Monday, March 11, 2013

My thoughts on OZ: THE GREAT & POWERFUL and the origins of villains

Like many of you, I saw Oz: The Great and Powerful this weekend.  While there was a great deal that I enjoyed about it, I felt there was one plot point that could have used a little finessing - the moment where Theodora becomes the Wicked Witch of the West that we know from all the other incarnations.

Up until that point in the movie, Theodora is played very naive.  She's got an almost child-like innocence about her and is instantly taken with the Wizard.  It's a little like watching a schoolgirl get her first crush on the bad boy.  Because of this, her heart is easily broken when she learns that Oz now seems to have moved on to wooing Glinda.  She's so deeply hurt that she accepts her sister's offer of an apple that will remove her heartache, basically by snuffing out any capacity for goodness in her.

This triggers not only an emotional transformation, but a physical one which turns her skin green and makes her features more hideous.  From that moment on, the good-hearted Theodora is now a cackling, vengeful hag who's pretty much devoted to evil.

Here's my problem with this: the Wicked Witch is one of the most iconic villains in film history and the origin we get for her is basically that she was tricked into becoming evil.  That doesn't sit well with me.  She doesn't make a choice to go bad, nor is her becoming evil the end result of a descent down that path.  Instead, the transition from good to evil is about as instantaneous as flipping a light switch.  Perhaps the creators' intent was that there'd be sort of a tragedy to this outcome, but the thing is - we don't WANT to feel sorry for the Wicked Witch. 

I remember some people had similar issues with Anakin Skywalker's descent into evil in the final Star Wars prequel.  The idea that one of the Jedi's best and brightest could crossover to the Dark Side is a compelling one, but it demands a compelling execution.  Several people came away with the sense that Anakin had been so manipulated along the way to the Dark Side that the choice was taken out of his hands, and thus, was less compelling.

In that case, I see where those critics are coming from - but at least there, Anakin is presented with a clear moment where he has to make a choice between his Jedi compatriots and Palpatine.  When it comes down to it, he cuts off Mace Windu's hand in order to defend the future Emperor, betraying everything he stands for.  True, Palpatine has stacked the deck a little by misleading Anakin into believing he needs the power of the Sith to save Padme, but Anakin dives in willingly and with little hesitation.

Unfortunately, Theodora isn't even that responsible for her own transformation and it undercuts what should have been one of the bigger moments of the film.  I think there are a lot of things the movie does right (in particular I really enjoyed the third act), but if there is a sequel, I hope the creators use the opportunity to give the Wicked Witch a little more agency on her own path to the Dark Side.


  1. Having not seen this, it is still an informative note. How many times have we heard about the passive protagonist? This is a not so distant cousin to the same concept. However, it is interesting that a superhero like Spiderman can be bitten by a radioactive spider (or whatever the hell it was) and get these superpowers that he uses for good but this wicked witch has something kind of similar happen (eat the apple) and her evil just happens as a result. At least spiderman had to come to terms with his new abilities and make a sweet costume. Sounds like the wicked witch just ate a bad apple and became... bad.

    1. Just kind of bouncing off what you're saying (and having seen the movie): The thing about Spider-man is that, to me, his origin moment isn't that he gets bitten by the spider. It's the choices he makes that result in Uncle Ben's death, which lead to him choosing to become a hero.

      The implication I got in the movie is that Theodora gets a power boost because of the apple, which would be one thing, particularly if the power boost lead her to make choices that sent her down the path of evil.

      I think part of it is that it's REALLY hard to give origins for iconic characters of pure evil that don't feel weird or contrived. Take the Joker, for example. In most, (although not all) incarnations, he really doesn't have a solid backstory of who he was before he either took a chemical bath or started painting his face. And that fits well, because the Joker simply IS evil. The Wicked Witch is almost the same way in the original Oz.

      Wicked got around it mostly by showing that the Wicked Witch wasn't actually evil like we thought she was.

  2. Not sure if it was explained in the first film, and I haven't seen this one yet, so I'm talking out of extreme ignorance. I just hope they set up the "water" death. Being a 1930s film I've seen, oh, once, I can't remember if we understood throughout that water would destroy the wicked witch. If not, it is imperative that they set it up in this one. But now that the wicked witch was actually just a spurned regular witch, what symbolic significance do they attach to the water so that it affects her the way it ultimately does? Maybe this is all amply explained, I hope so.

