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Scar: Good Villain, Terrible Statesman

The evil brother in ‘The Lion King’ is delightfully deceitful, and he sure moves that plot along, but is he also the most inept government leader in the history of animated movies?

Disney/Ringer illustration

Not every bad guy needs a complex backstory and a relatable motivation. For every Magneto, we have a Nicky Holiday, the antagonist in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper, who said to Kermit the Frog: “Why am I doing this? Because I’m a villain. It’s pure and simple.”

The Lion King, at least the original 1994 version, is an 88-minute movie made for children, which stops for five different musical set pieces. Given the audience and time constraints, it’s enough to know that the antagonist is announced by clouds of green sulfur and is named Scar. (This was before screenwriters had the empathy to consider the ableist undertones—and I don’t know if they’re subtle enough to be called “undertones”—of equating physical disfigurement with evil.) Like Nicky Holiday, Scar is motivated superficially by jealousy of his more successful sibling, and, failing that, well, he’s the villain. What more is there to know?

But even if we accept that he’s inherently evil, we can still evaluate how well he pursues his sinister ends. And unfortunately for Scar, his very limited and very personal motivations make him a rather ineffective revolutionary leader. While unlike his dignified and statesmanlike brother, Mufasa, Scar is charismatic in his own way, but his limitations as a strategist and political thinker are laid bare as elephants’ bones within moments after clawing his brother’s paws and—like the dramatic dude he is—hissing “long live the king” while throwing Mufasa from a cliff.

Scar’s coup d’état replaces one absolutist monarch for another without violating the chain of succession. Not only that, Scar’s plan is based on the fact that with Mufasa and Simba out of the way, he would be the legitimate leader of Pride Rock. The idea of abolishing the monarchy is considered for one line by the hyenas in “Be Prepared,” and Scar immediately swats it aside by bellowing, “Idiots! There will be a king!” A major social revolution this is not.

Scar’s plan is essentially to depose an incredibly popular and successful ruler and install his own government, under which everything will be the same, except the lionesses will do all the hunting not only for themselves but for the hyenas as well. So not only is he replacing a beloved monarch, he’s doing so by marching on Pride Rock at the head of a foreign army. Once in power, Scar commands the lionesses—i.e., the remaining nobility—to hunt not only for their own subsistence, but to feed the hyenas as well.

It’s difficult to imagine a plan less likely to attract popular support. Human history has no shortage of monarchs deposed by internal revolution in favor of a relative (the French July Revolution of 1830 is just one example), but usually such an uprising is spurred by the unpopularity of the incumbent ruler or promises of reform by the successor, neither of which describe Scar’s ascent to power.

Likewise, even a cursory glance at U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War would illustrate the power of a military to install an unpopular right-wing strongman, from Syngman Rhee in South Korea to Pinochet in Chile. But Scar didn’t bring foreign troops to Pride Rock to protect against a perceived threat—the hyenas were the threat. Not only that, they were a threat Mufasa had been able to keep at bay without breaking a sweat.

Frankly, the most amazing thing about Scar’s takeover of Pride Rock is that it succeeded as long as it did. Considering how long it takes a lion cub to mature, Simba was off in the wilderness rustling up grub for at least four years while his uncle ruled from Pride Rock. That’s four years when Scar managed to govern based solely on the strength of the institution of the Pride Rock monarchy, before Nala—an educated young liberal noble, the prototypical revolutionary leader of the 18th and 19th centuries—broached the idea of overthrowing Scar. And even then, she did so only when the kingdom was on the verge of starvation.

Which brings up Scar’s most astonishing failure as a leader: Within four years, he managed to alter the ecosystem of the greater Pride Rock area to the point that it was nearly incapable of supporting life. Not only did overhunting strain the food chain, he altered the weather patterns and turned a verdant savannah into a desert. Lions and hyenas did this in four years!

Ill-conceived and shortsighted as Scar’s plan was, there were a few watershed moments in which one bad decision cost Scar everything. The first was deciding to make a run at the throne in the first place. Before Scar’s attempts to lead Simba and Mufasa to their doom, it’s hard to see what was so bad about his life. Sure, he had to deal with the occasional smarmy remark from his self-righteous and self-important brother, but Scar also seemed to be able to do whatever he wanted, all the time. Sounds like a sweet way to live to anyone who isn’t thoroughly evil for the sake of plot expediency.

The second mistake Scar made was leaving it to the hyenas to kill Simba in the wake of the Wildebeest Incident, rather than snuffing out the heir apparent himself. Scar had just killed his brother and his king, and nothing we knew about Scar supports the idea that he thought fratricide and regicide were cool, but infanticide was a bridge too far. Quite the opposite—he tried to lead Simba into a fatal ambush before the stampede that killed Mufasa. But both times, Scar wouldn’t get his own paws dirty by killing the cub himself, and that was his undoing. Dead, Simba would have been a political nonentity. Alive, he turned out to be the instrument of Scar’s destruction. The lionesses turned on Scar en masse only when Simba returned and revealed that Scar wasn’t the legitimate king of Pride Rock.

And once they did, Scar made his final mistake. When Simba corners him, Scar blames the whole affair on the hyenas. Simba, unconvinced, offers Scar the same terms Scar offered him after Mufasa’s death: run away and never return.

Scar tries to fight his way past Simba, because there are few things worse than getting owned so hard you have to leave town. Unfortunately, he learned that one of those few things is being killed by one’s own troops: The ultimate Asshole’s Death.

Frankly, that’s what Scar deserved: for refusing to quit while he was ahead; for screwing up the Pride Lands, the most self-sustaining government a jungle has to offer; for failing to recognize his greatest threat while it was staring him in the face; and finally, for refusing to quit while he was behind. Scar was evil because he was the villain, but he died because he was stupid.