Featured image “Spies in Disguise,” 20th Century Fox. Source.
When I saw the trailers for Spies in Disguise in 2019, I decided right away that I could wait to see it until it popped up on a streaming service. That was, of course, back in a time where it was safe to go to the movie theater a few times a month. It turns out the trailer I saw the most was the least accurate representation of the story. That trailer sold the story as a straightforward spy romp with the unexpected element of going incognito as a pigeon. Entertaining, action-packed, and possibly boring.
But the more accurate trailer I found promises something better: a hilarious spy-flavored misadventure with an underutilized take on the theme of good vs. evil.
By now, it’s well understood that good villains are characters you can sympathize with. You don’t agree with their actions, but you understand why they felt driven to take them. Assuming their motivations are more complex than “I want money and power,” that is.
But the villain of Spies in Disguise isn’t just understandable. He’s cut from the same cloth as the hero, Lance Sterling (Will Smith). If the story was told from the villain’s viewpoint, we’d root for him as an antihero.
What keeps us from doing that at first blush? Our instinctive assumption that Americans=good guys and anything that sounds east-European=bad guys. That and Walter Beckett (Tom Holland). He’s a young gadget designer with a passion for developing non-lethal technology that borders on ridiculously cute.
Both Lance and the villain live by the same code: “When someone hits you, you hit them back harder.” When the villain mentions the personal harm it caused, setting him on a path of terrorism and revenge, Lance dismisses it. It’s just part of the job; all business, no sympathy.
It’s Walter’s insistence that a better world requires a better response to threats than violence that highlights Lance’s hypocrisy. He could have just as easily been the villain himself.
This is my favorite approach to good vs. bad. So often, we see heroes say and do things we would normally see villains do. But we accept it without question because the lens of storytelling tells us they are the hero. This is just the necessary evil one has to do for the greater good.
For all the family-friendly antics of Spies in Disguise, it has an amazingly mature theme I wish I saw more often. As of this writing, the film is available to watch on HBO Max. But if that’s not the streaming service for you, you can always watch the short animation Pigeon: Impossible, which served as loose inspiration for Spies in Disguise, and is available for free on YouTube.
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