Within just the past decade, there has been a rapid shift in the characterization of the Other – from monstrous, to misunderstood; from frightening to friendly. Thus, vampires, werewolves and witches have changed from being evil creatures of the night, to tragically misunderstood victims of judgmental traditionalist organizations who are constantly challenging their right to exist. In 2012 we even had the movie Wreck it Ralph, in which all the classic “evil” characters from video games were given the chance to express their feelings in a bad-guy support group. The common feeling was “They can’t change who they are, they have to accept themselves as evil.” Their affirmation goes,
“I’m bad. And that’s good. I will never be good. And that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.”
What is fascinating to me (as a PhD student in Comparative Literature) is how closely Wreck-it-Ralph mirrors Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost – except for one major difference. In sync with contemporary moral values of inclusion and acceptance, the hero of the movie, Ralph, makes the transition from bad to good – demonstrating to children everywhere that good and evil are not fixed boundaries, but fluid definitions which can be altered by making good choices. (Whereas, in the dogmatic fixed universe of Paradise Lost ruled by an omnipotent tyrant and his eager-to-please son, Milton’s Satan is wholeheartedly and continuously thwarted in his quest to seek justice).
Note: you’ll really have to be familiar with Paradise Lost (or at least a vague sense of the biblical garden story) to follow along. If you feel like this extremely long and in-depth literary deconstruction of Wreck-it-Ralph is unfounded, you need to do some research: almost all Disney movies are based on ancient myths or Gnostic mythology, usually with mystical overtones.
The conflict begins when Ralph challenges his role in the hierarchy and suggests that he and Fix it Felix take turns on top of the building. Although he just wants to fit in, be included and eat some cake, he gets rejected by uptight and angry conservatives who see things in black and white. This makes him angry, and he confirms the stereotypical role they’ve assigned for him by ruining the cake (and the party). He swears he is going to go off and win a medal of his own – which requires finding a space outside of the fixed moral laws of his video-game universe. There’s an unofficial challenge thrown down, as he declares he’s going to win a medal better and shinier than any of Felix’s medals.
“Where can a guy like me go to win a medal?” he asks his friend.
“I don’t think such a game exists.”
But he sneaks into a different game with a totally different ethical code; and is unprepared for the “violent and scary” realities of the modern 3D first person shooter.
Meanwhile, after having left his own universe, the normal gameplay of Wreck-it-Ralph falls apart. Without Ralph to wreck, Felix has nothing to fix. The game gets an “Out of Order” sign, and the warning that if it can’t be fixed, the whole thing will need to be retired.
“Sweet Mercy, without Ralph, we’re DOOMED!”
Paradise Lost begins with a similar conflict. When God proclaims Jesus as his heir and commands all the angels to obey him, Satan gathers some of the angels together so that they may discuss this new law. Whereas obeying God (who was obviously superior) had posed no challenge, since angels had fixed hierarchical duties, Jesus has been untested and his merits are unknown. It’s possible that he is superior to Satan (and if so Satan would have no problem following him) but Satan doesn’t like to be told that he’s inferior and must obey, just because he’s been given an order.
So he suggests they look for some new place, outside of God’s kingdom, where perhaps they can be free.
But this decision causes heaven to rally its armies and attack, the son of God is brought in to definitively shatter Satan’s troops (for the glory of the son and his father). Satan and his armies are cast down into Hell. When they regroup, they decide to do whatever they can to regain their injured merit.
Satan decides to travel to a faraway land (earth, newly created) to see if anything can be done; using a disguise to fool God’s sentry, he sneaks into the Garden.
In the movie, Ralph climbs up the tower (a journey much like Satan’s crossing through chaos) and breaks into the protected room to steal the shiny medal. In the room, surrounding the medals, are a whole race of alien bug eggs.
He takes the medal of heroes and fantasizes about how it will change his role in the game. The commander tells him “history will long revere your courage and sacrifice. You have etched in the rock of virtue a legacy beyond compare. You are the universe’s greatest hero…” But then he accidentally steps on an egg and gets attacked by a baby bug. They stumble into an escape pod and travel through diverse worlds…. and end up in a new land.
