Facial Disfigurement: Hollywood’s Shortcut to Villainy (Dr. Poison in Wonder Woman)

Hollywood’s best villains are driven by their story, but Dr. Maru’s story, (aka Dr. Poison) goes untold, as if her facial disfigurement explains it all.

makeshift Dr Poison maskAs someone with a facial difference (I grew up with a face half-paralyzed by the removal of a tumor shortly after birth and I refuse to call it “facial disfigurement”), I am baffled by the treatment of the villain Dr. Maru, aka Dr. Poison in the recent Wonder Woman movie. We know something is up with her face because she wears a primitive prosthetic. At the end of the film, we see her mask blown off and her scarred face revealed…but that’s it. We have no back story to explain it except a passing mention of perhaps some sort of lab accident. When Dr. Maru’s face is revealed, instead of crushing her as she has the other supreme villains, Diana (“Wonder Woman”) spares her out of what seems to be pity.

As if the tragedy of her facial scarring excuses her murderous actions.

As if we need no other explanation for her heinous acts than “Oh, look at her face! Surely that is punishment enough!” If I went on a killing spree, would my appearance get me off scot free? I doubt it; nor do I plan to test it.

That being said, lots of people with facial differences (or to use a term I despise, “disfigurements”) are able to adjust. Those that have a harder time adjusting tend to isolate themselves. Regardless, the overwhelming majority of us with facial differences, whether we’ve had them from birth or they are acquired, generally don’t turn evil and homicidal just because our face is scarred, paralyzed or altered in some undesirable way.

Yes, I get that it’s World War I. People with facial differences confront many challenges in modern day society. I have no idea how it would have been for a woman with a facial difference in the early 1900’s.

Sure, I can make a few guesses as to what motivated Dr. Maru’s destructive choices. Perhaps she worked for General Ludendorff because he was nice to her- regardless of his motives. Perhaps she delighted in taking revenge on men because of how she’d been treated by them after her accident. Or perhaps she was so obsessed with the success of her work that people became dehumanized- in which case, her appearance would be irrelevant. Maybe it’s a combination of these. Or none.

We don’t know, because the narrative doesn’t tell us.

And what DID happen to her face? (To echo a question I hear often in my presence.) There is nothing to explain that type of scarring, which seemed to be created by CG rather than prosthetics or make-up.

And why does Hollywood have to use facial scarring as a motivator for villainy? Hollywood’s best villains are driven by their story- by believing that what they are doing is right. Ironically, in the same film Ares is an excellent example of a motivated villain.

Yet maiming the would-be villain seems to have become a standard Hollywood shortcut. As if the writers and producers are saying “We don’t have time to tell Dr. Maru’s story, so we’ll just disfigure her face. That will explain everything.”

No. No, it won’t. Or more to the point: No, no it SHOULDN’T.

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