Here’s a “redemption” arc you’ve probably seen before, and it may have fallen flat for you, but perhaps you didn’t think much about why: a character is significantly disadvantaged in some way, so much so that you sympathize with them when they do something villainous. They feel forced into doing evil to get what they want. Perhaps they are a friend who betrays the protagonist or they’re simply a sympathetic villain. By the end of the story, however, they are redeemed, usually because the protagonist acknowledges their disadvantage and gifts them with what they’ve wanted all along. Thankful, they return to normal life, restored to society, and it’s assumed they are “good” now.
Here’s why this redemption arc is really no redemption arc at all—we’re taking a look at some Marvel villains as examples.
Why These Characters Aren’t Really Redeemed
In Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, has chronic pain from being quantumly unstable. Her parents died during a quantum experiment that caused her current state. She’s teamed up with Hank Pym’s former partner to use quantum energy to cure herself, but doing so risks the life of Hank’s wife, Janet, who’s stuck in the Quantum Realm. Thus, Ava and the protagonists are at odds throughout the film. She’ll stop at nothing, including killing, to heal herself.
At the end of the film, Janet is rescued (against Ava’s best efforts), and she voluntarily gives Ava some of her energy. Everyone smiles tearfully as Ava’s condition is cured, and Hank and co. let Ava escape, assuming she will be a good person now because she has no reason to hurt people anymore. Ava’s story ends there.
The issue with this redemption? There’s an assumption that Ava is, deep down, good, and that there was just this one barrier in the way of her being good. The fact that the barrier is chronic pain is an ableist narrative, because it suggests people with chronic conditions have a reason to be evil or are more likely to be evil than others, and once you’re cured, your evilness is gone. Ava has not done anything to make up for the wrongs she has committed, either. She sort of expresses remorse at the end—telling her friend to leave her because she is the one who hurt people, not him, so the authorities won’t be after him and he’s in danger by staying with her—but part of a strong redemption arc is the character making an effort to right their wrongs and restore relationships. Ava’s story is cut off before any of that can happen, and we are simply left to assume she is a decent person now.
A similar narrative occurs in The Eternals. Sprite is disadvantaged because she’s an adult in a child’s body. She wants to grow up, fall in love, be loved in return, and have a family, but she can’t; she looks like a kid, so everyone treats her like one. During the movie’s end battle, Sprite sides with Ikaris against Sersi and the rest of the Eternals, and she stabs Sersi with a dagger. She states how much she envies Sersi, who can live among the humans as a grown woman with no problems, and that she wants a fresh start.
After Sersi and the Eternals are successful in saving Earth, they all forgive Sprite, and Sersi turns her into a human with the leftover energy from the Uni-Mind. In one of the final scenes, Sprite is heading off to attend school and embrace her new life as a human, excited that she will finally grow into an adult. Again, the assumption here is that Sprite is a good person and it is just this one thing—being in the body of a child—that made her betray her friends.
But what happens the next time Sprite is unhappy with something, when she wants something she can’t get? Why do we assume that she won’t behave exactly the same way? The fact that she was able to stab a friend suggests some serious mental issues, and she has done nothing to redeem herself. Like with Ava in Ant-Man and the Wasp, we’re just supposed to assume that she’s a good person now.
Why These Characters Are Redeemed
Here’s another sympathetic villain who’s at a supreme disadvantage: Bucky Barnes. It’s understandable why Bucky does horrendous things, like murder Tony Stark’s parents; he doesn’t have a choice, because he’s been brainwashed. When Bucky’s memories return, he isn’t suddenly a new, happy person. He grapples with guilt for the things that he has done and he works to make amends—joining the fight against Thanos, and later, seeking forgiveness from the people he has hurt.
Bucky’s redemption feels genuine because he is remorseful and wants to make things right. There are also serious consequences to his actions—most people don’t trust him and are afraid of him, even the ones who know that he was brainwashed. When Tony finds out Bucky killed his parents, he wants to kill Bucky in response. Not everyone forgives Bucky for what he has done, and Bucky has a hard time even forgiving himself.
Finally, we have Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy. Talk about a disadvantaged character. Raised by Thanos, she had her body parts torturously replaced with cybernetics, and was encouraged to be jealous of her sister, Gamora, and compete against her throughout their childhoods. At first, Nebula wants to please her father, but she comes to despite him for his treatment of her. In Guardians 2, she blames Gamora for Thanos’s torture, trying to kill her before they reach an uneasy truce. Her redemption is slow and, even after reconciling with Gamora, she still makes the terrible decision of going after Thanos alone. Nebula’s weaknesses and flaws are not overwritten simply because she wants to do good now and her relationship with Gamora is restored.
The source of Bucky’s and Nebula’s change runs deeper than “here’s this thing I badly wanted and now I have it.” Their redemptions are tied to relationships and love—Steve’s love for Bucky and Gamora’s love for Nebula are largely what inspire them to change. Though their characters are still deeply flawed, they become willing to sacrifice themselves for others, a true sign of a redeemed character.
Five Tips for Redemption Arcs
With these Marvel stories in mind, consider these five suggestions on how to ensure your redemption arcs are actually about redemption.
1. Don’t erase the character’s weaknesses.
Characters don’t completely change just because they want to do good now. Ava and Sprite’s willingness to kill and hurt others to get what they want wouldn’t just go away. Bucky’s tendency to punch first, ask questions later hasn’t disappeared now that his memories are back. Nebula’s instinct is still to go off alone. The redeemed character shouldn’t be a new person; they should be the same person with new desires.
2. Give them motivation to change.
Villains need a reason for being villainous and a reason to change. That reason should go deeper than overcoming a disadvantage. Bucky doesn’t try to become a good person because he gets his memories back and isn’t being controlled any more, he tries to do good because he wants to be good, because Steve believed in him when no one else would, because he cares about the people he hurt. Love and relationships are strong, believable reasons that a villain might change.
3. Make consequences for their actions.
All their wrongdoing doesn’t melt away once a villain turns good. Bucky’s actions as the Winter Soldier constantly come back to bite him. Nebula almost kills her sister, and her selfishness results in Thanos learning that Gamora knows the location of an infinity stone. The difference is that these characters now care about the consequences.
4. Show that they want to make amends.
To be truly redeemed, a villain should want to make amends for the wrongdoing they have caused. They might do so through sacrificing themselves, Darth Vader-style, or going back to find the people they’d hurt. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Bucky is going through steps to make amends with people in therapy.
5. Demonstrate they have to work to forgive themselves.
A redeemed villain may have trouble forgiving themselves for past behaviour, even behaviour that they had little control over. Bucky experiences incredible remorse for his actions, which is partly what makes his redemption so believable. Nebula finds it difficult to confront her feelings at all, and it’s likely she doesn’t think she deserves forgiveness from anyone. We aren’t given much time with Ava and Sprite at the end of their respective movies, so it’s less clear how they feel about their actions.
What is your favourite redemption arc? What makes it authentic?