This week I watched X-Men days of Future Past and Malificent back to back, largely because I felt like I needed a fantasy antidote to the ‘real world’ fiction I have engaged with lately – following on from “A Thousand Splendid Suns” I read “The Time Traveller’s Wife”. Now yes, Time travel itself is a pretty fantastical idea, but the setting is very much the real world with minimal to no engagement with grand metaphor, faery and true fantasy. (As an aside, I’m really sorry, but I just could NOT make friends with this book, I’d hated the film and was really hoping the book was better. It wasn’t much better, there’s still the whole very creepy Old guy hitting on a child. *shudder* – I know I’m probably missing some beautiful romance and the fact that it’s about Love and faithfulness and working through the pain of lost children to a beautiful conclusion, and yes it is about those things…. But a man in his thirties with a girl of 6, sorry, but I just couldn’t get past it. I tried, but couldn’t)
So yes, I desperately needed fantasy, metaphor and faery to permeate my life for a while. And there I was, gleefully drowning in heroism, community,redemption, making the right choice, running from destiny, embracing destiny, anti-heroes…and then, her. Maleficent. One of the most gloriously and self-indulgently bad characters in the world of storytelling. Making no apology for her path of selfishness, destruction and power at all costs way of life, she struts through our landscape of story like a colossus. Of all the tales and stories through my childhood, she was the only one I ever had nightmares about (I had other kinds of nightmares too… but hey, a girl has to have some things she keeps to herself).
And then what do they do? Argh, they’ve rehabilitated her! Good grief. I love a good redemption story as much as the next person, but as Buffy says, “I like my evil like I like my men. Evil. You know, ‘straight up, black hat, tied to the train tracks, soon my electro-ray will destroy Metropolis’ bad”. Oh of course I really did LOVE the film…. and though I’m not a big fan of Jolie, she was hypnotically great. But for me, the true Maleficent is that unrepentant, through and through big bad from the Sleeping Beauty I watched as a child.
She’s evil and enjoys it. And as we stand outside ourselves for a moment we see ourselves enjoying it too. And it’s that which scares us. But it simultaneously enthrals us. Like the devils of story before and since her arrival, the glee with which she scatters pain, suffering and destruction is somehow attractive to us. She is attractive to us. And she’s not the only one; this idea that there are characters, people, who are unremittingly evil without any desire for redemption or need to be welcomed back into the fold of “acceptability” permeates our stories. They ask for no excuse, place no blame and do not seek your pity – and if you try to offer it, you’re more likely to end up as dinner.
It’s there when confronted by a character like Magneto from the X-Men world, we see a ‘villain’ who we do understand, whose childhood was so horrendous, his villainy can almost be excused. And we know he’s essentially a “good person” gone wrong – with the potential for Redemption. But one who has one goal and will do anything to achieve it. A man who thoroughly believes in the end justifying the means. And no matter how many times you tell him he’s good and that there is another way, he will reliably take the dark path almost every time. He’ll go with you so far, then turn on a dime and screw over all your plans. But at least he’s consistent; he’s passionate, focused and utterly devoted to his world view that his people must be protected at all costs. It’s hard not to like a guy like that.
It’s there more so when we encounter antagonists like Hannibal, Dracula and Darth Vader (I’m talking Episode IV & V Vader when he was a true badass, before we knew he was a whiny teenager, an embittered husband or a redeemable father – though I do like that he gets redeemed in episode VI – perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule?) Hannibal and Dracula especially are seducers, their twisted version of right and wrong sold to us with careful half truths and attractive alternatives to our ordinary lives. Dracula even pops up in Buffy as a Vampire who’s different from any other, one who can offer not only eternal life (of sorts), but knowledge of self – and that is one damn attractive lure.
More on this line of thought next time.