The just-released trailer for Disney’s Cruella invites audiences to witness the mad beginnings of an evil, puppy-hunting fashionista. The film promises to reveal Ms. de Vil’s humble beginnings and take us along on her journey to becoming the cutthroat opportunist we know today.
This twist on the classic 101 Dalmatians is one more in a trend of Hollywood productions that delve in villains’ untold backstories and recast them as sympathetic antiheroes, with storylines that seek to soften, if not justify, their bad deeds by showing how the pressures of society twisted them into doing terrible things.
From Maleficent to Joker to Harley Quinn, we’re discovering that being misunderstood is just part of the human condition — even if you’re a psychopathic clown murderer. Here are 12 villains to watch when you, too, feel like no one understands.
The Grinch (and How the Grinch Stole Christmas)
The Whovillain Grinch is the holiday baddie known for hating Christmas, and Whoville holiday celebrations in particular. The live-action film starring Jim Carrey revealed the Grinch’s traumatic past, as the holiday-obsessed Whos shunned him for his green fur amid their obsessive Christmas preparation, triggering surly disposition and self-isolation. He has largely self-identified as misunderstood, but learns the power of self-love along the way, growing his heart three sizes before the film ends. The Grinch shows us we can all become worthy of being the hero of our own stories.
Venom exists to serve as a pure antihero: a dark reflection of Spider-Man. An alien being, Venom feeds off of a host’s insecurities and weaknesses, inevitably causing them to make more and more selfish decisions, as both host and parasite become addicted to the symbiotic relationship. In short, Venom is an antihero factory.
The 2018 film introduces Venom’s history on his home planet. Touted as the underdog, Venom is the “lesser” being of the symbiotes and treated unfairly because of it. A new style of characterization for Eddie Brock (the symbiotic host, played by Tom Hardy), adds an element of comedy to the character, and cultivates a quasi-romance between the symbiote and host. Love doesn’t exactly redeem Venom, but it gives him a place in the world.
Cruella de Vil is the audacious villain from Disney’s 101 Dalmations. Aside from wanting to get ahead in fashion by skinning the hides of adorable spotted puppies, audiences know very little about her. Glenn Close brought the character to life in the 1996 live-action film with her over-the-top laugh and undeniably evil hustle for money, and although Close gave us more of Cruella’s personality, her backstory was still unknown. That changes with the release of Cruella, which seems poised to make sense of her evil disposition.
Cruella is scheduled for theatres on May 27, 2021.
The Joker is known for his anarchist nature and sadistic disregard for human life. The Joker’s allure, whether in the graphic novels or on the big screen, is his mysterious absence of a consistent backstory — a fact 2008’s The Dark Knight poked fun at, as Heath Ledger’s Joker offered contradicting explanations for his hideous facial scars.
When the latest Joker film starring Joaquin Phoenix was announced, some fans were disappointed to hear the famously evil character would be receiving an origin story. While the Joker’s life outside of his criminal activity was highlighted in the film, the character thankfully retained an air of mystery. Cribbing from Martin Scorsese movies more than the comics, director/co-writer Todd Phillips camouflaged the truth, leaving viewers sceptical about Joker’s true past. It’s an origin story we could have lived without, but does give dimension to a character who was already plenty complex.
Birds of Prey, or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Speaking of the Joker, Harley Quinn is better known as the sidekick to that iconic villain. She was invented by the creators of Batman: The Animated Series, and has since become a fan-favourite antihero in comics and films.
Harley Quinn’s origin story is well known in the comics but has yet to be clearly detailed in the cinematic world. Elements of her backstory are seen in The Suicide Squad and in 2020’s Birds of Prey. She begins as psychiatrist Harleen Frances Quinzel, treating patients at Arkham asylum. While on assignment, she falls for the Joker’s persuasive personality and becomes his criminal sidekick.
One might argue Joker simply unlocked her true anti-establishment nature, helping her realise her self-actualize. Either way, she eventually breaks free of Mr. J in the new movie, and has become a symbol for women everywhere who choose to say “fuck the system” and embrace their free spirits.
Frank “The Punisher” Castle is a prime example of an antihero. In the DC Comics, Castle is a former soldier who comes home from war only to witness the murder of his wife and child. With a backstory like that, anyone is likely to feel for him…until he starts vigilante killing anyway.
