When we visited family over the holidays this past season, my sister-in-law was super excited to show my kids the move Maleficent (2014). It really struck a chord with her. As she described the movie to us, she glowed with excitement. After sharing a bit, she said thoughtfully, “I don’t know… I guess I really like it when a person who’s assumed to be bad is shown to be more complex and dynamic.”
Disney portrayed the Maleficent character in very different light the first time around, over 55 years ago. In the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent was a flat, static character with only one defining trait: pure evil. Flora, one of the three fairies, is the only one who wonders whether Maleficent is completely foregone. She says, “Maybe we could reason with her. She can’t be all bad.”
“Oh, yes, she can!” replies Fauna authoritatively. And from that point in the movie, the issue is settled. Yes, Maleficent is 100% evil.
But is she? Such clear boundaries between good and evil have been gradually fading in the decades since Fauna voiced her verdict.
I remember when Superman Returns came out in 2006. I was excited to see it with my family, since I really like super-hero movies in general. I like the idea of pure virtue shining through the darkness like sunlight shining through a fog, drying up the muddy messes that evil brings until all that’s left is a meadow of flowers under a bright blue sky. And that’s how traditional super-hero and fairy-tale stories go. But if you saw the movie, you know the plot wasn’t so simple this time around. The Superman character, who traditionally sports stellar ethics and character, showed much more inner conflict and struggle in this movie. And he was less than virtuous at times. Yet, somehow, good still won out over evil in the end. And so a message resounded through popular culture: the good guys don’t always have to be perfect to be “good”.
At that time, a streak of superhero movies started coming out with a similar emphasis. The heroes weren’t always perfect. The heroes had real struggles. And sometimes, they made mistakes. The rendition of the Iron Man character in Marvel’s recent movie collection perhaps goes a bit overboard in highlighting the hero’s imperfections. Regardless, it has become a virtue these days for heroes to have less-then-perfect virtue.
The last couple years, we’ve seen movies emerging with a slightly different message. “Bad guys” don’t always have to be or stay bad. Newer movies, like the Lego Movie, showcase the virtue of the hero reconciling with the villain. The movie Maleficent goes one step further, though. Here, we see the lines between good and bad blurred. Maleficent starts as a happy young girl, but she transforms into an evil monster in reaction to hurt and betrayal. Out of hurt, Maleficent purposely acts in ways that hurt others. Her badness is not core to her, and it is eventually defeated by love. Aurora makes it clear in the final scene: the real Maleficent isn’t bad–she’s good.
I wonder how many people we’ve judged as “bad guys” who, in their heart of hearts, know they have gotten off course and want to return to the good. Are we seeking to reconcile with villains in our lives, calling the goodness they were destined for to the surface? Or are we set on a mission to seek and destroy? How we label a person will strongly influence how we treat them and think about them. And if “bad guys” are lost causes in our minds, it will be practically impossible for us to desire anything good for them–even redemption.
So I ask you, who have you labeled as a “bad guy” in your life?
It pains me to think that those who represent God and religion have often been on the front lines of accusation and judgement. For anyone reading this who has been judged by a religious person, especially a Christian, I am so sorry. Will you find it in your heart to extend forgiveness even to us? Perhaps we’re more like Maleficent than we thought. But I am hopeful that we’re on our own journey toward redemption.