Spoilers ahoy for Steven Universe, Agents of Shield, The Flash, and Star Wars! You’ve been warned!
Last week marked the conclusion of another Steven Bomb, a week of new episodes of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe. Each Steven Bomb has an underlying message included; one Steven Bomb was about consent and healthy relationships, for example. This Steven Bomb was about recurring villain Peridot becoming her own person (well, Gem) and learning that there’s beauty on the planet Earth. That got me thinking about other characters who started out as villains and redeemed themselves, hence this list.
So, here we go, and who better to start with than…
Peridot (Steven Universe)
It’s a bit of a cheat to start this list with her, but who cares? Peridot has never really been a villain in the traditional sense; she’s just a scientist who does what she’s told and views Steven and the Crystal Gems as annoying nuisances to her research of Earth. She’s, putting it bluntly, kinda pathetic and annoying to both the heroes and the villains, as even her escort Jasper finds her a pain to deal with. It’s a lot like hanging out with a child, fluctuating between being funny and annoying at a moment’s notice.
It’s only until after she’s stranded on Earth that the show gives her more depth and character. As Steven Universe premiered, there was always the idea that the Gems had been around Earth for quite a while and more or less just went with the flow of humans along with time. But with Peridot, we get to see her slowly grow and adapt to how we do things. Whether it’s jokes, finding out if humans can fly (spoiler: we can’t), or the weird joy that comes with shipping fictional characters, it’s just fun to watch her learn about the world and human interaction. She may not entirely be a Crystal Gem yet like the others, but it’s hard not to be excited by the future of her fighting alongside the comrades she once called clods.
The Arbiter (Halo)
The Halo universe isn’t exactly known for its wide range of interesting characters, boasting one main character who largely has nothing to him. It’s folks like Cortana and the supporting cast of the Halo lore that make up for the Master Chief’s deficiency in that area, and the Arbiter is one such person.
As Halo 2 opens, the Arbiter is an Elite named Thel Vadam blamed for the destruction of the titular ring world at the hands of Master Chief. While Chief is getting praised for destroying it, Thel is stripped of his rank and literally branded for his failure before being conscripted by the Prophets. The Arbiter rank is nothing more than a glorified role as a hired gun for the Prophets fully expected by everyone to die.
Thel’s side of the campaign is about him trying to win back his own life and discovering that the Prophets and their entire Great Journey–everything he’s worked for in his military career, basically–is a lie. That’s all pretty cool stuff, and there’s some satisfaction in watching him gut the Prophet of Truth in Halo 3. He thankfully makes a return in Halo 5 for help in taking down the Covenant on the Elite homeworld, and here’s hoping he’s got more screentime in future games. Plus, he’s voiced by Keith David. How could he not be cool?
Grant Ward (Agents of SHIELD)
A lot of things didn’t work in the debut season of Agents of SHIELD, and one of them was Grant Ward. While Brett Dalton was fine in the role, he just couldn’t have been any more one note and blank; it was like someone at Marvel said, “get me a generically handsome white man with a strong jaw” and he just happened to be near the offices. So it was quite an interesting surprise when after Captain America: The Winter Soldier revealed that most of SHIELD was full of Hydra agents, he turned out to be one of them.
The reactions to this twist were about as expected, with nearly everyone just flat out hating Ward since he revealed that by shooting people in the face. Still, there was a small sect of fans who thought Ward would be redeemed, and since then, it feels like the show is actively doing everything in its power to make sure folks to realize that that wouldn’t be happening any time soon.
Ward killed his brother and burned his house down, his parents, everyone on a passenger plane, murdered his own girlfriend (who herself was basically a stand-in for fans who thought he could be redeemed), and killed his own dog. It’s pretty safe to say that all of that and a straight up admittance that he did everything of his own accord doesn’t mean he’ll be redeemed ever, but he’s a lot more fun and interesting this way. So while he won’t be redeemed on the show, he has become (kinda) redeemed in terms of being depth and personality. Y’know, just one that’s a complete sociopath.
Darth Vader (Star Wars)
Vader is one of the greatest movie villains of all time, and how could he not be? He’s got an instantly iconic look, he sounds scary, and he just Force chokes a guy. That’s awesome. He provides one of the best twists in film that still stands up to this day, and when you see him redeem himself by killing the Emperor, it feels right. And then…the prequels happened.
There’s a lot of issues with the prequel films, and one of them is that they manage to nearly undermine Vader’s entire arc in the original films completely. Sure, being seduced to the Dark Side because everyone Anakin loves kept dying is a solid reason for him to go evil, ditto getting your legs and arm cut off by your mentor. (Side note: ow.) It’d be hard to not get tempted by a creepy old man when the Jedi have such a bad mental health plan and no one’s seeing the signs that you’re a ticking time bomb.
But the films don’t entirely sell that shift from respected Jedi general to child murdering space Hitler all that well, through both the fault of the writing and an incredibly wooden performance from Hayden Christensen. When all’s said and done, though, there is still some tragedy in watching the Chosen One screw up so amazingly bad and have that last for years, only to undo it all in a handful of seconds. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a lesson his grandson learned…
Nux (Mad Max: Fury Road)
Fury Road took a lot of people by surprise, and one such character was Nicholas Hoult’s Nux. In the Fury Road world, the evil Immortan Joe has managed to build a death cult of War Boys who are all too eager to die to appease death metal Darth Vader. Through the culture of white paint and Norse mythology, Joe basically has an entire limitless army at his command, all of them willing to eat up just whatever he says. Nux is already dying, so when he’s given the chance to appease his surrogate daddy by killing Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa for stealing Joe’s breeding wives, it feels like you already know where this is going, right? He’s gonna become a recurring villain who somehow manages to survive off dumb luck? Yeah, no.
