It bugs me about Nimona

cn: Lots of spoilers.  Also a suicide mention.

Nimona is a recent animated film taking place in a futuristic medieval setting. Lord Ballister was a commoner who was plucked by the queen to become a knight. Knights are sworn to defend the city from monsters beyond its walls, but they basically function as cops. However, during the knighting ceremony, Ballister is framed for killing the queen, and becomes a fugitive.

He gets adopted by Nimona, who at first appears as a young girl, but is a powerful shapeshifter. She calls him a villain, and insists on being his sidekick.  Although Ballister is initially reluctant, they work together to prove his innocence. But Ballister learns that he needs to go much further, striking at the heart of the city’s corrupt institutions and entire mythos.

Nimona is celebrated as a queer and trans movie, and for good reason. It has a trans creator, overt representation (Ballister having a male love interest and Nimona being fluid in both species and gender), and subversive themes about overthrowing the social and institutional structures that oppress people.

And so, I am very sorry to play the role of media curmudgeon, yet again. I found the themes of the movie to be in conflict with what was being literally portrayed. This gave the impression of a movie that had a point to make, but was ineffective at actually arguing the point.

The most baffling scene in Nimona

Nimona adopts the trappings of villainy. She explicitly describes Ballister as a villain, against Ballister’s own protestation, and applies to be his sidekick. In her “job interview”, she explicitly advocates murder and destruction. And then, when shown in action, she joyously causes gratuitous chaos and violence against both property and people.

The first real turning point for Nimona’s character is one particular scene. Nimona is fighting the knights, and takes the form of a giant dragon. At the end of the battle, she slams her tail down to prevent a car (?) from killing a small child who happened to be standing in the wrong place. The kid has fear in his eyes, but draws a toy sword, calling her a monster. Nimona is very distressed by the incident, and this is the first time we ever see Nimona distressed.

Literary interpretation quiz: Is Nimona distressed because a) she regrets scaring this small child, or b) she hates that society has taught kids to be scared of her?

a) seems like the obvious answer, but I’m pretty sure b) is the intended interpretation. I found this so counterintuitive that I didn’t even realize what the movie was going for until I reflected upon it later.

The problem is that Nimona’s villainy feels caught between at least three interpretations. I’m going to call these three interpretations “villain with a heart of gold”, “overthrow the system”, and “it’s just a cartoon”.

The villain with a heart of gold

The “villain with a heart of gold” interpretation may be illustrated by referring to another movie with a villain protagonist. In Megamind, the titular protagonist is a supervillain locked in a rivalry with a superhero. However, although Megamind adopts the trappings of villainy, it’s clear from the beginning that he’s more naive than malicious. He gets a sympathetic backstory, having been bullied and rejected by society, while the superhero was praised and celebrated. Over the course of the movie, Megamind must overcome his failings and become a hero. In short, although Megamind takes the role of a villlain, we are to understand that he’s really just a hero at the beginning of a character arc.

In contrast, Nimona seems uninterested in establishing that Nimona has a heart of gold. Stories often have hero-establishing moments (the hero saves a puppy), and villain-establishing moments (the villain kicks a puppy), and I’d expect a villain with a heart of gold to do something like save a puppy. A puppy-saving villain, that speaks to an internal conflict that portends growth and development. But Nimona, in all her gremlin mischief, feels far more likely to kick a puppy. In fact, it feels like the movie just expects us to find her sympathetic without going through the tedious motions of justifying why we should do so. (It probably works on kids since she’s the character depicted as a kid.)

Like Megamind, Nimona gets a sympathetic backstory, having been outcast by society and deemed a “monster”.  (I suppose that “monster” is the slur, while “villain” is the reclaimed label.  Sure, whatever.) Nimona’s violence can be read as lashing out against her own oppression. But if we wanted to read it as a maladaptive response, the movie refuses that interpretation. The violence is portrayed too exuberantly to be wrong. And Nimona doesn’t ever really learn or grow out of it.  Within the story, the only maladaptive response is when Nimona wants to remove herself from the world.

I understand that this is basically the direction it has to go as a queer/trans narrative. After all, we wouldn’t want to suggest that queer rage is unjustified, or that queer characters must change who they are to fit the world. But that’s exactly the problem I’m pointing out. The queer/trans metaphor pulls in one direction, but the narrative pulls in a different direction. When a small child looks at Nimona with fear in his eyes, my expectation is that Nimona will finally think about the harm she has caused, but this is in direct conflict with what the movie is actually trying to say.

Overthrow the system

So what is the movie actually trying to say? The scared kid holding up a toy sword parallels a later scene in the movie, showing Nimona’s backstory.

As far as we can tell, Nimona has always been a shapeshifter—it’s a point of some thematic significance that this is never explained. What we see in the backstory is Nimona making a friend with a human child. But the other villagers attack her and call her a monster. In the fight they accidentally set the village on fire, which they blame on Nimona. Nimona’s former friend finally turns on her, drawing a sword. A thousand years later, this story has become the city’s founding legend.

