"The Death Cure" Marks the Destruction of Young Adult Dystopians
Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure marks the end of a trilogy that began nearly four years ago. Some critics believe it missed the young adult dystopian culture obsession; my theater was barely half full on opening weekend. But, I believe audiences simply have higher standards.
To stomach the series, fans have to accept inexplicable plot holes and unexplained dumb luck, some of which serve as the very base of the series (why a maze? No idea). Even ignoring these frustrations, Death Cure still fails to generate emotional investment. The final film has a lot to cover, clocking in at a long 2 hours and 21 minutes. Following the lead, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) races to save his best friend from the clutches of WCKD—a rightly named enemy organization using the children as test subjects. But Thomas is not very likeable.
Without any real personality traits beyond extreme loyalty and a hero complex, Thomas comes across as annoyingly stubborn and absorbed in his own life. Yes it’s true he cares about his friends, but that’s all. When one attempt results in 100 rescued children, he labels it a failure because Minho (Ki Hong Lee), his longtime friend, isn’t one of them. The stakes are raised even higher when it’s discovered that Thomas’s blood contains the very cure the world—and WCKD—is looking for. As far as dystopian heroes go, Thomas is lacking in the greater good/moral integrity category.
Dystopian media is covered with white saviors stubbornly running off to accomplish their goals, blind to the implications surrounding them. Sometimes, it’s relatable. In The Hunger Games, audiences understood why Katniss Everdeen volunteered instead of her sister, throwing her into a rebellion spotlight she never wanted. But even she, the pinnacle of young adult dystopia, teeters with favorability by the finale.
The boy squad members who do capture audience’s hearts, Minho and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), spend Death Cure either imprisoned or ill, respectively. Leaving the heroic duties up to Thomas; a token minority (Dexter Darden) whose name, Fry Pan, didn’t stick with viewers until the third movie; a badass woman, Brenda (Rosa Salazar), with so much potential, but not enough screen time; and a gang leader, Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), with the most character development out of anyone, but yet still not enough screen time.
It’s hard to ignore the race and gender implications of all of this. Not only did I never know Fry Pan’s name—despite him being one of the few originals left—but I don’t know anything about him. His only character trait is his blind loyalty to Thomas. Minho, an athletic sweetheart who carried the first movie on his back, is helplessly tortured by WCKD in hopes of finding the cure to a virus plaguing the world. And Teresa, the female lead, love interest, and traitor to the friends, becomes naive and cold, working with WCKD on Minho. By turning the only girl member of the original boy squad against them, Death Cure plunges a knife through the hearts of female fans everywhere.
Teresa is a perfect example of what can go wrong when writers conflate strong, complex female leads with morally opposed bad guys. In the second film, The Scorch Trials, she betrays the group for the greater good, giving up her friends and herself to WCKD to help the organization save the world. Again lacking any traits beyond being in love with Thomas and stabbing him in the back, Teresa is somehow the most unlikeable of the crew. But, this brings confusions about the true message of the trilogy. In fact, in some ways, Teresa is more ethically correct than any of the “good guys.”
WCKD is deemed, well, wicked because they test on a generation of immune subjects in hopes of finding a cure for a virus destorying an unknown thousands. This is, of course, raising a clear question about whether it’s right to sacrifice a minority for the good of the majority. But, Thomas and his gang’s quest to save their friends falls into a similar moral category. WCKD builds a wall to block out the infected population, and the boy squad hunts for a safe haven from the virus and their enemies. While Teresa is trying to help heal a little girl, those with the cure hidden inside them are running from the rest of the world without any plans to turn back. If Thomas is a walking medicine, able to save an unknown thousands of people, is it really right for him to run the other way?
The question about losing some to save others is never solved. By the filmmakers assuming viewers will side with Thomas, they’re neglecting not only plot, but the very struggle their world was built on. What does it mean when the female lead raises a valid point regarding the selfishness of the protagonist, only to be demonized? I can try to push past major plotholes, simply laugh at outrageously lucky heist scenes (a bus full of children hangs upside down from a crane, and everyone miraculously survives), and even deal with diversity issues as long as there’s a good reason. However, I walked out of Death Cure without even that. A dystopian film that ignores the why is a disservice to the genre.