So many villains just want to be heroes.
There are two ways to dilute the substance of a villain. One is to give them an origin story prequel where they’re shown to have once been a nice little boy or girl who grew into being evil (hi, Star Wars). The other is to bring them back in sequels where they’re now a good guy, if not a total hero. Most of the time, the latter is forgivable. After all, villain arcs have, for ages, allowed for redemption at the end of a story. Sequels to such stories understandably need to honor that. But it is getting out of hand with some movie franchises. Below, I give 13 examples and rank them from smallest to greatest offenders.
The alien in 1987’s Predator is one of the greatest movie adversaries of all time, this despite the fact that he’s given very little personality. He’s just a ruthless hunter who sees humans as nothing more than game to be killed for sport. In their own series, the Predator aliens (Yautjas) continue to be bad (and “ugly”) motherf’ers. But in the spinoff crossover Alien vs. Predator, one of the Yautjas teams up with a human woman to defeat their shared enemy, the Alien Xenomorph. They seem to share a romantic bond even.
The idea of a shared enemy also comes into play in the third Ocean’s movie, Ocean’s Thirteen. Danny Ocean’s gang of thieves and their original franchise mark, Terry Benedict, find unity in their desire for revenge against a greater evil: bad businessman Willy Bank. Technically, Benedict doesn’t go total good guy — he actually turns on Ocean and co. the first chance he gets — but y’know, also technically he was a victim of the crime committed by the “good guys” in Ocean’s Eleven. He’s understood to be the 13th of Ocean’s 13, so at least temporarily he’s one of them.
If you’ve ignored the direct-to-video sequels to the Disney animated classic Cinderella, you’re unaware that one of the “ugly stepsisters” has a redemption arc over the course of two installments. Even in the 1950 original, Anastasia is portrayed as the slightly less obnoxious of the two sisters compared to Drizella. In the 2002 sequel Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, Anastasia gets her own romantic storyline that pits her against, and morally above, Drizella and their mother. In 2007’s Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, Anastasia is back to being a little bad but changes her ways again by the end.
Because I’m looking at franchises rather than series of movies, all of the various groupings of Spider-Man movies and their offshoots count. Therefore, Venom, which sees the title villain, in a move faithful to the comics, as more of monstrous hero, may be linked to Spider-Man 3, in which Venom was one of Spider-Man’s foes. There’s a chance other Spidey rogue gallery characters will have similar protagonist qualities in their own movies, but none of those announced (Morbius, Kraven, etc.) have previously been seen first in the film franchise as a bad guy.
For many books and many movies, Professor Snape is believed to be a bad guy. Maybe not an outright villain, but possibly associated with the villain and regardless still at least an antagonist for Harry Potter and his friends. In one shocking moment, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, just when it is thought he is, in fact, one of the good guys, he kills their leader, Albus Dumbledore. But that is part of a plan where Snape was indeed good all along and working as a double agent. So, technically he doesn’t turn into a good guy, but narratively he kinda does. Like the character himself, it’s complicated.
After so many installments of the Ice Age franchise, it’s easy to forget how different the original 2002 movie is regarding its plot and character. For one thing, humans are a major component of the first film. But they’re missing from the rest. For another thing, Diego the saber-toothed tiger is part of a pack seeking revenge on the humans. He’s sent to steer Manny the mammoth, Sid the sloth, and the human baby they’re protecting toward the rest of the saber-tooth pack. He has a change of heart before the end of the first movie, so it makes sense that he’s a good guy for the rest of the franchise. Later, the initially villainous female saber-tooth tiger Shira also joins the good guy herd after her first appearance.
The Police Academy franchise is like a big-screen sitcom, and as in the tradition of TV sitcoms, it winds up making popular guest stars into series regulars. The one big example is Bobcat Goldthwait’s gang leader turned police officer Zed (and to a lesser degree his meek foil, Sweetchuck). This being a comedy franchise, it’s partly about the joke of turning the big bad of Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment into one of the new recruits of Police Academy 3: Back in Training. It’s a punchline delivered in Goldthwait’s first appearance in the latter, elevated by the fact that Sweetchuck is also entering the academy. They both become full officers in the next sequel, Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol.
