A Review of Wreck-It Ralph

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


November 25, 2012

A Review of Wreck-It Ralph

Note: this is a long read, ~3000 words. For the benefit of those who haven't seen the film, I've outlined the plot in detail, including spoilers.

Wreck-It Ralph is the story of an arcade game character and his dissatisfaction with the role that he was programmed to play. During the day, Ralph is the villain in Fix-it Felix Jr., a simple 80s-style arcade game reminiscent of Donkey Kong. Each level of game begins with Ralph climbing up the side of an apartment building and smashing windows with his enormous hands. He’s followed by the cheerful, player-controlled handyman Felix, who must try to repair the damage while Ralph tries to hinder his progress by throwing objects at him. Once Felix has succeeded, the apartment dwellers (the Nicelanders) come out to reward Felix with a medal and cast Ralph off the top of the building and into a mud puddle below.

In Wreck-It Ralph as in Toy Story, during the night when the arcade is closed, the arcade game characters are conscious, living beings who are aware of their position in the world as game characters. They are able to leave their games and visit others by traveling through the machines’ electrical cords which are connected through a power strip.

But despite this knowledge of the real world, the staged antipathy between Wreck-It Ralph and the Nicelanders continues even once the lights in the arcade have been turned off. In a nice example of Žižek’s theory that ideology continues to function even when you don’t believe it, the Nicelanders adore Felix as a hero and despise Ralph even though they see through the game’s “official ideology”. They know it is only a game, and although this is never really stated, logically we have to conclude that the Nicelanders know that Ralph is not really a bad guy.

They treat him as if he was a villain not because they believe he is, but because they suppose an Other who really believes. Or as Michel De Certeau puts it in his essay What We Do When We Believe, “it is a belief in the belief of the Other, or in what one makes believe that he believes”, a version of the Lacanian subject supposed to believe. For the Nicelanders, this Other is clearly the children who come into the arcade every day with their quarters. “Children are in a way the basis for the belief of adults,” says De Certeau. The innocence of this Big Other is assumed, and it must be maintained if the system is to function.

Notably, Ralph’s exclusion is economic as well as social. When he’s not playing the game, he lives in a garbage dump with a tree stump as a pillow and covers himself with bricks when he goes to sleep. His hair is untamed and he dresses in overalls, evoking the stereotypical hillbilly in contrast to the polite, middle-class Nicelanders.

This is the background that motivates Ralph to reluctantly attend Bad-Anon, a “bad guy” support group modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous and attended by villains from other video games who face similar challenges. They give him therapeutic advice on how to accommodate himself to the reality of his world, to accept what he cannot change. “You can’t mess with the program, Ralph,” says one. They close with the Bad Guy Affirmation: “I am bad, and that’s good. I will never be good and that’s not bad. There is no one I’d rather be than me.”

Ralph seems to feel ambivalent about this advice, and his condition is made even more painfully apparent when the Nicelanders organize a party for the game’s 30-year anniversary and fail to invite him. He shows up anyway and disrupts the celebration by asking questions about his position in the game: why is he always despised? why doesn’t he ever get the chance to be celebrated like Felix? why doesn’t he ever get a medal? why does he have to live in a garbage dump? The Nicelanders respond with withering scorn, one sarcastically responding that if he ever got a medal, he could live in the penthouse, but he’s nothing but a bad guy and always will be. He leaves in frustration, determined to prove himself to the Nicelanders and win a medal.

Economically disadvantaged and on the receiving end of social stigmas, it’s not hard to view this character as the embodiment of the working class, and his game Fix-It Felix, Jr. a metaphor for capitalism. Taken from this perspective, the film begins rather promisingly, by having Ralph make a radical critique that cuts to the heart of the social order he lives in. In the end, he is treated like a bad guy not because the middle class Nicelanders hate and fear him, but because the system requires it. The familiar video game tropes would be inconceivable without a despised villain, so someone has to do the job, a parallel to the economic exploitation of the working class that’s a necessary component of capitalism. Although they know he is not really a villain, they continue to treat him like he is one even when they are off the clock. To do otherwise would be to call into question the entire economy of good guys vs. bad guys that all games require.

To truly address Ralph’s complaints would require a total overhaul of the social order; or, a revolution, a re-programming of the ideological code that generates their reality. Even though the characters are aware of themselves as characters determined by the game’s code (and as is revealed later, they actually have the power to modify it), this is unthinkable. And yet for them it is also an ever-present threat. As the film progresses, and Ralph transgresses some of these limits, the game characters react with horror, invoking the phrase “gone Turbo”. The definition of this phrase isn’t revealed right away, and it turns out to refer to a traumatic event in the arcade: a racing game called Turbo Time lost its place as the most popular arcade game to a new racing game. Feeling envious, the main character Turbo game-jumps, invading the new game to disrupt it, trying to convince players to go back to his game, resulting in the ultimate horror: the arcade owner finds that both games are faulty, unplugs them and wheels them out of the arcade.

