Imagine you’re scrolling on TikTok. You stop to watch a video using the sound “Instructor Mooselini’s Rap.” As PaRappa The Rapper sings — “Alright, we’re here just sitting in the car. I want you to show me if you can get far! Step on the gas! Step on the brakes!” — images of villains who have received the spin-off greenlight from Disney cycle through. Maleficent, Cruella de Vil, Loki, and Gaston start the list off, but then the video dives into unchartered waters: the hunter from Bambi, Marvel’s Red Skull, and Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine. What!?
While I made up this TikTok video, I do honestly think it could very well be a tale as old as time very soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a Disney boardroom far, far away, an exec has tossed up the hunter, Red Skull, and Emperor Palpatine as possible characters to revisit in an upcoming film or television show. This is because villain origin stories are becoming more common as film and TV content, which isn’t a bad trend. I mean, who doesn’t love villains?
One of my favorite villains of all time is Shego from Kim Possible. Shego got her start as a member of a crime-fighting quintet with her brothers. However, the more villains she fought, the more she became enamored with villainy. Ultimately, she left her brothers’ group because they were too incompetent and joined up with Dr. Drakken. One of the reasons why I like Shego is because she is confidently and unapologetically evil. Nowhere in Shego’s backstory is there any trauma or pain; she simply enjoys participating in crime.
However, Shego is starting to be in a villain minority. With the rise of origin story films and television, tragedy (“tragedy”) is becoming more commonplace. In my opinion, we’re reaching the brink of this style of content because making tragic backstories a necessity to villainy ruins the whole concept of villainy.
Cruella is probably one of the best examples of this. The online backlash to Cruella was very amusing. Many people were aghast that the writers thought a good origin story for the iconic character Cruella de Vil would be to have her mom murdered by a pack of dalmatians. It was a … choice, to put it politely.
i want an origin story for the dalmations that killed cruella's mom where it's revealed that their mom was killed by a white lady near a cliff
— zach silberberg (@zachsilberberg) May 29, 2021
Cruella de Vil seemed like one of the last irredeemable villains. As a character, she consistently delights in being cruel just because she could. We don’t need to empathize with Cruella, mainly because her unabashed villainy was the most fun part of her character. Disney could have given us an utterly absurd film similar to Suicide Squad in which we get to see more of Cruella de Vil being the fashionable scoundrel she is. Instead, they tried to justify her motives and actions (killing puppies!) — which isn’t always possible for villains, and that’s the way it should be.
Kuvira from The Legend of Korra received similar treatment as Cruella. During the fourth season of the show, Kuvira says, “I was cast aside by my own parents like I meant nothing to them! How could I just stand by and watch the same thing happen to my nation when it needed someone to guide it?”
In the Ruins of the Empire comic series, we learn more, finding out that Kuvira was a difficult child her parents struggled to raise and they eventually sent her away to Zaofu. While this origin story does pull on my heartstrings (more so than Cruella’s at least), this backstory makes me think the writers are setting the stage for Kuvira to start a program for abandoned kids, not become the Great Uniter.
Kuvira believed what she believed and did what she did not because she had a tragic backstory, but because she had a vision for the future of the Earth Empire. She wasn’t afraid to use any means necessary to achieve her goals, which to her meant employing fascism, imperialism, and tyranny to create order. Kuvira is a morally ambiguous villain that we do not need to empathize with to understand. I am saying this as a fully-fledged Kuvira fan. I’m not an apologist because there really is no defending Kuvira, but I do love her very much. Your fave is problematic: me.
Today's Sexy Villain is Kuvira Beifong from The Legend of Korra pic.twitter.com/TCH8VkoSZ6
— Sexy Villain of the Day 🥀🖤 (@VillainsOTD) May 19, 2021
Thanos is another morally ambiguous villain we do not need to empathize with in order to understand. And yet, I recently learned that Thanos has a “tragic” backstory in the Marvel comics. In some versions, Thanos’ mom hates him and tries to kill him; in others, she sees death in his eyes and tries to kill him.
Both versions are pretty tragic, and yet neither helps us further understand Thanos’ motives as depicted in the Avengers films. He didn’t want other planets to end up like his planet, and he thought the best solution was to eradicate half of the universe’s population. If anything, his backstory foreshadows his actions, which I think is the point.
However, some people argue villains are people to whom terrible things have happened. But that’s not always true, and that’s why I think tragic villain backstories shouldn’t be forced upon all villains. If we continue to use Thanos as an example, his goal to wipe out half of the population has nothing to do with the fact that his mom tried to kill him. But if Disney were to make a film about his origin story, the writers would probably try to make that scene a tearjerker.
It’s also frustrating because there are successful tragic villain backstories. The Joker and Killmonger both have origin stories that serve as in-depth explorations of the effects of systemic societal issues. But what systemic societal issue is Cruella trying to tackle? Not every villain has endured hardships. Sometimes villains are just evil, and that’s why we love to hate them. Trying to humanize these villains justifies behavior that shouldn’t be justified.
Between “there was no plan for the Star Wars sequel trilogy” and “Cruella’s tragic backstory is that dalmatians killed her mom” I hope every indie creator who has ever experienced self-doubt over their storytelling skills and/or professional competency is feeling very reassured.
— E. Roseberry (@roseberrycomix) May 29, 2021
Real-life villains — you know the superrich, oil monopolies, major corporations, global dictators — don’t have tragic backstories (and their actions most certainly should not be justified). Jeff Bezos isn’t hoarding wealth for any other reason besides greed. Donald Trump didn’t run for president to change the U.S. for the better but to have power and status. In fiction, let villains be villains because people do bad things in real life for a variety of reasons, and it’s not always because of childhood trauma.
Like Alfred said, “Some people want to watch the world burn.” Full-stop, end of story. They want to watch the world burn, so they burn the world. I’d still watch that movie, especially if Shego was the main character.
Keep up with entertainment news and trends and follow our brand-new Pop Culture Instagram account.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!