Movies

Disney’s Defanged Villains Try to Pass Off Brand Management as Feminist Nuance

For them, evil is only a fashion statement.

Collage of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, Emma Stone as Cruella, and Frozen's Elsa.
They’re not bad. They’re just drawn that way. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Disney.

“If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will.” The lyrics to One Hundred and One Dalmatians “Cruella de Vil” might engage in a little exaggeration when hyping up the film’s vividly nasty animated villainess, but they’re downright incongruous when paired with the new live-action version of the character. As played by Emma Stone, the heroine of Cruella has been retooled into an aspiring fashion designer whose most grievous crimes include Oliver Twist–style pickpocketing, dognapping and befriending a trio of trained attack Dalmatians, stealing a necklace that belonged to her mother from an extremely wealthy person, and escaping several attempts on her life. Not exactly the straight and narrow type, but far from the stuff of nightmares.

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As iconic evil goes, few of Disney’s recent baddies can hope to eclipse the original Cruella—in part because there aren’t many to choose among. The villain shortage can probably be traced to Frozen, which was smartly retooled to dimensionalize Elsa’s original evil-queen status, turning her into an anguished outcast who only looked like an enemy to those who didn’t know her. Frozen II makes the bad guys conceptual: Anna and Elsa must atone for the crimes of their long-dead ancestors, and non-Elsa-related cartoons have followed suit. In Moana, maybe the best of Disney’s modern princess (or princess-adjacent) narratives, the Big Bad turns out to be the understandable rage and hurt manifested by the goddess Te Fiti. In the recent Raya and the Last Dragon, the heroine fights a faceless entity that ravages the landscape and turns people to stone—which is to say, she’s really fighting the divisions and distrust that keep people from uniting against this existential threat.

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Just as these movies deemphasize the importance of happily-ever-after romances, they upend the old Disney model where the lead characters are blandly (and often blondly) virtuous, while the villains—Maleficent, Cruella, Snow White’s Evil Queen—are fascinatingly, fabulously devoid of humanity (beyond, of course, human vanity). In the meantime, Disney’s live-action riffs on its animated catalog give iconic figures like Cruella or Maleficent the space to tell their stories, away from the built-in misogyny of having witch after witch after witch threaten the pure-hearted heroes.

In theory, this is a positive shift, Disney’s attempt to offer its young audience lessons that aren’t so dependent on innate goodness, or telegraphing that goodness with physical attributes. But as this novelty has jelled into a house style, the unofficial ban on old-fashioned evil starts to feel a little like an unholy cross between bothsidesism and aggressive branding. After all, why should any Disney characters inspire fear or apprehension, when they can be turned into franchise-friendly dolls? The subversions of Maleficent and Cruella—and there are some, especially when reading Maleficent’s mistreatment as a metaphor for sexual assault—weaken when they’re fed through the origin-story machine.

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Like a lot of developments in popular cinema over the past 20 years, the rejection of outright villainy can be connected to superhero narratives, which have undergone their own, similar shift. Superhero movies in the ’90s, led by the Batman series, typically had the hero underplaying opposite an over-the-top and irredeemable monster. Perhaps there was nominal pathos in the sad fate of former Bruce Wayne buddy Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), or the way the awkward neediness of the Riddler (Jim Carrey) turned homicidal, both in Batman Forever, but the name actors weren’t hired to generate empathy. They were chasing the devil-may-care showboating of Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s first Batman. In contrast, the interconnected and Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings have often been dinged for their uninteresting villains. Fair enough, in some cases (remember Corey Stoll in Ant-Man? No one does)—yet also a welcome sign that the MCU is simply more interested in Captain America than the Nazis he punches out.

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Within this framework, Disney occasionally comes up with a genuinely empathetic and complicated villain anyway, like Black Panther’s Killmonger, whose grievances are largely reasonable, even admirable, especially when expressed through Michael B. Jordan’s heartbreaking performance. Whether by design or through the push-pull tension between the franchise’s past and future, Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy came up with a compellingly conflicted bad guy in Kylo Ren, using Adam Driver’s talent for summoning both twisted-face menace and broken-boy empathy. But neither Kylo Ren nor Killmonger received the full-movie origin-story treatment, and both were all the better for it.