Instead, the film turns around and makes him the philosophical spine of the story. After seeing the death of one of Joe’s breeding wives, Nux undergoes a crisis of faith and realizes that everything Joe has fed to him throughout his life is what led the wives to escape his wrath in the first place. Given the film’s underlying message of “hey, toxic masculinity is going to get us all fucking killed one day”, Nux’s journey from boy to man is subtle, but not enough that you don’t get the film advocating that boys need to learn about feminism in order to avoid spraying silver paint on their face before they jump to their death. Ride on, shiny and chrome, kid.
The antagonist from the first Valve game ended up being much more likable than probably anyone at Valve was intending. There’s plenty of reasons for this, like the writing and Ellen McLain’s performance, but the biggest contributor is that she’s shade personified.
While GLaDOS is evil and hates Chell with a burning passion, she’s more evil in a low effort way. She definitely puts Chell through her paces with puzzles and turrets that want to kill her, but that doesn’t mean she also won’t try to start something close to a conversation with her. Pretty much everything from her mouth–er, speaker–is solid gold, and it’s hard not to laugh as she insults and berates you in calmly. It’s hard not to love her, even as she lyrically tells you to leave her the hell alone.
Captain Cold (The Flash)
The Flash is a great show, no duh. Great action, great cast, great characters (most of the time). While not all of the villains in the show’s run have been a hit (here’s looking at you, the non-entity that is the Weather Wizard), it’s Wentworth Miller’s Captain Cold that pretty much walks away with nearly every scene he’s in.
Cold is one of the Scarlet Speedster’s most famous enemies, and Miller plays him perfectly. He’s deadpan while also having a sense of humor, evil while having a sense of good. He’s not quite a bad guy at this point, given how many times he’s saved Barry’s ass, but he’s also not really a hero yet. It’s not on his resume. Still, it’s easy to see why he was chosen as one of the leads for Legends of Tomorrow, and if that show basically exists for him to be snarky at Victor Garber and Rory Williams, then it’s time well spent.
Damian Wayne (Batman)
There have been plenty of Robins in the Batman comics, but none of them quite like Damian Wayne. While the three boys and Stephanie Brown have all had redeeming qualities about them, Damian didn’t really have any. Like all 10-year-olds, he was an irritating, arrogant brat whose claim to being “the best Robin” was more about his upbringing from his mother Talia al Ghul and being Batman’s actual son. That attitude, combined with his tendency to pick a fight with basically everyone in the Batfamily, did not endear him to a lot of people. At least, at first.
Thanks to the Batman & Robin comics (both pre and during New 52), Damian’s grown into way more of a likable human being now. He’s still arrogant and full of himself, but these also lead to some of the funniest and endearing moments with him. Having him personally go up against the earlier three Robins just to take something from them is so perfectly childish, yet completely rational for a 10-year-old, as is adopting a cow and giving him a Bat-moniker.
If the B&R comics don’t do it for you, it’d be best to try Robin: Son of Batman, which is all about Damian traveling the world to atone for past sins. Everyone’s got their own demons, but Damian’s cover basically his entire life, from stealing an ancient artifact to causing the blindness of the caretaker of his genetically deformed clones (don’t ask). Every character has someone who writes them really well, and Pat Gleason has handled Damian perfectly over the past 4 years. His relationship with both his parents is complicated, but Gleason shows how both have shaped him into the boy he is, for good and for worse, and the dynamic between his pet Goliath and his accomplice Maya is equally messed up while also making total sense for the son of an assassin and vigilante. The kid’s still got a ways to go, but it’s fun to watch him try and become his own person.
Finn (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
One of the best parts about the Force Awakens was how there was virtually nothing we knew about the plot until the actual movie came out. As such, there was a lot of debate about the characters. While pretty much everyone was able to suss out Daisy Ridley’s Rey pretty easily, John Boyega’s Finn was much more of a mystery. Yeah, he opened that first trailer dressed in Stormtrooper armor, but was he a spy for the Resistance? A Jedi? Was he the new Luke?
The answer to that question is still up in the air (please be a Jedi, please be a Jedi), but his arc in the film from born and raised Stormtrooper to Resistance fighter is fun and interesting. If Rey’s arc in the film is about destiny, Finn’s is about choice, and it’s clear from his first meeting with Poe Dameron that he’s just a guy who wants to do the right thing. Boyega plays him with such earnestness that it makes him hard to dislike him even as his good intentions get him in more trouble nearly every time he opens his mouth. Plus, it’s nice to have a black guy in Star Wars who goes through a wide range of emotions and comes into his own. Can’t wait to see what this kid gets into in Episode VIII.
Zuko (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
Even though 90s kids like myself grew up on anime to some extent, Avatar: The Last Airbender was something we hadn’t seen before. It was an anime in the technical sense, but it was one that didn’t feel like it was unsure if it was for kids or adults due to weird censoring, had great voice acting, and didn’t feel like it was padding out its main story. The core cast of characters were all great, but none were as entirely fascinating as the show’s antagonist, Prince Zuko.
Like most villains in kids cartoons, it’s clear that Zuko is powerful and scary in some aspects, but not unbeatable. The show does a great job of balancing his successes with his failures because he needs to fail in order to become who he is at the end of the series. The dynamic between him and his Uncle Iroh show that he’s a moody teenager, but his actions make sense with the internal conflict in his head from what he’s learned from his real father and what he learned from the man who actually was a to him. What helps a lot is the time the show spends between Aang and Zuko’s growth over the series, taking him from antagonist to deuteragonist with ease. And even though it was only an eventuality as some point, it can’t be denied that seeing Zuko pledge to teach Aang firebending is a pretty big fist pump moment, and ditto watching him get crowned as the Fire Lord. You did good, kid.
What were some of your favorite redemption arcs? Let us know in the comments below.