Evil Ideas We Accept In Fantasy Movies (And Nowhere Else)
The fantasy genre is all about escapism -- getting a little bit of magic in our lives without the hassle of trying to stop our neighbors from conjuring Cthulhu to devour the world. But beneath the wonder of powerful wizards, heroic sword fights, and enchanted jewelry, fantasy stories encourage some very dark ideas that usually fly right under our radar. In most of the popular stories, you'll find messages about how ...
Technology Is Evil
Quick, try to think of any fantasy story in which the good guys win by coming up with a new invention or technology. Versus, say, having to find some ancient supernatural relic or rallying behind a magical "chosen one." Hell, try to come up with a story where they win by inventing a new type of magic or concocting a new potion or something. Where's the fantasy version of Steve Jobs, damn it?
This is even true in the franchises with sci-fi elements. Take Star Wars, a sword-and-magic universe that also has cool spaceships, cool spacesuits, and cool space guns ... but still wants us to think that old-fashioned mysticism is way cooler. The Jedi order is treated as a long-lost culture, with powerful magic no technology can replicate (the first time "the Force" is mentioned, a nonbeliever mocks it and then is promptly proven wrong via a Force-choke). In the same movie, with barely any training, Luke Skywalker is told to abandon his modern targeting computer during a firefight and wing it, trusting that the Force will guide him.
The fate of the universe depends on a redneck believing in ghosts talking to him and his ability to shoot space rats.
This is a guy who's sitting in a piece of technology that allows him not just to fly, but also to breathe in outer space, harness the power of light itself as a weapon, and travel to distant planets ... but he doesn't trust it to aim a torpedo? Hell, with their level of technology, they should have targeting systems that can pull off precision headshots from the other side of the galaxy. The ship's computer should be so much smarter than the pilot that when Luke tries to deactivate it, it'd merely shrug off the command. "You push all the buttons you want, monkey -- I'm gonna go ahead and complete the mission without you." Meanwhile, the antagonist in that scene is a former Jedi who is now "more machine than man" (machine = evil) and leads the technologically advanced empire to crush a small rebellion. The galaxy is saved not through strength of arms or martial skill, but by mystic mind tricks.
Though we can't help but notice the mystical Force did exactly fuck-all for Alderaan.
But Star Wars was simply following an old sword-and-sorcery trope. The Lords Of The Rings is particularly fervent in its anti-industrialist agenda, constantly equating nature, forests, and rural communities with good, while the bad guys build noisy assembly lines (and even use gunpowder, which is portrayed almost as a dirty trick). The most densely populated kingdoms are all being slowly corrupted from the inside, while the more rural areas remain untainted except by modern conquest.
Possibly because the good guys were too drunk to accomplish anything.
A lot of that comes from Tolkien's distaste for modernity, as he saw the horrors of industrialization firsthand in the trenches in World War I. But why do we sympathize with that theme in 2016, while watching those movies on a smartphone? And when it came time to portray a charming subculture of magic folk for the Harry Potter universe, J.K. Rowling knew to make them stuck in the 19th Century. Everyone writes with quills, "muggle" technology doesn't work inside Hogwarts, and everyone communicates via bird-powered snail mail, despite the fact that they're capable of telepathy. She had little kids everywhere fantasizing about writing essays in longhand, by candlelight, in a dorm room with no air conditioning.
But that really ties into a larger theme, which is that ...
The Past Was Better
If somebody wants to peddle you bullshit -- whether it's an herbal cure or profound life advice -- there's a good bet they'll try telling you it's "ancient." You know, from back in the days when people were wise and in touch with nature, before this dumb modern technology came along and ruined everything by doubling the average lifespan.
We're not saying people got that "ancient stuff is magic" idea from the fantasy genre, but it's hard to find a fantasy universe where it isn't true. Take the "ancient prophecy" cliche from, well, all the movies. "This is your destiny." "Why?" "Because somebody said so a long time ago, and therefore they are right." Those ancient words will henceforth control every decision made by leaders, villains will fear them, and if the hero tries to deviate from their "destiny," they'll find in the end that they were only padding the movie's runtime.
It helps that fantasy gets a wwaayyy better class of oracle than the pathetic reality.
And if you've got an ancient relic, that thing might as well be a nuclear bomb ("Watch out! That shit's from back when they knew how to make relics, man!"). Even Game Of Thrones -- a franchise created to subvert a lot of classic fantasy tropes -- does this. The long-lost civilization of Valyria made swords that are far better than modern ones, using their superior ancient knowledge. When Jamie Lannister receives a newly-forged Valyrian steel sword, he has to be assured that it was made from the metal of an old sword so that he can trust that it's legitimate -- you know, sort of like how people in the real world will only buy a new car if it's made from old, broken cars.
Of course, Lord Of The Rings also checks this box. They also have a key plot point involving the reforging of an ancient, broken sword (which also comes up in several thousand fantasy novels and video games). Only that sword can win the war, because the new swords they're cranking out in Middle Earth are apparently bullshit.
