From Darth Vader to the Grinch, redemption arcs are a classic trope that takes a morally dark or gray character and turns them into a good person. However, redemption is in the eye of the beholder, and even characters in canon sometimes debate the validity of the process.
Saved by the Force
In Star Wars, both the novelizations, which were removed from official canon, and the sequel trilogy brought the dubious nature of Darth Vader’s redemption into question. Where Luke Skywalker argues that his father was redeemed, selflessly giving up his life to save Luke and defeat the Emperor, Leia and many others, including the New Republic’s Senate, question whether a single moment can outweigh the genocides Darth Vader committed starting with Order 66 where he slaughtered children.
As a fan of the series, I’m with the Senators. The red in his ledger far outweighs his redemption, especially in light that he might not have done it if Luke wasn’t his son.
In the sequel trilogy, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo has a similar path, choosing to abandon the light side of the Force and pursue power through the dark side and, just like his grandfather, some fans argue he redeemed himself in the end as he sacrifices his life after deciding in the final fight to do the right thing. While fans were much more accepting of Darth Vader’s redemption, the two followed a similar path.
Interestingly, the Star Wars cinematic universe doesn’t often permit character redemption outside of Force users, but that’s a weakness of Lucas’s writing that deserves its own article.
Doing the Hard Work
Spike and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer both have redemptive arcs. In the case of Angel, his occurred prior to the series, but it remains something that haunts him throughout the series and into his own spinoffs. However, Spike appears to come to terms with his prior actions, showing a much more carefree personality post-redemption than his counterpart.
As we witness the flagellation of Spike and his not entirely linear process, which starts even before he gets his soul back, the audience has a more personal understanding of what it cost him. On the other hand, Angel was cursed. He didn’t ask for his soul back, and his moral change didn’t occur until after that.
Arguably, Spike gained a soul out of a desire to be with Buffy romantically, suggesting that, like Darth Vader, his redemption had self-serving motivations. As Angel didn’t decide to get his soul back but then reacted afterwards in an effort to keep his soul, both vampires presented being good as a choice which took constant effort.
In Naruto, the Sand villagers frame Gaara as a villain, blaming him for the death of his mother and fearing his power. Growing up isolated and repeatedly told of his evil, Gaara embraced their narrative until meeting Naruto, who has a similar backstory yet managed to have friends and be accepted. His decision to change came from a realization that he was allowed to be good.
Zuko, Prince of the Fire Nation in Avatar: The Last Airbender, also goes through a longer redemptive arc. His redemption takes multiple seasons, and it is non-linear. At times, he reverts due to familial pressure and a desire for acceptance, but in the end, he makes the choice to own up to his mistakes and work with the heroes.
If redemption arcs require a change in behavior toward canonically good, then the qualifier for a believable arc could appear as a comparison of good choices over time to show the formation of a significant change and not an exception.
By measuring only from the moment of self-realization, we wouldn’t weigh prior actions against them, allowing a clean slate, but is that fair?
Fans could argue the weight of the Grinch stealing Christmas and simply undoing his actions as being equal and showing no actual growth; therefore, his participation and entrance into Who-society would be the modified behavior.
Likewise, weighing Darth Vader’s decades of slaughter against his final actions may feel woefully short when considering the Empire likely wouldn’t have risen to power without Darth Vader’s help, but where the Grinch can return the stolen goods, Darth Vader cannot resurrect all the dead children.
An alternative look could be making an alignment chart with four redeemed characters taking part.
On a scale of Darth Vader’s final act to Zuko’s lifetime of walking the walk, the x-axis for this alignment chart looks to an enduring change while the y-axis going from Scrooge to Gaara looks at the motivation behind that change. Many of those who are closer to the Gaara end required a moment of becoming aware that they could be good. Others acted against their own interests.
However, while the time scale may be measurable, the selflessness of the motivation is subjective, leaving extensive room to argue whether someone falls closer to Scrooge who was motivated by his own death or not.
At the end of the day, everyone has their own acceptable limits, and there will always be characters who one person eagerly accepts as redeemed while others see them as still a villain or someone who did not receive the true justice they deserve.
If you have a character you think we should add to our redemption charts above, post them in the comments, or better yet, create your own and tag @BossRushNetwork on X.
Featured Image: Disney
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