Opinion | In Defense of Pure Villainy

Opinion by Henry Graf
April 29, 2021, 9:59 p.m.

I recently re-watched “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” the 1961 animated Disney film about two dogs who set off from home to rescue their puppies. I was delighted to find, as I often do with childhood movies, that “Dalmatians” is as superb for nineteen-year-olds as it is for five-year-olds. I’ve changed quite a bit, of course, and I notice many things that I never did fifteen years ago. Some aspects of “Dalmatians,” for example, are indictments of its time (judging from 1960s family films, it seems that back then the only thing women ever said to their spouses was the reply “Oh [husband’s name], really!?”).

But I can’t get over how good old animated films can be. The music in “Dalmatians” is superb, the jokes are spot-on (haha) and the cast —  particularly the animals — steal every scene. I love most of all the sheer, wretched, unapologetic villainy on display. The Big Bad is Cruella De Vil, whose name, car, soundtrack and voice (thank you, Betty Lou Gerson) drip with sadism and contempt. Her life’s sole mission is to make Dalmatian puppies, with their splendid spots, into fur coats. Cruella’s henchmen, the aptly-named Baddun brothers, equal her malevolence while dismally failing to match her competence. They regularly hit each other, stand beneath caving sections of buildings, have their pants ripped off, etc.

The “Dalmatians” antagonists are utterly, and pricelessly, ridiculous. There is no effort to show their humanity, or develop the backstory that led to their crookedness, or give them redeeming qualities. I regret to say that in recent years, such abject, mustache-twirling evil has fallen out of fashion. You can track this change genre by genre, franchise by franchise. The quintessential fantasy of the twentieth century was “Lord of the Rings,” a story of an innocent hobbit who defeats the Dark Lord Sauron, a kind of Satan-surrogate for Middle Earth. Fantasy’s current apex predator is the “Game of Thrones” series, in which the narrative is often reported from the complex perspectives of the worst villains. In 1900, Frank Baum wrote of Dorothy’s defeat of the Wicked Witch of the West (she was so evil that water melted her). In 1995, Gregory Maguire depicted the Wicked Witch dealing with her hard family history.

The move toward empathy and complexity is a net good. Meddling Kid vs. Dark Lord conflicts, not to mention epic showdowns between Sadistic Gentlewomen and Cute Puppies, tend to model real world conflicts poorly. “Dalmatians”esque stories can be, for instance, nastily essentializing. Why are there no good grasshoppers in “A Bug’s Life”? Why does the fantasy genre in particular seem to blunder into weird racism, the always-evil orcs, with their guttural speech, servile nature and obsessive bloodlust, facing off against the always-good, highly-cultured elves (who are fair of face, quite fair, and, did I mention, fair?). Additionally, stark good/evil fights exacerbate the tendency of fiction to over-emphasize agency in its characters; we can easily forget that no one chooses to be raised a Malfoy, or to be born an orc, or to be bombarded with fascist propaganda from birth. Hyping pure-blood wizards, orcs and Hitler’s Youth into parodies of themselves under-emphasizes the contexts that prompt a person towards cruel action. “Nazis are bad” is a valid point but a thin analysis. Human societies need to understand why fascism and hatred arise in the first place; it is not enough to merely beat monsters on the battlefield.

So I’m not advocating for a return to 1960s Disney as our storytelling norm. But still, I’d really like to stick up for ol’ Cruella De Vil. Unadulterated, vicious villainy has its upsides.

For one, mustache-twirling villains are just plain fun. Darth Vader is a joy to watch. Ditto Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine. Ditto TV’s Cersei Lannister — Lena Headey’s wine-sipping, steel-tongued venom is a gift to humanity. The list goes on: Jeremy Irons’s Scar (speaking delicately, plotting ruthlessly), Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber (“I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane”), Heath Ledger’s Joker. These villains, with the possible exception of Cersei, share in their complete failure to garner audience sympathy. Is this fact alone a failure of storytelling? I think not. I have given a few reasons, such as inaccuracy and lack of empathy, which suggest that unnuanced treatment of villains is a bad thing, but criticizing the one-dimensionality of a story along political lines is tricky. Fictions provide entertainment, and enrichment. So long as villainous portrayals aren’t abjectly insulting to the audience, a juicy psychopathic antagonist — the Exceptional Thieves and Dark Lords stalking our culture — can certainly enrich and entertain. But fictions can also persuade, and elucidate. Flat antagonists most certainly don’t serve these latter, political purposes. In discussing the breaks from tradition of “The Last Jedi,” NPR’s Glen Weldon (doubtlessly with a grin) noted that “the overriding political viewpoint of the Star Wars films [is] Space Nazis are bad.” This message, of course, isn’t controversial! If Star Wars is an argument against Space Nazis, Star Wars isn’t using its villains to make an important argument at all!

