A Discussion About Villains

So... there's apparently going to be a Disney live action movie about the origins of Cruella DeVille. Not only is this a dumb idea, I fear this is another attempt to "humanize" a villain like they tried with Maleficent.

It seems the glory days of the Disney villain are behind us. It seems like people don't want obviously evil villains anymore. And I'm not opposed to complex villains, but sometimes you just want to enjoy someone who is gleeful evil and they know it.

More on this subject:

So what do you all think?

Also, Disney, can we please stop with the Surprise Villain trope? Sometimes it works... but it's generally becoming overused.

Its complicated, because evil, true evil, is nonsensical. I think it was ZP's Prototype review where Yahtz says knowing there are two equally canonical, equally valid endings, one good and one bad just makes the bad one nonsensical. To be truly evil you have to either be insane, or be a sociopath, which means you have a mutation in your brain that means you're incapable of understanding good/evil.

You see someone like Cruella DeVille who wants to skin puppies alive, and you think either A. She's literally insane, or B. She's so deep into anti-social personality disorders that for all intents and purposes she might as well be insane.

I say have no middle ground what-so-ever. Either fully evil insane like the Joker, where the average person should find nothing relatable at all, or the tragic hero-turn-villain of like Two Face. You only mess up when you try to take the Joker and, I dunno, him a set backstory meant to make you sympathize with him and see things from his perspective so we can finally know he was justified to gas an entire studio audience and go on a decades long killing spree that involved the torture and mutilation of hundreds, if not thousands of people all because some kids beat him up and his girlfriend dumped him.
But you'd have to be really desperate and not know good story development to think you could credibly show a sane man's descent into madness knowing the Killing Joke already showed that no, one bad day does not the Joker make thus making Joker uniquely insane, thus unrelatable and his backstory completely moot because no matter what happened to him he'd always become the Joker.

I don't think Cruella DeVille needs a backstory, and it would somewhat devalue the impact she had in the original... but she's quite distinct in being absurd, almost pantomime evil. The same isn't true for most villains/ antagonists. The effort to humanize Maleficent was very successful, and created something of a cultural phenomenon on stage.

I don't feel the woman who wanted to skin puppies needs a sympathetic backstory. Disney villains are, generally, liked for their theatric performances, rather than their relatable backgrounds or their deep motivations. Cruella wanted to sell Dalmatian fur coats. Scar wanted to rule the Serengeti or whatever. Ursula wanted... I can't remember, honestly. Something about taking revenge on the King by screwing Ariel over?

Anyway, doesn't matter. My point is, a villain needs presence much more than he needs a relatable backstory. People knew precisely nothing about Vader when New Hope was out yet he still managed to be an iconic character because he had a cool voice and neat armour and went around choking imperial officers. And then they went and made an entire movie trilogy about his backstory and... well... you know.

The idea that you'd need to be somehow deranged to be truly evil manages to ignore *points in every direction*. Just because there's a justification of some sort doesn't necessarily mean you need to sympathize. As for types of villain, both senseless evil and not so senseless evil have their place; I typically find works that aren't so Manichaean to be more interesting, but that is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce good literature or media.

A Lovecraftian horror by default leans more on willful suspension of disbelief than, say, an evil empire, but both can be done well or poorly-- good literature generally being built on making sense in some way, the bottomless abysses of pure evil (or otherwise inscrutable antagonism) cannot by themselves make something good, but nor do they automatically make something bad. While it is often very beautiful to see one element of a story logically follow from another, it is also true that not every element of a story needs to be explained all the time-- and that any such expectation pursued rigorously would tend to cripple the possibilities of fiction. Sometimes things just are, both in and out of fiction. And sometimes those things are character motivations. Those things that just are can drive the story and create their own beautiful chains of logic that follow from them, rather than being in the middle of such a chain. So villains without understandable motivations typically focus on the problems that the villains pose and how people react, whereas villains with understandable motivations give writers more license to dig deeper into those motivations and why they came about. Sense has to be made somewhere; but authors have wide discretion in where that sense is made.

Silvanus:
I don't think Cruella DeVille needs a backstory, and it would somewhat devalue the impact she had in the original... but she's quite distinct in being absurd, almost pantomime evil. The same isn't true for most villains/ antagonists. The effort to humanize Maleficent was very successful, and created something of a cultural phenomenon on stage.

