You know that joke about how we would all side with the queer coded villains of our childhood? ND Stevenson’s now decade-old webcomic-turned-graphic-novel Nimona is a commitment to that bit. Like its source material, Nimona is a legend for the freaks and the queers, a story told in figures, archetypes and tropes. Nimona understands that villains are often made villainous for their bodies and identities. Nimona embraces queer coding and turns it into a subversive power fantasy.
In the original webcomic, Nimona is a queer anarchist revolutionary who adopts the brown-skinned, disabled Boldheart as her master. He has found himself conned into maintaining the status quo as the villain that the forces of power in his kingdom need, but he gets to prolong his homoerotic rivalry with his nemesis and ex-lover, the Institute’s champion and white pretty boy, Goldenloin. Together, Nimona and Boldheart can, through villainy, actually take down the shockingly malicious Institute that maintains strict order over the kingdom and inspire their followers to see the world differently. There’s no sympathizing with royalists here.
You should absolutely go read Nimona. It won’t take much longer to read than it will to watch the 99-minute film (and you should watch it after), but with that space, Stevenson establishes and subverts the archetypes and tropes that shape not just narrative, but world view. It’s not subversive of just form or structure, but of narrative and ideology.
Now in the hands of Spies in Disguise directorial duo Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, Nimona is roughly the same chaotic gremlin that fans of Stevenson’s work loved—with some notable reworks to fit into an animated kids movie on Netflix. It kinda skips the whole villain arc of the original story, which I would be more annoyed about if the many other adjustments and the reworked scope didn’t make this such a good standalone adaptation. The movie still captures the heart of Nimona. It may make for a less subversive take on villainy, but remains a thoughtful commentary on systems of power and the othering of non-normative bodies. In many ways, it feels tailored for this moment, for this audience.
Instead of entering years into a stagnant stand-off between the Institute and evil Boldheart (Riz Ahmed), Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz) now finds the fallen knight hours after he’s framed for killing the Queen of his kingdom. Nimona is as charming as ever, with animation and voice acting capturing the comic-book action. The film adds an additional layer of class to the whole thing, as Boldheart was set to be the first knight of the realm not descended from noble lineage, and his and Goldenloin’s (Eugene Lee Yang) relationship is brought more to the fore. The two together are adorable, with as much care in their animation together as in any action scene. There’s never a moment that feels like their queerness is being toned down.
While the animation is solid, Nimona’s over-reliance on licensed, recognizable songs in addition to an original soundtrack undercuts the otherwise strong punctuation of some excellent choices like “Grrrl Like” (Dope Saint Jude) and “Gold Guns Girls” (Metric) that would obviously be on Nimona’s iPod. More notably though, the reworked script minimizes the importance of disability to Stevenson’s original story. As a consequence of the accelerated pacing and shrunken scope, the ableism guiding the Institute’s decision to turn Boldheart into a villain is abandoned. While the movie still acknowledges how the monikers of disabled and dark-skinned contribute to Boldheart’s assumed villainy, it also retreads the trope of narrative prosthesis in a way Stevenson’s Nimona seems keenly aware of subverting.
There are other quibbles I have with exactly how Bruno and Quane explore identity, marginalization and systems of power, but none that greatly detract from my enjoyment of the film more than the lingering presence of Netflix’s history of transphobia. Let me be clear here: The most significant revision to Nimona is making its lead more explicitly trans, without ever saying it. And I don’t think it ever has to, to be clear. More than the allegory that sparked debate over Gwen Stacy in Spider-Verse and unlike something marketed for “Representation,” its themes and values align with a trans politics. Nimona’s decision feels like a natural growth for the character in retelling their story in this moment. It may even understand that aspect of the character better than Stevenson did at the time of writing. It’s just that, on Netflix, transphobia gets to be explicit, but not trans people. And I don’t think Nimona would really stand for that.
Director: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Writer: Robert L. Baird, Lloyd Taylor
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Riz Ahmed, Eugene Lee Yang, Frances Conroy, Lorraine Toussaint, Beck Bennett, Indya Moore, RuPaul, Julio Torres, Sarah Sherman
Release Date: June 30, 2023 (Netflix)
Autumn Wright is a freelance games critic and anime journalist. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.