Magneto has been the big bad for most of the “X-Men” comics as well as most of the X-Men movies, but he’s a complex villain whose issues are merited if not all his intentions and methods are. So he goes clean at times in both mediums. On screen, he teams up with the X-Men against greater shared foes, but most of his good times are in the past, in prequel series form (Michael Fassbender version). In his older form (Ian McKellen version), though, the last time we see him, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, he’s allied with Professor X and the X-Men in a heroic time-travel mission to change the world.
Possibly the most famous of all villain heel turns, Godzilla begins his movie life more than 60 years ago as a devastating monster who had to be stopped. He attacks Japan after being rudely disturbed by man’s nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean and then remains an adversary of humans through three more movies until, one decade and five installments in, the King of Monsters begins to be seen and portrayed as an ally, evolving more and more into a benevolent creature — albeit one that still does harm to people and their property — as a protector of Earth against other monsters such as Ghidorah.
Marvel Cinematic Universe
Whether or not we accept Loki as truly turning hero, his character’s evolution is one of the most interesting parts of the MCU. He’s certainly gone from best villain to favorite antihero by fans, and ultimately he dies a relatively redeemed figure. Not as interesting, though, is the evolution of Scarlet Witch, who goes from being one of the main villains for much of Avengers: Age of Ultron to changing her ways (and accent) and joining the Avengers for the ensuing franchise. Her transformation is probably hereditary since in the comics she’s Magneto’s daughter.
There’s a degree of silliness to the evolution of dinosaur portrayals in the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World movies. The T.rex doesn’t really become a hero intentionally. She just keeps stealthily showing up and going after the bigger threats. And the raptors that are bred to be relatively good guys in Jurassic World aren’t the same as the bad ones in the original trilogy, but it’s the species of dinosaurs that make the transition from bad to good in the franchise more than just specific animal characters. It’s all part of the franchise’s consistent interest in presenting dinos as creatures that are both terrifying and amazing, scary monsters and beasts of beauty, to be both feared and respected. Ultimately the franchise, with the Jurassic World series, has to go and make new dinosaurs that are viewed more as genuine mad-scientist creations with no redeemable natural forgiveness as anything but villainous monsters.
While Terminator 2: Judgment Day certainly has a lot of great qualities, the original Terminator remains the best film of the franchise, and the series really could have stopped right there. Instead, the killer robot from The Terminator comes back for not just the second but more installments as a good guy. Sure, it’s not the exact same machine, but it’s the same actor and that’s enough to diminish the significance of the initially seen T-800. Arnold Schwarzenegger as an actor was in a period of lighter roles, including those in straight comedies, and was no longer the badass he was in his earlier career. He’s downright goofy in T2. One step away from Johnny 5. I’m not really a fan. But he’s got more of an edge with the next good guy Terminator incarnation in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, at least.
The Fast and the Furious
Due to the death of Paul Walker and his character’s ride into the sunset, this is a franchise completely comprised of bad guys gone good. Dom Toretto and Letty are criminals in the first movie, part of an outlaw hijacking ring that’s supposed to be brought down by Walker’s undercover cop character. They and a variety of associates evolve over time into a team of secret agents doing work for the US government. Dwayne Johnson’s character has always been a “good guy,” but his government agent character begins life in the franchise as an antagonist for the still-criminal yet more heroic gang led by Dom. The greatest offense of turning bad to good, though, comes with Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw aligning with the main team in The Fate of the Furious, even if reluctantly and with continued strife with the others. Never mind that he murdered one of their own and also nearly killed Dom. It’s easy to forget when he’s doing good work against a greater enemy while he’s got a baby strapped to his person. If all goes in order, the next non-spinoff should see Charlize Theron’s part 8 villain as one of the good guys.