Yeah. The original Cruella's backstory was summed up in one sentence: "Oh! Must be Cruella. Your dearly devoted old school-mate"

Um...I'm getting the distinct impression that not everyone watched the video. To sum up what "pure evil" means in this context:

It doesn't mean "I'm not gonna wash my hands...because I'm evil!" or anything truly ridiculous or insane, it means that the villain isn't written to be sympathetic. The kernel traits of this are arguably 1) That the character's backstory is irrelevant to their [current] villainy, 2) Their motives are usually damn simple, 3) They've got a certain zest for their villainy, and 4) They have unwavering self-confidence in themselves

She sums this up rather neatly at around the 3:25 mark, so I'll quote the video directly:

The combination of the disconnected backstory, self-centered motivation and pure undiluted ego makes the Pure Evil villain what amounts to a self-contained juggernaut. They can't be influenced by pleas to their backstory or who they might have been in the past. Their motive can't be undercut with logic or persuasion because it's completely personal to them, and their confidence means that they won't want to change. They're basically immune to character development, and that means that there's nothing standing between the villain and having fun with their villainy...But unwavering confidence and single-minded drive has one huge weakness. Since the character is totally inflexible, they have a tendency to break. The final unifying quality of Pure Evil villains is the Third-Act Breakdown, where the villain is confronted for the first time with something they're actually unprepared to deal with - usually a protagonist blindsiding them with something unexpected - and like all egos their confidence crumbles at the first real sign of trouble

And this is what makes reimagining such villains as sympathetic so irksome. In attempting to make a stronger villain by making them more morally complex or sympathetic it undercuts the very thing that made the character work in the first place.

People love to say good villains should be relateable but I'll just point them at the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, a mordibly obese pedophile who was a great villain.

Asita:
Um...I'm getting the distinct impression that not everyone watched the video. To sum up what "pure evil" means in this context:

It doesn't mean "I'm not gonna wash my hands...because I'm evil!" or anything truly ridiculous or insane, it means that the villain isn't written to be sympathetic. The kernel traits of this are arguably 1) That the character's backstory is irrelevant to their [current] villainy, 2) Their motives are usually damn simple, 3) They've got a certain zest for their villainy, and 4) They have unwavering self-confidence in themselves

She sums this up rather neatly at around the 3:25 mark, so I'll quote the video directly:

The combination of the disconnected backstory, self-centered motivation and pure undiluted ego makes the Pure Evil villain what amounts to a self-contained juggernaut. They can't be influenced by pleas to their backstory or who they might have been in the past. Their motive can't be undercut with logic or persuasion because it's completely personal to them, and their confidence means that they won't want to change. They're basically immune to character development, and that means that there's nothing standing between the villain and having fun with their villainy...But unwavering confidence and single-minded drive has one huge weakness. Since the character is totally inflexible, they have a tendency to break. The final unifying quality of Pure Evil villains is the Third-Act Breakdown, where the villain is confronted for the first time with something they're actually unprepared to deal with - usually a protagonist blindsiding them with something unexpected - and like all egos their confidence crumbles at the first real sign of trouble

And this is what makes reimagining such villains as sympathetic so irksome. In attempting to make a stronger villain by making them more morally complex or sympathetic it undercuts the very thing that made the character work in the first place.

I think you put it pretty succinctly. It is my opinion that most wrongs done are done purely because of selfishness. This person has something I don't and I deserve to have it more than them so I should take it, that kind of thing.

Cruella's horrifying scene at the end of '101 Dalmatians' where she's driving her battered luxury vehicle with a look of pure, fiery rage in her eyes as she tries to ram a moving truck off a cliff doesn't work if she wasn't shown to be selfish and determined in her goals. Those are the eyes of someone that has been denied what they want and now don't care about anything but getting revenge, damn the consequences.

Fieldy409:
People love to say good villains should be relateable but I'll just point them at the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, a mordibly obese pedophile who was a great villain.

Villains don't need to be sympathetic to be good, but I do think they should, most of the time, be at least a little "relatable". Take Jafar from 'Aladdin', one of his motivations is probably incredibly relatable to a large number of the population which is, "My boss is an idiot but gets all the fun and prestige of his position while I do the real work and have to settle for second best." You can relate to that aspect of his motivation without finding him sympathetic.

Being relatable means you can see the logic of a villain's motivations even if you don't agree with them, at least I think that's what it means. Unless your villain is like the Joker, a chaotic evil that's motivations are erratic to the extreme, who will just as soon kill you as he will force you to carry his coat for an entire day and then let you go without further ado just because he thought it would be funny to do that, then there should be some sort of train of logic to a villain.

