Many stories feature villains who are purely evil, motivated only by greed or power. A sympathetic villain, however, is a character whose actions are evil, but has a tragic backstory to make the character more relatable or understandable. Such a villain’s intentions may contain a grain of nobility, yet his or her actions are reprehensible. This does not excuse a villain’s actions, of course, but it simply displays that person as a true human being. No villain is completely and inexplicably evil, just as no hero is perfectly good.
Cruella, whose real name is Estella, certainly has a tragic backstory, believing for her entire life that she was responsible for the death of her kind and loving adoptive mother, Catherine. Estella lives a life of crime alongside her surrogate family, Jasper and Horace. However, upon discovering that her mother was actually murdered by her rival, the Baroness von Hellman, Estella fully commits to being the wicked Cruella and dedicates her life to revenge. While Estella certainly makes some poor choices in her life, she has also been afflicted by traumatic events.
The film’s good/bad symbolism is clear, with Cruella being born with hair that is half black and half white. Cruella’s mother wishes for her to be good, sweet Estella, but Estella has a naughty side that Catherine names “Cruella.” Although we know that Estella will ultimately become Cruella, we can’t help but hope that she will choose good instead. Alas, Estella eventually embraces her “bad side,” choosing Cruella over Estella, believing that she is fated to be evil. One must wonder then, what about us? Are we in a constant tug-of-war battle between good and evil where we must one day choose a side? Let’s see what the Bible says.
Scripture teaches that no human is free from sin (Rom. 3:10, 23 ) and that our hearts are “deceitful” and “desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9 ). In Psalm 51:5, David says he was “sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” The Bible does not simply teach that humans sin; we are born in a fallen state with sinful natures. Like Cruella, there is a sense in which we are all born bad. We all have sinful struggles that may overwhelm us if left unchecked. The question we must ask ourselves is: “What will we do about it?”
Cruella recognizes that she was born bad. Instead of seeking to remedy this, though, she eventually embraces it. Later in the film, Cruella discovers that sweet, kind Catherine is actually her adoptive mother and that the evil Baroness—who is also brilliant, bad, and a little mad—is her true birth mother. Thus, Cruella turns out to be just like her birth mother. This is also reflective of the true human condition: we all inherit our sinful natures from our first parents, Adam and Eve. As a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God, every one of us has been “born bad.” But this is where the similarity to the Christian story ends.
While the film shows the bad news of fallen human nature, it does not offer any representation of the good news of the Gospel. Instead, it embraces the bad news as good. At the end of the movie, Cruella fakes her own death (as Estella), putting an end to good Estella and allowing herself to be “reborn” fully as Cruella. The good dies so badness may reign, which is a complete inversion of the Gospel. According to Christianity, Christ died to rescue us from sin and its consequence: death. We are called to be “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20), to “die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24), and to be a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). Our old, bad selves must die alongside Christ to gain his righteousness. The Christian response to being “born bad” is not to embrace it, but to be born again.
Cruella is a flashy and entertaining movie, but its ultimate message is that being bad is cool and fun. In the battle for supremacy of the fashion world, the film has us rooting for Cruella, who is simply the lesser of two evils. By the film’s conclusion, one crazy, selfish woman is replaced by another. We can only hope that the sequel will show the true consequences of cruelty and villainy. While it is true that all humans are all “born bad” to an extent, this does not mean that wickedness is unavoidable and that some of us are destined to a life of evil, as Cruella believes. Embracing our badness will only lead to our destruction, but the bad news of the human condition can be redeemed by the good news of the Gospel. We may all be born bad, but we can all be born again to new life through Jesus.
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