"Maleficent" and the Complex Villain

I thought Maleficent was magnificent. Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones were a revelation, and it made me forget, for two hours, that Brad Pitt once broke Jennifer Aniston’s heart (no I’m still not over it). I loved the fantasy elements, the character development, and the way they matured the story of Sleeping Beauty, but most of all I liked the way that Disney is taking common fairy tale tropes, used ad nauseum—albeit effectively—in the past, and placing a new interpretation on them. Chief of these is the idea of “true love’s kiss,” which we already saw reinterpreted in FrozenMaleficent takes this a level further, but more important, it offers a new, true idea of a villain.


In the beginning of the movie, Maleficent the character is a young, powerful and kind fairy who falls in love with a human, a poor boy named Stefan. As she grows, her relationship with Stefan changes as he grows power hungry, but she becomes the cherished protector of her realm. She’s strong and selfless, loving and intimidating. Plus she’s got these enormous eagle wings and cheekbones so sharp they could slice diamonds.

Maleficent’s transformation from humane protector to deadly villain occurs when her childhood love Stefan, desperate to become king, cruelly saws off Maleficent’s wings after he drugs her to sleep. Maleficent wakes up and touches the bloody wounds on her back and hyperventilates in anguish and heartbreak, cries reverberating through the atmosphere and throughout the theatre. It was every bit as raw as Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” I felt her heart breaking and then turning dark.

Stefan’s utter betrayal of Maleficent had the emotional power to transform her into this devious villain, who takes power over the realm she was once entrusted to protect. At the birth of Stefan’s daughter, now King, Maleficent places upon Aurora the infamous curse. Consumed with hatred for Stefan and for Aurora, Maleficent nevertheless has humanity left in her, for she frequently saves Aurora from the bumbling protection of her three fairy godmothers, despite her hatred. Eventually Maleficent meets Aurora and against every effort, Maleficent grows to love the headstrong, naive girl and allows herself to be called Aurora’s fairy godmother.

Angelina Jolie has said of the role:

It’s about the struggle that people have with their own humanity and what is that that destroys that and kind of makes us die inside.

What I loved most about this story was what Jolie points out: the loss of humanity, how we lose it, and how we get it back. Maleficent lost her innocence and her selflessness when Stefan betrayed her, but she gains it back through loving Aurora and repeatedly saving her from death. Maleficent thus becomes both hero and villain, but both categories fail to encapsulate the whole of Maleficent’s emotions and experiences. I loved this movie because it allows for each person to have both villainous and heroic properties, and promises that no person, however “evil,” is ever beyond redemption.

It’s a huge departure from the previous version of Maleficent, from Ursula the Sea Witch, and other clear-cut villains of the previous Disney movies. Maleficent is what Frozen‘s Elsa could have been, full of both dark and light, good and bad, flawed yet likable and admirable. Dare I say it even strikes a blow for female empowerment? No longer are female villains demonized in the world of Disney.

But I suppose the real question here is, why must we explain evil? This new trend begs the question: to what cultural phenomenon are we responding when we try to sympathize with villains? What do you guys think?


Share...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone
  • Why must we explain evil? I think it makes us feel better to think that a person becomes evil and has the capacity to change back to being good again in the same way they changed to become evil. We don’t like to think that people are born evil. Did you read or watch We Need to Talk About Kevin? There’s never really a reason given for him being evil. In fact, he’s shown as being evil from infancy. I think that what makes a book/movie like that so unsettling is that it doesn’t fit into our nice little cause and effect box. We don’t like to think that there are evil sociopaths out there that cannot change with proper intervention. But there are. However, I get bored of such villains in the world of comics where there seems to be a new evil sociopath to fight every week. People usually aren’t evil for evil’s sake. At least, I’d like to think so. And maybe this is why people like to be able to sympathize with villains. If they can be understood, then perhaps there’s a hope that they can be changed. Even if the answer is chemical, we hope that they can be changed. It’s about hope.

    Can people change? I ask that question from time to time. My answer is different depending on the day. But in the end, I think the answer is that a person has to have the ability and the desire to change. Not everyone who needs to change is fortified for transformation with those important ingredients.

  • I thought there were some definite feminist aspects to the story. People often speak of women as villains and we’re usually taught to hate women in place of blaming men for things like assault. It was refreshing to see the story play out so that all the men were punished/ultimately useless while the two female protagonists banned together to win in the end.