Just as DC and Marvel movies supplanted most Hollywood genres, now comic book movies and Disney flicks are going after the old-school adult-skewing character study.
If no one takes my advice from yesterday and pushes one of their bigger movies to sometime before Memorial Day, then by default the first summer biggies will be Paramount’s A Quiet Place part II and Walt Disney’s Cruella. Disney dropped a final (?) trailer for Cruella yesterday morning. It’s more of the same, with Emma Stone cosplaying a kind of Arthur Fleck meets Louis Bloom hybrid and eventually becoming the puppy-skinning villainess we all know and love. The new trailer plays up a duel between Stone and Emma Thompson’s Baroness von Hellman and offers both a dog-napping and reassurances that those dogs don’t get butchered.
Just like Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent, the core hook behind this period-piece prequel is the mere idea of Emma Stone *as* Cruella de Vil. Truth be told, the movie looks suitably stylish, with Stone having a campy and kinky blast. I can only hope that this may be a skewed take on Disney’s recent “girl boss” feminism. Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya played in similar waters in terms of sympathetic villainy. That the movie is being sold as Disney’s Joker and frankly seems to be playing out like David Gilroy’s modern classic Nightcrawler makes Cruella a potentially potent example of modern Hollywood moviemaking.
It’s not just a kid flick using the grown-up movie as a template, but rather supplanting that sub-genre for all audiences. It’s not remarkable that a kid-targeted movie like Cruella is playing in the Joker/Nightcrawler sandbox. Loosely adapting an adult movie is a good way to start your kid-targeted flick on sturdy footing. Think, offhand, Cars (Doc Hollywood), Real Steel (Over the Top), Peter Rabbit (Rushmore), Pete’s Dragon (Mama) and Logan (Children of Men and Blood Father). But this kind of appropriation feels different, because the intent feels different. Walt Disney would prefer that audiences watch Cruella not along with but instead of Nightcrawler.
It’s no secret that comic book superhero movies have supplanted conventional genre flicks by offering genre-specific tropes and pleasures along with character-specific comedy, big-scale action and marquee characters all in one “no need to shop anywhere else” package. What once was unique with Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight (still arguably one of the only genre appropriations that feels like a genre flick first and a comic book superhero movie second) is now precisely how the Marvel and DC movies both differentiate from each other and squash the competition. Movies like Joker and Cruella may be trying to supplant straight-up character studies too.
Nobody watching Pete’s Dragon (which is the still the best of the recent Disney live-action remakes/revamps) is going to forsake a horror movie like Mama. No one is going to watch Peter Rabbit and decide to never watch Rushmore again. But these recent dips into specifically “grown-up” cinema feels less like approximation and more like replication for the sake of suffocating the genuine article. We’ve seen that with action-specific genres already, audiences thrilling to The Mandalorian instead of News of the World, audiences showing up for Spider-Man; Homecoming but not The Edge of Seventeen, or audiences preferring Aquaman to The Kid Who Would Be King.
The question is whether character-specific franchises and related IP can indeed supplant not just conventional action/thriller/fantasy movies but essentially everything. I would argue that battle is already half-lost, as at least some of the huzzahs for Joker and Logan were from franchise-drenched moviegoers who hadn’t seen much of the “genuine article.” We all claim to want non-franchise, adult-skewing and inclusive theatrical releases, but we ignore Widows and Overlord in favor of Halloween, Venom, The Grinch and Fantastic Beasts 2. It just goes to my theory that folks either don’t care about inclusivity or only care when it applies to movies and TV shows they already wanted to watch.
Cruella looks like bitchy fun, with “devil may care” sensibilities seemingly closer to the bonkers-bananas Maleficent: Mistress of Evil than the “respectful to a fault” Mulan. That its title character is being presented not as an innocent gone bad through circumstance but as a rotten apple from the start almost qualifies as progress for a Disney that seems recently unwilling to commit to full-on villainy in their animated properties. And yeah, I’m dying to see just how Cruella earned that unexpected PG-13 rating. We’ll find out May 28, 2021. Just remember, you can and should watch Cruella and Nightcrawler, Joker and Observe and Report or Halloween and Overlord.