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Non-Review Review: Maleficent – Mistress of Evil

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil might be the worst wide release of 2019, which is no small accomplishment in a year that produced Welcome to Marwen, Life Itself and Hellboy.

To be fair, the film’s starting point is decidedly eccentric. There is an argument to be made that the original Maleficent helped to kick start Disney’s live action remake renaissance, alongside the greater success of Alice in Wonderland. While the film didn’t quite do Aladdin or The Lion King numbers, it earned a hefty three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars at the global box office. It isn’t a surprise that it got a sequel. It is a surprise that the sequel took half-a-decade to materialise, to the point that Disney’s live action cinematic slate has already moved well beyond this villain-centric reimagining.

She’s really glowing lately.

Even allowing for the five year gap, Mistress of Evil is a staggeringly tone-deaf piece of work. The original Maleficent was a very clumsy piece of allegory, but an ambitious one. Obviously drawing from the same basic revisionist approach as Wicked or Oz: The Great and Powerful, the film attempted to offer an empathic and compassionate approach to one of the great villains of the Disney canon. The film depicted Maleficent as the victim of assault and shaming, a target of a patriarchal smear campaign.

Unfortunately, despite nods at subverting conventional gender narratives, Maleficent doubled down on them. Instead of allowing its title character her own strength and independence, Maleficent insisted on redeeming the character through the narrative of motherhood. This was decidedly uncomfortable, the obvious insinuation being that the only way for a woman to recover from such a brutal assault was through embracing conventional gender roles. Still, as misguided and clunky as the execution was, it was interesting to see a family-focused blockbuster story grappling with these sorts of big ideas.

“I’m Batman.”

Mistress of Evil somehow finds a way to double-down on the misguided clunkiness while also stripping out anything resembling an interesting or engaging social commentary. Almost everything about the movie is horrendously and grotesquely misjudged. Mistress of Evil is a frankly inexplicable hybrid of groan-worthy fifties domestic sitcom and pained allegory about the folly of resistance even when being herded into gas chambers. That isn’t even a “read” of the film, it’s “what is literally depicted on screen.”

The result is one of the most ill-judged blockbusters of the past twenty years.

Magnificent.

To be fair, Mistress of Evil doesn’t work on the level of basic story mechanics, even before getting into the film’s spectacularly misguided attempt to offer an “even-handed, let’s look at both sides” approach to attempted genocide. Mistress of Evil makes a very strange decision to open at the level of a fifties domestic sitcom. Living in “the moors” with her adopted mother, Princess Aurora accepts Prince Phillip’s proposal. The two are to be married. This presents all manner of problems. Mostly around introducing her family to his.

What follows is a very stilted farce. When Maleficent assumes that Aurora turned Phillip down, she replies, “I said yes.” Maleficent responds, “No.” Aurora fires back, “Yes.” When Phillip remarks that they have to immediately inform their families, Aurora sighs, “Do we?” When she is invited to dinner, Maleficent practices her social graces with the help of her familiar Diaval. She smiles awkward. “Maybe a bit less fang?” he offers. It is all very arch, in the style of a retrograde sitcom. To the film’s credit, it seems to understand what it is attempting. Robert Lindsay is cast as King John, Phillip’s father. Lindsay is a British sitcom veteran.

The problem with all of this is that jokes simply aren’t funny. It is all very laboured and very hackneyed. It has been done better elsewhere, with more charm and more grace. There is something to be said for a live action Disney film willing to lean into the pantomime aspects of the fairy tale setting, building off the charm of something like Enchanted. However, a sequel to an attempted (if unsuccessful) feminist reimaging of one of the company’s most iconic villain probably isn’t the right place. It certainly isn’t the right place once it becomes clear where Mistress of Evil is heading.

It turns out that Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith, is a massive racist. There are small gestures towards a topic theme and idea here. Ingrith is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, with her striking blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. With her Scandanavian name, she becomes an Aryan ideal. Ingrith talks with contempt about “open borders” and the perceive criminality of the magical creatures who live across the river in the forest. The film stops just short of having Ingrith declare that she plans to build a wall of some description. The film is not subtle in what it is doing.

