Disney’s new movie “Cruella,” a “101 Dalmatians” prequel starring Emma Stone, makes a big ask of audiences: Like and even sympathize with Cruella de Vil.
That’s a woman we’ve grown up believing to be an unrepentant monster who paid a pair of petty thieves to steal her friends’ newborn puppies in order to kill them and fashion a stylish coat out of their skins.
She’s not exactly Betty White.
In the real world, Cruella’s would be an unfathomable, serial-killer-esque crime that would get wall-to-wall news coverage of the psychopath who attempted it. But at the movies it’s OK — because, it turns out, she had a rough childhood (orphaned in a tragedy) and is pushed over the edge by a mean boss.
Nobody ever pleaded with the public to understand why Michael Vick operated a dog-fighting ring where animals were horrifically abused. Nor should they have. But hypocritical Hollywood’s favorite trend is humanizing fictional evildoers, while canceling actual humans at the drop of a hat.
The infatuation with explaining villainy began in a big way in 1999 with “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” We already knew from the original films that the feared Darth Vader — whose hobbies include destroying entire populated planets — fell to the dark side sometime after his son Luke was born. The prequels took that sob story to much further, tearier heights.
We learned that Vader, born Anakin Skywalker, was once a chubby-cheeked slave, who became engulfed by rage after his poor mother was killed.
Shackles! Mom death! “Wouldn’t you destroy an entire planet, too?” screenwriters and producers seem to be saying.
There have been other “Why she/he did it” films through the years. Disney’s “Maleficent” in 2014 told us that it was perfectly fine for the “Sleeping Beauty” baddie to snatch baby Aurora from her cradle because she’d been wronged by the king. In the 2003 musical “Wicked,” which is being made into an upcoming film originally slated for a 2021 release, it was revealed that the Wicked Witch of the West was simply misunderstood because she had green skin and enjoyed a good book.
But the image-recuperation movies reached a fever pitch with “Joker” in 2019. The Batman spinoff took a fun comic book and turned it into “Taxi Driver.” The Joker, played by an Oscar-winning Joaquin Phoenix, was now Arthur Fleck, a struggling for-hire clown and aspiring stand-up comedian who had a neurological disorder that made him giggle uncontrollably at inappropriate moments. He’s poor, unsuccessful, mocked on the street and suffers from health issues.
He’s also a terrorist! He murders a trio of businessmen on a subway train and shoots a talk-show host in the head on live TV to make a point and inspire fear among the masses. But hey, the host was mean and rich people are bad.
That’s not to say these movies suck. Tracking a person’s downfall and asking viewers to understand their plight makes for many very entertaining, high-quality films. A puritanical movie industry that caves to the woke mob would be a travesty. But what is bothersome is that the holier-than-thou entertainment business never ever extends the same sort of empathy to its own.
Tweet an off-color joke or snap at an assistant in Hollywood and your career will be obliterated overnight. Guaranteed. There will be no room for nuance, only maybe a wimpy investigation with a forgone conclusion and certainly no stylish movie explaining why you weren’t so bad after all. The same people who are churning out films — often for kids — preaching the idea that we shouldn’t rush to judgment are themselves rushing to judgment every single time without fail.
Behind the scenes, of course, some of the real antagonists’ actions could be much worse than we’ll ever know, and perhaps their punishments are fitting for whatever it is they did. Still, at the movies we’re outright rooting for terrorists, wannabe dog killers, baby snatchers and Darth Vader.
What sort of world do we live in where we more easily forgive a film villain than our next-door neighbor?