In the Netflix original series, Castle is a wanted criminal for the actions he has taken to seek revenge for his family and takes on the alias of “The Punisher.” You find yourself rooting for Castle even if you don’t agree with his tactics. He’s a good guy stuck in a conundrum of needing to do bad things to find peace.
Along the same lines, Deadpool uses his powers to exact revenge on his wrongdoers. In the film version, Wade “Deadpool” Wilson is an army veteran turned contracted muscle. After meeting the love of his life, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer and seeks experimental treatment to cure his ailment. When this treatment turns out to be torture, it unlocks his mutant potential but leaves him scarred for life. Wilson then sets out to take down the company that tortured him against his will.
His witty and raunchy repertoire eases the blow of the horrific style in which he murders his enemies, and X-Men character Colossus consistently tries to bring Deadpool’s actions from R-rated to PG, but Deadpool is misunderstood, and totally fine with it.
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (based on the fairy tale) presents Maleficent as an evil witch who puts Princess Aurora to sleep (essentially into a coma) to punish the king for snubbing her. The 2014 and 2019 films Maleficent and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil illustrate the childhood trauma and heartbreak that fuelled Maleficent’s, well… maleficent actions. It’s an empowering tale of otherness and triumphing after being cast out for your differences, instilling empathy for the known villain. These films turn Maleficent from an antagonist into the protagonist of her own story.
The Star Wars Prequels
We are first introduced to the villain known as Darth Vader in media res in Episode IV: A New Hope, which gives us little reason to doubt he is anything but pure, black-clad evil. We learn it’s a little more complex than that in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but it’s not until the prequels that we learn how he fell from grace.
Over the course of these three films, we see the eventual transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, and discover how his obsessive need to control the fate of those he loved paradoxically turned him to the dark. After his mother is killed and the love of his life and his mentor “betray” him, he turns to the dark side and ceases to be Anakin — he become Darth Vader. Feelings about whether this is a story that needed to be told… vary, but it has become an important part of the Star Wars saga.
Most antihero stories reveal their protagonists are a product of their environment; while it certainly doesn’t absolve them of their actions, the reasons for their wrongdoing become clear. Patrick Bateman of American Psycho is a wealthy and successful businessman, who also happens to be a psychopathic serial murderer. The film is a commentary on the pressure of perfection and the cost of success. Bateman’s story doesn’t make us empathise with him (or hopefully you don’t) but lays out the unfortunate logic of his actions.
Minions: The Rise of Gru
I have a soft spot for the loveable villain Gru. In one momentous day, he not only attempts evil deeds (and mostly fails); he also adopts three orphans and becomes a single father. This year’s Minions: The Rise of Gru will give us the tender beginnings of a villain (even though we do not need much convincing Gru has a soft side.) In the upcoming flick, we’ll see young Gru attempting to join the villain group known as the “Vicious 6.” He is an adorable little guy with a big head, pointy nose, and a plan to deceive the greatest villains of all time. Gru’s origin story promises to be a cautionary tale in never underestimating the little guy.
Minions: The Rise of Gru is scheduled for theatres on June 17, 2021.
Adventure Time is an expertly crafted animated television series that intertwines a hero’s struggle with morality and the search for identity in a post-apocalyptic landscape. One could argue main character Finn the Human’s journey has a hint of antihero symbolism to it, considering the number of sacrifices he has made to be the hero he aspires to be — but a villain he most definitely is not. Yet the villain of this series, the Ice King, has one of the most captivating backstories I ever encountered.
The Ice King is presented as a bumbling bad guy with the power to fly and freeze things with his hands. He lives in the ice kingdom and spends most of his days trying to kidnap princesses to make one his wife. As the series unfolds, you of course learn a lot more about why he is who he is, and while you despise Ice King for his annoying antics, your heart breaks from knowing why.
Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger is an antihero who widely speaks to the Black experience in the U.S. Although the film is not solely dedicated to the character, his backstory is prominently featured and provides the film’s turning point; Killmonger is a kid from Oakland who challenges the throne of Wakanda from the current king T’Challa.
While his cousin T’Challa grew up with the opulence and privileges in Wakanda, Killmonger grew up on the streets of Oakland, vowing to one day claim the throne and take power over the kingdom. The story is a metaphor for Black Americans who have lost connection to their country of origin and the scars that exist from the severed ties, and Killmonger’s story is a painful antihero’s journey that resonates well beyond the fictional superhero lens.