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Brilliant, bad, a little bit mad: How the perception of villainy in films has changed in recent years

With the reassessment of Cruella DeVille in Disney’s latest anti-heroine film, looking at how contemporary Hollywood films have deliberately humanised their villains to make them subjects of empathy.

Pratishruti Ganguly
Sep 14, 2021
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Brilliant. Bad. A little bit mad”

A disheveled Estella whizzes into the frame, convinced that while she was taught as a child to fit, her talent and her brilliance is too dynamic to be dulled down by societal expectations. It is at this point that she embraces the pejorative moniker – Cruella — and her purported darker side.

Oddly though, Disney’s 2021 take on the famed 101 Dalmatians villain is never as cruel as one would anticipate. Well, for one, she never skins dalmatian puppies to make coats out of their furs. Moreover, this origin story pits Cruella (Emma Stone) not against innocent animals, but a cold-hearted fashion doyen simply called The Baroness (Emma Thompson).

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This adaptation has been termed by many as apologist, because of its blatant digression from its source material, reducing a magnanimous villain to a somewhat sorry character. Conversely though, Cruella is the latest addition in a line of projects reimagining popular villains in literature, crafting an origin story that slyly blurs the lines between absolute good and evil.

Hence, Cruella is as much an underdog story, who has been forced to live on the margins after her mother’s death and opt for a life of petty thievery, as it is about a woman refusing to be shackled by social hierarchy. Further, Cruella is never really seen physically harming living beings. In fact, she has friends who constantly support her despite their occasional jibes at Cruella’s brattish behaviour. There’s also a stray dog she rescues as a child and adopts, firmly emphasising on the fact that she would not proceed to hurt dogs later in the film. Her primary motivation is to survive, and then avenge her mother’s murder. Sure, she dupes departmental store owners and nabs luxury cars, but she also makes the most of her opportunities as a struggling orphan, scrubbing bathrooms and mopping floors.

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Several films in the last decade have actively sought to provide insights into villains. Maleficent, with her curved horns, red lips and flowing capes, is the self-proclaimed Mistress of Evil. But the 2014 film about the Sleeping Beauty antagonist hardly ever vilifies its protagonist. She ruefully declares, "I had wings once … but they were stolen from me." This establishes her quest to regain her wings in the story, and divorces her from the irredeemably cruel in the 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty.

Not only in characterisation, both Maleficent and Cruella are created as physically attractive beings, almost with a punk-rock sensibility. Cruella is a fashion designer who stitches together staggering silhouettes in order to make her mark. Maleficent, on the other hand, is essayed by arguably one of the most beautiful Hollywood actresses, Angelina Jolie. She wears red lipstick and has twisted horns, but her stature demands attention. 

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In Todd Phillips’ Joker origin story, Joker’s frail frame is a reflection of his decaying mind. The film is a heartfelt portrayal of a fractured individual trying to navigate a morally degenerate Gotham society. His aspirations to become a stand-up comic ends up becoming the biggest joke of a violent, fallen city. He is not exactly the most reliable narrator, he suffers from a gnawing identity crisis, but neither is he the chilling arch-nemesis of Batman, the agent of chaos we were terrified of, in The Dark Knight.

A post-modern interpretation of evil isn’t othering; it is based on the understanding that villainy is an intrinsic part of human nature. They are our own culpabilities that find expression at our most vulnerable moments. The society itself walks the tightrope between heroism and terrorism, law and anarchy. Thus, a character in isolation no longer constitutes evil — they become cynical critics of the supposed veneer of normalcy.

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According to yet-another cultural theory termed Monster Theory, all anti-heroes, beasts, demons and fiends are the embodiment of the desire to break new ground. Scholars have argued that any anomaly is a reflection of humans’ persistent quest to explore prohibition.

Angelina Jolie echoes the sentiment in a recent interview. The actress, who plays the titular villain in the Maleficent films, says her character in the film is not as wicked as she is rebellious. "Wicked women are just women who are tired of injustice and abuse. Women who refuse to follow rules and codes they don't believe are best for themselves or their families. Women who won't give up on their voice and rights, even at the risk of death or imprisonment or rejection by their families and communities,” she was quoted as saying.

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Scholars suggest another possible reason for the toned-down depiction of villains of yore to be their profusion in real life, whether in terrorist groups or dictatorial government regimes. Now an individual with no power or bearing is not the villain, it is the skewed system. This subversion of the hero-villain trope is most emphatically played out in the Amazon Original series The Boys, where a group of lab-created supervillains unleash terror over the masses, terming every one of their victims as collateral damage.

Perhaps, despite our exposure to slasher horrors or ultraviolent action flicks, the fear of digging too deep, revealing the ugly, unmanicured sides to our personalities need the assurance of a traumatic origin story. Or perhaps, in an age of relativism, we are in fact our worst enemies. 

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