"Seriously, give me one of the pieces of this one. We all know how metallurgy techniques only get worse with time."
Bilbo's sword, Sting, is also an ancient artifact, as is his shirt of "Mithril" chain mail. Those were both created by the most civilized race -- the elves -- which, oh by the way, happens to be the oldest civilization in Middle Earth and therefore the best at everything. Oh, and their culture is tragically dying a slow death due to advancing evil in the world, precipitated by modern advances, orcs, and war. Because that's how civilization works, right? Everything was once perfect and beautiful, but over time we slowly fucked it up with our "sanitation" and "anesthesia" and "literacy."
And once again, the trope is weirdest when it comes up in Star Wars. Old Obi-Wan introduces Luke to his lightsaber by insisting it's "not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age." Then in the prequels, they even have this ridiculous sequence in which young Obi-Wan fights a coughing four-lightsaber-wielding cyborg named General Grievous, gets knocked off a ledge (a common danger in that universe), and has to resort to grabbing a nearby blaster and shooting Grievous in his living heart, before riding off on a giant iguana.
Well when you describe the scene like that, it just sounds ridiculous.
Afterward, Obi-Wan tosses the blaster aside with disdain and says, "So uncivilized." Why? The newer technology helped a good guy beat a bad guy! It lets you defeat evil from further away! But the lightsaber is a product of the past, and the past was better. This includes the fact that ...
Monarchy Is Awesome
In a fantasy universe, the worst possible fate is to be ruled by an all-powerful shithead. Which makes sense, because that's also the worst thing that can happen in the real world. But the best thing that can happen in a fantasy universe is to be ruled by an all-powerful hero. Someone who answers to nobody, and cannot be removed from power by any legal means ... which is okay, because he's wonderful, righteous, and blessed by the almighty. Sure, they don't say the "almighty" part out loud, but it's made more than clear. In The Lion King, Scar manages to turn the kingdom into a desolate wasteland within a few years, but the rightful king fixes that with a single roar.
Wrong king ...
The landscape literally turns gray, then comes back to life -- all because of whom it prefers as a leader. Left unsaid is that everyone now knows they will starve if the rightful ruler is ever deposed. Or questioned.
And the word "rightful" is key there. If the bad guy is a king, they almost always got there through illegitimate means. Sometimes they're a standard-issue usurper, with no claim to the throne at all, and other times they're a kinslayer, murdering their way through the line of inheritance until succession passes to them (like Scar, above). But what matters is that it's not the process of appointing rulers via bloodlines that brought ruin -- it's that somebody interfered with it. The wrong blood sits on the throne.
Like when the king's son isn't actually his son, but that king deposed the previous king because ...
on second thought, let's leave Game Of Thrones out of this one.
Sticking with Disney, in Snow White, the protagonist is a princess, but the wicked queen is her "stepmother" (in the original fairy tale, the true queen died in childbirth). In the end, Snow White is chosen by a handsome prince to ascend to another throne -- the same happy resolution Cinderella gets in her story.
And of course you find it in Lord Of The Rings. The Fellowship has to deal with two separate leaders who have been warped by the forces of evil: one king, Theoden, and one steward (aka "some dude who takes care of stuff"), Denethor. The king is descended from a magical bloodline, the steward is not. They both lose a son, they're both being controlled by Sauron's evil, and they both have reason to give up. However, Theoden is able to shake off evil's grip and successfully leads his people and saves the day. Why? Because he's a king. That's ... kind of it. Denethor, on the other hand, goes fully nuts, tries to kill his other son, lights himself on fire, and (in the movie) takes a running leap off a cliff while his city is under siege.
It could also be that evil hates good posture. Most fantasy usurpers look like they were draped over the back of a chair.
And of course, the whole tale culminates in The Return Of The King, a story which (if you haven't seen it) revolves around a king who returns. At which point everything is fine, forever.
You may be saying that those plots are descended from tales written back when monarchy was all the rage (including Lion King, a Hamlet reboot), but why are they still so popular with audiences after, you know, tons of real people died to overthrow that system of government? In the real world, if a guy comes along and claims he's destined to rule by blood and that the weather itself will cooperate with his regime, go ahead and start making plans to ride out a genocide.
Evil Is An Automatic Advantage
We understand that fantasy needs an underdog. Nobody's going to be inspired by a story of an all-powerful group of good guys kicking the shit out of, say, a gang of confused elderly women on Rascal scooters. But the need to always portray the bad guys as an overwhelming force creates this very weird implication that evil is a shortcut to awesomeness. The villains' powers are cooler and their weapons are more developed. Even their laughs are more joyful.
"I AM HAVING AN AMAZING TIME!"
Sure, the good guys always win in the end, but it's usually because they exploit a momentary, inexplicable mistake made by the villain. The blunders are often so blatant that one wonders how such a klutz became so powerful in the first place. (How in the hell did Skeletor get to where he is?) They wind up portraying evil as a kind of performance-enhancing drug.
