1. dmdutcher says:

    Good points. I think this is something you can’t really make a rule of, but have to look at each story on a case-by-case basis. It can get complex very quickly. I was thinking of Scrooge McDuck while writing this; he’s as much of a reimagined villain as one could get, but he flies under the radar a lot because its easier to make greed comic.

    • Interesting, DM. I haven’t read any Scrooge McDuck comics since I was a kid, but I didn’t think of him as a villain. Maybe because Donald and the nephews could always manipulate him into helping them when they needed it. It was the three burglars who were always trying to steal the McDuck fortune that I thought of as the villains. Wow! would be interesting to read those now and see what I thought.


  2. notleia says:

    “In fact, writing teachers set out the importance of following a perspective that contradicts Scripture Calvinism—that humankind is good, even the most heinous villain.”

    • Notleia, I am in no way a Calvinist, and yet I still read Romans 3:9-12 to mean, well, pretty much what it says—that we are all sinners, without our own righteousness.

      What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;  as it is written,
      We have a nature bent toward sin, because we are children made in Adam’s likeness. But I realize, that Biblical position is counter-cultural.


    • HG Ferguson says:

      “There is no one who does good, not even one.”  God said that.  “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned each one to his own way, but the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity — the lawlessness — of us all.”  God said that too.  You can strike out the word, but you can’t and won’t change this truth.  We are all sinners at heart.  That is why we all need a new one through the Blood of Christ.

    • Amen to you both.

      Even basic secular research about this will show that it’s a core tenet of plain, “mere” Christianity — not a caricatured villain called “Calvinism” — that humans are sinful.

      Observers outside Christianity often do not get this because they are led to believe that good and evil are solely issues of how human beings treat one another. Being materialist — including the kind of materialist that uses “faith” and “God” as abstract concepts to support material concerns — they don’t seem to understand the deep and basic Christian believe that humans’ sins are first against God, not other people.

  3. R. L. Copple says:

    Interesting thoughts, but not sure I follow the logic. According to Scripture, one could perfectly follow the Law and still experience the second death. Giving a villain good qualities doesn’t negate the effects of the fall anymore than bad qualities in the redeemed negate the grace of Christ.


    And I’m not so sure showing that a villain has good qualities translates into calling evil good. Everyone has moments of good and evil. In the end, it is not that which makes one evil or good, but with their relationship with God who is the only good one.


    • Well, you’re right, Rick, so yes, there is an inherent weakness in my premise. I was actually aware of that as I was writing, but I thought it was worthwhile to explore the idea. I mean, what if someone some day decides to make Voldemort the protagonist of his story, explaining how he wasn’t actually evil, that his story wasn’t actually the one we had been told in the Harry Potter books. Essentially, this is a postmodern view—that we can’t really know truth because we can only see through our own situatedness. Whereas the Biblical view is that there is a right and a wrong—either a for God or against God position which we take.

      There’s truth in the idea that we can’t know en toto what others experience, and when we’re discussing fiction or myth or legend, then re-imaging the characters may be doing nothing more than saying as you did, that all people are a mixed bag of good and evil.

      But I see this growing belief that humankind is good and that it’s possible for us to be good and that when we aren’t good it’s primarily because we haven’t been given the education or the opportunity to be good, and I think it contradicts Scripture.

      One think I liked about Maleficent {SPOILERS} is that she repented of her desire for revenge. She knew she had been wrong and recanted. But even she couldn’t undo the curse. The part that I didn’t like was actually a twist of the original “true love conquers all” theme—the love in our heart can undo evil.

      Anyway, I think it’s not a bad thing to consider what these kinds of stories end up telling us about our nature.


      • R. L. Copple says:

        The part that I didn’t like was actually a twist of the original “true love conquers all” theme—the love in our heart can undo evil.


        You mean, like in Frozen?


        Yeah, I get your point. And it is worth considering. Sometimes that philosophy is behind the re-imaging of villains, and thus anti-Christian in the message on human nature and the fall.


