February 20, 2024


‘Wicked’ and the Rise of the Villain Protagonist

By: John Tuttle

On Super Bowl Sunday, we saw a trailer for the Broadway hit-turned movie, Wicked. The first installment of what’s supposed to be a two-part movie saga in a vein of the Oz franchise, Wicked stars Cynthia Erivo as Elphaba, aka the “Wicked Witch of the West.”

When I first saw the title of the movie, the thought of Disney’s Maleficent, which hit theaters a full ten years ago, popped into my head. Here’s another movie with a female lead, about someone who was traditionally recognized as a villain, with an adjective title that’s synonymous with evil.

This film will be another contribution to a genre of films that track and develop villains as protagonists. Sometimes, these movies make us laugh, cry, and otherwise sympathize with the villains. Or maybe they make us rethink them altogether; they’re simply misunderstood people.

According to concerned critics, Maleficent promoted a message of light over darkness, of good over evil – not condoning the villain’s actions. Perhaps there is a sense in which she has been wronged, but we face being wronged almost daily. Just because someone does something hurtful to us, doesn’t mean we ought to hurt them back. If this was the norm for how society treated its members, none of us would mature in the area of social skills beyond the level of 3rd grade.

Nevertheless, we do face real injustices, real prejudices. When we’ve been wronged, we want justice. How we cope with this desire is up to us. We can choose to be vicious and seek revenge, but I would recommend Rev. Martin Luther King’s method of nonviolence. As he wrote in Strength to Love: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Unless someone chooses not to retaliate, a cycle of violence — domino style — cascades along, impacting more and more people. Members of society do harm us at times, but how we respond is everything. If we respond in kind, are we acting any better?

Some villain-led movies in recent years attempt to shed light on the moral depravities within society. Viewers are expected to sympathize with the likes of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker and Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger from Black Panther. Both these characters sensed authentic injustices – social indifference and bullying for Joker, and racism for Killmonger.

By the causes given these characters, moviemakers point to real-life injustices, but they also make us feel sorry for villains who don’t see their vengeful dreams reach fruition. We feel sorry for them because they had a misguided sense of justice in their hearts. But we should not neglect that, in the case of these two fictional characters as an example, they murdered numerous people. Their actions to obtain something good are evil. The end goal does not justify any means to obtain it. Murder and genocide do not lead to utopia.

That’s the fine line that a villain-led movie must tread: to show the humanity of a villain but also to stay true to the reality of good and evil. The problem with these movies revolving around morally skewed characters is that we, the viewers, often end up rooting for them. At best, we feel sorry for them. At worst, we exalt them as heroes.

Why our culture feels a need to delve into the criminal mind from this point of view is a subject with many possible answers. Perhaps this development of focusing on villain protagonists is a grasp at verisimilitude, or the resemblance to the way things really are. The real world, after all, is seldom so starkly black and white as a knight in shining armor battling the dragon. We all have our faults, and we’re all capable of doing good.

Another explanation could be that our society has lowered or even dissolved the bar between good and evil, and our art and entertainment reflect that shift. Hero, antihero, who cares? All these characters, whom we are meant to resonate with and relate to, are trying to get things they want. So long as they get what they want, they will feel fulfilled. Maybe if I get everything I want, at whatever cost, I’ll feel fulfilled too. It’s a dangerous mindset, but our culture believes reality is subjective anyway.

There is, however, another point that the knight/dragon analogy might enlighten: It’s dangerous to consider a dragon as something other than what it is. A wolf in disguise is no real substitute for Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. By his actions, he remains a predator.

People can commit crimes. They can also perform acts of charity. But some crimes are more serious than others. I would venture to say that murder is more serious than stealing a few peanuts from the grocery store.

If a movie moves us to feel sympathy toward a murderer, for example, does it also make us realize the heinous nature of their crime? If not, then we’re not looking at a work of verisimilitude. We’re looking at something that doesn’t distinguish between right and wrong. Good and evil are very different and very real. No one has to stop and consider whether the Holocaust was good or evil. We inherently know it to be wrong.

Is the Wicked Witch of the West a murderer? Maybe not. But the Wicked trailer paints a verdant portrait of a bold, beautiful woman going up against a manipulative, phony wizard. In the 1939 movie, based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s novels, the wizard was the same — a fraud. But the Wicked Witch wasn’t some neutral bystander; she attempted to do physical harm to Dorothy and her misfit companions.

In Wicked, based on the 2003 Broadway musical, the witch appears to be misunderstood and almost justified in her quest to get back at the so-called wizard. Again, MLK’s response of nonaggression is, when applicable, one of the best answers to injustice.

Whether Wicked holds water on any ethical grounds or if it will, like its main character, just start melting, remains to be seen. We’ll find out when the movie hits theaters Nov. 27, 2024.