Prince Hans of the Southern Isles is either the most underhanded of Disney villains, or the most unjustly accused. The dashing prince, who is set up as a hero for so much of 2013’s Frozen, takes a heel turn so suddenly that it spawned fan conspiracy theories across the Web. (Steve Wetherell and Brendan McGinley wrote an awesome breakdown of the theory for Cracked in 2016.) In My Favorite Movie of All Time (TM), Frozen 2, the main characters reinforce our conviction in Hans’ villainy with pithy comments and a particularly amusing moment between Elsa and…memories.
I actually sat on this post until Frozen 2 released, because I bought into the theory that Hans was affected or influenced by magic. I wanted to see if and how the sequel would address this, and what role Hans might play. Now that we know he only appears as a recollection (seriously, haven’t you watched it yet?), it’s time to explore what was going on in our first trip to Arendelle.
Who is this Hans?
So, how do we get from Hans the goofy, infatuated prince charming to Hans the cruel, calculating villain? If Hans isn’t cursed, how did “Will you marry me?” become “Oh Anna, if only there was someone out there who loved you”?
Jonathan V. Last (who must be brilliant because people with V middle names just are) posits in an excellent 2014 column for the Washington Examiner that Hans is the victim of a narrative inconsistency. When the original story shifted, he became a convenient catalyst for Anna’s act of true love. While this is the likeliest real world scenario, my own narrative criticism offers another option.
Hans is just like any one of us whose good intentions become corrupted by power and influence.
The beauty of literature in any medium is that the audience can draw out interpretations beyond the creators’ intent. Hans’ villain turn is shocking, but is by no means unique. I believe that Hans is just like any one of us whose good intentions become corrupted by power and influence.
The path to villainy
Anna’s appointment of Hans to govern while she chases after Elsa is terrible kingdom management, which might be a blog post on its own. That said, when he takes the reins, he consistently defers to Anna’s authority as he carries out her instructions. He passes out supplies to keep people warm. He opens the castle for shelter. He does exactly what Anna would do, and appears to do so gladly.
And then…advisers begin to warm to his authority. “Arendelle looks to you,” they say. Hans starts to feel, maybe for the first time in his life, that he is needed. Valued. Respected. He’s the 13th son, remember; these are probably all new feelings. Maybe he had given up on the idea of ever being the leader, but here he is now with an entire kingdom in his hands.
And, frankly, he is good at it. His crisis management skills are admirable.
Power starts to feel good
Hans feels seen, validated. He’s starting to get comfortable with power, but hasn’t gone too far yet. He doesn’t give Anna up for lost or leave Elsa in her ice palace for one. His search and rescue team, despite Weselton’s men, is to bring both women back safely and, presumably, to restore Elsa to her throne.
But Elsa can’t stop the storm, and Anna is nowhere to be found. Hans has those words rolling in his head: Arendelle looks to you. Even Arendelle’s advisers have given Anna up for dead. His newfound role seems guaranteed to become permanent. Who else can stumble and fall right into a monarchy they weren’t born into?
Power is threatened
As Hans debates next steps with advisers, Anna arrives. This is great news! Except…with Anna returned, the power of the throne reverts to her. Power, be it to govern a nation or to run a committee meeting, is a funny thing: it is so comfortable as to go nearly unnoticed when one has it. When we contemplate losing it, however, we start to panic.
I can picture Hans’ unconscious calculus: even if they’re married, Hans is the consort to the queen. Any authority he holds is Anna’s to grant and mediate. But he’s good at it! He’ll make a great king! What do you mean he has to give it up now?
But Anna isn’t okay. As she collapses into his arms, she begs for a kiss to thaw her frozen heart. The power, again, rests with Hans.
Sometimes, a moment is all it takes. In that moment, Hans must weigh his power to save or sacrifice Anna with whether to sacrifice or save his power in Arendelle. In that moment, he uses power for the sake of keeping more power. The heel turn is complete.
Explaining the power grab
Like any good villain, Hans breaks down his nefarious strategy to Anna before leaving her to freeze. The problem? He’s probably lying to himself.
Hans appears to suffer from the same cognitive dissonance that the audience feels when he refuses to save Anna. Cognitive dissonance, proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger, is the need to align our beliefs to our behaviors. For Hans, this sudden power grab isn’t consistent at all with his earlier behavior. Justification is necessary to resolve the inner conflict.
For the prince, that justification shapes a narrative of mercenary throne-hunting. Hans projects his shortcomings onto Anna, claiming that her naivete and desperation for affirmation (qualities he shares) made her a perfect rube. He casts himself as someone who not only sought, but deserves the power that fell into his lap. Then, as the final resolution, he reassures himself: I, on the other hand, am the hero who’s going to save Arendelle from destruction.
Hans is us
The complexity of Hans’ journey to villainy is a gift and a challenge to us: it holds up a mirror to the complex reality of villainy in the real world.
Most of humanity moves through the world with good intentions. We try not to hurt others, to help others if we can. But we are flawed, susceptible to the lure of power and the promise of importance. We want others to value us. Even the best among us, once we gain a modicum of power, begin to act in ways that preserve and increase that power.
Cultural and moral norms tell us how dangerous the pursuit of power is, though. That perspective threatens our inner narrative of good intentions, throwing us into cognitive dissonance. To keep both power and equilibrium, we craft post hoc explanations that magnify our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.
Whether the directors intended it or not, Hans is actually the most brilliant Disney villain we have ever encountered. Our challenge as viewers is to avoid offering easy explanations about him to resolve our own cognitive dissonance. Instead, we must do the more difficult work of critiquing our own motivations and behaviors, of seeing where we too might become villains–despite our own best intentions.