All hail the queen.

However, it runs into a number of serious problems in execution. The most obvious is a very strange fear about being seen as “political”, despite all of the above considerations. Following on from Maleficent, it feels like Mistress of Evil is afraid of being seen as being “too” feminist. So Maleficent does not find herself brushing up against patriarchal structures. Indeed, all of the men in Maleficent are awkwardly revealed to be fundamentally decent. Even the soldiers who carry out brutal murders are just following orders, while a mad scientist who designs chemical weapons eventually sees the error of his ways.

In contrast, the only irredeemable characters in Mistress of Evil are women, which feels like a very cynical and very lazy way of side-stepping potential right-wing backlash to a movie that might otherwise be perceived as “feminist.” Queen Ingrith is a caricature of a villain, all big speeches and sinister plotting. When Maleficent is almost assassinated on her way home from a dinner that misfires spectacularly, it is Ingrith’s page Gerda who pulls the trigger. Unlike their male counterparts, these women never hesitate and never waver. Ingrith and Gerda orchestrate mass murder without batting an eyelid.

Won’t be caught sleeping.

Not only does Mistress of Evil pointedly frame itself to avoid any comment on gender roles and patriarchal structures in this story of an iconic and vilified female protagonist, it actually works to retroactively erase a lot of the feminist subtext of the original Maleficent. At the climax of the story, Queen Ingrith reveals that she is responsible for spreading stories and rumours about Maleficent, for turning the powerful woman into a figure of fear. As a result, any potential comment on how male-dominated power structures respond to the ascent of powerful women is handily erased for the sort of girl-on-girl showdown of the nineties.

This is genuinely frustrating. There is a solid argument to be made that Wicked is one of the most influential fairy tale stories of the past decade. It casts a long shadow over how subsequent films have approached classical stores. Films like Oz: The Great and Powerful and Maleficent owe a lot to Wicked, particularly in trying to humanise the female characters who were treated as wicked witches in the source narratives. However, these adaptations have also faltered, because they refuse to acknowledge the feminism at the heart of Wicked. It is no coincidence that all these monstrous and grotesque figures are powerful women.

All fired up.

Of course, deconstructing and interrogating fairy tale structures is nothing new. Films like Shrek and Frozen have managed to do that within the confines of family-friendly animation. However, there is a sense in which Mistress of Evil wants to see itself as transgressive. “This isn’t a fairy tale,” Ingrith actually says at one point. However, instead of picking at the tropes of such stories, Mistress of Evil plays into them. Queen Ingrith is just another evil woman who claims too much power. She even has a dungeon, where she keeps a grotesque mad scientist played by Warwick Davis, another villainous dwarf (“pixie”) in a fantasy story.

However, Mistress of Evil somehow feels the need to double-down on its attempt to be both superficially political and avowedly apolitical. Horribly wounded after the dinner goes disastrously wrong, Maleficent discovers that she is not the only member of her species. Hunted by humans to the point of extinction, there are a community of creatures out in the sea. These scenes are awkward as they return to the very strange gender politics of Maleficent. Once again, as she watches young creatures learn to fly, Mistress of Evil suggests that Maleficent can be redeemed by embracing surrogate motherhood.

Family matters.

Within this community of wayward magical creatures, a debate rages. The militant Borra hungers for war, arguing that the humans will never understand anything but force of arms. In contrast, the calm and collected Conall advocates for a more passive approach. Conall believes that any action against mankind will only escalate the crisis and lead to further bloodshed. Conall advocates for dignity and restraint in isolation, hoping that peaceful reconciliation between man and magic will be possible with enough patience.

Mistress of Evil very clearly sides with Conall over Borra. After all, Conall is played by Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor. In a movie that is superficially touching on racial tensions, the lead actor from 12 Years a Slave will always speak with a presumed moral authority. In contrast, Borra is played by Ed Skrein, who has a long history of playing untrustworthy and villainous characters often framed through the prism of race; he was a racist cop in If Beale Street Could Talk, a man experimenting on mutants in Deadpool, and an evil bounty hunter in Alita: Battle Angel.

