After the Season 4 finale, I had a lot on my mind (as you might recall). But I had one concern that I haven’t discussed on this blog:
“How are they going to top this?”
The fight with Tirek was great, but it’s certainly not something I want to see every season. Would they keep introducing bigger and more powerful villains? That way lies Dragonball Z — and while I cherish my memories of that show as much as any twentysomething male, it is one of the few shows that has made the destruction of a planet seem boring.
That’s certainly not something we should want for FiM. So how would they introduce a new villain for Season 5 without creating a letdown?
I should have known they wouldn’t disappoint us.
Starlight Glimmer is unique among FiM‘s major villains in that she’s just a “normal” unicorn. After a hate-twisted demigoddess, a trickster-god, a love-devouring hive-mother, an omnipresent miasma of despair, and a giant magic-eating centaur, that might seem underwhelming.
But what makes Starlight threatening isn’t her raw power; it’s her ideas, and her ability to convince others of those ideas.
The closest we’ve had to Starlight is (EqG1) Sunset Shimmer, and Starlight might seem like a re-hash of Sunset. But though each is a counterpart to Twilight, the two characters are fundamentally different.
Sunset was a distortion of Twilight; superficially, their roles seemed similar (they were both leaders), but they actually had very little in common. Sunset bullied others into following her, while Twilight inspired them and led by example. Sunset wanted to be in charge for the sake of her own ego, while Twilight (reluctantly) took charge for the sake of others, hoping to achieve what was best for them. Twilight accepted power as a means to an end, while for Sunset, power was the end-goal.
Or, as the movie itself put it: “A true princess does not force others to bow before her; she inspires others to stand with her.” And that seems like a pretty good metric.
But then we get to “The Cutie Map” and we hit a problem; by that definition, Starlight Glimmer is a true princess — at least at first glance. She leads by (false) example and inspiration. She (apparently) wants to lead for the sake of others. She wants power as a means to a greater (bad) end. And she doesn’t (initially) force anyone to bow before her; she inspires her followers to stand with her.
Granted, this distinction breaks down at the halfway mark, when it becomes evident that much of her influence has been gained not by inspiration, but by brainwashing. But the line between “brainwashing” and “convincing” is often blurry, especially to an outsider. Where Sunny’s vile nature was evident from square one, Starlight takes awhile to show her true colors — and by the time she does, it’s too late.
Even more intriguing, Starlight might actually believe that she’s doing the right thing. The fact that she keeps her Cutie Mark may suggest that she’s only in it for the power. But if her magic is necessary for the Equalizing process, she is justified in keeping it — or at least, she can convince herself that she is.
Where Sunset was a distortion of Twilight, Starlight (somewhat ironically) is a mirror-image. She replicates all of Twilight’s best qualities — her magical skill, her intellect, and even her ability to inspire others. She just uses those abilities for bad ends.
And honestly, that makes her kind of scary. Chaos-gods, hateful alicorns, and sadistic miasmas might be intimidating, but at least the monster is clearly identifiable. You can see it, you can understand it, and you can fight it.
But what do we do when the monsters look like heroes? What we do when they look like us?
That’s a more difficult question, and it’s a lot more relevant to real life — just look at the horrific acts committed by people who thought their leader would finally fix everything.
Even more threatening is Starlight’s ability to win others to her philosophy. And in this, she joins some of the most effective villains of our culture. The Joker, Emperor Palpatine, Iago (no, the first Iago), Gaston, Sauron even Old Scratch himself — all these characters have various strengths, but their real power is their ability to corrupt; to turn our friends and allies against us; to turn a group of concerned citizens into a bloodthirsty mob.
That’s something Twilight & Co. haven’t really faced before. The closest thing we’ve seen is probably the Flim-Flam Brothers, but Flim and Flam were charlatans — they could swindle people out of their money or even their livelihoods, but they couldn’t convince them to renounce their very identities. Starlight Glimmer can — which means she nullifies one of Twilight’s greatest strengths.
For every previous villain, when Twilight’s magical ability failed her, she could rely upon others. When she couldn’t beat Nightmare Moon, she could rely upon the ReMane Five to help her. When the Mane Six couldn’t defeat Chrysalis, Cadance and Shining Armor took point. When she couldn’t escape Sombra’s trap, Spike stepped up and bailed her out. “My magic may have failed me,” went her mantra, “but I still have my friends to stand by me.”
But when she says that to Starlight, Starlight looks right back at her, smirks, and says “so do I.” She doesn’t need to be convinced to rely upon others — her ability and willingness to use other people is precisely what makes her so dangerous. Starlight, uniquely, can fight Twilight on her own terms — and that could create some fantastic conflict.
From a narrative standpoint, Starlight also circumvents the trap of Rainbow Power. Tommy Oliver generally praised the Season 4 finale, but expressed concern that the Rainbow Power had replaced the Elements of Harmony as a “get-out-of-conflict-free card” (as he aptly put it).
But Starlight negates that ability as well. In contrast to the corruption we saw from Nightmare Moon, Discord, or the Dazzlings, Starlight’s corruption — despite her impressive magical ability — is entirely mundane. Yes, she uses her magic to remove the Cutie Marks of other ponies, but she convinces them to do so through non-magical charisma, inspiration, (twisted) reason, and (when all else fails) brainwashing. And you can’t beat bad ideas out of people, so Rainbow Power is removed from the equation.
Villains don’t necessarily need raw power to be threatening; some of the most effective antagonists are the ones who can make villains out of heroes. And now, one such villain has joined FiM‘s Rogues Gallery.
I’m stoked to see what kind of messes she’ll make.