This event has numerous parallels to contemporary politics. The arrival of the new game that makes Turbo Time obsolete refers to capitalist creative destruction, the arcade floor as a market and the players making choices among competing games for how to spend their quarters. Turbo violates the arcade’s hegemonic order by refusing to accept this, reflecting the capitalist slander that any changes to the social order are motivated by the losers’ pathological jealousy of the winners. His transgressions precipitate a tragedy and serve as a warning against trying to make any changes, in exactly the same way that liberals admit that although capitalism is not perfect, they warn that the inevitable result of change is totalitarianism.

Finally, the way the characters invoke the phrase “going Turbo” as an ever-present, threatening possibility reminds me of Jodi Dean’s thesis that while the left seems resigned to defeat and the impossibility of really changing things, the right betrays their belief in the necessity and imminent possibility of radical change in their frantic paranoia that everyone and everything is communist:

In the US, we are reminded daily that radical change is possible, and we are incited to fear it. The threat, or specter, is communism, right-wing radio and blogs scream, and if we don’t do something, we will be under the communist yoke. The right, even the center, regularly invokes the possibility of radical change and it names that change communism. Why does it name the change communism? Because extreme inequality is visible and undeniable.

The right believes in communism as the solution to capitalism because of how frequently they invoke it to silence even talk of reform. In the same way, the characters in Wreck-It Ralph invoke the specter of going Turbo in response to the antagonisms and contradictions in their universe of which they are well aware.

Ralph’s quest to win a medal and prove his worth to the Nicelanders takes him to a high-octane robot bug shooter with a dubstep soundtrack called Hero’s Duty. He sneaks to the end of the game and is awarded a medal as if he had completed it, accidentally awakens the sleeping cybugs and finds his way to a small escape pod. In the chaos, the pod exits Hero’s Duty and finally crash lands in Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart-style racing game set in a cute, childlike candy world. There, Ralph runs into a local, Vanellope von Schweetz, the second major character in the film, who promptly makes off with his prized medal.

Despite this initial antagonism, Vanellope and Ralph will form a bond because they share a similar condition. Where Ralph is dissatisfied with being forced to play the villain in his game, he at least has a proper placeÑhis absence throws his game into chaos as it faces the risk of being unplugged. Vanellope is also a social pariah—in the candy children’s world, she is subject to bullying and taunts at the hands of the game’s racers because, as she puts it, she is a glitch, a mistake. The other racers have a place in the game, but Vanellope is presented to the audience as an unneeded, incomplete leftover that the programmers forgot about. Every few minutes, she glitches out, her body briefly destabilizes into pixels, a condition that she calls pixelexia. She lives underground, beneath Diet Cola Mountain, a half-finished bonus race track that was never used.

If Ralph stands for the traditional working class, Vanellope has, at least at this point, all the features of Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer. They are people who are outside the normal legal and social order and prohibited from participating in it, existing in no-man’s lands, spaces where the state has withdrawn. They include homeless people, illegal immigrants, refugees, the millions who live in slums and favelas around the world, and even impoverished, semi-lawless areas of major American cities like Detroit. There is no possibility of them becoming normal, productive members of society, they are simply written off as our unavoidable mistakes and either forgotten about or made into the target of humanitarian interventions.

Unlike Ralph, who abandons his position, effectively going on strike, Vanellope’s goal is to enter the nightly race presided over by King Candy, the ruler of Sugar Rush. This competition decides who gets to be the player’s character for the following day. If Vanellope wins, she will become a real part of the game, but to enter the race, the characters pay a gold coin from their winnings. Having never raced, Vanellope has no winnings, so she steals Ralph’s gold medal, violating King Candy’s rules and enters the race. Ralph catches up with her, but it’s too late, his medal is gone, but they soon find common cause together. The winner of the race will get all the coins, and Vanellope tells Ralph that if he helps her win, she will give back the medal. Ralph agrees, and they spend time together bonding while they evade King Candy’s security, build a new kart and teach Vanellope how to drive.