        • Unfortunately I didn’t see Frozen so can’t comment on that one specifically, but it’s a popular theme these days, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in a popular animation .

          I guess I also believe it is quite logical to find writers who do not believe in God or the Bible or sin or the need for a Savior writing about how characters are good and the protagonist can find strength/truth/wisdom from within.


  4. LadyArin says:

    I don’t know that it’s accurate to say that all re-imagined villains are re-imagined as actually being good guys from a different point of view, or even defensible. It seems to me that the change in interpretation is not from evil to good but from flat caricatures to more realistic, sympathetic people. The original Maleficent and Wicked Witch of the West were little more than cackling witches, after all, with hardly any motive or explanation provided for their behavior.

    Handled properly, i think this type of re-imagining is actually better from a moral perspective. If we can understand and empathize with a villain’s motives, it can be a reminder that we have the potential to become villains, that having a reason to lash out at others is not the same as having the right to do so.

    And it isn’t like all villains are being re-imagined in this way, either. Plenty of recent villains have been extremely unpleasant people with little to no justification for it.

    • I’m definitely not saying all re-imaged villains are being turned into good guys. I haven’t read all stories so I wouldn’t have any way of knowing about the ones I haven’t read. I don’t even think turning Maleficent into a character who was different from the one we knew as the wicked witch was saying evil was good. {SPOILERS} Quite the opposite. She agreed that she had been wrong to curse Adora and even tried to reverse the curse. She wept over what she had done.  It was an interesting look at a “villain.” She herself would have agreed that she was a villain, except that the story didn’t end as we know Sleeping Beauty to have ended. It was Maleficent, who didn’t believe in true love, who loved truly and broke the curse. She was a hero, not for the evil she did, but for the evil she undid.

      My objection, though, Lady Arin, is to the idea that we must show evil characters petting the dog in order to  turn “flat caricatures to more realistic, sympathetic people.” I don’t think we necessarily create flat caricatures just because we show an evil character to be evil and not sympathetic.

      You said

      If we can understand and empathize with a villain’s motives, it can be a reminder that we have the potential to become villains, that having a reason to lash out at others is not the same as having the right to do so.

      I think that’s an interesting point. Yes, I can see how the story of Maleficent could bring that point out. But, as I said earlier, I don’t think Maleficent was about saying evil was good. She was never shown to be evil, but she gave in to the desire for revenge, and as you said, that can remind us we all have the potential to do things we may regret.

      And you’re right about not all villains being whitewashed. The thing is, stories need antagonists and often those are villains. But what I expect we may see next is a trend toward villains being characters we would have once thought of as heroes.


      • LadyArin says:

        I don’t think we necessarily create flat caricatures just because we show an evil character to be evil and not sympathetic.

        You’re right. In fact, the author of one of my favorite web comics made an explicit point of having his chief villain be unsympathetically, unapologetically, unquestionably evil, with nothing in his back-story to offer a justification for his behavior.

        I can understand your concerns, certainly. Personally i am very irritated at how fans and writers can be overly sympathetic because of a tragic back-story or the attractiveness of the actor/actress portraying the character. It’s part of the reason i stopped watching Once Upon a Time. It’s equally irritating when gritty anti-heroes are treated as more realistic than more traditional, honest, Captain America-types.

        What i don’t understand is why, in your original post, you say:

        Might not this trend toward re-imaging villains, then, be nothing more than a demonstration that people are not bad?

        I understand that it is possible to convey the message that no one is really bad, just misunderstood, that many people will attempt to justify their actions or those of others with such arguments, that stories can and do have an affect on our beliefs. But written badly, unsympathetic villains can lead to notions that people are either straight-up good or flat-out evil (and that as long as we do more good stuff than bad we don’t need to worry about becoming a villain), just as easily as sympathetic ones can lead us to believe no one is really all that bad. We can’t look to fiction to write our theology for us.