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Cruella de Vil, on the other hand, has been treated with such care and empathy that she’s barely recognizable as a villain at all. Rather than exploring the genesis of a soul twisted into evil, Cruella simply opts to make its leading lady … not evil. In keeping with the movie’s Diet Tim Burton aesthetic, this Cruella is more akin to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman from Burton’s Batman Returns, with a dash of the Penguin’s backstory. Those villains were dangerous, at least. Cruella, meanwhile, is never truly pitted against anyone more honorable than a sneering toady. The real heavy of the piece is her idol turned boss turned rival, the Baroness (Emma Thompson). Cruella never even depicts a moment where its heroine turns anti-, unless some momentary rudeness toward her lifelong friends counts. Instead, she puts the “ego” in alter ego, with a mid-credits scene making a vague and borderline nonsensical promise of real evil to follow.

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This is a good use of Stone, who may have too much screwball zest to play a purely irredeemable creep, and at any rate is great fun to watch in the movie (as is Thompson as the true villainess). But it’s also a strange approach to a movie about Cruella de Vil, more so than the alternate Sleeping Beauty narrative generated by Maleficent. (Cruella is like Maleficent further reconfigured as a prequel to itself.) In the run-up to Cruella’s release, there was some odd hand-wringing about how a movie could possibly make a puppy-killer likable, which seems a bit alarmist; Cruella is, after all, a fictional character, and the idea of alternate-side retellings of famous stories is, by now, itself a familiar kid-lit trope. (One might even pedantically point out that Cruella de Vil does not, in fact, succeed in killing any puppies in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. She outsources the task to henchmen, also present and defanged for Cruella, and every single one of the mutts survives.) As it turns out, Cruella doesn’t perform a clever balancing act in order to avoid the attempted puppy-killing. It flat-out runs in the opposite direction. The filmmakers don’t seek to explain or understand evil. Rather, they shoo it away, back to the margins of the story where the Baroness hangs out.

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The result is a kind of faux nuance that perpetuates a brand under the guise of deepening or recontextualizing a familiar character. Though Cruella amusingly toys with its inherited iconography, there’s something insidious about its willingness to pass off a charming movie star doing shtick as an exploration of evil, however tongue-in-cheek its references may be. Simply bringing a cartoonish character to live-action life is supposed to be enough. It’s the next logical, hollow step after filmmakers and fans insist that Thanos, the serenely genocidal madman who snapped away half the population of the universe in Avengers: Infinity War, is a complex character with a legitimate philosophy, or that Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, from Marvel’s rival DC, has a psychological richness on par with the multiple Martin Scorsese characters he rips off. They’re still live-action cartoons, despite all the backstory.

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Disney’s actual cartoons are a bit more sophisticated, but by making the enemy so internal, they fall into a different pattern that suggests evil can be apologized away. At their worst, the amorphous bad guys force the heroes into sloganeering—hence Raya’s endlessly repeated line about how its various tribes “broke the world,” spoken as if read from a whiteboard. Meanwhile, the sorta-baddies who do appear on-screen in the company’s PG-13 offerings are off selling evil as a fashion statement: Cruella’s fabulous two-tone hair, Maleficent’s magnificently sharp cheekbones. Their branding feels more important than their deeds. (It somehow seems more threatening that Thanos wants to destroy the Marvel Universe than if he were snapping at our own.) Maybe Cruella’s fashion-centric story is cleverer than it looks; is it a commentary about how allowing a villain even the slightest hint of humanity will inevitably result in them appearing on a cutesy T-shirt? More likely, though, it’s a shortcut to the T-shirts themselves.

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This doesn’t mean that Disney, or anyone else, should revert to the Cinderella model of trilling, passive sweetness wanly squaring off against unrelenting cruelty. But there’s something to be said for a cartoon villain that doesn’t pretend to be a fully realized person—or a movie that doesn’t attempt to pass off villainy as just another point of view to consider. There’s certainly realism to the way that the new Cruella de Vil’s flamboyance is ultimately disconnected from her supposed badness; the question is whether the film understands why. With all of its corporate origin-story rummaging, Disney has chosen to ignore how much real-world evil isn’t secretly sympathetic so much as utterly banal.

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