Today sees the release of Maleficent, Hollywood's latest stab at turning a traditional mythic archetype--pure fairytale evil--into one of its favorite stock characters: the pathos-ridden tragivillain.
Angelina Jolie's performance has already earned widespread praise. But Disney's cannibalizing of Sleeping Beauty and its baddie--and the formulaic, CG-slathered commercial mess that results--has left most critics cold. Yet Jolie herself is amazing! She almost makes it work.
We all know why. Transmuting evil into trauma (ideally childhood trauma) gives antagonists motive, complexity and texture. It addresses a human desire to explain pain, especially pain paid forward. At its best, the tragivillain acquires a literary quality that sticks with us long after the story they inhabit fades.
What's the tragivillain's storytelling superpower? She knows the listener brings all the context. Few boys aspire to be a mischievous god of Norse myth, but many are troublemakers who wish their fathers would pay more attention to them. Few girls imagine themselves as evil queens, but many know what it's like to have their wings clipped by selfish, self-justifying men. A villain we can identify with is an insidious creature, an infection vector for the virus of self-knowledge. It speaks to the hope that reform and healing is possible without losing the subversive, impolite, Dionysian virtues we attain through suffering. (Augustine: "Lord grant me chastity...but not yet").
Still, it's getting spread thin.
These tragic backstories are so formulaic they feel less like human experience and more like something generated by a computer using passages from psychiatry's Diagnostics and Statistics Manual. Moreover, tragivillain status tends to negotiate away the delicious nastiness of true malice. In creatures from Hiddleston's Loki to Mads Mikkelsen's incarnation of Hannibal Lecter, their epic selfishness ends up reduced to narcissistic self-pity. We're swarmed by villains that are crap at being evil.
Worse, though, is that the tragivillain fad is lazy. Instead of creating characters whose badness is intimately tied to experience that could be revealed through conflict and drama, we're simply looting an inventory of established baddies and subverting them in the crudest fashion. The same trick for every pony.
This is why so many people hate the very idea of Maleficent. They love what Disney created, 50 years ago, and they don't like being reminded that that Disney doesn't care.
"What next," said Heather. "The harrowing story of Stripe from Gremlins' tragic childhood?"
Thing is, Disney's Maleficent isn't really a story, which is maybe why the film is a mess despite Jolie's best efforts. It's a rebrand.
The new Maleficent will be transient, yet obscure all that was ever there before. And so will the next one.