Theodora’s transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West is easily the weakest plot point in Oz: The Great and Powerful. However, the contrivance and sexism of her character arc might not be as intolerable if the Wicked Witch of the West hadn’t already been given a well-developed backstory as Elphaba in Wicked, the musical loosely based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. Granted, Oz: The Great and Powerful and Wicked are two, separate works but they are both prequels to The Wizard of Oz and, therefore, subject to comparison. The issue is not that Theodora becomes genuinely wicked, whereas Elphaba is only ever perceived as such. The issue is that Theodora’s motivation to turn evil is so simplistic and offensive when compared to the progressiveness and complexity of Elphaba’s characterization.
The fundamental difference between Theodora and Elphaba can be extracted from their motivations for opposing the Wizard. Elphaba fights against him because he persecutes Animals (the capital “A” distinguishes them as animals that can talk). Theodora hates the Wizard because she believes he did not return her affections. Elphaba’s characterization is built on her unyielding commitment to justice, even when it costs her, her dreams as a politician, her friends and her family. While men do play a large role in her life, they do not define her. The same cannot be said for Theodora.
Like Elphaba, Theodora expresses concern for the welfare of Oz at the beginning of the film, but this proves secondary to her desire for the Wizard’s love. When she is wrongfully informed that the wizard has been disloyal to her, she willingly undergoes a magical transformation to become evil, and thus forsake the people of Oz, because she can’t stand the pain of rejection.
In all fairness, Elphaba, too, takes a dark turn because of a lover. In Act II, her boyfriend, Fiyero, is captured and tortured by the Wizard’s men. Believing him dead, Elphaba sings “No Good Deed,” a ballad in which she declares, “Let all of Oz be agreed: I am wicked through and through. Since I could not succeed, Fiyero, in saving you, I promise no good deed will I attempt to do again.”
However, unlike with Theodora, this surrender is a culmination of Elphaba’s suffering. Fiyero’s death is the last straw, rather than the first offense. She mentions her murdered sister, and her Professor whom she was unable to save from the Wizard. “Sure, I meant well, well look at what well-meant did,” she sings, reasoning that her attempts at doing good have only ever resulted in failure. What purpose, then, is there in trying anymore? It is an intriguing moral dilemma and one that encompasses much more than her sadness at being unable to be with the man she loves.
I bother writing about the contrast between Elphaba and Theodora, because Theodora’s simplistic characterization is not merely bad writing; it is offensive. Lindsey Ellis aka The Nostalgia Chick observes in her video, The Worst (And Least Awful) Female Superhero Movies, “[With villainesses,] it’s always either, ‘I’m mad that I’m not young and beautiful anymore,’ or, ‘I want to control all of the men.'” In this regard, incarnations of the Wicked Witch of the West, prior to Theodora, have been quite progressive in that they have always been motivated by revenge and power … except for Elphaba who fights for the rights of others. The contrast, therefore, between Theodora, the least of The Wicked Witches of the West, and Elphaba, the greatest of them, is quite upsetting, especially when one considers that Wicked turns 10 years old this October and that it is the regressive Oz: The Great and Powerful that was just released.