Hollywood studios are finally according women effective enmity. Why did it take them so long?
The new ‘Cruella’ (2021) trailer dropped the other week and it looks AMAZING. Set in 1970s London, this punk rock origins story stars an unrecognizable Emma Stone as everyone’s favourite dogskin-loving, scary-haired supervillainess - Cruella De Vil. It takes place when Cruella was a young fashion designer who becomes obsessed with dog skins, especially those of Dalmatians.
The trailer gave me serious ‘Birds of Prey’ and ‘Joker’ vibes and I say that as a good thing. It looks set to be a Heath Ledger-Margot Robbie-style transformation for Stone - similar to what those actors did for the Joker and Harley Quinn. It will be really interesting to see Stone’s psychotic, evil side. I had never really thought of her as a villain - she always strikes me as one of the nicest people ever, as well as adorable, bubbly and sassy as hell. But, thinking about it, she does have that glint of insanity and asymmetricality in her eyes that would look fantastic when completely and utterly unhinged.
Cruella De Vil is certainly an iconic character. She was created by Dodie Smith in the 1956 novel ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’. Betty Lou Gerson did a fabulous, spine-tingling job voicing her in the 1961 Disney film adaptation and Glenn Close did a scary job in the actually surprisingly decent 1996 live-action remake and its sequel ‘102 Dalmatians’ (2000). She is easily one of the greatest villains of all time.
Disney have a history of great female supervillains. Remember Maleficent? Not those terrible live-action films with Angelina Jolie. No. I’m talking about the evil witch in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) - an heiress to the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) for scariest witch on film. I loved Ursula the sea witch in ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) and the Evil Queen in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) whose beauty hid that horrible witch face that gave me nightmares as a child. The Queen of Hearts with that awfully large head was also great in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (1951) although Helena Bonham Carter was just annoying as her in the 2010 Tim Burton remake. And then there was Lady Tremaine in ‘Cinderella’ (1950) who is responsible for every little girl’s fear of their stepmother. She didn’t just force Cinderella into hard labour, but allowed her two daughters to pull Cinderella’s dress apart before the big ball. Evil stuff.
Live-action supervillainesses have fared far less well. Apart from the live-action ‘Cruella’, I can only think of Electra King in the otherwise pretty mediocre Bond movie ‘The World is Not Enough’ (1999) and Bellatrix Lestrange in the ‘Harry Potter’ (2001-2011) films in terms of unsexualised queens of mean. Catwoman in the many ‘Batman’ films and Mystique in the ‘X-Men’ (2000-) films are heavily sexualised. Mystique is a naked blue alien and Catwoman is clad in skin-tight leather and spends most of her time seducing Batman with her power of seduction.
In recent years, female superheroes have really come of age. ‘Wonder Woman’ (2017) was the highest-grossing female-led superhero film of all time, 21st highest-grossing superhero film and 3rd highest-grossing film by a female director. This shows there is clearly a demand and market for female superheroes. Marvel Studios will be hoping to pull off the trick themselves this summer, provided cinemas are open in time, with the May 7th release of ‘Black Widow’ (2021). As with any major tentpole blockbuster released in cinemas post-pandemic, all eyes will be on ‘Black Widow’ and her arse-kicking lycra to kickstart the film industry again in the wake of the pandemic.
The odds are certainly in the movie’s favour. It stars a feminist two-hander in the two most pivotal roles in Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh as the kick-butt Black Widow sisters. We haven’t seen this many women headlining a potential franchise since ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ flopped back in 2019. That starred Linda Hamilton, MacKenzie Davis and Natalie Reyes in the lead roles.
‘Black Widow’ will surely do better than ‘Dark Fate’ as it stars one of the world’s most bankable movie stars, Scarlett Johansson, and the Oscar-nominated breakout star of 2019, Florence Pugh. There’s a newly renewed demand for conventional “movie stars” after the flops of ‘Tenet’ (2020) and ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ (2020). Neither of those movies starred any Box Office draws and the latter completely relied on an established brand like D.C Comics to draw in the crowds. Even this isn’t enough these days to convince people that it’s safe and cheap enough to attend the movie theatre. Maybe two big stars will do the trick? I hope ‘Black Widow’ is a success - both for the future of the film industry and female superheroes who are increasingly becoming the face of franchise blockbusters and terrific for it.
Harley was grimly sexualised and choke-raped by Batman in ‘Suicide Squad’ (2016) - the camera leched over her legs when Batman was carrying her unconscious body. She was better served by ‘Birds of Prey’ which let Margot Robbie exercise her grinning and gurning and her pixie cut.
Robbie is arguably the most sexualised actress at the moment. Just look at her multiple nude sex scenes with Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2014). But her blonde bombshell hair was bleached green and her fulsome prettiness was covered up by face paint in ‘Birds of Prey’. There was no chance of the camera perving on her body because it was more focused on the extremely violent acts she was commiting and watching her kick butt completely unsexualised.
Harley Quinn is a great character - a full-rounded, unsexualised supervillain and doubtlessly the inspiration for Stone’s Cruella. Stone and Robbie even look similar and the ‘Cruella’ trailer has a faux Sharon Osbourne voiceover.
I loved her ‘Taxi Driver’-style transformation from nerdy, Wonder Woman-idolizing young woman into all-powerful, arse-kicking supervillainess.
I wonder whether the #MeToo Movement is responsible for the rise in female supervillains. In the next few weeks, we’re getting ‘Promising Young Woman’ (2021) which is about a woman trying to avenge her raped best friend. That’s produced by Margot Robbie through her LuckyChap Entertainment production company and is shaping up as a major awards frontrunner and poster girl for empowering, feminist, arse-kicking #MeToo filmmaking. Showing that girls can be both the good girls and the bad girls and giving us a more rounded, evened-out approach to women doing good deeds and bad deeds.
Robbie clearly believes in the power of the women scorned. It’s a good cause and ‘Cruella’ will level the playing field for female supervillains even more…
Freelance film critic, journalist and writer based in Nottingham, UK. Specialises in cinema.
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