Ice Queens and Magic Mirrors: Why ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’ Should Have Been Queenier

I live in Queens. Sometimes when Queen plays, I sing along, jubilantly. I enjoy the word “queen” reappropriated as something onto which you can attach a blankly affirmative “yas.” And from The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a movie whose main selling point is a battle between two queens, I wanted more queens. If you don’t mind a review coming from someone with a clear queen bias, do read on.

Universal/Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War — a prequel/spin off to Snow White and the Huntsman —  pulls its sparring evil queens from two fairy tales: Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen (which inspired Frozen) and the Brother’s Grimm’s Snow White. The very idea of “sparring evil queens” sounds like it could make for delectable camp, given folkloric gender roles often being so absurdly twisted into fantastical exaggerations (often as a reflection of the obstacles presented by the societies in which they arose). These characters exist, as with drag personae, far beyond the human manneristic and emotional spectrum.

Fittingly, then, the word “queen” has of course been employed to both exaggeratedly snarky and empowered ends within LGBT — and particularly gay male — culture. If you’re going to do “evil queens” today, one might hope that the take either be such a caricature of forms of vilified femininity that it serves as an absurd societal funhouse mirror (much like a very key magic mirror in The Huntsman: Winter’s War, one might say!) or a more focused study that humanizes or justifies these characters that seem to come from a pervasive historical misogyny and fear of matriarchy.

Fairytale femininity is fascinating and fraught (see Julia Leigh’s or Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty movies for intriguing — if not always compelling — deconstructions) — and it’s a shame (albeit an unsurprising shame) that this film that touches so much on it, with such a high budget for wonderfully, potentially crass ornateness, ends up simply being safe. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite offer enough in the way of either camp or, on the flip side, serious fleshing out of these archetypes. Instead, it takes its high-ish budget fairy tale world as seriously as any Hollywood fantasy action movie geared toward teens might — that is, only with occasional tonal gravity coating over what is otherwise a pretty thematically empty money grab. With both of the film’s central queens — Charlize Theron’s reprised Ravenna from Snow White and the Huntsman, and Emily Blunt’s Ice Queen, Freya — there are hints of the interesting, and oppositional stylistic directions this film could have gone in, but didn’t. Rather, the film ends up favoring and spending the majority of its time on an innocuous love plot between the titular Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and a certain warrior named Sara — played by Jessica Chastain. (Both of them are involved in a struggle to keep the magic mirror of the first film out of evil queenly reach.)

Between the two folkloric matriarchies pulled into the film, the reasons presented as to the tyranny of their leadership seem still too comfortably rooted (by way of both folklore and of course Disney) within patriarchal fears of matriarchy. This could have been interesting if the film had gone to greater depth in mining the origins of those fears, or made them so absurd that they became self-parodic camp (which it nearly does, but not enough to make it matter). The coolest thing about fairy tales, and about looking back at them, is seeing how their odd, flattened depiction of evil is often reflective of the societal constraints in which they existed. A queen like Ravenna, for example, who attempted infanticide in Snow White in order to be the prettiest, is interesting insomuch as her fictional existence suggests a lineage of beauty norms so stifling as to have manifested in fairy tales as the locus of evil.

For about 15 minutes, we’re graced by Charlize Theron’s literally towering presence and figuratively towering performance of exactly the kind of camp femininity mentioned earlier. With Theron’s very funny queenly evil power — the shooting of crystallized black goop that radiates from her breathtaking golden dress as though it were, itself, demonic fashion — we definitely see a glimpse of potential for a camp classic. This and other aspects of her power are an exaggeration of symbols of femininity that could, if it were taken a step further, be a more pointed display of the circus of old gender archetypes within fairy tales. (These archetypes are especially relevant given the ways misogynist rhetoric has been leveled at Hillary Clinton in the current American election.)

Meanwhile, a preface reveals in the film that Freya wasn’t always icy. She was a loving mother and romantic person, but then when her baby died — presumably murdered by its illegitimate father — her heart was turned to ice. As a result, she decided that she’d create a kingdom without love, gathering orphans and training them to be emotionless child soldiers as her grand, omnipotent exercise in emotional self-preservation. It is visible throughout the film — and in the impressive performance Blunt gives a somewhat trite character — that Freya’s dissent into frigidity isn’t an indication so much of her true lack of empathy, but rather of a compensatory and cruel attempt to control her deeply loving and emotional side. There are hints here at character development, though it all exists within the notion of a character who became a tyrant for personal reasons involving maternity. So alas, we have one totalitarian ruler who’s evil because she wants to be pretty, and another who’s evil because she was too emotional. Neither of these two origin stories, it’s fair to say, do much to undermine or even simply examine the stereotypically gendered aspects of the characters’ forms of tyranny.

Though I won’t say much more, the film culminates in the coalescence of these two evil matriarchies — Ravenna’s fallen throne to the south and her sister, Freya’s still intact evil ice-sculpture-making kingdom to the North. (If someone betrays her or falls in love — a thing she simply cannot abide — she literally ices them, and fortunately or unfortunately for them, this doesn’t involve chugging a Smirnoff on one knee). This is perhaps the best moment in the film — because it’s the moment where it’s the campiest, and where the gender norms seem almost spoof-like — but also results in disappointment over how good the movie could have been if it’d involved more of these two characters.

Like a less barefaced Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (whose conceptual openness about crudely glomming together two disparate cultural interests for profit was actually commendably hilarious), The Huntsman:Winter’s War sees the lazy mashing of two legendary things into a film that’s something of a semi-attractive abyss, rather than the more focused inspection of fairy tale archetypes of female villainy it easily could have been. It’s a missed opportunity to reexamine some of the “evil queen” and ingenue tropes that the likes of Disney perpetuated throughout the 20th century (and who better to do it than Universal!?).