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The Value of Villains and Their Origin Stories

cruella

Cruella is the latest of villain origins stories, this one about one of the most cartoonishly villainous characters ever – Cruella de Vil. How did Cruella become so evil she schemed to kidnap someone else’s puppies and kill them? Is it simply nominative determinism – her name suggested evil so she became evil? Few people in fiction or in reality are born villains, circumstances shape them and it’s possible they could have become different people. I’ve seen criticisms of these origins films that they are trying to make the audience “sympathise” with these villains, but I see it less as sympathising and more as understanding and if you don’t want villains you have to understand how people become them.

Magneto

In film Magneto is introduced in 2000’s X-Men, convinced that humanity will never accept mutants and will turn against them and as such he advocates violent resistance. In X-Men he kidnaps a child to use her powers – which will cause the child’s death, in X-Men 2 he tries to kill every non-mutant on Earth. An unappealing character but as we learn throughout the films his past helps us see why he see’s things this way. He suffered through the Holocaust, his family killed and experimented upon because he was a mutant. Then in X-Men: First Class despite saving the world the humans decide to kill the mutants. It is understandable therefore that Magneto does think that governments will turn against those they see as different, that they will kill mutants because they are afraid of them.

The Joker

The Joker in The Dark Knight //credit Warner Bros. Pictures

In The Dark Knight, the Joker relates stories of how he came by his scars (and by extension how he became the Joker), the first being when as a child he tried to defend his mother from his father, the second that he did it to himself to try and please his wife who had been scarred by gangsters. He is also about to tell a third story, presumably different again when Batman interrupts him. We never learn the truth and it’s entirely possible there is no tragic and sympathetic story but it plays with the idea that we expect villains to have these origins.

Vito and Michael Corleone

Vito Corleone taking one of his steps to becoming the Godfather //credit Paramount Pictures

A film that is regularly mentioned as one of the best of all time contains a villain origins story – The Godfather Part II. The film is split in two – half detailing Michael’s continuing battles with other gangsters and the other half is the story of Vito Corleone going from an orphaned Sicilian immigrant to a Mafia boss. Vito suffered and lost just about everything, even his name, and almost accidentally gets involved in the world of crime. We see all the incremental steps that seem reasonable and understandable that lead to Vito discussing how he will have people attacked on the day of his daughter’s wedding and decapitating horses. That said, much of The Godfather is Michael’s story of how he turned from a nice guy war hero to a Mafia boss – the attempted murder of his father, the knowledge that the police were complicit, the murder of his wife, the murder of Sonny.

Caligula

The classic British tv drama I, Claudius tells the story of Rome’s first imperial family. The third emperor is the infamous Caligula, known to this day for cruelty, incompetence and insanity. As the show takes places over decades we see the child become the mad emperor. Caligula’s father dies in suspicious circumstances, possibly on the orders of his great uncle, Emperor Tiberius. Seeing Caligula’s family as a threat Tiberius has Caligula’s two brothers killed, exiles and then murders his mother. Caligula, still a child at this point, is then taken into the household of the Emperor and witness to the depraved lifestyle of Tiberius and worried that he could be murdered at any time. With Tiberius’s death, Caligula becomes emperor soon reveals his cruel and insane side. Given that his life has been one of constant tragedy, trauma, grief and fear is it any surprise that when given absolute power things do not go well? I should point out that in I, Claudius Caligula does get involved in the plot to murder his father but as he was around seven he surely is only a pawn in the schemes of others.

So, we have Magneto, who suffered through the worst humankind had to offer and learned that he would always be seen as the other, the Joker who may or may not have an awful tragic past,Vito Corleone who lost everything and wanted to help his people and Caligula who grew up in palaces while everyone close to him was murdered by the emperor who he was forced to live with. To understand the origins of fictional villains can help us understand the origins of real-life villains and that is not to excuse their crimes but to see how we could stop these crimes happening in the first place.

Now not all of the point of giving villains backstories is to better understand the human condition. It’s also because villains are often more fun and more interesting than heroes. 101 Dalmatians was released in 1961 and Cruella de Vil is the only name most people remember from that film. Darth Vader, Alan Rickman’s the Sheriff of Nottingham and Hannibal Lecter are arguably more interesting and memorable than the heroes of these films. And none of this is to say Cruella is good, I have not seen it, it could be an awful film that is guilty of excusing wickedness but the origin of a villain can be a brilliant and insightful story.

Also Read: The Greatest Horror Villain of Each Decade

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.