Who doesn’t love a good villain? But sometimes what’s even better is watching your villains change into better people. Sometimes villains switch sides and a lot of times really awesome and touching stories accompany these turns to good. A villain’s redemption arc can be character development at its finest and can make the character live on in our hearts and minds.
Note some of the characters on this list are more “antagonists” than villians in the true sense- they go against our heroes and do some pretty mean things, but they might be on the same side or be working for an otherwise sympathetic cause. Either way, they’ve changed a lot and learned to work with our heroes by the end of the narrative.
So with that in mind, let’s delve into some of the best antagonist redemption arcs! Which one is your favorite? Do you have any to add? Say so in the comments!
Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender
Poor Zuko. It became clear as early as the first season that the teenage boy determined to capture the Avatar had a good heart buried under 20 layers of anger and trauma. His desperate pursuit of his heroes was out of a desire to win back the “love” of his abusive father and restore his honor (get used to hearing that). Many fans called it early on that he was likely to switch sides and when he began to let go of his hatred and try to live a peaceful life in the second season, we were sure he’d choose good in the season finale. But in a surprising twist, his sister nudged him into betraying even his beloved uncle in the pursuit to win over his father. That sort of severe backslide for a sympathetic character is rare to see in children’s media, but also somewhat realistic- the road to redemption is not always a straight line.
It actually took Zuko getting everything he ever wanted- the approval of his father, the restoration of his princely position- to realize that these things ultimately weren't as important as doing the right thing. And so Zuko left behind the life he’d striven so hard for and even stood up to his father- and it was very powerful. Zuko also had to genuinely struggle to be accepted by the heroes after his actions and the way he often failed in his attempts to prove himself was often funny and relateable. “Why am I so bad at being good?” he lamented at one point. But in the end, he finally got it right. Zuko’s redemption was an unpredictable path full of twists and turns and ultimately, a very memorable and emotional journey that created a complex character fans will remember for a long time.
Darth Vader from Star Wars
One of the most memorable redemption stories in media has to be Darth Vader’s in Star Wars. Once we learned that this intimidating villain was Luke’s father, everything changed and the entire story was reframed. We saw Vader’s was hesitant to kill his son. We wanted Luke to get his Dad back. And he did, if only briefly- in one of the most touching, iconic moments of the series, Vader saved his son from Emporer Palpatine and sacrificed himself in the process. It was Luke’s greatest victory that he bought his father back to the side of the light and Vader’s greatest moment. And then he was reborn as a Force Ghost, now Anakin Skywalker and Vader no more.
Peridot from Steven Universe
Peridot’s redemption arc is interesting because it hinged on her specific worldview. She began working with the Crystal Gems to save Earth simply because she was also stuck on the planet and didn’t want to die. We could see her slowly becoming more attached to Steven and everyone else and also appreciating the planet she was on a little more- but she was still very devoted to the villainous Yellow Diamond and the ideaology of homeworld. Yellow Diamond, she insisted, was devoted to logic and order like she was. Yellow Diamond was infallible and would never be carried away by emotiosn and would never make a foolish decision.
Eventually, Peridot stole a communication device and tried to talk to Yellow Diamond. It looked like she was going to betray the Gems and help Yellow Diamond destroy the Earth. But, it actually turned out Peridot had realized the Earth was a valuable resource full of valuable beings and wanted to appeal to what she saw as Yellow Diamond’s flawless logic and convince her that Earth could be of use to her.
But it turned out Yellow Diamond was not the objective, perfect, reasonable authority figure Peridot thought she was- Yellow Diamond did not care how useful Earth was, did not see its value and wanted to destroy it out of spite. With this, Peridot’s view of Yellow Diamond was shattered. Her specific principals helped her switch sides just as much as her friendship with Steven and the others did, making her redemption arc unique.
Rebecca Sugar confirmed all this in an interview, stating, “It’s her obsession with rules and regulations, her belief that things can be one way and one way only, and her unquestioning obedience toward Yellow Diamond that eventually rockets her into becoming a rebel and anarchist when she realizes Yellow Diamond is capable of being wrong. How can you believe in what makes sense when what makes sense doesn’t make sense anymore? She’s excited by the infinite potential of everything, and fascinated by her own capacity to care, because those things had been a total blind spot for her.”