So the small kid holding up a sword to Nimona is meant to represent the prejudice that society holds against Nimona–inculcated in kids even at a young age. So the story is saying, Nimona is right to be angry at society. All cops are bastards, seize the means of production, overthrow the government, etc. etc.

But, even understanding what they’re going for, and being sympathetic to it, it’s kind of hard to buy? Why are we expecting a little kid not to be afraid of a dragon that can crush a car with a swipe of a tail? I hate to complain about plot holes, but it’s a problem when the plot holes are so large that an entire alternative interpretation can drive through them.

I think my issue is the movie takes such a blasé approach to collateral damage. We’re meant to presume all those buildings were conveniently empty, the people who got knocked out all got better, and unnamed characters basically don’t matter. It’s jarring when a kid shows up and suddenly we’re supposed to care how this kid feels, because the movie sure didn’t care about any other kids up to that point. Even then, the final interpretation apparently calls upon us to be angry at the kid, or angry at the system that produced the kid, rather than feeling sorry for him.

It’s just a cartoon

If you think I’m reading too much into it, to that I say, you must be new here. And now it’s time to read too much into that reading, the idea that the violence doesn’t matter, because it’s just a cartoon.

Ding ding ding! Correct. The violence doesn’t matter because it’s just a cartoon.

I’m reminded of an article by Katherine Cross, about violence in video games. It’s easy to observe that violence is ubiquitous in video games, but why? Katherine Cross argued that violence is idiomatic. Within video game conventions, violence is not the message, it is the language. It’s the thing you do to progress through a game.

I’m toying with the idea that this is not just true in video games, but in a lot of other media as well. Such as, the entire superhero genre. What does it mean when superheroes and villains fight each other? What does it mean when they topple over a bunch of conveniently empty buildings? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t convey the same message in fiction that it does in real life. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re not meant to think about it much at all.

So when I complain about collateral damage, and I complain about Nimona being an unsympathetic little gremlin, it’s kind of like me saying, “Raining cats and dogs? But that doesn’t make any sense!!” I’m refusing to read the movie in its chosen dialect, and complaining when it speaks nonsense. I can’t really justify my interpretation. But I also can’t help it, because it really is my natural interpretation of the movie. I find it challenging to see it on its own terms, and I don’t know how other people do it.

This is a really persistent problem for me, and I basically don’t like superhero movies. Or movies in general, really.

Nimona is a good movie though. It’s subversive and breaks from narrative convention in some interesting ways. You should watch it, even though I kind of spoiled it. 7/10.


  1. says

    Disagree strongly with much of what you say here.

    Nimona CLEARLY deals with self-hatred. Changing forms is her power and her salvation, but it is also the rationale for the **exterior** hatred.

    Nimona believes and has believed that the exterior hatred is unjustified. She focusses her rage outward as a defense. She can’t allow herself to be introspective.

    In the scene you describe she come to crisis because she realizes that the exterior hatred might actually be justified. Her “I can do anything because I’m the good one and they’re the bad ones” psychological defense unravels.

    You mistake her endorsement of villainy **in the context of the story** for endorsement of villainy more broadly. But that’s not it at all. The civilization has made her a villain, quite literally. As a character (not as an author) she can embrace being what the society around her calls villainous because she knows that she will be seen as a villain whether her behaviour is good or bad.

    This is obviously a metaphor for growing up FtM. To be a “bad girl” in this society is synonymous with “being bad at being a girl”. If you try and fail at being a girl, and if the criticism is constant and humiliating and painful, then being a tomboy and smoking cigarettes and having sex at a young age, NONE of those villainous activities make you a villain, **because you already were one, always have been one, and can’t escape being one**.

    As an FtM child this is enormously freeing. “I’m going to catch hell no matter what I do, so I’m going to do EVERYTHING that I want no matter how bad b/c what more can they do to me” is a very common dynamic among FtM folks.

    But there comes a point at which there’s someone you care about that you hurt with your behaviour and you have to make a decision whether to allow yourself to care or whether to retreat even harder. Maybe a kid looks up to you and they start smoking (tobacco or whatever). Whatever it is, suddenly you’re no longer free because you can ignore what society thinks of you, but you can’t ignore what you think of yourself.

    So what happens when you think of yourself as the villain? After all this time when you donned the trappings of villainy as a defense, but never thought of yourself as a true villain, the psychological dynamic changes everything. Suicide seems the logical option. I mean hey, what if you didn’t just do something bad that you’re upset about for your own reasons, but what if society was right all along and you always were a villain? What if not being a good girl (i.e. what if not being good at being a girl), does inevitably lead to being truly, harmfully evil?

    The pain is immense and exquisite and our decisions in that moment of crisis are often terrifyingly bad, hurting others and exacerbating the crisis of how one sees oneself as valuable enough to be allowed to survive.

    Nimona is an exquisite trans story.

  2. says

    @Crip Dyke,
    Thanks for sharing your reading.

