Recently we were treated to the first trailer for Cruella, or as some might call it, “Harley Quinn Lite.” Though the trailer was stylish and full of that Devil Wears Prada oomph, it reminded me of a growing loss in modern narratives, the loss of the villainous mystique. This allure that made us hide behind the sofa or pull the blanket over ourselves has been diminishing over the past several years in pop culture, culminating in this latest reimagining of an iconic figure of fear.
This is not the first character Disney has reimagined in a new light in recent years, as Maleficent is another notable example. Here is a figure who in her original outing was charming, cutting, and terrifying. Not only was she capable of breathing fire, but she was also able to dish out quite the verbal burns as well. Maleficent was powerful, cruel, and mysterious. What could create such a monstrous figure who was so full of brutal malevolence? It was a fascinating mystery. And one that she took to her grave.
Then along came Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent in 2014. This version was a spurned lover, someone who had been mutilated by a supposed significant other. All her malicious acts were a form of retribution, and instead of being the protectors of the faeries, she became their overlord.
Her character had been completely rewritten for that film. So much so that she was almost unrecognizable by the end of it. Cut to a few years later and audiences got to watch the next misadventure of Maleficent in 2019’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. This further explored her character, but instead of adding depth to her character, it diminished her.
It’s a strange phenomenon, that knowing less about the villains that plague heroes can make us more invested in those villains. It’s that looming shadow, and if you shine too bright a light on it, it loses all presence.
That brings us back to Cruella de Vil. The Cruella trailer gives us the origin of the puppy killer of Disney, and if the trailer is anything to go by, then we may see her as something of a sympathetic individual. She was someone pushed to the extreme. She was destined for greatness, but along the way, she was twisted by more malevolent forces.
Emma Thompson’s character is most likely the match that lights the fire that becomes the inferno that is Emma Stone’s Cruella. It doesn’t excuse that this character goes on to try to kill puppies, making her perhaps the greatest evil in Disney canon. It also doesn’t add more layers to the character because, for all intents and purposes, this is not Cruella de Vil. Hell, if you look up her name in the credits, her actual name is Estella. So this could be her almost taking up some kind of mantle.
It’s a shame really. The mystique is what makes these iconic villains so iconic. In Cruella’s original outing we got scant takes of her life. She was a school friend of Anita, but that’s all we really got in the film. The best description ever of Cruella de Vil comes from the lyrics of her self-titled song. “She’s like a spider waiting for the kill,” is one of the iconic lines of that song, and it gives you a simple but perfectly concrete sense of dread. Couple that with the timely appearance of her distinct silhouette, and you’d best hide the kiddies because she’s here.
The poster child in pop culture for too much information ruining the villain is, of course, little orphan Annie — Darth Vader. I still hear tales of when he first arrived on the scene. People described him as a monster, a mechanical beast. It was truly fascinating to hear, because to me he was a man trapped in a metal shell who saved his child.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace took that demystification much further, changing everything with lines like “Are you an angel?”, and the enigmatic shadow that Vader cast over the whole galaxy suddenly receded fast and hard. Disney and Lucasfilm have tried desperately since to fix this.
These efforts to redeem Darth Vader’s image as an imposing figure include a lengthy journey across The Clone Wars, appearances in Star Wars: Rebels and Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order, and a particularly grisly cameo in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. They all worked to varying degrees, but that genie is never going back in that bottle, nor is the sand he brought with him.
Ultimately, less is more when it comes to the villains that threaten our heroes. I suppose it’s the same sense as with horror. Your imagination will likely fill in the more disturbing details better than any expository scene ever could.
Knowing less about the monstrous figures that stalk your doorway adds surprising depth to the narrative they exist within. Trying to humanize a villain that is also supposed to be a force of nature is seemingly antithetical.
Likewise, having films exploring their villainous origins is a risky venture that few pull off, especially when they don’t fully understand the character they are exploring. Hopefully Cruella will still retain some of her devilish and despicable nature when she arrives on our screens, but I’m not counting on it.