Maleficent is an adequate film. It doesn’t do anything terribly wrong, but it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. It’s inoffensive, and I suppose, taken as a chance to give depth to a villain, it works okay. But it only does so by transferring her villainy to another character and then imposing on her all the standard elements that define a sympathetic hero. It isn’t anything new. That’s my chief complaint. If you’re going to tell a story that brings sympathy for a villain and the best you can imagine is to simply make them the misunderstood hero then you aren’t really telling a villain’s story. You’re just taking the very typical good guy / bad guy formula and applying it in reverse.
The reason that stinks is that what so often defines villains is agency, and what so often defines heroes is a response to that agency. Villains usually get the story going. They are the source of the conflict. Without the Riddler, Batman is just a rich guy who dresses funny. Without Maleficent (in the original tale), there is only a kingdom of happy, uninteresting people. Without the Wicked Witch, Dorothy simply has a pleasant walk across the countryside to The Emerald City. What makes villains appealing (or what should make them appealing) is that they are in control. They are powerful forces who command respect and shape the story in a way heroes rarely do. And the first thing most writers do to make a villain sympathetic is remove that agency. It works, sure, but once you do that, we’re no longer talking about a villain. We’re talking about any number of generic heroes.
I don’t want to get into feminist debates about what Maleficent the character and Maleficent the movie might represent. Though I will say that, once again, a female character is physically violated in order to justify her actions. There is something unpleasant about that. Maleficent, the ultimate dread power, is merely a wounded woman, violated by a man she was foolish to love. It smacks of the worst and laziest Lifetime original movie motivations. For all the genuine attempt to bring depths to her characterization, she ends up simply being another victim.
I’m also not a huge fan of characters being restored physically once they are redeemed. I get why it happens, and within the context of a fantasy story, it’s certainly plausible. But it also feels as if equating imperfection of any type as a sign of poor character. It’s nothing new, but I’ve lost a taste for it. Metaphorically, it could be taken as a sign of Maleficent’s triumph over her previous violation, but it seems to me as a lazy way of getting her out of trouble at the last minute and undoing the damage because it’s no longer significant to the plot.
But where the film is weakest is in its climactic battle. The film goes the expected route of putting Maleficent in mortal danger. Surrounded by foes, battered and bruised, she is suddenly the underdog. The villain should never be the underdog. And, yes, I get that Maleficent isn’t strictly speaking a villain in this film, but damn it, shouldn’t she retain some of the agency and power she had in the original story. I don’t mind that she doesn’t transform into a dragon. That would’ve been cool, but the reality of moviemaking is that the film isn’t going to replace Angelina Jolie with a CGI monster in its climax. But Maleficent blunders into an obvious trap and then finds herself fighting for her life. She’s transformed from a powerful force to merely another protagonist, and that’s a real shame.
At this point, I’ll go ahead and plug Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain because it’s a story about a villain that I wrote. I’m not unbiased, but one of the most important elements of Emperor Mollusk was his near absolute mastery over every situation. It made the story more difficult to write, but it also establishes him as a dangerous evil genius who is mostly in control.
In Maleficent, she can’t even remove her own curse.
The fantasy writer in me also gets annoyed when the rules of fantasy are so inconsistent. Maleficent is able to easily defeat fully armored soldiers in many scenes, but as soon as the plot requires her to not be able to do so, she suddenly can’t. And when she gains back her ability to fly, the bad guy dies in the most generic Disney death, which robs her again of agency and allows us to watch the bad guy die without having to feel as if Maleficent has any malice in her.
It’s easy to read too much into this film, which is really just another fairy tale with some role reversals, but if you’re going to make a film about an iconic villain, you should try something unique with it. I’m not even particularly well enamored of Maleficent as a character, but this film doesn’t add anything to her character while diluting what little interesting there was about her.
None of the above critique will matter. Like most blockbusters at this point, Maleficent isn’t interested in complexity or originality. It exists for the recognizable name and because every attractive actress in Hollywood must play an evil queen (or something like her) at some point in their career. It’s an inoffensive story that dares little, but has name recognition and marketing and perhaps an unearned “Girl Power” aura. As a film, it’s fine. It’s safe and easy with the illusion of depths.
But it is an inadequate study of sympathetic villainy and has nothing original or interesting to say.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,