The sound of her wings.

The movie tips its hand in its third act. Conall is presented as literally angelic. He remains true to his beliefs, offering himself (out of nowhere) as a noble sacrifice at one point in the story. In contrast, Borra leads his forces on an ill-guided attack upon mankind that is doomed to failure. The folly of Borra’s war-mongering is revealed as the audience watches his soldiers get massacred. Of course Conall was right. Resistance was entirely pointless and self-defeating. Within Mistress of Evil, there’s a strong sense of moral equivalence between racism and resistance. Mistress of Evil embraces “bothsidesism.”

This equivalence is incredibly cynical. Queen Ingrith is planning genocide of the magical creatures. In fact, the climax of Mistress of Evil leans very heavily on Holocaust imagery. Using the wedding of Aurora and Phillip as a pretext, Ingrith lures the fairies into a trap. The fair folk are herded into the church, with armed soldiers ensuring an orderly march. The church is barricaded, and then a carefully-engineered gas is sprayed on them that kills on contact. It’s a shockingly brutal sequence for a family-friendly blockbuster.

“What am I supposed to use, harsh language?”

While this is happening, Borra is leading his assault on the castle. His forces are suffering heavy losses, but there seems to be little alternative. (Save maybe flying higher and under cloud cover, as Maleficent does later on when the film needs to bring the battle to the head, but that’s a plot issue rather than a thematic concern.) After all, if Borra calls off the attack, Ingrith will successfully complete her genocide and wipe out an entire race of people. Borra might be a little over-aggressive and a little impulsive, but there is no moral equivalence between his actions and those of Queen Ingrith.

However, Mistress of Evil insists that Borra is just as much to blame for the ensuing chaos as Ingrith. During the battle, Phillip confronts Borra and offers him a stern lecture. “My mother wants a war, and you’re giving her one,” he insists. It is a very strange moment, one which seems to exist to shame Borra for daring to respond to mass murder (both historical and contemporary) with a show of force. Indeed, even when Queen Ingrith is defeated, the sheer scale of the atrocities committed by the humans against the magical creatures is downplayed.

The Triumph of the Evil.

This is all staggering tone-deaf. Mistress of Evil is a blockbuster that seems to genuinely and fundamentally believe that there can be “very fine people on both sides” of a genocide; not a planned genocide, not a plotted genocide, an actually happening genocide. It is an incredibly misjudged attempt at balance and even-handedness. As with the weird choice to cast the primary antagonists of Mistress of Evil as women to avoid any potentially feminist subtext, Mistress of Evil seems committed to an attempt to de-politicise mass murder.

There is something very frustrating and worrying in all of this, when a statement as simple as “attempting to wipe out an entire race of people is evil on an almost unimaginable scale and must be stopped at any cost” is treated as being “too political” and so gets watered down to “sure, we can all agree that genocide is bad, but active resistance to genocide can also be bad, and let’s not lose sight of that.” It speaks to the same sort of cynical business calculus that decided Captain American couldn’t punch Nazis in Captain America: The First Avenger because the company wanted to sell toys in Germany.

Ultimately, Mistress of Evil ironically serves as a very banal sort of evil. It is a reminder that being “apolitical” is a political statement of itself.

4 Responses

  1. this is a great review, but I was wondering – a few of your reviews have brought up the absence of nazi-punching in captain america first avenger as being due to the desire to sell toys in Germany. I was wondering whether you have a source for that?

    • I actually don’t have a reputable one to hand outside of the commonly cited explanation that it is impossible to market products with that iconography in certain lucrative European markets. (There are a few right-wing blogs that trumpet the point quite loudly, but those aren’t reputable sources.)

  2. Aha, I wondered why I had seen some Maleficent related news recently. I didn’t know a sequel was out. Looks like a definite skip though.

    • To be fair, it probably has some camp value. I’m seeing a lot of people admiring its insanity. I just found it… kinda dull and messy.

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