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When Bad Guys Turn Good: Villain Arcs in the Movies

Updated on December 22, 2017
Laura335 profile image

By day, I work for a long term care insurance broker. By night, I'm a writer. My favorite topics are movies, nostalgia, and pop culture.

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Introduction

The world can be a bleak place, and movies can mirror that with a good villain for their story. Some of the greatest villains ever invented were written for the screen. There is no single formula to create a good villain. Some are pure evil. Some are victims of their circumstances. Some spontaneously maneuver from one side to the other. My favorite villains, though, are the ones that reform, even for a moment, to stop their evil ways and help or spare the hero. There is nothing more satisfying than watching a villain cross over and change their ways. It gives off a feeling of pride and hope to the viewer that maybe we can all change and become better. Here are some situations where a villain chooses the right path. Please note, some of the pictures and captions contain possible spoilers.

The Villain Learns New Information That Changes Their Perspective

Many villains do not know their place in the story. They don’t realize that their ways are wrong. They may feel like the victim or the one who has it right. Maybe they were led to believe something that wasn’t true. Maybe they didn’t know the full story or misinterpreted something they saw or heard. Perspective and how information is processed can shape a character’s entire mindset and even change their life.

The hyenas thought they were on the right side by helping Scar. When they learn otherwise, they turn on him.
The hyenas thought they were on the right side by helping Scar. When they learn otherwise, they turn on him. | Source

The Villain is Reminded of their Past Relationship with the Hero

A hero/villain relationship is especially interesting when it involves close friends or family. These relationships can sour over time due to jealousy, arguments, or betrayals. This is a very real dynamic that springs up in real life all the time. We all have family members who don’t talk to each other. We all know someone who has had a falling out with their friend. Sometimes we are in that situation ourselves. This dynamic is amplified in films, sometimes escalating to life or death battles. Then, just as the villain is about to strike down the hero, the hero reminds them of this close relationship. Then, they lower their sword, pull their punch, or back down from the fight.

Captain America Reminding Bucky that they are Friends

The Villain is Trying to Atone for Past Sins

Despite their evil laugh and obsessive, it’s not easy being a villain. It’s full of turmoil and a head full of bad deeds. Few villains are true sociopaths. They are filled with regret after the initial fun of breaking rules and cutting down those in their way. By the end of their story, they are ready to make up for it all in some small way. Sometimes that involves going as far as self-sacrifice. This can make the character’s death that much more poignant in that they never get to see the end result of their good deed. Instead, they die with peace of mind and a little bit of their humanity restored.

Yondu decides to save his "son" from his real father.
Yondu decides to save his "son" from his real father. | Source

The Villain Temporarily Helps the Hero

Sometimes a villain is just a villain because they are in the hero’s way, or maybe the hero is in the villain’s way. Conflicting goals can cause a rivalry, especially between siblings, colleagues, or opponents. When two people are on even playing field but only one is getting ahead, that jealousy can cause a villain to emerge on one side, and the villain is so consumed by their own failures that they begin to obsess over bringing the hero down to their level. So, it’s a relief when these characters see the error of their ways and decide to help out the hero, even if it’s just temporarily. This raises them up to an even higher standard than the hero in this moment since not even the hero is likely to help them out while the villain is down, but the villain does the right thing and picks up the hero when they fall.

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The Villain Needs The Hero

This dynamic isn’t about trickery or deceit as part of their evil plan. Sometimes, a villain just needs saved by the hero. They may have been a villain in a previous story and now bring something to the table to help the hero with a new mission. They may not be trusted, but in the end, they do the right thing and are beneficial to helping the hero succeed in their new conflict.

Barbosa joins Jack Sparrow's team in order to take down Davy Jones.
Barbosa joins Jack Sparrow's team in order to take down Davy Jones. | Source

The Villain Accepts the Hero after Previously Considering them Unworthy

A villain can be more of a foil for the hero when the hero just rubs them the wrong way. They can make the hero’s life a nightmare while they try to prove themselves worthy of their hero status. Then, the hero succeeds in proving themselves, and the villain finally does deem them worthy. As a result, they team up to take on a bigger villain as equals.

The Villain is a Mindless Slave to a Greater Evil

Sometimes the villain is a pure victim under the control of another purely evil character. They are either the victim of a ransom, a deal, or a threat by their superior so they do their evil bidding for them. It’s most satisfying when a character finally resists their evil boss and does the right thing out of spite. Even if outside forces, such as a hero, free them from their bonds, it’s interesting to illustrate that this character is not fueled by evil by showing them automatically stopping their evil ways or even aiding the hero in saving the day.

The Headless Horseman was a pawn in a larger conspiracy.
The Headless Horseman was a pawn in a larger conspiracy. | Source

Conclusion

There’s something particularly satisfying about watching a character transform from bad to good. It gives us all hope that we can be better people, especially watching extreme versions of ourselves do just that on screen. Humans are complex beings, and our motivations are not always clear to ourselves or others. These many aspects of ourselves are well-represented in movie villains, and when we watch one break through their own insecurities, jealousies, and motivations to do the right thing, we can take that information and apply it to the decisions we make in our own lives, even when we are at our lowest and angriest.

Who are your favorite movie villains turned good? Leave your answers in the comments below, and don’t forget to take my poll!

What is your favorite type of villain?

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    • emge profile image

      Madan 5 months ago from Abu Dhabi

      Very interesting view point

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