His first contact in the new game, “Sugar Rush” is a little girl. He lies and says he’s from the “candy tree department,” but then confesses.
“Lying to a child? Shame on you Ralph.”
He tells her that it’s his medal, it’s precious to him, it’s his ticket to a better life.
But she takes the medal from him anyway, “Well now it’s MY ticket.”
Likewise, in Paradise Lost Satan first meets Eve and lies about his identity. He appears as a talking snake and tells her the apple is responsible for his intelligence and ability to speak. He talks up the apple so much he never really has to tell her to eat it… she wants the apple because she’s already dissatisfied with her subservient role to Adam, and covets Satan’s freedom and independence. She’s looking for a way out of predetermined character roles.
In the world of Sugar Rush, a moronic King is announced by an unenthused trumpeteer, and oversees the beginning of a new race, which will determine tomorrow’s players. The little girl (Vanellope) uses Ralph’s newly won gold coin to buy her way into the go-cart race. Only previous winners can enter, which means that nobody new can ever rewrite their role and enter the game – but Vanellope does it anyway. This is especially traumatic because she’s a “glitch.”
The King tries to pacify the upset crowd, but immediately calls for security. Ralph – who fell into the green sludge and now appears hideously monstrous – appears on the scene and chases after Vanellope, destroying everything in his way…. until he gets stuck in a big cupcake. When security catches up to him, he says “Oh good – the cops – she went that way.” But rather than pursue the stealer of his medal, the police start beating him. The puppet king announces, “Everything is alright, the monster’s been caught!” Pretending to have control over the situation from his high tower.
The leader of the racing girls says “There’s no way I’m racing with that glitch.” The king echoes her concern, “That glitch cannot be allowed to race!” Vanellope broke the predetermined social structure. She isn’t allowed to challenge, speak out, out-maneuver (or even compete).
Ralph gets escorted to the castle, where he explains this is all a misunderstanding, he’ll just get his medal back and get going. King Candy replies, “Your medal? Bad guys don’t win medals!”
Ralph says he earned it. The King: “You game jumped? You’re not going turbo are you? If you think you can just come in here, to my kingdom, and take over my game, you’ve got another thing coming!”
“It’s not my fault one of your children stole my medal.”
“The medal’s gone…and it’ll stay that way until the end of the race.”
“Well maybe I’ll just have to have a talk with the winner then.”
For Ralph, getting the medal back is his way of role-switching from villain to hero – he’ll do anything to get it. “I’m not leaving without my medal.”
“Yes, you are. And if I ever see you again, I’ll lock you in my Fun-geon.”
There’s a confrontation between Vanellope and the other go-cart girls, who say: “The rules are there for a reason. To protect us.”
The same sentiments are found in Book VIII of Paradise Lost. Adam and Even question their roles and the universe, but are told the rules are there to protect them, and they must accept their limitations.
The mean girls destroy Vanellope’s car, which Ralph witnesses. “Uncool,” he says.
“I just want to race like you guys.”
“You will never be a racer, because you’re a glitch, and that’s all you’ll ever be.”
The bullying escalates, and Ralph gets angry, running in showing his “monster” face to protect Vanellope from her abusers. But the cart is destroyed, and without it, they can’t race and win the medal back. So Vanellope suggests they work together. “You get me a real cart, and I’ll win the race and win back your medal.”
But the stakes are also raised… Ralph and Eve have caused a “glitch”… but Ralph’s unauthorized entry also brought with it an alien “virus” that could destroy this system, and spread out to destroy all other systems as well.
Fix-it-Felix (who like Jesus has never proved his merit but has now volunteered to help reign in the awol Ralph) is on a mission to contain the damage, accompanied by the beautiful military commander from Hero’s Duty. Several characters have used the term Turbo but only now is the full meaning explained to us: back when the arcade first opened, TurboTime was the most popular game, and Turbo loved the attention. So when another game stole his thunder, he was jealous. So jealous that he abandoned his game and tried to take over the other one. He ended up crashing the system. Turbo ended up putting both games and himself out of order.
So really, Turbo matches the original story of Satan’s fall more closely (at least the traditional Christian view that Satan’s sin was his pride.) But Ralph is a neo-Satan, repeating the mistakes of history. Felix says “That’s why I have to get Ralph home, or the same thing is going to happen to MY game.”