The Avengers from Marvel Comics
Surprisingly (or perhaps not-so-surprisingly) the majority of the Avengers started out as villains. Formerly antagonistic Avengers include: Black Widow, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and The Vision. This is just the tip of the iceberg! All of these heroes struggled hard to escape their pasts and it occasionally comes back to haunt them, but they’ve undoubtedly accomplished a lot as heroes and demonstrated the human capacity to change very well.
Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist
Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist (the manga and Brotherhood) was more of an antagonist than a villain- he never allied himself with the main bad guys of the series and in fact clashed with them long before he joined up with the heroes. However, he was a serial killer who targeted the main character. At first he seemed like a guy who was using his religion to justify violence, but then we discovered he was the victim of brutal genocide largely perpetuated by State Alchemists and we had to wonder if we wouldn’t become just as murderous in his position.
Scar had turned his back on his religion and culture in his desire for self-destruction and vengeance. His arc was about rediscovering that he was still connected to both- and that he could work to change the world for his people, rather than follow a road of vengeance that would surely even lead to his own death. In the end, Scar helped save the world and began the journey to rebuild his people with his fellow countrymen. His transformation from someone who’d given up to someone who still felt hope for his people was a slow one that was triggered by several factors rather than just one- it was a complex story that was incredibly well-structured.
Greed from Fullmetal Alchemist
Greed was another character in Fullmetal Alchemist (the manga and Brotherhood) that had a complicated journey. He was always fairly affable and honest to a fault, but as the incarnation of Greed was seemingly motivated by selfish reasons. Even when he directly went against the main bad guys of the series, it was because they had killed his friends- and someone called Greed could not stand for the destructions of his “possessions”. He still insisted he wanted to take over the world. But in the end, Greed realized what he most valued in the world was his friends, and going against his nature, told his first and last lie in order to spare his friend and partner Ling before sacrificing himself. It was an incredibly touching moment.
Faith Lehane from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The resident bad girl from Buffy had a rocky road. She started out as a good guy vampire slayer. But a looser moral code than Buffy, issues of jealousy and resentment, a tragic past, bad encounters from the organization that was in charge of the Slayers and a need for parental affection that was fulfilled by the villainous Mayor all led her down a bad road.
Buffy put her in coma and when she woke up she began to wreak havoc- but Angel, a hero who had his own dark side to contend with, realized she was trying to self-destruct out of guilt and emotional turmoil in a very touching scene. Faith went to prison voluntarily to atone and broke out only when she was needed to save the day. Buffy initially didn’t trust her, but Faith proved to be a truly changed woman.
Rue from Princess Tutu
Rue transformed into the villainous princess Kraehe and kidnapped and brainwashed the prince out of jealousy- but soon viewers learned there was a deeper reason for that sort of extreme action. Rue was abused by her father throughout her entire life and was told only a storybook prince could love a wretched girl like her, so she’d better do everything to win his love. In addition, the cursed blood she was fed from infanthood made her unable to resist her worst impulses. In the end, though, Rue sacrificed herself to save her love in an act of pure selflessness that went against everything she was taught.
As the prince put it, “Rue has stood up under the burden of that suffering all alone ever since she was small. Her love was frail and she was always afraid of losing love. The more she loved the more she suffered. There was no one she could even seek help from. But she never thought to stop loving.” Rue's story was a touching one about overcoming indoctrination and abuse and the best part was how she finally got her happy ending.
Fakir from Princess Tutu
Fakir is another one who was an antagonist more than a “villain” in the truest sense, as he did believe he was working to protect the prince, but his methods of “protection” were abusive and misguided. Eventually he realized it was his own fear of dying that was motivating him more than anything. Fakir chose to confront his fears, defy his fate and change his methods.He even cast aside violence and supported our heroine whole-heartedly. In the process, he also revealed he was a major dork deep down. His character arc was one of the most enjoyable, complex and satisfying in fiction.
Xena from Hercules: Legendary Journey and later Xena: Warrior Princess
Xena may be one of the most successful villain-turned heros- she even got her own show! Her entire series was really her redemption arc, and it was done beautifully. She confronted the darkest aspects of herself, but never stopped pursuing heroism.
Vegeta from Dragonball Z
Vegeta’s redemption arc was really fun- he actually didn’t stop being a huge dick who did murderous, despicable things even after joining the heroes, making for an interesting dynamic. But eventually, he came to care deeply for his family and even realize a lot of his mistakes. These days he’s pretty firmly on the good guys' side, even if he’s still kind of a jerk.