Inevitably, movies about female monarchs become stories of women clinging to power. Not because the tippy-top of a monarchy is an inherently precarious position, but because of the unspoken understanding that queens are placeholders until a king can come along. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, in theaters October 18, breaks the queen movie curse.
Here are three very different queens striving for power and notoriety — one good, one evil, one off-the-charts of any human morality scale (Maleficent herself, played with saturnine vim by Angelina Jolie). All three are immensely flawed as well: possessive, naive, prone to hurting others. As varied as they are, the queens have one trait in common: At no point is their legitimacy questioned. They get to be messed up, and they get to be queens. It’s a joy to behold.
Five years after the events of 2014’s Maleficent, kind-hearted and gentle Aurora (Elle Fanning) has taken over as Queen of the Moors, the fairy realm that was once her Godmother’s dominion. She spends her days wrangling adorable creatures that look like a cross between Minions and Baby Groot (but even cuter, if you can believe it). Unlike the traditional depiction of Sleeping Beauty, Aurora wears the crown but skipped over the marrying step.
Across the river, the diamond-clad Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) orchestrates the growth of her empire with ruthless precision. Ingrith is a Stepford Queen, polite and coiffed. She uses her feminine appearance to mask a sinister, more traditionally masculine ambition. All you need to know about Ingrith is this: A mannequin in her lavish closet is the trigger for a trap door that leads to the war room.
Unlike Ingrith, Maleficent has no need for disguises. Up in her cliff-side cave, Maleficent is far removed from the city and the Moors. She’s like a real-life boogeyman: Everyone knows her green-coloured magic can knock puny civilizations to the ground. Her power stems from being unmatched — the only one of her kind (or so she thinks) — but it also makes her lonely, a condition that worsens after Aurora’s big news.
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is a dance between these three women, who are brought together after Philip (Harris Dickinson, born to play a Disney Prince) asks for Aurora’s hand in marriage. Neither Maleficent nor Ingrith is thrilled by the union. Ingrith, because she’s disgusted by fairy folk. Maleficent, because she’s going to lose her girl to the humans.
The movie is at its best when it’s a family dramedy, leaning into the women’s complicated and shifting alliances. In this unconventional marriage story, absent is the quintessential pained father, squirming at the thought of passing his daughters on to another man (a la Father of the Bride). Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is about maternal love, with a side dollop of romance. Will Aurora choose her godmother or mother-in-law’s influence?
Ultimately, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil has the freedom to depict full-fledged, unencumbered Queendom in a way that movies like Mary, Queen of Scots, which are bound by true events, do not. Maleficent is a fairy tale, and it reminds us of its fantasy with every breath-taking vista of the unusual: glowing flowers, forests full of colourful fae, and gigantic fairy wingspans. Here, men are supporting players in the women’s riveting saga. Philip is completely devoted to his forest-chic bride. King John is a sweet pacifist who’s asleep while his wife orchestrates a war. Diaval (Sam Riley) is Maleficent’s familiar and forever pal. Later on, the dark fae bow down to Maleficent, too. This film is a subtle, but important, depiction of male allyship.
This is also one of many recent works of pop culture that addresses the West’s uptick in xenophobia through fantasy tropes. Like Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Amazon Prime’s Carnival Row and Netflix’s Bright also stage conflict between humans and encroaching fairy populations.
Of the three, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is the most successful at weaving in colonization and environmental destruction, precisely because it’s a fairy tale, removed from history. In this story, the fairy folk are an intrinsic part of the land. In an effort led by Queen Ingrith, humans are encroaching on the Moors, destroying the link between the earth and its beings.
When a fairy dies, it reverts to being an ordinary part of nature: a tree, a flower, a dandelion. It’s not hard to imagine that our world was similarly stripped of its supernatural possibilities, thanks to the Ingriths of history.
In Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, progress comes not through expansion and conquering, but harmony. The movie is a depiction of another kind of society — where a tree is not a tree, but a magical being; where a queen is not an idealised symbol of feminine power, but an actual (and flawed!) ruler.
A world like the one seen in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil can only exist in the fantasy genre — but by seeing it this weekend, children will absorb its lessons, and maybe take a piece of it with them.