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. Continue reading