Except we as viewers already know that Ralph isn’t really bad guy, and he shouldn’t be kept from getting the equal treatment he deserves. Even though he wrecks stuff, and nobody likes him, we’ve gotten a close look at him and are sympathetic (this is the major literary problem with Paradise Lost as well – Satan is obviously sympathetic, but he can’t be the hero for Christians or people raised in a Christian society. So something went wrong with Milton’s epic).
In a strange episode that most closely mirrors the Gnostic myth of Sophia and Logos (the divine Word, Son of God), Felix and his new friend Sergeant Calhoun get stuck in the mud and are trapped. To get free, they must cause the laughy-taffy vines to come save them… they are attracted to laughter so Felix orders Calhoun to beat him up. No worries, he tells her, because – although he suffers – he can magically fix himself after each punch! (Likewise, in the Gnostic version, Jesus is laughing because getting crucified is no big deal for him, since his suffering is so short and he knows he’ll survive.)
Vanellope and Ralph break into the ‘coding’ area to make their own new vehicle. She tells him he needs to make something; he says I’m not a maker, I’m a breaker… and his car is pretty ugly. Nevertheless, she loves and appreciates it.
They make their own vehicle and sign it (creation!) They escape through a secret portal. He makes fun of her for trying to win a race without knowing how to drive. “What did you think? Oh, I’ll magically win the race just because I really want to!” She says, “I KNOW I’m a racer, I feel it in my code.” They both want the same thing; to change their social status and be well-treated for who they are, not their character assignments.
They end up in some kind of hell – an unfinished bonus level. With fire and brimestone (cola and mentos). Vanellope, like Ralph, lives by herself with garbage. “Everyone thinks I’m just a mistake and I wasn’t even supposed to exist.”
(Sidenote: perhaps she represents Lilith… her and Ralph are Lilith and Satan, both outcasts, living on the fringes, in the dark places, just trying to get their due by subverting normalcy. Or… maybe not.)
Ralph teaches Vanellope how to drive a car (Satan introduces Eve to knowledge, and technology). He realizes they are kindred spirits. He teaches her the skills of independence and self-sufficiency.
Meanwhile, the king is fretting away in his castle. He enters a cheat code to access the code and his omnipotent powers, and reclaims the stolen medal.
The King comes to Ralph and offers him his medal back. “Do you know what the hardest part about being a king is? Doing what’s right, no matter what. I need your help. Vanellope cannot be allowed to win the race. I’ve got nothing against her, I’m trying to protect her. If they see there’s a glitch, they’ll think the game is broken. All my subjects will be homeless. But there’s one who cannot escape, because she’s a glitch. When the game’s plug is pulled….she’ll die with it.”
(A reasonable way to explain the concepts of Hell, eternal punishment… or at least the more PC version where some go to heaven and some just stop existing.)
This is also a doctrine known as the “Fortunate Fall.” If earth is destroyed, Adam and Eve and all humans will be lost forever – they cannot be preserved. Unless they first fall into sin by eating the apple, so that they can later be saved by Jesus Christ and have eternal life. This is the master-plan of Christian salvation. And for it to work – for humans to be saved – it is absolutely necessary that Eve disobey God and eat the apple. But obviously God can’t prohibit something and at the same time convince them to do it anyway – that would be silly. God needs Satan to get into the garden and tempt Eve. In Paradise Lost, the omniscient Father does this through manipulation. He manipulates Satan’s fall, he orchestrates his escape from hell, and heaps punishments on him so that he’ll be driven towards seeking revenge by harming Adam and Eve somehow, a bit of terrorism he would otherwise be loathe to do.
In the Wreck it Ralph version, “God” (the king) just convinces Ralph to be the bully.
“And if they don’t? I know it’s tough, but heroes have to make the tough choices, don’t they. She can’t race Ralph. But she won’t listen to me… can I count on you to talk a little sense into her?”
So Ralph sells her out. He’s a traitor, a rat. He puts her up in a tree and uses his might to smash the car. “I’m doing this for your own good!” he says as sad, tragic music plays.