But we don’t always need our stories to make important arguments with their villains. The purpose and effect of storytelling is not always persuasive. I think that Marvel movies have a strong Randian through line (we must pin our hopes on one extraordinary man, acting alone!), but fans of these works don’t really seem to inculcate that particular weird subtext of the superhero genre. Roughly, Marvel’s main American consumer is a suburban or urban person aged 14-30, a demographic with fairly egalitarian political views. I enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe above almost any other movies produced in my lifetime, but I still despise the cults of personality that spring up around politicians and businessmen. 

My media environment matters, of course, but ideological and philosophical arguments are typically won and lost in the literal, rather than the metaphorical, side of the public media landscape. The Trump backlash against immigrants can be traced to the rhetoric of right-wing news publications in the years preceding Trump, but I don’t think that there was any simultaneous, comparable surge of anti-immigrant fiction consumption in those years, and if there was, I would guess that consumer preferences changed with the zeitgeist, instead of fiction consumption leading the zeitgeist.

Even if persuasion and elucidation were the purposes of fiction, dastardly, unsympathetic villains would not necessarily detract from the strength of their container artworks. Take Jordan Peele’s  2017 “Get Out.” The villains are absolutely evil — their life’s work is transplanting white people’s brains into the bodies of abducted Black Americans! But the movie nonetheless offers incredibly subtle commentary (or an enriching experience, if you think that “commentary” makes a work of fiction sound like a sermon) on racism! And the over-the-top horribleness of the villains actually helps the subtle work of the film. If the foundation of a movie’s conflict is really clear-cut, viewers are prepared to embrace the movie with less skepticism of its core tenets. In “Get Out,” the evil of the Armitage family makes the hero, Chris, highly sympathetic. The intricacies of the movie, as Chris’s life slowly progresses from rom-com to horror, get all the more attention because of the movie’s high stakes and the ultimate asymmetry in audience sympathies between hero and villains.

“Star Wars” is also a clear good vs. bad matchup. In the original trilogy, neither Vader nor Palpatine gives a long speech about how the Dark Side actually will lead to remarkable GDP growth over the long term, or how blowing up Alderaan reduced endemic corruption in the senate which will lead to improved living standards, or how the Jedi invaded the peaceful Sith planet without provocation two centuries ago, or how the Old Republic was exploitative towards workers. None of the Sith think they’re heroes. All the better! The trilogy doesn’t waste time trying to justify what is essentially evil, lunatic behavior. By making the villains so bad, Star Wars makes room for moral complexity. Instead of listening to Darth Vader rationalizing, we get to know Han Solo, a smuggler who eventually overcomes his strong sense of self-interest, and does the right thing. We get to know the charismatic Lando Calrissian, who weasels Han and Leia into a trap, but who turns defiant when Vader’s demands grow unreasonable. 

“Harry Potter” pursues the same path: Voldemort is a Dark Lord, a monster in whom the story takes little real interest. Draco and Narcissa Malfoy, Snape, Slughorn and Cornelius Fudge then get room to stride onto the stage and show their moral ambiguity. “Finding Nemo,” one of my all-time favorite movies, serves up Darla, the fish-killer, as ludicrous a villain as you could ever fight. This allows the complex moral lives of the fish, sharks and birds to flourish.

We have a fun mix right now of sympathetic, Eric Killmonger-type villains and ridiculous, horrible-for-no-reason villains. Complex villains are still often underestimated for entertainment purposes, I admit, but goofy mustache-twirlers are underestimated for their intellectual uses. “The villain is flat/unrealistic/absurd/over-the-top” should not be a knock-out punch against the way a story organizes itself. A culture needs Cruellas.

Cruella De Vil
Cruella De Vil
If she doesn’t scare you
No evil thing will… 

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