When Disney dropped the first Cruella trailer on us in February they faced some much deserved controversy. The main question everyone was asking was: why Cruella? This is not Disney’s first attempt at creating a new franchise that sympathises with a villain, but it’s the first one that requires you to perform some extreme mental gymnastics in order to find a reason to feel for the villain in question. But Cruella’s irredeemability aside, the real problem that the film presents is highlighted by its cringy quoting of “I am woman; hear me roar.” Said women everywhere: we didn’t ask for this.
In a time when progressive and anti-capitalist feelings are on the rise, particularly among the younger generations who form the primary target audience of popular media, there seems to be a dissonance within the storylines of the 21st century. Curiously, it is the villains in many of our stories who seem to be the true champions of important progressive causes (feminism, environmentalism, mental health, etc.), while the heroes uphold a classist, capitalist and fundamentally unjust system. This irony is what some on social media have dubbed “The Magneto Syndrome.”
Named after Marvel’s iconic supervillain Magneto, enemy of the X-Men, Magneto Syndrome refers to the irony of a story in which a character’s legitimate grievances are made invalid by the villainisation of said character. In Magneto’s case, he sees himself as the sole defender of mutants and mutant rights within the X-Men universe while his nemesis, the hero Professor X, consistently does his best to empathise with the intolerant humans who persecute his fellow mutants. Magneto and Professor X’s polarised views on how to approach the discrimination of mutants is the core of the X-Men story, which for decades has been known to symbolise the struggle of the LGBTQ+ community for acceptance. Thus, given this symbolism, the radical stance against discrimination is villainised in the form of Magneto while the accommodating and compromising acceptance of discrimination is favoured in the form of Professor X.
Given its namesake, superhero stories are naturally perfectly suited to study Magneto Syndrome. The genre is the most financially successful in Hollywood, building off of a history of culturally significant stories and characters that spans almost a century in the form of comic books. Out of all those characters, Batman is perhaps the most recognised worldwide, along with his supporting cast of villains and allies — and he is also one of the primary perpetrators of the Magneto Syndrome. Batman has explored multiple issues over the course of his career as Gotham’s costumed vigilante: everything from mental health issues to environmentalism and wealth disparity.
Unfortunately, counter-intuitive as it may seem, Batman has not always been the hero who championed these causes. This was instead relegated to the villains that he regularly battled and sent to Arkham Asylum, villains such as Harley Quinn (DC’s current spokeswoman for mental health), Poison Ivy (the longtime climate advocate), and Catwoman, who has been stealing exclusively from the rich since her origin in the 60’s. Meanwhile, Batman has traditionally spent his days living the life of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his nights beating up petty thieves and drug dealers and stopping bank robberies. These days DC often sends him off-world to battle evil aliens or some such, probably so that no-one notices how little his presence can actually benefit Gotham.
While many of Batman’s adversaries fight for progressive causes, Batman stories have continued to uphold an unjust and capitalist social structure by glorifying Bruce’s billionaire status. It took Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker (2019) to actually question this, which is why it was a film that had a deep cultural impact. As explained by Laurie Clarke on Wired, Joker‘s “representation of the failures of neoliberal capitalism, and its disastrous consequences” resonated deeply with modern audiences. But how could it be possible that one of the world’s most controversial characters — one which self-identified militant incels closely relate to — be a better hero than Batman? Joker masks were even used in anti-establishment protests in Chile, Beirut and Hong Kong in 2019.
Joker may have turned into a symbol of repressed anger against classism, for better or worse, but Bruce Wayne cannot, in good conscience, pretend to be a ‘hero of the people’ because Batman, as a heterosexual, white, male billionaire, does not represent the true victims in Gotham. And yet the Joker shouldn’t be the face of the anti-establishment revolution either. He is a toxic character who has been claimed by toxic people, and furthermore, is a villain. Shouldn’t it be the job of the heroes to challenge the broken system, the way the Rebels do in Star Wars?
Of course, the capitalist overlords in Hollywood have learned that at least surface-level leftwing politics are key to winning the business of today’s young generations. Millennials and “Zoomers” will no longer accept at face value that the billionaire Wayne family were paragons of morality because it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no moral means of obtaining billions in wealth. The evidence of these young people’s leanings lies in the success of Joker; on a budget of $55 million, the film made over $1 billion. And it is probably also not a coincidence that the Harley Quinn animated series was a hit for DC’s infant streaming service. What’s sad is that Hollywood studios are misinterpreting this to mean that villains championing social causes is fun and edgy and the youth will like it, when the fact is that it is unacceptable for our films to undermine significant movements such as feminism by imposing Cruella as a feminist icon, or anti-classism by painting the Joker as an anti-hero. As a side note, it is also not a coincidence that those two characters have been much compared.
Pop culture films, like any other cultural object, are products of their time; art naturally reflects the contemporary politics and values of its inception. Today, millennials and Gen-Z’rs empathise with causes such as Magneto’s (LGBTQ+ rights) much more than previous generations did. So what does it say about society that the younger generations are being forced to see themselves and their beliefs in the villains instead of the heroes? For pop culture films to remain relevant, they will have to acknowledge this moral flaw in the narrative and stop delegitimatising social, political and cultural progress by presenting progressive views as villainous, which is essentially what happened with Magneto, the Joker and many others, and what is now happening with Cruella’s new turn as a “feminist icon.”
by Sofia Jordan Ortiz
Sofia Jordan Ortiz is a proofreader and copyeditor in training, and a lifelong fan of pop culture films. Together with her sister, she runs a newsletter called The Culturist, where she adds her two cents about everything ranging from superhero films to feminist issues to K-pop to Jane Austen novels.