
Yup, now the Phantom is the good guy and Christine’s True Love, and they’ve even got a cute little ship baby, conveniently born out of wedlock and not Raoul’s, who has magically turned from presentable love interest into a drunken gambler. You could argue that both shows beg our sympathy for a pre-established literary villain, but I think there’s a solid difference: where Wicked is making a point, Love Never Dies is essentially writing wish-fulfilment on-stage fanfic that sweeps the atmosphere of the original away with a caped arm. We understood and appreciated in Phantom that he was a tragic character, but this takes it another step, coming out the other end of the rabbit hole and dismissing his murder, kidnapping and theft and assuring us that he really is the goodie*.
I have yet to see how woobified Dracula gets in his reportedly Untold story, but I have to admit I’m kind of side-eyeing this trend of turning villains into heroes, whether in prequels or sequels, as a whole. It’s got some fascinating ideas within, but really the major problem is that it’s becoming overused. We expect every bad guy to get their own spinoff movie now, pointing to their shattered past to explain (and/or excuse) their perceived misdeeds. Have your fun, but let bad guys be bad guys, okay? Maybe they genuinely need their side of the story brought up to make us think about our moral perceptions, or maybe they just like it that way and don’t need their integrity messed with by other writers.
*Disclaimer: I actually loved Love Never Dies, though. It was bloody ridiculous, but through it all rewarding.