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.