The good, the bad, and the beautiful in antagonist storylines

Written by Abby Ciona

When you think of a villain, do you think of a figure cloaked in black, lurking in shadows and plotting revenge? A manipulative, cruel magician who profits off others’ misfortunes? A cruel jealous queen willing to do anything to protect her rule? A scheming younger brother looking to take over his older brother’s throne?       

In recent years, there have been fewer of these classic villains in our most popular movies. Instead, villains with noble or sympathetic traits have become the norm. The new villains are simply people whose goals contradict those of the protagonist. They are willing to do terrible things to complete an admirable task. They are misunderstood people dealing with their problems in unhealthy ways.

While truly villainous villains do exist (the 2022 Puss in Boots: The Last Wish has its main villain being literal death embodied in a sickle-wielding wolf), modern villains are more often humanized and relatable. The spectacularly evil villains of classic Disney movies—the Evil Queen, Maleficent, Jafar, Captain Hook, and Ursula, to name a few—have largely been replaced.

Instead, today’s antagonists aren’t one-dimensional bad guys who exist solely for the purpose of being evil: they have past experiences that shape their present, just like we do. Their strengths and weaknesses are shaped by their histories—the places they lived, the people they loved, the things they went through.

These sympathetic villains introduce an important grey area. The full spectrum of antagonistic forces (from evil overlords to playground bullies to annoying neighbours) reminds us of both the pervasiveness of sin and potential for redemption in unlikely places.

However, the trend of sympathetic villains has problems too. Especially when we are growing up, stories play a major role in shaping our ethics and helping us understand how to interact with our world. We learn by imitating those we admire. When we blur the lines between good and evil, story worlds become places without clear right and wrong, where actions are justified by the individual situations of characters.

My frustration with some famous redeemed villains is that their misunderstood or tragic backstories seem to justify or excuse their actions.

In the final book of the Harry Potter series, a memory scene after Severus Snape’s death reveals he was “good” all along, working to protect Harry. But did his double-agent status and backstory justify his consistent bullying of students throughout all the previous books?

Other villain redemptions switch too quickly without exploring the consequences of their actions. Darth Vader, the villain of the original Star Wars trilogy, switches to the light side moments before his death, and then the prequel trilogy goes on to explain how he became evil in the first place. It’s almost as if the movies are saying, “See? He had some good in him all along.” A similar glossing over of past evil occurs in the Star Wars sequels, with Kylo Ren switching to join the light side right before the final battle.

Some of the best-known villains of our generation have redemption arcs thrown in at the end of their lives. The characters may be redeemed by the end, but since it’s rushed and forced we don’t have the opportunity to see them change and grapple with their new reality.

However, there are also more nuanced and deep redemption arcs. One of the most famously successful is Zuko from the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. He starts out angry and selfish, striving to regain his honour and be accepted by his father (the main antagonist of the series). Over three seasons, Zuko realizes he has been reaching for the wrong goals, but on his journey, he often backslides into his old ways. Even when he finally turns toward what he knows to be right, he must face the consequences of his past and gain the trust of people who were once his enemies. It is slow and almost painful to watch his struggle, but as he grows and heals, he becomes a redeemed hero who chooses not to let his past determine his future.

Even though villain redemption arcs can be difficult to write well, they are still important and necessary in the stories we tell. After all, humanity is broken and sinful. The Bible is full of heroes making huge mistakes, like King David murdering Uriah so he could marry his wife Bathsheba. But it’s also full of villains being changed by God’s grace, such as Paul’s transformation from a murderer to a missionary.

No one is too far gone. As Paul reminds us in Romans 5:10, “While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.” God’s gift isn’t just the way to eternal life: it’s the way to a transformed life, a “new self” as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:22-24.

The human experience, Christians know, is not ultimately a struggle against villainous humans but against Satan, death, and forces of evil in the world (Ephesians 6:12). Stories that resonate will point toward this ultimate struggle of light and darkness. They will have characters who continue to develop over their lifespan and find their place in that struggle, just as we do.

Abby Ciona is a published author of stories, poetry, and essays. You can find her on social media at @abbyciona.