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'Veronica Mars' And The Bad Caterpillar Theory

In the movie, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is a recent law school grad living in New York when an old flame — Logan Echolls — calls her back to her home town of Neptune, Calif.
Robert Voets
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
In the movie, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is a recent law school grad living in New York when an old flame — Logan Echolls — calls her back to her home town of Neptune, Calif.

[CAUTION: Contains information about both show and movie. Be warned.]

The story of the Veronica Mars movie has already become the insta-cook version of a legend: creator and star band together for Kickstarter campaign to add chapter to cult series, fans rally, movie gets made.

Does it really matter whether it's a good movie? Maybe not. Maybe wondering whether it's good is the equivalent of critiquing a bobblehead handed out at Comic-Con: it's supposed to make people who loved something nostalgically happy; if it makes them happy, who cares?

That's a largely fine way to evaluate this particular project: as a novelty. It's not very substantive, but for people who have missed the snappy dialogue and the colorful folks of Neptune, it's fun. Veronica's dialogue is as caustic as ever, and it has a class-reunion feel to its class-reunion plot that's sort of true to real life: it's neat just to see what everybody has been up to. (Speaking for myself, I enjoyed it a lot while I watched it, as long as I didn't think about it very hard.)

But perhaps because this was created for fans — the most literal fan service ever — the story unfortunately gets the entirety of its emotional pull from the relationship between Veronica and Logan Echolls, the guy she initially knew as a violent, jealous, arrogant bully and later learned was — wait for it — just a wounded soul who could be healed by love.

This is true to a longstanding myth you might call the Bad Caterpillar Theory. The Bad Caterpillar Theory holds that when you see a young man (and sometimes, less often, a young woman) who is mean, jealous, possessive, violent, angry, emotionally unavailable, or constantly in trouble, you should think of that person as a Bad Caterpillar. And you should remember, always, that inside the Bad Caterpillar is a beautiful Extra-Special Butterfly who will emerge later. Meanwhile, inside every Good Caterpillar is a boring Drone Butterfly who just isn't exciting.

The Veronica Mars mythology has set up Logan as the Bad Caterpillar and Piz as the Good Caterpillar, and it has rattled off every cliche that stories like this always contain:

1. Her father doesn't approve of Bad Caterpillar.

2. Her friends don't understand Bad Caterpillar and keep telling her he's no good for her.

3. Bad Caterpillar is frequently in trouble and needs her to save him, which she does with her loyalty and willingness to sacrifice. She also sometimes needs him to save her, which he does by hitting people and doing things that are illegal.

4. Bad Caterpillar's most unpleasant behavior, he only engaged in because he loved someone so much.

By the time the movie starts, Logan has emerged as the Butterfly to a degree that's almost comical. He no longer has any flaws whatsoever; he shows up in Navy whites that weirdly look like they're too big for him, but the message is clear: he's all grown up. There's effectively no edge left to the character at all, and although the movie co-opts the language of addiction and recovery to have Veronica talk about the relationship as an addiction, there's no indication that any of it is actually bad for her or that she's even legitimately conflicted about it. He's transparently innocent of the crime she's trying to get him off the hook for, he's in the Navy ... he's basically been transformed into a cartoon prince.

At last, her patience, her faith, her unwillingness to give up has paid off. The Butterfly has arrived.

So of course she has to dump her nice, generous, supportive, unexciting boyfriend. Of course she does.

The first problem --the actual "this is not a good thing" problem — with the Bad Caterpillar theory is that while some of them turn into butterflies, a lot of them do not. There are people who make themselves pretty unhappy waiting for this to happen.

But the bigger problem for the movie is that for a show that created such an interesting and distinctive central character and gave her so many friendships and relationships that had weight — with her dad, in particular — this just an incredibly boring way to go with this story. There aren't any real stakes in the story otherthan the love triangle, unless you count a plot about her father wanting her to go have a conventionally successful career instead of following her dreams, which also could have come from any movie and any story with any cool daughter and loving father.

In other words, they took all these interesting people and this interesting town and re-told every "underneath it all, he just needs love and he'll emerge as a smoothed-out hero" romance. It's not that this is terrible, it's just that it's ... a total cliche, which is the opposite of everything Veronica Mars originally was.

Part of the problem here may simply be taking a show that began as the TV version of the really good YA literature we have now — made about and accessible for teenagers but plenty good enough for adults — and translating it into a movie about people in their late twenties. For Veronica to be enraptured in a relationship she sees as an addiction as a teenager is one thing; for her to be unable to get away from a relationship she sees as an addiction when she's 28 years old is just ... kind of sad. And not actually very romantic at all. What would you tell your best friend if she told you that she saw her romantic life as the equivalent of an addiction?

I mean, if Angela Chase were still mooning over Jordan Catalano when she was a couple of years out of grad school, I don't think that would be romantic either.

The Bad Caterpillar theory is largely just a bump for most teenagers; they get burned by "people don't change" a time or two, and hopefully as they get older, they get smarter. To trap Veronica — who is a feminist landmark figure for a not-insignificant number of women — in this story is a little ... depressing. She apparently went to law school, but that's over. She apparently built a relationship, but that's over, too. All she really wanted was to go back to high school, work in her dad's office, and be with the guy she once called a "psychotic jackass" because at last, all her dreams came true and he's literally perfect?

This is where that business model, that landmark Age Of Enthusiasm crowdfunding that is so promising in so many ways, may have a downside. The movie feels more commemorative than creative; more of a gift to put on a shelf than an expansion or even an extension of the story.

There's nothing wrong with fans commissioning something commemorative, but that won't ever serve the same function as a funding mechanism that works for new voices and new visions. It works, so far, to give people more of what they already want, which isn't necessarily bad. But it's very different from addressing the bigger problem with the way culture is paid for, which is not introducing people to the things they don't even know they are about yet.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.