“You really are a bad guy,” she cries and runs off.
Ralph goes home, but everything is changed.
He tosses the hero medal, realizing that his actions have ruined the balance.
But then, from his new perch, he sees he’s been tricked – Penelope’s picture is on the side of the console. He returns to Candyland, and learns Vanellope was a racer until King Candy tried to delete her code. That’s why she’s a glitch. He literally locked up everyone’s memories (cruel tyrant). And if she actually wins the race, the game will be reset and she won’t be a glitch anymore.
In our comparison with Christian theology, here we are taking a liberal turn. Adam and Eve are “glitches” – failed, sinful humans… so they feel guilt and obey the King. God needs them to fall so that they’ll obey. But if they rebel and win the race… then they’ll become fully empowered again. The King needs to stop that from happening to keep his control.
Felix is stuck in prison and can’t escape because he can only fix, but Ralph saves him. Felix is cross because he’s “suffered” so much. “You don’t know what it’s like to be rejected and treated like a criminal!” Ralph says, “Yes I do. That’s everyday of my life.”
Ralph begs Felix to use his magical golden hammer to fix the cart. They break Vanellope out of her chains. She competes against King Candy (a ruthless cheat) for the golden cup to reset the game. He attacks Vanellope violently and yells “I’m not letting you undo all my hard work!”
And then in a shocking reveal, we learn King Candy is actually the fabled Turbo!
“I didn’t reprogram this world to let you take it away from me!” In Gnostic terms, The Deity is revealed as the DemiUrge. The finish line gets destroyed. She’s stuck… she can’t leave the game because she’s a glitch.
“It’s OK Ralph. Just go. Go without me.”
The game is being overrun with bug-alien-monsters.
“Without a beacon, there’s no way to stop these monsters.”
Turbo becomes a monster himself: “The most powerful virus in the arcade – I can take over any game I want.”
But Ralph uses his smashing powers to make the volcano erupt, sacrificing himself by “falling” – but creating the beacon that saves them.
As he falls, he repeats his mantra –
“I’m bad. And that’s good. I will never be good. And that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.”
He sacrifices himself… but is then saved by Vanellope, who has learned to master her glitching abilities. Together they destroy all the bugs, including Turbo.
Felix fixes the finish line, Vanellope finishes the race, the game is reset, she becomes a princess, the memories are unlocked. She’s the rightful ruler, a princess. Everybody is so sorry. (Again, this is most like the Gnostic myth of Sophia, who fell into matter and forgot who she was, and who needs to be saved from the DemiUrge – Yahweh, who pretends to be God but isn’t really).
She’s the rightful ruler, but she refuses, because she’d rather be a magical glitch with superpowers. Changes from monarchy to constitutional democracy. (This is how Paradise Lost could have ended… perhaps if Milton had been living in a truly free society where he wouldn’t be put in prison for writing blasphemous books).
Ralph learns to accept his role, his duty, as destroyer. Now that he’s accepted himself, he can be happy (even while being a destroyer). He doesn’t get medals, but “he doesn’t need medals to be a good guy. Because if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?”
In other words, now that you’ve been told the story of the fall of Satan again, but in the playful disguise of video game characters, and you have no preconceptions about “Good” and “Evil” – labels don’t matter, because any little kid will understand and like Ralph (aka Satan).
It’s pretty easy to figure out the roles of the Good vs. the Evil characters in contemporary culture, and how they are completely at odds.
In religion, God wants control and obedience (for our protection). There are rules and consequences. Abstinence, restraint are the virtues of religion. There is hierarchy, leaders, commandments, punishments. Satan wants absolute freedom – both for himself and for you. Satan is about liberalism, equality, acceptance, divergence, radical self-determination.
In popular culture, however, our heroes are always revolutionary heroes, fighting against huge odds, trying to liberate themselves from a corrupt tyrant, foreign government or alien race. Resistance, rebellion, revolution… from Les Mis to Pirates to Guy Fawkes… our champions are tough, stubborn, bull-headed soldiers who persevere for their beliefs in justice and are willing to die for what they believe in. Wreck-it Ralph, like Satan, is BAD, and will NEVER be good, and that’s a GOOD thing.