But their new friendship is shattered when King Candy finds Ralph alone. He returns his medal, and explains the reason why Vanellope is not allowed to race: if she were to be a part of the game, the players would see her glitching and assume the game is broken. They would be unplugged, and because Vanellope is a glitch, she isn’t able to leave, so she would die along with the game. He convinces Ralph to prevent this, which he does by smashing the kart, to Vanellope’s shock. He returns to his game, only to find it almost deserted. The last remaining Nicelander tells him the game will be unplugged. In despair, Ralph throws the medal into the screen which disturbs the out-of-order sign so that he can see out into the arcade floor. He looks out, seeing the Sugar Rush cabinet from the outside and Vanellope’s picture painted on it.

Now realizing that she was originally a legitimate part of the game, he rushes back and discovers that King Candy reprogrammed the game to remove her. She isn’t allowed to race because if she were to win, the game would reset back to its original programming, reverting everything King Candy has done. On learning this, Ralph enlists Fix-It Felix to repair the kart, putting Vanellope back into the race.

Now we’re at the climax of the film. King Candy attacks Vanellope during the race, where he finally reveals his true identity. He is Turbo, the first character to who game-jumped. His great transgression was refusing to take his assigned place in the order of his universe, and he has compounded this. He explains that by going into Sugar Rush’s game code, he was able to reprogram it to make himself king. Ralph intervenes to kill Turbo/King Candy and Vanellope crosses the finish line, resetting the game and revealing that she is in fact Princess Vanellope, the rightful ruler of Sugar Rush.

With this revelation, the film shifts away from Vanellope as the excluded homo sacer. At first, her existence was evidence of the programmers’ mistake, an unexpected failure that exposes the faults of the system. But the film now contradicts itself. She is excluded because of Turbo, who refused to submit to the rules of the system and even believed that he, an ordinary game character, is allowed to participate in the programming of his world rather than leaving this to the invisible, god-like programmers. The message of the film is that the social order is good, just and fair, and people who refuse to know their proper place will only ruin it.

If the film backtracks on making Vanellope into homo sacer, then who does she turn out to be? King Candy initially appears as ruler of Sugar Rush, but he is revealed to be not only illegitimate, he’s the avatar of the ultimate transgression of going Turbo; metaphorically, of trying to overthrow capitalism. In today’s politics, this could be seen as the Tea Party’s paranoid view of Obama: ostensibly the legitimately elected president, but secretly a communist. In this reading, Vanellope’s condition stands for the conservative feeling of victimhood at the hands of liberal, politically-correct bullies, and her restoration stands for their hope that once they eliminate the foreign, destabilizing threat and restoring the proper order.

This double reading of her character points to a profound ambiguity with anti-authority underdog characters. They are very relatable and solicit audience sympathy, but are most often deeply conservative fantasy figures of the “rightful heir to the throne,” the restoration of the true king who will return the world back the way it was before the progressive intrusion.

We can detect the precise moment when the film moved to the conservative side: when Ralph looked out and say that Vanellope’s face was on the cabinet, proving that she was legitimately part of the game. We can imagine the film ending differently, where Vanellope, Ralph and Turbo join together to reprogram the games so that no one needs to be excluded and no one needs to be the bad guy. What if they freed themselves from the game and build their own world instead of submitting, day after day, to the demands of the players?

Ignoring the right-wing implications of Vanellope’s final triumph and judging it just as a story, at least she gets a conclusion. But there isn’t really a happy ending for Ralph. And maybe the strength of this film is that you walk out of the theater completely depressed by where it leaves him.

The film takes us forward, showing us how all the original tension is resolved: everything in Ralph’s game is back to normal. He managed to built himself a barely-standing shack out of the bricks from his garbage dump, as if he has capitulated to the absurd self-improvement injunctions that tells you things like: Stop complaining and do something positive! Take advantage of what you have! And so on.

Ralph achieved almost nothing. Yes, the Nicelanders are a little nicer to him. But the bleakest moment is when Ralph explains in a resigned tone how he has come to terms with reality, what really helps him through his day: at the end of every level, the Nicelanders pick him up and throw him off the roof as they always did, but now, just as he reaches the top of his arc, he is able to catch a glimpse of Sugar Rush across the arcade floor. He sees how happy Vanellope is now, and that makes it all worth it. Formerly, being thrown off the roof was the very symbol of his dissatisfaction, but now he is able to see it in a new, more positive light. The Nicelanders aren’t throwing him down into the mud! They are now lifting him up to see the smile of the one for whom he was once a hero.

One way to read Wreck-It Ralph is as a film that refers obliquely to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? The working class are recruited to depose the crypto-communist liberal imposter and restore the throne to its rightful heir. Having done that, they are returned from whence he came, daily thrown off the roof of global capitalism, only this time catching the smile of the wealthy Republican-voting elite assuring them that they’re the real Americans.