        I can’t agree with how strongly you worded your original post. I don’t think re-imagining villains is an intrinsically bad thing. And if they do start re-imagining heroes as the bad guy, so long as it’s done by changing their actions and not just our perspective, i don’t think it will be any more or less harmful than any other trend throughout history. Something to be aware of, certainly, but we will still need to evaluate each work individually, just like we need to do with any trend in popular entertainment.

        • Perhaps my post came out more strongly than I actually believe. I don’t think there is a sweeping trend toward making villains good, but given the belief of our culture than humans are good, I guess I see it as a “wouldn’t surprise me if it goes this way.”

          The idea of re-imagining heroes as the bad guy is straight from the news. Not so long ago when the media looked at the background of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who had been held by terrorists, or who had possibly deserted to them, his association with a church that believes in heaven and hell was brought forward as a possible cause for his behavior.

          A hyperconservative offshoot of the mainstream Presbyterian Church USA, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church sees the world in stark either/or terms. This is Calvinism on steroids. You are saved and bound for heaven. Or you are a sinner, treading a one-way path to the fiery pit of hell. (emphasis added)

          Once, believing in heaven and hell was normative. Now it is considered “Calvinism on steroids.” Once, a person who had faith in God was in the “good guy” camp. Now, the belief that Jesus is the way to God ” makes extraordinary demands on a sensitive young person’s conscience and conduct.”

          Then there’s this line toward the end:

          We as a society have too frequently failed to take religion seriously as a source of evil as well as good.

          So, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bible-believing “extremist Christian” become a villain in a story one day in the near future.



  5. Kessie says:

    LadyArin just said everything I was going to say. 🙂

  6. Julie D says:

    The whole trend you mentioned is why I’m not planning on seeing Maleficient anytime soon and a major part of the reason I gave up on Once Upon a Time.  While Lady Arin has some good points about creating well-rounded characters, I also feel that it can be taken too far.

    The examples that come to my mind are Loki and Magneto (film versions). Both are villains with well-established backstories: unknown adoption for Loki,  Holocaust survivor for Magneto.  They have reasons for seeing humans as the enemy.

    However,  Loki seems to accepted as a woobie who doesn’t really mean to be bad, while Magneto remains sympathetic but evil.  (I am not as aware of X-Men fandom as of the MCU, however).  One reason I think Magneto remains unquestionably a villain is that his team-ups with Professor X end in betrayal


    X1: he plans to use an innocent girl to forcibly turn people into mutants. The process will kill her, and a trial run killed the person he forced to mutate.

    x2: when he finds a brainwashed Professor X who is killing mutants, he does not turn off the process, but switches the target to humans.


    • Julie, I actually think you might like Maleficent. It’s not about justifying an evil character’s actions as much as it is re-writing the myth. She never was evil to begin with, though she did an evil thing for which she later grieved. It was interesting. Not the same as Wicked, I don’t think. Unfortunately I don’t know the others you mentioned, so I can’t comment on them.

      But I will add this about making characters three dimensional. I’ve said for some time, it’s not about balancing evil out with some good action but in properly motivating the evil. Honestly, Maleficent created another caricature in the opening scene because it should your standard greedy king who wanted the wealth of the land under the control of the fairies. So he’s motivated by greed because . . . well, all kings are greedy, I guess.

      Anyway, a very interesting discussion. Thanks for joining in.


    • It’s not about justifying an evil character’s actions as much as it is re-writing the myth.

      Exactly. Trailers and such were apparently unsure how to market this story as a reimagining, a revision, of the classic fairy tale. So the impression got about that this was intended to be even a partial adaptation of the story. It’s not: it’s a wholly different universe, as much an “elseworld” version of Sleeping Beauty as the recent Noah film was an “elseworld” version of the Bible’s historical narrative.