    1. Sadly, they did not explore this at all... :(

  3. while i agree with the ideas behind your thoughts, i have a different, yet simple viewpoint on this. Being good, has a naive aspect to it and it's rooted in this theme that her trusting allowed her to go to the dark side.

    It is literally a retelling of little red riding hood's adventure, so with that said, i think it is a perfect progression that mirrors todays society.


  4. I would agree, it's the culture. The concept of evil, unto itself, is a lot to contend with, and in today's non-judgmental society it's simpler, and less politically loaded, to present someone who goes over to the dark side as a victim, like all the rest of us.

    The moral tableau becomes like a snake eating its tail, consuming bigtime evil-doers like Hitler and the Left-wing tyrants until they're ready for prime time presentation as "victims themselves."

    The idea that trusting can lead to evil is one aspect of this conundrum that the makers of O:tG&P could have focused on, to greater creative profit....

  5. I felt the change was a little abrupt also.

    I thought they could have helped this with a little extra dialog in the beginning. If her dialog when she meets OZ had expressed some underlying self-centered, now-you're-here-I'll-be-queen and I-want-to-defeat-my-sisters-who-I'm-jealous-of-at-all-costs attitude, the transision would have been better.

    Overall, I liked the move a lot. This bit about Theodora and trying to sell OZ as a love 'em and leave 'em ladies man, which I didn't buy either, were the big weaknesses.

  6. I hated the whole premise of Oz being a womanizer and Theodora being the bitter woman scorned. Her only beef with Glenda is that she got the guy? I get that this is supposed to be the precursor to a 1939 movie based on a 100+ year old tale, but come on!

  7. Bitter,

    Agree with you about Theorda's transformation. It was weak. BUT the latest "OZ" movie had other problems that bothered me FAR more than that. I thought the supporting characters arround James' Franco's character were especially lacking. The monkey buddy was especially poor. No comic relief there, and the monkey was rather dull. Why?

    The world of "OZ" needed some work too. Not the vivid imagry, which was outstanding, but the people groups inside Oz were quite flat and poor. The original did a far better job with the varrious people groups in Oz.

    What I did like about this latest Oz movie was how the lead character was protrayed as a mediocre magican, who had asperations to be better. THAT worked. Also like Michelle Willams and Glinda. Her smile and long hair... Ohh la la, I could watch that all day. Yes, she make me horny!!

    Bitter, in regaurds to Annakin Skywalker discent into darkness. I really liked how the storytellers set that up. The discussion between Palpatine and Annakin were Palpatine circles arround him and you're not sure if he's going to attack him or not, was EXCELLENT. I think most peole are too hard on Star Wars. It's like no one wants to give George Lucas any credit for what he did that was RIGHT. Well, I'm not one of THOSE people. I think they handled Annakin's switch to the dark side very well.

  8. I liked this Elisabeth Rappe article from Jezebel about the script's departure from Baum's female-centric Oz mythology. An excerpt: "Though Baum brushed off claims that Oz was at all political, he made a decided choice to make women front and center of the series. They're princesses, ordinary farmgirls, witches (both good and bad), rag dolls, generals, pastry chefs, and problem-solving faeries. They have adventures, lead search parties, rescue one another, solve difficulties, and challenge the Nome King in combat. Perhaps most significantly, none of the characters -– not Ozma, Glinda, Betsy or Dorothy –- ever engage in romantic relationships. Baum made a point of avoiding such trappings as love interests, because he believed children would find passionate romance boring, and an emotional element which they wouldn't truly understand. Perhaps there was a personal element in this as well, as Baum, conscious of what Maud sacrificed in order to marry him, allowed his heroines perpetual youth and personal freedom."

  9. Thanks for the post. You should take part in a contest for one of the best blogs on the weboz cruising

  10. I didn’t have a problem with Theodora’s transformation from good to evil; however, I didn’t like that there was no back story for Evanora--how did she end up becoming wicked? I hate when stories make a character evil just because they want someone for the main protagonist to beat up--real people are just not born that way (in my opinion)…

    Theodora also confused me--when she cried as a good witch, her face melted. What does that mean, would the burn marks have healed themselves on their own or would the condition have proved to be fatal to her? Theodora’s power is never explained.

    I also didn’t understand how magic worked in the film. Obviously a witch’s power, to warp reality, comes from rubies--OK—so, why didn't they just give the James Franco a ruby and make him “The wizard?”