    I felt that the movie was giving very mixed messages about Nimona’s violence. On the one hand, it’s the subject of joy and whimsy (not just coming from Nimona’s own joy, but from the movie direction). But interpreted literally, it’s as I described, “gratuitous chaos and violence against both property and people”. But it’s also cartoon violence, so *shrug* about how seriously we’re supposed to take it. But it’s also a metaphor, either for righteous anger–or for maladaptive lashing out. I felt like there was no single reading that made sense.

    But at this point, I’m just recapping what I said in the OP. My sense is that if you got a handful of people together who all liked the movie, and they really talked about it, there may be multiple different interpretations among them.

  3. says

    About violence in superhero movies- this also bothers me a lot (and I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). When I see the characters fighting and breaking things, I always wonder what happens after- like who cleans it up? I like some of the Marvel movies that sort of explored the aftermath of typical superhero actions that normally movies completely ignore- like “Spiderman: Homecoming” where Spiderman was fighting a villain who had alien weapons he found in the debris from the battle in “Avengers.” Like, yes, someone *should* be asking the question “whatever happened to those alien weapons, shouldn’t we be concerned about this?”

    I once watched a video on youtube that asked the question “how would insurance work in a world with superheroes?” and it was great because that is the exact thing I always want to talk about.

  4. says

    I felt like there was no single reading that made sense.

    This is actually the part of your perspective that most frustrates me.

    It’s like you think that trans lives SHOULD make sense in the context of a world which alternately denies our existence, demonizes us, and celebrates our ability to break molds and thus blaze paths that others may more easily follow.

    It is the very fact that trans lives make so little sense in the cis world that makes your analytical lens of, “Let’s see how this stacks up against the common story telling tropes/techniques,” so unlikely to be productive.

    Not only do our lives not make sense within the context of the dominant culture, but the dominant culture is constructed deliberately to make sure that our lives don’t make sense. And yet you want to pick a few of the most dominant of dominant-culture themes, try to force Nimona into them, and then downrate the movie when that doesn’t work.

    If you even attempt to fit Nimona into a standard box you’re already missing the point.

  5. says

    @Crip Dyke,
    My purpose isn’t to share a sophisticated reading of Nimona that reveals how the movie is bad, actually. Rather, my point is that I don’t get it, and to share notes on how I’m seeing it, in hopes of understanding why I don’t get it. You have a reading that works for you, and I’m glad for that, but I only have second-hand access to that reading. On Pillowfort, I got another commenter with what appears to be a very different reading, and I don’t have access to that one either. You say I don’t get it, or I’m missing the point–but didn’t I already say that myself in the OP?

    And the rating… well the rating is a joke, because I don’t fancy myself a movie reviewer, I’m an essayist. (The joke is that my rating is incongruous with my review–this is a common joke that I’ve used more than once, and which is not at all original to me.) But I don’t believe it is wrong to downrate a movie that I don’t get. The rating is based on a subjective experience. I’m not going to rate based on some hypothetical viewer who understood the movie better than me.

  6. raz says

    Agreeing with Crip Dyke’s trans reading; just noting that (a) yeah Nimona is readable as leaning into being perceived as a monster by delighting in monstrousness, which is a pretty relatable response I think? If the institutions/people we grew up around want to treat us like a terrifying specter, saying “boo” occasionally is just cathartic; and if society in Nimona’s world has spent 1000 years building an institution specifically to kill her, tossing their knights around and breaking their stuff seems like it would be too. Which leads into (b) iirc, the scenes where Nimona is actually enacting violence are mostly in the first half and in what appear to be Institute facilities. So, yknow, the building that’s collateral damage is specifically a hunt-things-like-her office. When the fight spills out into the street and she sees a child near it, she immediately protects the kid and has a moment of relating to them and seeing herself through their eyes (as we read it). The only other time a lot of collateral damage is inflicted is in the final sequence, and as several people we were watching with noticed: none of that damage is done by Nimona. Aside from one billboard (which is playing an ad for killing monsters directly in her face) and the very last moment (which is protecting civilians among other things)- all the damage on screen is from the people attacking her.

    I just don’t read Nimona as enacting all that much violence on anyone *but* the group of people specifically dedicated to her extermination, which she stops when a child makes her realize it’s spilled out into possible collateral damage, and she causes *less* harm to people who aren’t actively opposed to her existence than that group.

  7. seachange says

    We have around fourteen intelligences in our brain each with their own module. PZ talked about these years ago. There’s pretty good evidence for these, and he speculated on more.

    Trolley problems are just presenting the same problem in such a way that they trigger some modules more strongly than other modules. Sometimes the switch between the modules as the problem is re-framed happens blindingly fast. You Siggy didn’t follow along. NBD.

    Why and how can African Americans love and support country that doesn’t love them or support them back? (I assure you they do huh right!?) If an interpreter can’t wrap their brain around that, then yes BLM demonstrations look horrible. Nimona did find love and it was taken away. She got it back. Yay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *