Two words which require no explanation whatsoever. We all know what it means to be a Disney villain, because we all grew up with them.
The first one I really remember, I think, is Ursula, the sea-witch of Little Mermaid fame, the film which kicked off Disney’s Renaissance when I was just a little kid. Soon enough, though, she was joined by the likes of Maleficent, Lady Tremaine, the Evil Queen, Captain Hook, Gaston, Jafar, Scar, and so many more, including the devil creature that ruled Bald Mountain (highlight of Disney’s Halloween Treat!). There was just something so perfect about these villains, in all their glorious, colorful evil, that just stayed with us. The heroes were great, but they needed these spectacular villains in order to truly shine.
Things would have just been… incomplete… without them, I think.
Oh, not to say, of course, that every single story must have such a villain in them. No, certainly not. These were, after all, stories meant for the entire family to enjoy. But, that said, the charm and forceful personalities of Disney’s villains would at least make them memorable enough to a child that they could begin to understand something important: there are very bad people in the world.
On that note, one might argue that these movies teach children to paint in very wide brushes regarding how to judge others as either good or evil, and there is a flaw to that. However, learning about the subtleties of good and evil involves first learning what they are, and learning to acknowledge that both exist. It even means accepting that, yes, sometimes things really can be that clear cut and simple. And, above all, the fate of the classic Disney villain teaches precisely the same lesson as every old fairy tale: bad guys get their comeuppance. So don’t be bad.
That is why I am a little worried by something I noticed recently:
Disney isn’t producing villains like they used to.
I don’t just mean that they’ve changed, though that is certainly true. I mean that the house of mouse has apparently all but ceased to create new villains at all. I mean, who was the last real Disney villain that they made? Can you name them?
In Raya and the Last Dragon, the great threat of the story was this formless, shapeless force that just turned people to statues, while the girl who was really villainous, the one who betrayed Raya and directly caused the trauma of her past, got some cheap, hackneyed “redemption,” in a story that basically tells children to trust everyone, including the people who hurt you most terribly.
In Moana, there was the crab, Tamatoa, who had an entire song to sing, but had only one scene (two, if you count the one after the credits) and was there and gone. The true threat of the movie was caused by Maui, the trickster and hero, as his actions had dire consequences for the entire world. And the looming antagonist, Te Ka, was just the malformed and raging form of the goddess of life after she had been deeply wronged. No real villain there. (of course, there were also the Kakamori, who were a minor threat that was dealt with easily)
Wreck-It-Ralph had the Lucifer-like figure of Turbo, disguised as King Candy, and the danger of those alien bug creatures, but the sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, had no real villain at all, just Ralph having to learn to deal with his issues.
Frozen and Frozen II did much the same, with a despicable, if also somewhat lackluster, villain in the first movie, hiding in plain sight, being revealed in the eleventh hour, while the sequel had no active villain anywhere in sight. There were dangers, yes, and there had been a villain in the past, but there wasn’t anyone evil in the story itself, opposing the heroes.
Hm, hiding villains to reveal near the end seems to be a recurring thing lately, including Big Hero Six and Zootopia.
Basically, it’s been a decade since Disney Animation Studios last gave us a villain in the same vein as Hades and Frollo, and even then, we didn’t really know Dr. Facilier’s name until the end of The Princess and the Frog, and Mother Gothel from Tangled is… well, she’s no Maleficent, I’ll put it that way.
Neither is this at all limited only to Disney Animation. Pixar, it can be argued, has done quite well in their storytelling, whether or not they had actual villains. Ratatouille, Inside Out, Cars, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, all very well done. But they also produced Sid, Prospector, and that fuzzy bear in the Toy Story saga, Hopper in A Bug’s Life, and the more monstrous monsters in Monsters Inc. So they have something of a more balanced record, generally lacking in villains, but producing pretty darn good ones when they do.
So perhaps it’s not really all that distinguishable when the last four movies Pixar has published – Luca, Onward, Soul, and Toy Story 4 – are all lacking very much in villains. Though I understand Luca has some sort of bully who threatens the protagonists and is generally hostile to everyone around them, that seems a little lukewarm when compared to Syndrome of The Incredibles.
Still, two of the biggest branches of Disney’s corporate superstructure are producing fairly few villains within the last decade or more, and those they do produce are much more lackluster than their predecessors. One begins to detect a rising pattern of behavior.
The pattern forms fully with example number three: the live-action movies.
Was there a villain in Togo?
How were the villains in Mary Poppins Returns, Tomorrowland, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales?
The original Pete’s Dragon had multiple villains, including Doc Terminus and the Gogans, but what did the remake do? The antagonist was a guy trying to get rich and make ends meet, yet he did his best to protect children who were in harm’s way, and he even ran straight into an unfolding disaster to save others. I’m just going to say: not a villain.
For that matter, the deplorable quality of the “live-action remakes” has done pretty poorly with the villains. Lady Tremaine and Sher Khan were every bit as villainous as before, if not more so, but Mulan and Aladdin both tripped all over themselves, with their villains being counted among the casualties. Heck, I recall once hearing a criticism of Jafar and Frollo for their… creepy advances towards the heroines of their respective stories, but did they miss the part where these men are villains? As in eeeevil? The freaking villains are allowed to be evil! They’re supposed to be evil! Creepy advances on heroines included! So why, why, why, out of all things they might have done, WHY did they edit THAT out of Jafar’s live-action behavior? Did they not want to show children anymore that when grown ups behave like that, it means they’re not good?
On a related note, I am troubled yet again by Disney’s apparent move towards making their classic villains somehow “less evil.” One need look no further than Maleficent for that, wherein the evil fairy was somehow transformed into a heroic defended of the very same princess she herself cursed, whilst King Stephen is transformed… into a lackluster villain, because “man, bad.”
I know it’s a trope these days, courtesy of the likes of Wicked, to tell very differing stories from the villain’s perspective, but I’d say cursing a baby to die crosses a rather significant line. As does murdering puppies for a coat, which, I haven’t seen Cruella as of yet, but I rather dread learning… is she still a proper villain?
And I suppose that’s about as proper a segue as I could ask for as I examine a pattern which still continues in what is arguably Disney’s biggest and most successful branch today, their new flagship: Marvel Studios.
One word: Loki.
It was riveting to watch the trickster god slowly become redeemed, such that he, one of our favorite villains, became an antihero, or antivillain or whatever the term is now. It felt earned and played out properly, and it was genuinely sad to see him die, truly and for all, in Infinity War. Then we got Endgame and the villain-Loki escaped, right after the devastation of New York, creating a variant timeline. Now, I have no idea what on Earth they could possibly be planning to do, but it is clear: he is neither strictly hero nor villain anymore. Odin help us.
And Loki is the third of Marvel’s shows for Disney Plus shows in a row to do this.
WandaVision had a corrupt government director doing many shady things, and he wanted to kill Wanda to cover it up, but he was little more than a sideshow. Agatha Harkness was a vulture of the highest (or lowest) caliber, swooping in to stir things up and try to seize more power for herself, but she did nothing whatsoever to actually cause the crisis she walked into, she was merely meddling in it. And Wanda… oh, Wanda. Entire discussions can be (and have been) had about how villainous she herself was in Westview. Ultimately, I believe she wasn’t, but she may well become a villain, or a villainous figure, almost like Loki. And yet, none of these three is “the villain,” and certainly not the sort that Disney is most famous for.
Finally, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier pretty much does away with the entire concept of evil villains. The Flag Smashers are anarchists fighting for their lives and loved ones and a better world, while John Walker is both a murderer and a hero who casts vengeance aside to save innocent lives. The UN officials are responsible for a great deal of suffering but aren’t bad guys, just very limited, whilst Baron Zemo, the man who broke the Avengers in Civil War, is humanized and turned into an unusual ally. The most villainous one of them all, Sharon Carter, barely gets set up as a villain at all before the show ends, spending most of her time pretending to still be a hero.
And still, still, the pattern does not stop here. Most paradoxical of all, for an entire franchise that is built on comic book superheroes and their foes – aka, “comic book villains” – even Marvel’s movies aren’t producing proper villains these days.
Oh, there was the Red Skull, the Abomination, Loki, Thanos, Killmonger, Mysterio, and so on. My favorite movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and that can be largely credited to the how brilliantly they pulled off the collective evil of Hydra alongside the individual villainy of Alexander Pierce, Arnim Zola, Sitwell, Rumlow, and others, and especially the threat of the titular Winter Soldier himself. Ah, those were the days!
But what has happened since?
Captain Marvel fell flat with its villains, including both that central intelligence entity – which seemed to try to be some Disney villain-esque figure towards the end – and Carol’s Kree mentor, whose name I don’t even remember. You know, the one who saved her, gave her his blood, trained her, put up with her, and, in the end, was actually proud of her. How villainous is that, really? Not to mention how they turned the Skrulls, an alien race that is classically an antagonist to the various heroes in the comics, into a group of misunderstood, noble refugees who only wanted to live in peace. My, how villainous.
Then there’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. The FBI agents, of course, weren’t evil, though they were an obstacle. The Ghost was the overwhelming threat, but she was a more tragic figure, short-sighted and selfish in her desperation, and certainly frightening, but not evil. She even became an unusual friend by the end, to those who forgave and helped her. Heck, the crime lord fellow was more evil than her, and he served mostly as an ankle-biting distraction than a real villain.
Loki and Zemo have both been redeemed, in different ways. Thanos believed himself to be a hero. Even the Vulture had a sense of honor.
And now we’re about to get Black Widow.
I am going to predict that Taskmaster, a formidable enemy, turns out to be fairly lackluster in most other ways. I also predict, based on what I know of stories in general, that the black-haired widow, whatever her name is, is a traitor and a villain, revealed in the latter part of the movie. But that’s mostly just a feeling. It’ll be interesting to see if I’m right.
Finally, the cherry to top all of this off with… I have mention Disney’s animated movies, and their live-action movies, and Pixar, and Marvel. You know what’s left after that?
The original trilogy had Darth Vader, and eventually Emperor Palpatine, with a few others tossed in to fill things out like Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett, and Grand Moff Tarkan. They were all fairly excellent, all intimidating and formidable in their own way.
The prequel trilogy had Palpatine, and and eventually Darth Vader, with a few Sith like Maul and Count Dooku tossed in alongside Jango Fett and General Grievous, to have enough moving parts to keep Palpatine shrouded by his pawns. This was hit-and-miss, but they weren’t terrible, and they weren’t whiny, spineless idiots most of the time.
The sequel trilogy had…
Kylo Ren: who tries to be bad, and who is impure even as he turns on his master(s), but who is redeemed and sides with Rey, and dies.
Snoke: who gets little time in Force Awakens, and just enough time in Last Jedi for it to be significant when Kylo Ren betrays and kills him.
General Hux: who is so thoroughly neutered that they had to make him a double agent who gets killed by a generic imperial officer.
Generic Imperial Officer: who is there for a few minutes and dies.
And eventually the Emperor, recycling the old villain with zero explanation and killing him permanently this time, in a way that is both epic and lackluster at the same time. (I rather like this idea)
I haven’t seen much of The Mandalorian, so I have to ask, did they do any sort of proper villain there?
I have just toured pretty much the entirety of Disney’s kingdom as it currently stands and, in the words of Captain Jack Sparrow, I am noticing something that isn’t there to be noticed. In fact, what isn’t there is standing out like a sore thumb now.
The Disney villain seems to have vanished from Disney. They are gone, and what’s left of them seems to be dwindling.
And that… that is a shame.