Disney movies are full of examples of this. Like The Little Mermaid, in which the sea witch Ursula ends up being impaled by the handsome Prince Eric ... but prior to that point, we find out she has hundreds of "poor unfortunate souls" hanging out in her underground cave from decades of successful eviling. So sure, she eventually stumbles, but it looks like she's been killing it in the Evil Witch game for a long time. She's the Manny Pacquiao of the sea.
Though keeping a garden of unsatisfied customers does kinda make you question her marketing ability.
But even weirder is the trope of heroes refusing to resort to killing, due to their goodness ... but eventually needing it to win anyway. Even Harry Potter runs into this, despite its oft-repeated mantra that love conquers all. As part of his plot to regain his body, Voldemort uses Harry's blood in a dark ritual, and by doing so not only negates the protection Harry's mother gave him, but also subverts it to his own gain. In the end, Voldemort is only defeated because Harry gains access to -- you guessed it -- an ancient relic of immense power.
Star Wars seems to try to refute this point head on. Luke outright asks Yoda if the dark side is stronger, and the latter quickly says that it's not; it's just easier and more seductive. But he's demonstrably wrong. Vader and Emperor Palpatine seem to have access to the same litany of abilities that the good Jedi have, while also having unique dark side talents like conjuring lightning.
"How's all that upside-down rock stacking working out for you now?"
The light side talks a good game. Obi-Wan insists to Vader that killing him will make him more powerful ("You'll see! Murder doesn't pay!"), but he's also wrong. With a swipe of Vader's lightsaber, Obi-Wan is rendered powerless to help the good guys, aside from popping up once every couple of years to offer vague advice to Luke and a congratulatory smile at the end.
In Return Of The Jedi, Luke is only able to defeat Vader by (momentarily) embracing the dark side, allowing his fear and anger to overwhelm him. The moment he goes back to the light side, he becomes helpless to the power of Force lightning -- his pacifism does nothing to help anyone. The only reason Luke wins is that Vader himself submits to the "dark side" impulses of fear and rage (fear of losing his son, and his rage at the Emperor) which gives him the strength to chuck the old bastard down a vent. He wins the day by committing the very murder Luke refused on moral grounds.
Seems like all that Jedi training might have been a little pointless for this particular move.
The cautionary tale in these stories is usually about arrogance and hubris. ("Instead of killing the hero, I shall imprison him in a dungeon that I know for a fact he cannot ever escape!") But why wouldn't they be confident? Evil works great!
Physical Characteristics Define Personality And Intellect
Pop quiz: Can you tell which of these fantasy characters are evil, and which ones are good?
(Answer key: Hot = good, ugly = evil.)
You can't judge a book by its cover, unless it's a fantasy book, in which case you can and should judge the book characters by their outward appearances (also, the actual book covers are amazing). You'll have no trouble finding dumb fat characters, wise slender queens, and ugly evil warriors in otherwise inventive fantasy works, since everyone looks like on the outside what they are on the inside.
We get that in stories with a billion characters, you need some kind of visual shorthand to let the audience know who they want to die. It's only natural to utilize humans' inherent bias against gross people and scary animals. If you're partaking in the Dungeons & Dragons universe via some format or the other and run into one of the beholders, you're not going to be confused as to what to do next.
"Do I have a spell that will destroy this entire dungeon? Including us?"
But even weirder, you can also tell who's evil based on who has a scar or other deformity.
It seems only good guys have the 'Try not to get slashed in the face' instinct.
And that's not even including horror movies where Freddy Kreuger, Jason Vorhees, and Leatherface all parlay gross facial deformities into a life of psychopathy. Lesson learned: If you accidentally poured a pot of hot water on your head as a kid, or walked into a tree branch, you will probably end up trying to murder a hero at some point.
Meanwhile, if you do have a beautiful female villain (often in the guise of a vain and jealous queen), there's a significant chance it will turn out they're hiding their "true" face. Right before death, the spell will be broken and we'll get to see how old and ugly they truly are. It happens to the evil queen in Snow White And the Huntsman ...
Though we can kind of empathize if, as soon as the magic wears off, you instantly turn into female Gary Busey.
Morgana in Excalibur:
And the cruel stepmother in Tangled. Of course, at this point, we could talk about how you can judge how heroic a fantasy race is by their attractiveness (elves vs orcs, or how any race that looks like reptiles are bad guys), but that's a whole other can of worms that we've discussed before. We suppose it's no big deal -- aside from, you know, the fact that trying to create visual shorthand to identify who to hate is pretty much the root of every horrible thing that's ever happened in the real world.
For more reasons we shouldn't get our life lessons from fiction, check out 8 Dark Life Lessons Kids Learn From Pixar Films and 7 Classic Disney Movies That Taught Us Terrible Lessons.
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