Any story worth its salt has to have an antagonist to counter the protagonist. Every Batman needs a Joker. They provide contrast, conflict, and character & story development. There are tons of types of different antagonists, with some being pure chaotic evil, and some who you can sympathize with, recognizing their goals as understandable but needing to be stopped regardless.
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In comes Prince Zuko, the antagonist-turned-ally of Avatar the Last Airbender. His goal is to capture the Avatar so he can come home from his shameful banishment. Throughout the seasons, we see that he isn’t a two dimensional villain, rather a victim of abuse, especially from his father who burned half his face, and his sister Azula, much more loved by their father. Despite his relentless ferocity in trying to capture the Avatar, we get episodes showing his backstory, and how desperate he is to make his father proud and regain his honor.
His story is told side-by-side with Aang, the Avatar’s, showing just how similar they are despite their roles as protagonist and antagonist. Throughout his journey, he wrestles with decisions about doing the right thing or doing the thing that will help him in his goal, and like any human character, sometimes he’s made the wrong ones, the most egregious being betraying his uncle and siding with his sister, despite Iroh being the only one to support him throughout his whole banishment.
Eventually he is able to see that the only way to regain his honor is to stop his father from taking over the world, and to help the Avatar do that. Of course, he is not easily forgiven, but the show makes sure to help Zuko grow organically and build/rebuild relationships with the Gaang. From banished and dishonored prince, to friend of the Avatar, Zuko became the gold standard for antagonist redemption arcs.
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Many people would like to have a Zuko-like redemption arc for their villains, but sometimes it doesn’t work, because they don’t deserve one, or because it was too rushed, without having sufficient character development to believe they’ve changed. One of the biggest offenders is Kylo Ren. The biggest reason as to why his redemption arc was not as good, was because The Force Awakens established him as a vicious wannabe Darth Vader who acted without hesitation on the path of the Dark Side. His interactions with Rey, Leia, and Han have good moments here and there, but they’re not allowed to take time with them, making it rushed and not making it fit with his previous characterization. He joins Rey’s side rather quickly, and is forgiven quite easily, even though he has a lot of blood on his hands, including his own father’s.
Kylo Ren has been a villain for a good part of the sequel trilogy, and changing it without any buildup or sustained interactions with the other characters made sure that his redemption arc was subpar. Zuko does the hard work not just to earn back trust, but to become a better person, overcoming his own trauma. Kylo Ren doesn’t.
Zuko was able to have a good redemption arc because he had to realize his own actions without becoming an over-the-top villain, and his character is one of the main reasons why Avatar the Last Airbender is so timeless. Kylo Ren’s was too late and rushed, hard to believe, making Zuko’s the superior redemption arc.
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