With the release of the new Cruella trailer, Disney continues it’s trend of live-action remakes and expansion on it’s properties. By now you’ll of probably heard the general consensus that the film looks like the House of Mouse’s attempt at doing a more family friendly rendition of Joker. Production on this film goes back as far as 2011 and casting of Emma Stone in the titular role was made in 2016 which leads me to believe some heavy changes must have been made in the last year or two. When a huge film comes out and captures the zeitgeist it is inevitable others will try to cash in on the property. With Disney seeming to think its resident would be dalmatian slayer being a perfect fit. One look at the trailer shows an apparently already disturbed person going further down the rabbit hole of mental health, pushed to their limit before emerging the other side as a much darker character. However, I am not here to talk about Disney’s attempt to cash in on current trends in cinema, but rather to talk about the more problematic issue of fiction at large in how it is ruining its villains.
In the last few decades, a huge trend became popular. Take a well loved and well despised villain, give them a backstory and take a way the mystique surrounding them. Well loved and well despised seems a contradictory statement, but that is the sign of a truly great villain. You love to hate them. They act as a surrogate for the things in life we could never do which is why we can be drawn to them but just as equally it means we can’t wait to see them get their eventual comeuppance. What’s more, is the less we know about their backstory, the better they become. I can’t deny that sometimes knowing the motives is a necessary part, especially if it serves the overall narrative for the story being told. If a backstory is crucial to their DNA then it must be included. But a lot of the time a villain doesn’t really need an explanation for their actions. They can just be evil for the sake of being evil. Bad people do exist and its what stories from a young age have always told us. That there are just character in the world who are bad. So why all of a sudden is there such a trend to give them a justification?
Let’s take Cruella for an example. Judging by the trailer, it appears that she is not going to be outright good who is turned bad. It looks like a dark streak already exists and is ultimately magnified as the film reaches its end. If that’s the case then at least it isn’t a total good person turning bad scenario. But was anyone really needing to know if there was a reason for her motives and actions? Take either the cartoon or live-action versions that have come before and it’s pretty clear that she is just a wicked person who only cares about her standing in the fashion world. She’s a representation of the darker side of that industry. Someone willing to kill the most beloved of animals just to get a fetching new jacket out of it with a hat to match. Do we really need any backstory? I’m surprised they aren’t going with some kind of angle like; dalmatians killed her family which is why she is motivated to murder a 101 of them at a later date. Given she is chased by dalmatians in the trailer I might not be a million miles off the mark with that…
Cinema in general is just obsessed with this trend. The best example being Darth Vader. A lot of things are said about the Star Wars prequels but chief criticism among them is the handling of Vader’s backstory. George Lucas took what was one of his most beloved creations and one of films greatest bad guys, a character people legit found scary, then almost ruined that legacy. In the original trilogy we are given subtle little hints at his backstory, showing that there used to be a good person before being manipulated by the dark side. This worked well because it still allowed mystery to the character but gave justification when he turns good in Return of the Jedi. Even then, the only thing we needed to know was that he is Luke’s farther which is more than enough reason for him saving his son. I’m not here to knock Hayden Christensen, I think he can be a solid actor and was just working with the direction given. But to see Vader reduced to a broody, over emotional, reckless prick was just not the way to explain his journey into darkness.
The same can be said for why I’m not a fan of Wicked. Okay, so I’m not a fan of musicals to begin with. But! I have actually seen this one on a school trip back in the day so I’m entitled to share my thoughts. I can see why people love it. The songs are catchy if you like that sort of thing and if you are watching it in the West End, like I did, the production was stellar. But again, why did we actually need this story? It takes an iconic villain in the Wicked Witch of the West, then tries to explain why she is so “wicked”. Basically, almost flipping roles making her good and then making Dorothy’s crew look like a bunch of horrible dicks. Witches have always been viewed as evil characters with some exceptions. In this case though we didn’t need to know anything else other than she is a witch therefore she must be evil. Hell, even the Wizard of Oz set up enough motivation for her actions by how her sister gets squashed by Dorothy’s house.I’m not saying you can’t tell a villain’s backstory but I’m more asking the question of should you?
For my money, one of the best villains in fiction is the Joker, as he is a prime example of why less is more. For the 80 years (that’s right – 80!) he has been around we still know very little of the man that came before him. There have been little hints here and there, with the closest being Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. This is as near as we got to explaining the backstory to this character, following flash backs to a really bad day but even by the end of it the Joker admits he remembers things differently each time. That is what is genius about it. It presents a backstory people can choose to take as gospel but is so ambiguous that even the character can’t remember. Which has thankfully been kept going even in the various interpretations of the role. Christopher Nolan understood this when it came to creating The Dark Knight, which is why Heath Ledger’s Joker gives variously different accounts on how he got those scars. Even Todd Phillips Joker understood this concept. This was the first time since The Killing Joke that a backstory was truly given but there was still enough mystery within it. A popular theory among people being that this is not thee Joker but rather the one that inspires the next to come. It’s not a loved theory but I would strongly recommend reading the Geoff John’s Three Jokers storyline to see this idea explored well.
It’s because of a lack of an official backstory which is why the Joker has endured for so long. In the end we don’t need to know how he became the way he is because not knowing adds to the intrigue. All we need to know is he is a character that views the world through an ugly lens which is why he finds humour and justification in his acts of mayhem and suffering to others. Disney really should learn a thing or two from this. Their villains are a property in their own right with a huge fan base. What’s more is they have simple motivations that are enough to explain why they are bad. You don’t need to give them an emotional backstory to justify anything. Jafar is motivated by greed. The Wicked Stepmother is motivated by jealousy. Scar is motivated by power. These are evil motivations for bad people and that is plenty. They don’t need to be given a reason for why because we as an audience just except they are bad. We don’t want to see attempts to “humanise” them because as I stated before human’s like this exist in the real world. They are already humanised.
In the end, I can understand why people feel compelled to go back to these characters and explore their story. There is a lot of intrigue to see events before the tales that introduced us to these characters. But does it always need to be a case of them originally being good and turned evil? Why not just show us them as having always being bad? Why not show them as a bad person and have an event that truly sends them over the edge? It seems Cruella might be attempting this angle and if so then Disney deserve a round of applause. These live action villain movies don’t appear to be going anywhere given Maleficent drew a decent buck and they have a whole source of evil charters to parade out. But it is going to get old really fast if they insist they must have an emotional backstory. Why not just gives us them as a baddy to begin with?
To draw upon the Joker one last time, the reason he has endured is because new writers come along to help build on the foundation. Better stories and lore are created by just keeping the character as is and ramping it up. We still feel drawn to them because just when we think we have seen them at their worst a new storyteller comes a long and pushes it even further. Stop trying to ask how they became evil, when the question should be, are they evil? To which the answer should be, yes, they are.
It’s been a while since Greg felt compelled to write an article but Cruella really got to him. You can catch him as a regular on the Pick and Mix Podcast. You can also find him on The Bearhug Club podcast to hear him talking about wrasslin!