Disney is on track to deliver its second villain-focused film, adding a live-action Cruella de Vil film to accompany Maleficent, which stars Angelina Jolie as the former Sleeping Beauty antagonist. The prospect of a wicked woman like Cruella, who's most famous for trying to turn puppies into fabulous fur coats in 101 Dalmatians, being the anti-heroine of her own film is infinitely exciting, but why? She's a woman who wants to thump puppies on the head and turn them into outfits. Why are we so excited? Perhaps it's because we're living in the age of the anti-hero.
Looking across the gamut of glossy, blockbuster flicks, we find villains who lack the blanket of evil that has draped characters like even Glenn Close's hilarious live-action Cruella back in 1996. But that simply won't do anymore. In The Avengers and Thor, we find Tom Hiddleston's Loki — the thinking fan's comic book villain. He's well-spoken and handsome, and he's only become so hardened and evil because of the adversity he withstood as the adopted and often deemed lesser son of Thor's father, Odin. In The Dark Knight Rises, one could argue that Tom Hardy's Bane was infinitely more interesting than the Batman himself — he was born and raised in the horrible prison, The Pit, and was thus born into evil by no fault of his own. Even Voldemort, the arch nemesis of Harry Potter and the entire wizarding world, has motivation for his own extreme version of bullying: He's racked with self-loathing over his own half-blood wizard status.
When we turn the lens to mainstream television, we find folks like Regina (a.k.a. The Evil Queen) on Once Upon a Time, who's turned her heart to stone after being tortured by her own devilish mother. On Game of Thrones, some the most hated villains have backstories that have made them who they are — Joffrey is a horrible, cruel little tyrant, but his mother is relentlessly conniving, his grandfather is blatantly ruthless, and his real father is his uncle. What chance did he have to be a decent human?
And nothing could solidify the fact that consumers of pop culture love a bad character than this weekend's Breaking Bad finale (if you haven't yet seen the series finale, prepare to be spoiled); fans were so adamant about seeing how Walter White, loving father and horribly selfish meth kingpin, ended his days. Yes, we were rooting for his former partner Jesse to survive, but on some level, many of us still held out for the fact that Walt would show his remaining slivers of humanity. And he did when he saved Jesse's life. He died a villain, but a very human villain with comprehensible emotions, motives, and at the very least, a desire to make things right to the best of his abilities. Walter White is most definitely a bad guy, but he's a bad guy who we've learned to understand. And he is the golden standard in a wave of villains with robust back stories and motivations.
With Walt and his fellow pop culture anti-heroes, we've reached a point of no return. We can't go back to folks like Jack Nicholson's Joker or Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze — villains who were killing and scheming just for the sake of killing and scheming. We've reached a place in our appreciation of narrative journeys that even on a wide-spread, mega-mainstream level, we need an explanation we can connect with. We need to know why even the worst villain would do the horrible things they do. And that means Cruella de Vil too.
It's not enough to know that she wants to kill puppies: We are a people who need to unpack even a woman whose name literally comes from the term "cruel devil" and her deplorable taste in furs. And while the surface effect of this new taste in baddies is that we're diving into wave upon wave of villains as protagonists (or at the very least, villains as full-fledged characters with backgrounds and legitimate motivations), ultimately this is a very good thing. It means we're beginning to expect more from even the flashiest blockbuster.
As consumers of the broadest-reaching pop culture offerings, we're having a harder time accepting blankets of good and evil, and we're far more willing to explore the gray areas. In fact, we need the gray areas. Still, the anti-hero is not new. It's a concept that's not been lost on authors and high-brow dramas for decades, and eons when it comes to literature. But the presentation of the anti-hero as the mainstream character du jour is certainly a trend worth noting.
In a world where information is constantly minimized to 140 characters or lists of 25 photos from Flickr paired with clever captions, it's a comfort to know that when we want to sit down for some fun and fancy free entertainment, we still thirst for characters who drive us to ask the big questions and truly understand what makes them who they are.