If Cruella is going to get a movie about her backstory then it needs to show her charisma and how she acted in normal situations. Cruella is selfish and it should show that, but the end of '101 Dalmatians' is something that happens after being denied what she wants time after time, it is not how she normally acted but the potential was always there. She should be like Gaston, a jerk to people but just a normal person by and large that once the circumstances line up the way they do, lead to her going off the deep end.

She's selfish but not to the point that she could not be friends with Anita, she should love to socialize with people but always bulldozes the conversations so that they are about what she wants to talk about. A socialite with zest and charisma that, once slighted from the norm, "I get what I want", suddenly has all that zest and charisma become a raging force of nature.

I think I kinda rambled here, not sure if what I'm trying to get at is coherent.

Fieldy409:
People love to say good villains should be relateable but I'll just point them at the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, a mordibly obese pedophile who was a great villain.

That always bothered me - what are we supposed to be relating to when it comes to when it comes to a villain? Take Harkonnen. Technically speaking he and I both have skin, hair, eyes, nose, lips, fingers, a heart, lungs, stomach, colon, anus, teeth, we were both born from a womb, conceived with a sperm and egg. The only things we don't share is the obesity, sexual desires, and he was born in space. Technically speaking I and everyone on this forum have WAY more in common with him than we don't.

Yet I relate to Nebula, despite the fact she's a woman, an alien, mostly a robot and psychotic simply because I too have an overshadowing, over achieving sibling.

'She's simply a big fan and promoter of the very finest in animal furs!'

Apparently Maleficent was pretty good, but it had to have made so many changes that the character was scarcely recognizable, and held the advantage of having enough blanks in her backstory that it was possible to fill them in. Not every classic Disney villain is going to be that way, and Cruella... I just don't see it. It's like trying to to make Judge Claude Frollo or Shan Yu sympathetic. Mr. Burns sung about skinning the Simpsons' dogs and worse in other episodes and he still has fans, likely because his portrayal can be wildly inconsistent from episode to episode.

Now Jafar, on the other hand, is ripe for an origin story.

More generally, I don't necessarily need villains to be relatable but it helps to have some kind of hint about what made them the way they are. Often they're simply a product of their environment, like Baron Harkonnen above. Too much privilege and no one to teach him discipline. On a most basic level any living being can be related to for simple motivations like food, drink, rest or comfort. But when a villain's outlook is far enough removed from everything that they see and hear and learn in the world, then they stop being scary and start being moronic.

WhiteFangofWhoa:

Now Jafar, on the other hand, is ripe for an origin story.

I remember how in the Aladdin cartoon show Iago would sometimes talk about how him and Jafar used to travel to exotic places before they came to Agrabah. I agree, it would be very interesting to see a Jafar origin story.

I don't mind them giving villains backstories, but they should still be EVIL. They turned Malificent into such a wet blanket when she used to be a powerhouse of evil and just loving it. Just give us a kid's version of a Taxi Driver character, or Scarface. Kids have enough emotional intelligence to get it. They did for Darth Vader, afterall.

Fieldy409:
People love to say good villains should be relateable but I'll just point them at the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, a mordibly obese pedophile who was a great villain.

You think Baron Harkonnen isn't relatable? He's basically every person's id personified.

I'm not a fan of re-writing old villains to be relatable for a couple reasons - the greatest of which is that it feels really lazy. Just write a new character, don't leech off of decades old creations. Exploratory fanfic can be fun, but I really think you can bring a better game than that for a feature film.

The other issue I have is that you really run the risk of changing a character from being intimidating to pathetic. Cruella is scary because you never quite know how far she is willing to go in service of her already monstrous goals. Make her sympathetic and she could easily changed from crazy scary nutso to moderately pathetic and in need of medication. Maleficent didn't fall quite so far, but certainly I found her to be less interesting and less intimidating by essentially telling me that deep down she probably just needs a hug and a therapist.

On top of that, there's the "ridiculous circumstance" danger. Like... okay Maleficent had some shit happen to her and although I feel the reaction was disproportionate I can easily connect the dots and understand the reasons behind her goals. How are you gonna make Cruella sympathetic? Give her a horrible addiction to polka dots and fur? Have her horribly attacked by a dog (nope, sorry, that one got taken by the Skinner...) Have some weird horrible shit where she gets conditioned by her parents to not value the lives of animals in favour of her personal appearance? Don't get me wrong, it CAN be done, but if you explain a villains origin by introducing a worse villain (Matilda parents, evil dog, blah blah blah) then you aren't getting further ahead you're just reassigning villain role to someone else, and if you explain her origins by tragic mishap I'm just gonna assume she was a coin-toss away from being batman.