  7. Becky, you have touched on a subject after my own heart. It has long been a maxim of mine that there is a vast difference between moral complexity and moral ambiguity. I have absolutely no problem with a sympathetic antagonist, or a character whose motivations seem right to him/her but are in opposition to the protagonist. What I have a problem with is the refusal to acknowledge the reality of genuine evil. We live in a world that is the direct result of the notion that the people doing such vile and despicable acts on a global scale are in fact only misguided or misunderstood, and that the correct amount of understanding will end their behavior. Now, don’t get me wrong; I do believe we should try to understand the enemy. I think we should know exactly what makes people tick, and the difference between a sociopath, a psychopath, a fanatic, and a megalomaniac.  All of these are worthy of study. But not all of them can be cured, and not all of them are worthy of respect or consideration. I don’t need every novel to have Snidely Whiplash as a villain, or a one-dimensional powermonger. I’m all for a novel that gives me a more than one-dimensional villain. But I do want to know that the author can tell that sometimes there really is an enemy. I am not impressed by the incessant effort, whether in fiction or in real life, to excuse away and rationalize evil behavior. I understand the notion that all of us are closer to Hitler than to Christ. But there should be something in the conscience of every human being that rebels, that says, no matter how much I understand Anakin Skywalker’s growing distrust of the Jedi and fear of losing his wife, NOTHING justified him becoming a child murderer. Rather than saying, “there but for the grace of God go I,” there should be something that says, “Okay, bucko, I got you up to this point, but you just stepped over the line.”

    We are called to be innocent as doves, and wise as serpents. I believe that the most compassionate among us must also have the most potential to be ruthless. Ruthless, that is, towards genuine evil–in our own lives, or the lives of others. If we truly care about humans, we must understand who is truly a victim, and who is an oppressor. If we cannot tell the difference between these fairly basic concepts, there is not much hope left for us in these last days.

    I have not seen Maleficent. I was a bit curious, because some of the imagery in the trailers reminded me a bit of my own novel, but I have been leery of it primarily because of this postmodern trend to de-evil the devil, so to speak.


    On a slightly unrelated note:

    Or what about a story telling how the first Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte became the woman locked in the tower. 

    You might be interested to know that this was actually done in a novel/movie called Wide Sargasso Sea.

  8. HG Ferguson says:

    My impression with all this re-imagining, particularly Maleficent, is the underlying notion that no one really is evil at heart.  And back of that is the notion that no one deserves to be judged for such an outmoded idea as sin, perish the thought!  Villains may occasionally do “good” things, but God calls all of our righteousnesses filthy rags.  That goes for the villain too.  At the same time we don’t want to create one-dimensional monsters who come off as very unreal and very unsatisfying.

    We wonders, my Preciousssss, with all this re-imagining going on if Gollum, Sauron and even Morgoth are next….

    Thanks for keeping us aware, and standing for God’s truth!

    • HG, thought provoking comment. I often think of Sauron when people talk about how villains can’t be all evil. I’d forgotten about Gollum, though. He is an interesting study. He tried to justify himself, to make his actions understandable and eventually acceptable and even commendable. He might have believed his own line, but he was the only one. How could he ever be re-imaged in a believable way? I can’t see it.


  9. AdamR says:

    This move isn’t exactly recent, however, our shift into a postmodern culture has brought with it the knowledge that everyone has a story. Everyone has a reason for what they are doing, even if what they are doing is not that great. Modernity, which postmodernity rejects, brought with it the idea of the “other,” the demonized person or group upon whom all problems were laid and against whom we much set ourselves against. To me this is a simplistic view of evil – the cartoon Nazi cackling as he commits genocide. The mindless serial killer and the gloating black robed villain. But we are savvy enough to know that if we had a conversation with that Nazi officer, he would have a reason for what he was doing, maybe even a loving family he went home to each night. Those ISIS guys raping and murdering each have stories – which don’t excuse what they’re doing, but might explain what they’re doing. And once you know a man, you cannot hate him, as the old adage goes. After millennia of persecuted minorities, hated ethnicities, and racial, cultural, social, and ethical scapegoating, the postmodern turn brings about empathy for the “other.” That is a good thing. We do all have good inside us. Broken, diminished, refracted, but there. Whatever else might be said about original sin, it does not undo the fact that we are all made in the image of God.

  10. Julie D says:

    Thought I’d leave this post and the accompanying rebuttal here for comments.

What do you think?