Because some of my earliest memory fragments - I'm talking two, three years old - are about the first Carmen Sandiego game show, it didn't give me a warm fuzzy feeling last October when a Pumpkin Walk exhibit devoted to the greatest thief of all time prompted a couple of little kids nearby to ask, "Who the heck is that?" This underrated and unappreciated character has been on a bit of hiatus, it's true, but since it's only a matter of time before every piece of media ever created by humans gets twelve sequels, a reboot, and/or a remake, Netflix is stepping in to introduce her to a new generation. Yay! Mostly.
Make no mistake, I'm excited to watch this. But I also want to critique a little, because that's what people come to my blog for, no? Okay, so in case you were too lazy or unable to watch the trailer, it's basically about how Carmen Sandiego attended a thief school called V.I.L.E. but turned against it when she realized that crime isn't a game. She decided to only steal from other thieves, to protect artifacts. And Netflix is advertising this series as the backstory for the very same lady in red we all should know and hate to love, okay? So I'll overlook the minor continuity problem of her altered skin tone and facial structure.
But Netflix seems to be deliberately ignoring a far more crucial piece of information...
CARMEN SANDIEGO IS A VILLAIN.
Or a villainess. Are we still allowed to say that? No one would deny that she's villainous, but is she a villainous villainess?
Anyway, I can kind of appreciate what Netflix is doing here. I presume this show is targeted toward a younger demographic that doesn't really understand moral complexity, and we don't want them consuming media that teaches them bad is good and good is bad.
The fact is that humans are morally complex. Nobody is all good or all bad, and in fiction, cranking this paradox up to eleven makes characters oh so fascinating. I wish Netflix had gone this route.
Here's how I fantasize, I mean imagine Carmen Sandiego, which, though there is no overarching cohesive canon in this franchise, is largely drawn from the aforementioned TV series, the comics, etc. She's a somewhat eccentric, somewhat amoral genius of larger-than-life proportions. Crime is literally a game to her, something she does to challenge herself for fun, since catching criminals as an ACME detective was too easy for her. In one of the TV episodes she breaks into the latest high-tech vault and doesn't steal anything, just because she had to take the challenge. Then she accepts a challenge to give up on her high-tech gadgets altogether and steal things the old-fashioned way. She steals the unstealable, the impossible, the unthinkable, but she rarely steals anything that will hurt someone. She steals artifacts and landmarks that aren't owned by any one person. In another episode, she buys something she needs for a theft when she could easily shoplift it. She's not making anyone go hungry.
And because crime is a game to her, she goes out of her way to leave cryptic clues for the detectives following her, and doesn't begrudge them in the slightest for tracking her down and recovering what she stole. Remaining calm and optimistic, she signs off most episodes with a friendly "Until next crime." She even saves their lives more than once when they're in trouble, and yells detective Ivy's name out in panic when the latter slips from her grasp hundreds of feet off the ground. She's never killed anyone. Neither she nor any of her henchmen are even armed. And though the comic series tragically only lasted four issues, it had time to show her display even more of a conscience than that:
(Note: This comic was made in the mid-nineties. A black girl growing up to become President of the United States must have seemed impossible then, but now, in 2019, it's only half as impossible.)
(Note: That remark was intended only as a sardonic commentary on the United States that has nothing to do with anything else in this post.)
And of course, her stylish and iconic outfit is impossible not to like, am I right?
Granted, on some occasions Carmen Sandiego is more evil than others. In the creepy "Word Detective" game, she captures ACME agents and puts them in a machine that scrambles their speech into gibberish as part of her mission to create world illiteracy, which is creepy. I'm not arguing that she's not a villain. She is a villain, and that's entirely the point, and it makes her awesome because she's a fictional character. I realize there's a risk of sending that message to impressionable children who might then grow up to steal Mount Rushmore, but...
What more do I extrapolate from these clues in previous Carmen Sandiego media that Netflix has chosen to diverge from, as is admittedly their right? What do I think really drives this character, besides boredom? I think she enjoys her status as a villain a little too much. I think she craves attention and recognition for her brilliance, whether she'll admit it to herself or not. I think she knows deep down that she has a good heart, but she tries to quash it because she has an image to maintain. She overcompensates by running an organization called "Villains' International League of Evil" or "V.I.L.E" - heavyhanded much? (In the Netflix series, for some reason V.I.L.E. has been changed into a thief school that Carmen didn't create but attends and then rebels against.) I think she builds up this image as an amoral mysterious figure of mystery and constantly eludes capture because she has a proverbial wall around her tender heart to stop people from hurting her like they hurt her in the past.
Now I get what my therapist meant about projecting myself onto fictional characters.
Okay, so I have my own fantasies, I mean ideas about what this franchise should look like. If I somehow magically had the resources and expertise to do so, I would forgo cartoons and TV shows in favor of at least twelve live-action movies. The potential of live action hasn't been fully explored here. It would be a realistic, gritty portrayal of the Carmenverse with the latest special effects and action sequences worthy of Indiana Jones or James Bond, but with the same bizarre humor, tortured puns, and ludicrously impossible thefts that the shows and books and games deserve to be more famous for. It would be as much of a paradox as Carmen Sandiego herself. The movie would spend equal time following her and an agent like Stan Packer from the audio games who drives himself half-mad trying to catch her in movie after movie. And she would commit crimes, like always, but she would show her redeeming qualities and have occasion to thwart far worse villains than herself. And somewhere along the way she would open her heart just enough to let in a certain Waldo (or Wally outside the United States), who would later be killed, crushing it.
And then... in the final movie (spoiler alert)...
Packer finally captures her. Whether because he got lucky or she got careless, it's hard to tell. But she's getting bored of her life of crime anyway. Like her previous life as an ACME detective, it's just too easy. She's pulled off so many of the greatest heists in history that it's getting old. So she resigns herself to her fate and, with a smile, holds out her wrists to be cuffed.
Packer hesitates. This is what he's worked for all this time, the culmination of his career, his key to fame, and yet...
For some reason, he can't bring himself to do it. Maybe because of the good she did for the world in the previous movies, or maybe just because putting her in jail would be like putting a butterfly in a cage, he growls at her to "Get out of here." She tips her hat and does so. Packer stares off into the distance where she disappeared for a while, then turns and walks home. Cue wistful music and roll credits. Carmen Sandiego is never seen again.
...until the next few movies after the final movie. It turns out she cryogenically froze herself and set the alarm for a few hundred years. Now she's ready to have a bunch of cool adventures in space.
Since I don't magically have the resources and expertise to do that, I have to content myself with criticizing other people's efforts. Look, I'm excited for this series regardless and I wish it great success, but not so much success that Disney buys it and ruins it. Seriously, Disney, how do you manage to make a Star Wars movie flop at the box office? Not even George Lucas managed to do that. Please leave Carmen Sandiego alone. There are rumors of a live action movie to go with this series, so I hope that happens too.
Am I taking this too seriously? Of course. Because this and other fantastical fiction franchises just so happen to be approximately two thousand percent less depressing than real life. Sorry not sorry.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.