The main issue is that Disney wants to go on the route of "Misunderstood" villains rather than the outright evil souls with no redeeming values. Scar, Malificent, Jafar, Dr. Facilier, ect. are all prime examples of being wicked villains who absolutely enjoy being destructive pieces of villainy. And that's great so long as it fits in with the story and plot.

Claude Frollo is one of those villains done right when it comes to being in a gray area. He wants to be a righteous man, however his morals, beliefs, and lust corrupt the living shit out of him, causing him to be an absolute monster to the gypsies. Despite being (probably) one of the darkest villains because despite not having magical powers, he's done some seriously terrible things and impacted the story dramatically with his cruelty that's too relatable to the real world.

But yea, Disney these days doesn't seem to remember why they nailed being incredible back then ... giving characters so much personality and making them really good at what they do, whether it was for good or for evil.

Silentpony:
Its complicated, because evil, true evil, is nonsensical. I think it was ZP's Prototype review where Yahtz says knowing there are two equally canonical, equally valid endings, one good and one bad just makes the bad one nonsensical. To be truly evil you have to either be insane, or be a sociopath, which means you have a mutation in your brain that means you're incapable of understanding good/evil.

I disagree: to not understand good and evil would make you amoral - you'd be akin to a dangerous animal (or the alien from the Alien franchise) that causes pain just because it is in its nature to do so. To truly be evil, you have to understand morality and want to break it.

I think simplistic notions of good and evil - cartoon villains - are useful for children who have much more limited senses of morality and understandings of human nature. By the time we're teenagers, however, we should start consuming human complexity and see that people are nearly always mixtures of good and evil, and that they develop on the basis of their backgrounds. There's still room for cartoon villains, of course.

Seanchaidh:

Fieldy409:
People love to say good villains should be relateable but I'll just point them at the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, a mordibly obese pedophile who was a great villain.

You think Baron Harkonnen isn't relatable? He's basically every person's id personified.

I never thought of it that way...

There is one thing about Cruella I'd like to know. She's described as Anita's classmate, but she's obviously at least twice Anita and Roger's age... and some kind of mantis-person. That could be expanded upon, but maybe we don't need a whole movie to explain that.

Kyrian007:
There is one thing about Cruella I'd like to know. She's described as Anita's classmate, but she's obviously at least twice Anita and Roger's age... and some kind of mantis-person. That could be expanded upon, but maybe we don't need a whole movie to explain that.

Well, I don't think she's much older than Anita and Roger, but I'd be willing to bet that those cigarettes are not the only vice she has.

I prefer my villains to evoke the feeling of "there, but for the grace of God, go I". Examining how someone came to be as they are can be interesting, but hamfisting the tale is easy.

The mention of Harkonnen is suitable as he was a product of his environment and being from a previously heroic, but now despised noble house. The environment is the most important thing, it is what makes the villain, as they are a product of it and have been moulded by it. Explore the environment and see how it changed the character, a fall from grace always twangs the heartstrings.

But a lady who is happy with skinning puppies to make a coat? Sounds pretty 2 dimensional to me.

You know what I'd like to see? A Disney movie where Cruella DeVille is being hunted by Cujo on a deserted island.

Kyrian007:
There is one thing about Cruella I'd like to know. She's described as Anita's classmate, but she's obviously at least twice Anita and Roger's age... and some kind of mantis-person. That could be expanded upon, but maybe we don't need a whole movie to explain that.

I think it is pretty heavily suggested to be her smoking or atleast part of why. I mean, the smoke literally is a vile poisonous green color.

Saelune:

Kyrian007:
There is one thing about Cruella I'd like to know. She's described as Anita's classmate, but she's obviously at least twice Anita and Roger's age... and some kind of mantis-person. That could be expanded upon, but maybe we don't need a whole movie to explain that.

I think it is pretty heavily suggested to be her smoking or atleast part of why. I mean, the smoke literally is a vile poisonous green color.

Also, cocaine's a helluva drug.

Seanchaidh:

Fieldy409:
People love to say good villains should be relateable but I'll just point them at the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, a mordibly obese pedophile who was a great villain.

You think Baron Harkonnen isn't relatable? He's basically every person's id personified.

I'd counter that if your only experience of Harkonnen is from the 1980's Lynch vision of Dune, you do get quite a shallow and cartoonishly evil monster (not that there's anything wrong with that necessarily, but still).

Saelune:
I think it is pretty heavily suggested to be her smoking or atleast part of why. I mean, the smoke literally is a vile poisonous green color.

Maybe it's to indicate menthol cigarettes.

 

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